April 03, 2011

Is the Resurrection Hypothesis Improbable?

Dr. Craig -

I followed your recent debate with Lawrence Krauss, and as usual the debate was very one-sided in favor of the arguments you presented. I reading a review and comments on the debate at http://apologetics315.blogspot.com/2011/03/william-lane-craig-vs-lawrence-krauss.html, one commenter objected to your comments concerning the resurrection of Jesus with the following comments:

"I was particularly embarrased for Craig, who I actually admire in many ways, for resorting again to one of the worst defenses he has ever used, in regard to Jesus' resurrection. The argument that, 'It's only improbable if Jesus were raised by NATURAL means, but if GOD did it, then it's not so improbable'. This is no different than me stating that I have a magic quarter in my pocket that allows me to run 5 times faster than a cheetah...and if you doubt it, I simply state that, 'It's only improbable if it's an ordinary quarter...but I said it's a MAGIC quarter!'. That does not increase the probability of the argument...you cannot pre-suppose the existence of an all-powerful being in order to prove the existence of an all-powerful being... you could immediately demand that I show you how fast I can run with my magic quarter...but you can never falsify appeals to an all-powerful, mysterious, hidden God. It has no bearing on reality."

How would you respond to his comment?



United States

No need for embarrassment, Jason! The commentator is quite mistaken.

The person who helped me see the difference between the hypothesis that Jesus rose naturally from the dead vs. the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead was Greg Cavin, a critic of the resurrection. We are asking here about the probability of Jesus’ resurrection given our general background information apart from any specific evidence like the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, etc. Greg pointed out to me that the hypothesis “Jesus rose from the dead” is ambiguous: it could mean either that he rose from the dead by purely natural causes or that he rose by some supernatural cause. The former is agreed on all hands to be absurdly improbable. That could drag down the probability of the hypothesis “Jesus rose from the dead.” But suppose we differentiate that hypothesis from the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead.” Is that hypothesis improbable?

Well, that probability will be determined by the probability of God’s existence and the probability that God would raise Jesus from the dead:

P (R|B) = P (R|G) × P (G|B)

where R = God raised Jesus from the dead; G = God exists; and B = background information. So the person who thinks that the probability of the resurrection hypothesis is low has to show that either the probability of God’s existence is low or that the probability that God would raise Jesus is low. But I doubt that we can say with any confidence that the probability that God would raise Jesus is low; nor do I think it can be shown that the probability of God’s existence is low relative to our background information. In any case, Krauss and I had agreed to suspend judgement in this debate on such probabilities, asking only about whether God’s existence is more probable given certain facts than otherwise. Therefore, Krauss could not justifiably assert that the resurrection is improbable. It should be clear that because the probabilities involved are conditional, there is no assumption that God actually exists, as our commentator seems to suppose.

The problem with the commentator’s analogy is obvious: the probability of a magic quarter P (MQ|B) is absurdly low; indeed, the idea is scarcely intelligible. But the existence of God is not; or at least the unbeliever will be obligated to show that it is.