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Does Evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection Meet Hume’s Criteria for Miracles?

An adaption of Richard Swinburne’s argument for the resurrection of Jesus

Figure 1. Bayesian network model for assessing evidence for resurrection

Bayesian approach to Hume

JH Sobel, an atheist philosopher, summarised Hume’s criteria mathematically:

Prior probabilities

Bayesian approaches require prior probabilities (starting point before we assess the evidence). After assessing the evidence, we update our judgment (posterior probability).

Defining theism

Richard Swinburne defined theism as the belief in a God who is the source of being, omnipotent, omniscient, perfectly good and ontologically necessary (see table 1).

Table 1. Summary of generic theism (Swinburne, Existence of God)

Theism compared with polytheism

Swinburne argues theism is simpler and has greater explanatory power than polytheism (“a committee of gods with limited power”):

  • Polytheism requires further explanation than theism for how and why the gods cooperate to produce the laws of nature. Since we expect this data on theism, but not if polytheism is true.

1. Probability of Theism

The argument makes an agnostic assumption. Similar to atheist philosopher Paul Draper’s argument for naturalism, which also includes a prior of p(T)=0.5.

2. Prior Probability of a Messiah

The concept of the Messiah — a rescuer sent by God — is common in many theistic religions. The Hebrew Bible is the basis for understanding the Messiah (‘anointed one’) in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

  • p(T)=0.5 probability of a God

3. Prior probability of a resurrection

If God sends a Messiah, it is likely a vivid miracle would testify God sent them. Few miracles can match a resurrection. Humans can overcome many challenges — death is not one of them. In addition, the messianic kingdom brings the defeat of death:

  • p(M|T) — probability of a Messiah if there is a God (0.25) multiplied by
  • p(T) — probability of God’s existence (0.5)

4. Probability of Jesus being the Messiah

There are numerous passages in the Hebrew Bible about the Messiah agreed by many Jews and Christians. Below summarises some criteria a Messiah must fulfil:

  • Daniel 7 the divine son of man — Jesus claimed to be the one like a son of Man in Daniel 7 (Mark 14:61–62) and his followers reported miracles to support his claim.
  • Isaiah 53 Suffering servant — early Jewish tradition often considered this passage (about a dying and rejected servant) to be about the Messiah. The gospels speak of Jesus’ suffering and rejection.
  • But the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah 65–66 has not yet arrived. For Jews, this confirms Jesus could not be the Messiah. For Christians, and many Muslims, this will happen when Jesus returns.
  • p(M|K)=0.125 — the probability of a Messiah is 0.125 (12.5%), see section 2.

5. Probability of evidence for the resurrection

A summary of key evidence for Jesus’ resurrection:

  • After Jesus’ death, “the twelve” his closest disciples, his brother James, Paul, and 500 other people saw him (1 Corinthians 15: 3–8). This passage cites a creed dated between 1 and 15 years after Jesus’ death. Confirmed later in the gospels. Many of his disciples, including Peter, Paul, and James, were killed for their testimony.
  • Paul was a persecutor of Christians until he saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:9; Acts 9:1–19)
  • No one else in history has come close to matching the evidence for the resurrection
  • p(R|K)=0.03 — the prior probability of a resurrected Messiah is 0.03 (3%), see section 3.

6. Naturalistic explanations for the resurrection

Our estimates must also account for the strength of naturalistic explanations of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

6a. the empty tomb

The main naturalistic explanation is that Jesus was not buried. However, this assumption contradicts the earliest accounts. They state Jesus was buried and no contemporary evidence challenges this data. In addition, an article in New Testament Studies shows it was common for crucifixion victims to be allowed burial.

6b. post-mortem appearances

Another naturalistic explanation is that eyewitnesses (the twelve, James, and the additional 500 witnesses) experienced bereavement hallucinations.

6c. Paul’s conversion

Paul was a well-known persecutor of Christians. However, after seeing Jesus, he converted.

7a. Probability of a naturalistic explanation

These three pieces of evidence require separate naturalistic explanations. As no single explanation accounts for all evidence. We have to multiply the probabilities:

  • the probability of people claiming to see Jesus after his death, and we multiply
  • the probability of Paul converting to Christianity, given Jesus was not resurrected

7b. Hume’s criteria for a miracle

Hume required an accepted miracle to meet the following criteria:

  • p(α|~A)=p(E|~R)=0.001, see section 7a (probability of evidence for the resurrection presented above given Jesus was not resurrected)
  • therefore p(A) > p(α|~A) since p=0.03 > p=0.001

8. The probability of Jesus’ resurrection

Figure 2. Bayesian network with posterior probabilities informed by sections 1–7a
  • the prior probability of theism (0.5 or 50%) is updated to a posterior probability of 0.999 (99.9%)
  • the prior probability for a Messiah (0.125 or 12.5%) is updated to a posterior probability of 0.999 (99.9%)

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Nick Meader

My background is in psychology, epidemiology and medical statistics. I’m mainly discussing here theology, philosophy of religion and mental health.