Tuesday, 1 November 2016

The Resurrection of Jesus and Probability

I was looking recently at a debate on YouTube between Mike Licona and Greg Cavin on the resurrection of Jesus.  One of the arguments that Cavin used against the resurrection caught my attention and I have been thinking about it since.  I think I am right in saying that it is an argument that was also used by the 18th century humanist, David Hume.

The argument from probability against Jesus’ resurrection

The argument I have in mind is the one that Cavin used concerning probability.  He argued that since we have constant experience that people who die remain dead, the probability that Jesus rose from the dead has to be extremely small. 

I think Licona did a pretty good job of answering this argument.  Nevertheless, I would like to give my own answer to it here.  Like Licona, I am convinced that the argument is invalid, and I want to explain exactly why this is so. 

Claims of something extraordinary

To begin with, let’s think of two particular situations where a claim is made that something extraordinary has happened, and where someone uses an argument from probability to deny the claim.

First, suppose that a man claims he can hold his breath underwater for 30 minutes.  Suppose too that someone then makes an argument from probability that there is no record of anyone ever being able to do this, and that the claim is therefore extremely unlikely to be true.  (I have checked online and the world record is apparently 22 minutes.)  This person then demands evidence from the man who made the claim.  The man, however, refuses to demonstrate that he can hold his breath for 30 minutes.  Nor does he provide any other evidence to support his claim.

In this case, in the absence of any evidence to support the claim, the argument from probability is extremely strong.  We are sure that billions of people cannot hold their breath for 30 minutes, and we know of no one who can.  It is therefore extremely improbable that the man who claimed to be able to do this can in fact do so.

However, suppose that another man also claims to be able to hold his breath underwater for 30 minutes.  And suppose too that the argument from probability is used to argue that this claim is extremely unlikely to be true, and that again a challenge is issued to the man who made the claim.

This time, however, astonishingly, the man proceeds to do exactly what he claimed he could do.  In front of an amazed audience he submerges himself in water for a full 30 minutes with no ill effects.

The key thing to note here is that the evidence that this man can in fact hold his breath underwater for 30 minutes negates the argument from probability which might seem to support the view that doing this is virtually impossible if not completely impossible.  The argument from probability becomes redundant in the face of compelling evidence.

The two examples I have given both involve a claim to extraordinary action, but they are at opposite extremes in terms of the evidence that is offered to support the claim.  In the former case, there is no evidence at all supporting the claim.  In the latter case, there is compelling evidence that the claim is true.  In the former case, the argument from probability against the claim stands unscathed.  In the latter case, the argument from probability is completely negated.    

The argument from probability does not have a fixed value

Whenever a claim is made that someone has done or experienced something extraordinary, the evidence supporting the claim will either not exist (as in my first example), or it will be compelling (as in my second example), or it will lie somewhere between these two extremes.

Crucially, the stronger the evidence supporting a claim to something extraordinary, the weaker the argument from probability against the claim becomes.  The argument from probability is not a piece of evidence that has a fixed value.  Even if we grant that the argument from probability should be regarded as a piece of evidence in its own right, its value nevertheless depends on the strength of other evidence that supports a claim to something extraordinary.  The stronger that evidence, the more the argument from probability is negated. 

Cavin’s mistake

In his use of the argument from probability against Jesus’ resurrection, Cavin seems to see this argument as having a fixed value as a piece of evidence.  However, this is a big mistake.  Rather, the argument from probability is unlike pieces of evidence for or against the resurrection that have a fixed value. 

I have already noted that in the case of a man who is seen to hold his breath underwater for 30 minutes, supporting evidence would completely negate the validity of the argument from probability.  Similarly, if there were compelling tangible evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, this would not stand in tension with Cavin’s argument from probability.  It would completely negate the weight of this argument.  Or, if the evidence for the resurrection were a bit less than compelling, say only very strong, it would correspondingly make Cavin’s argument from probability very weak. 

A flawed argument

There may be some non-Christians, who know about the probability argument that Cavin uses, and who argue along these lines:

There is some good evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus.  However, given that we have so much experience of people who die remaining dead, the improbability of Jesus rising from the dead outweighs the evidence supporting his resurrection.  Therefore, on balance we should reject belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

However, this line of reasoning wrongly assumes that the argument from probability has a fixed value regardless of the strength of evidence supporting the resurrection.  In fact, if there is good evidence supporting the resurrection, the argument from probability will be weakened, or even overpowered, by this evidence.

Evidence for Jesus’ resurrection

I would submit that the evidence is in fact very strong that Jesus did rise from the dead.  Although I don’t intend to argue the case here, I will outline what is in my view the most important argument that supports the resurrection:

In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul makes a list of occasions on which he says that the risen Jesus appeared to various people.  It is highly plausible that at least most of the items on this list involved genuine claims to have seen Jesus after his death.  It is highly implausible that many of the people who genuinely made claims were lying.  It is just as implausible that many of them were mistaken.  Hence we have a very strong piece of evidence for the resurrection.  For much more on this, see my article: ‘A Very Strong Piece of Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus’ (see link below).

The evidence in 1 Corinthians 15, along with much more evidence besides, severely weakens Cavin’s argument from probability that is used against the resurrection.  Extraordinary though it is, the evidence strongly suggests that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

See also:

What Is the Christian Faith Really All About?