What would it take for me to believe the Resurrection?

So in a comment on a previous post, I am asked

“what sort of evidence would convince you of, let’s say, the resurrection of Jesus?”

I want to break this up into two separate questions, because it will put into context my perspectives on historical evidence.

What would it take for me to believe that there was a modern resurrection?

Take a case of a Nigerian Pastor resurrected in 2001 after being dead for 3 days following a severe car accident. Sounds about as good as it gets, as far as evidence. Certainly way more evidence than we have for Jesus – many more “witnesses”, documentation of medical examination, many more recent accounts, etc… There are some skeptical accounts here and also here. This is the first I’ve heard of it. Am I convinced? Nope. Why not?

  • the fact that there is a definite possibility of motive for fraud and/or exaggeration
  • the fact that the events occur in a culture riddled with superstitious thinking
  • the fact that the events take place in a region without the proper diagnostic technology
  • the story contains elements such as a transfer to a smaller, lesser equipped hospital where the patient knew the doctors when – given the supposed severity of the accident- the nearby, bigger hospital would be the logical choice

Each of these raises the level of suspicion. What I am criticizing here is that the claims are being made and investigated by possibly credulous individuals, who have something to gain, and do not make the proper steps to rule out fraud, exaggeration, mistakes, etc… When I look at an extraordinary claim, I want these. To convince me it would take

  • a group of unrelated individuals backing up the claims…
  • …applying strict skeptical methods, …
  • …with nothing or little to gain, …
  • …and a history of honesty

I would want to see confirmation from people who have something to lose in agreeing to it, either a significant departure from their professed beliefs, or something similar. Pretty much I’m asking for something similar to the JREF prize, although it need not be that particular organization.

Is this too skeptical? I don’t think so. I hold this same level of skepticism for scientific claims, two examples I outline in a previous post. To shamelessly quote myself,

“If the evidence is not enough to convince a reasonable skeptic, then we can’t be particularly confident in it.”

This is especially the case with extraordinary claims.

What would it take for me to believe that there was an ancient resurrection?

Given this, could I ever be made to believe in an ancient resurrection? Probably not. Not because I am closed to it, but the kinds of methods and evidence that I would need to convince me of a modern resurrection just didn’t exist 2000 years ago. Four accounts (five if you count Paul), that demonstrate mutual copying, and don’t even claim to be eyewitnesses is hardly convincing for even more meagre claims than miraculous resurrections.

Christians, do you believe every miracle claim? If not, what criteria do you use? If the same amount of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection existed today (i.e. a handful of 2nd and 3rd hand reports, no physical evidence, and no skeptical inquiry), would you be convinced? I would wager that not a single honest Christian would accept this, or else they’d have to accept a million other miracle claims from other faiths, and be so credulous as to not be functional.

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About brianblais

I am a professor of Science and Technology at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, and a research professor in the Institute for Brain and Neural Systems, Brown University. My research is in computational neuroscience and statistics. I teach physics, meteorology, astonomy, theoretical neuroscience, systems dynamics, artificial intelligence and robotics. My book, "Theory of Cortical Plasticity" (World Scientific, 2004), details a theory of learning and memory in the cortex, and presents the consequences and predictions of the theory. I am an avid python enthusiast, and a Bayesian (a la E. T. Jaynes), and love music.
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10 Responses to What would it take for me to believe the Resurrection?

  1. vinnyjh57 says:

    I think that I would have to personally witness a miracle that I could not explain away to my own satisfaction.

    All my knowledge and experience indicate that the overwhelmingly most probable explanation for any miracle story is some combination of the usual human foibles like ignorance, superstition, wishful thinking, exaggeration, prevarication, and gullibility. However, if I personally witnessed a supernatural event, that would change the base of knowledge and experience against which I evaluated all other miracle claims.

    Of course, I might conclude that my experience was more likely the product of some mental aberration. Moreover, the evidence would be entirely subjective as I couldn’t claim that my experience was a good reason for anyone else to change their assessment of the probabilities that a supernatural event had occurred.

  2. Cait says:

    I think both the previous post and this one are both very intriguing questions. However, I’m not sure they’re the right questions. People don’t believe in Jesus and his resurrection because there is evidence. They believe the stories of the Bible on faith. Faith, at least in my opinion, is the antithesis of evidence. Demanding hard evidence intrinsically defeats faith.

    Instead, I’d like to ask you several questions – more hypothetical than directed specifically towards you. In modern day, what is the significance of faith? How does one become a critical thinker and how does one find faith? To what degree are we innately hardwired to be drawn to one or the other? (I strongly support that people are products of their genetics, environment, and some randomness – randomness used a placeholder for complexities far beyond our understanding. Given that this is true, perhaps some people have a predisposition for faith-based mindsets.)

    To the previous comment on this post by vinnyjh57, would you need to personally witness a miracle, given your following explanation that people are susceptible to perceptual and cognitive imperfections? I began to write a response to your opening sentence, but you argued yourself for me haha 🙂

    • brianblais says:

      “People don’t believe in Jesus and his resurrection because there is evidence. They believe the stories of the Bible on faith.” In Michael Shermer’s book, ‘Why People Believe Weird Things’, he says that people come to believe in things for many reasons, most of them emotional but of course cultural, sociological, etc… are there as well. After that, we are good at finding reasons for the things that we believe for non-rational reasons. However, even if one initially came to believe in something by faith, or upbringing, if it is also true then it should stand the light of scrutiny. Thus, even those things that are taken on “faith” should be testable, I believe.

    • brianblais says:

      “In modern day, what is the significance of faith? ” I’m with Sam Harris on this one, that faith is the permission we give ourselves to believe things strongly with bad evidence. How does one become a critical thinker? Through practice, like being a musician. I don’t think we are wired to do this particularly well, initially. We have hyperactive agency detection, hyperactive pattern recognition, and some interesting social skills that can reinforce bad habits. As such, science is hard won, I believe. However, the benefits, I feel, far outweigh the work involved!

  3. Good response, and thank you for taking my question! 🙂

    However, you speak as if resurrections are repeatable lab experiments.

    I submit that there are other ways to approach these questions that you have not dealt with in this post. For example:

    1. If someone close to you, such as a spouse or child, were to die and subsequently come back to life, would this not be sufficient to convince you that a modern resurrection had occurred? Assuming that the death were such that you could not reason it away as a temporary condition, I think that you would have a hard time dismissing that because it did not meet your qualifications.

    2. Suppose that you developed ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease). In an advanced stage, with your body literally wasting away, barely able to walk, you are approached on the sidewalk by a person who puts a hand on your head and prays over you “in the name of Jesus Christ”, and immediately your body is restored to health. All signs of ALS are gone. Subsequently this same person informs you that the resurrected Jesus himself had instructed him in a vision to approach you and perform this prayer and healing. Would this be sufficient to convince you of the resurrection of Jesus?

    I challenge you to seriously try to imagine this scenario playing out, and what your response would be. If, in the following days, your doctor (who was not with you on the sidewalk) reasoned out some kind of natural (though extremely unlikely) explanation, would that be enough to explain the event as purely natural and unrelated to Jesus or the prayer?

    I hope that the above is not interpreted as whimsical or just imaginative speculation. These are PRECISELY the kinds of events that are recorded over and over and over in the Bible, and are described by the biblical writers themselves as just the sort of evidence people needed to see, in order to believe the claims of Jesus and his followers. Never, ever, even one time, in the Bible do we see anything remotely resembling the kind of thing one hears in religious circles today, such as that the birth of a child, or the curing of a disease by a medical practitioner, or some inner, subjective lifting of one’s mental/emotional/spiritual state, is a “miracle” that serves as confirmation of God’s activity in the world.

    I think that for all of the reasons you have so eloquently outlined in this post, the ONLY thing that can really convince a reasonable person that Jesus raised from the dead (and is living today, etc., etc.) is the clear, unambiguous action of Jesus himself in a person’s life.

    And of course, the same could be said for dragons or vampires or elves. No amount of stories — even modern ones, let alone ancient accounts — of such creatures is going to convince me that they exist. However, IF THE DID EXIST, it would be a simple matter for them to convince me of their existence themselves.

    • brianblais says:

      “However, you speak as if resurrections are repeatable lab experiments.” Other people claim them to be (or at least miracles)!

      In both points 1 and 2, I would (hopefully) initially suspect trickery. Either a misdiagnosis, or a deliberate fraud trying to play with me. I would then need more (like what I posted) to back it up. In both cases you mention, that extra amount should be easy to come by in this modern world, because of medical records, and follow-up examinations. The ancients clearly didn’t have that.

      I do however agree that if someone were to consistently (and verifiably) heal in the name of Jesus, and we didn’t see that with other faiths, that that would constitute evidence for the truth of the Resurrection (indirectly). I’m still waiting for that to happen…

  4. Hmm… what do you do if you forget to check the “notify me of follow-up comments via email” checkbox, but want to know if/when someone responds to your comment?

  5. Cait says:

    “However, even if one initially came to believe in something by faith, or upbringing, if it is also true then it should stand the light of scrutiny. Thus, even those things that are taken on “faith” should be testable, I believe.” Evidence-lacking beliefs are often under scrutiny and they hold firm (sometimes even firmer) when challenged. If one truly considered whether there was hard, supporting evidence for one’s faith, one wouldn’t be an 60 year-old murdering fundamental Christian or a 15 year-old Islamic suicide bomber.

    One’s beliefs SHOULD be based on evidence, but once we begin to discuss the term FAITH, we are no longer talking about something based on or ever will be based on evidence. Once someone searches for evidence, one’s lost faith. Faith, by definition, lacks evidence. Faith, by definition, can’t be tested. As you had said, “…we are good at finding reasons for the things that we believe for non-rational reasons.” The non-rational aspect defeats rational approaches.You can’t use logic to describe the illogical. I personally think everything should be tested, questioned, and tested again, but I’m not talking about me. People of faith aren’t critical thinkers in regards to said faith.

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