Is the Resurrection Story “too improbable” to Believe?
Unbelievers typically say they reject the Resurrection because it's too improbable.
Nor am I playing favorites here: since I am pro-reason, I am consequently an equal-opportunity anti-mystic. My non-acceptance of Mormonism’s Joseph Smith and the golden plates story is not due to my supposition that “it’s too improbable.” Similarly with stories of Horus, Valhalla, Avalokitesvara, Geusha, etc. Christians should not feel singled out here – I reject all irrationality.
Consider “the Force” in Star Wars. Do I think it’s real? No, I don’t. See? I’m consistent here: I don’t confuse fiction with fact. That’s why I don’t believe the Christian narratives. I’d be completely inconsistent to accept one while rejecting the other.
Now does Hays think I should “believe in” something even though I don’t think it’s true? Perhaps so. Maybe that’s where the problem lies.
Now, one way of testing a position, even if you don't believe it, is to ask yourself what, if anything, would be different in case it were true.
For example, I could imagine that the one individual who didn’t make it was Francis Crick’s uncle, Walter Crick, and since in this imagined alternative he died in the tragedy, he wouldn’t have been around to encourage and support the young genius in his scientific pursuits. So perhaps things could in fact be quite different today.
But this is merely hypothetical and does not tell us anything factual. However, this is to be expected from adherents of a worldview which abandons facts and retreats into the depths of the imaginary.
I’d say a better way to test a person’s position is to measure its value in terms of promoting reason and virtue and examine how well it weathers against actual facts rather than merely fantasized alternatives to what is real. In this case, belief in “the Resurrection” fails miserably on all counts.
Hays goes on:
Suppose you're an atheist.
You don't believe in the Resurrection because it's too improbable.
Again, how well does their position weather against facts? So many believers complain of persisting doubts because of this kind of stuff. Gary Habermas, as we’ve seen, says he went through a period of ten years of painful doubting and has continued to experience doubt. And yet, Habermas is frequently cited by believers as a master at arguing for “the Resurrection.” Seems all those arguments don’t really do all that much good. Meanwhile, I have no doubt that the New Testament stories are contaminated with a healthy dose of fiction, to put it mildly.
Indeed, one thing I’ve noticed about all arguments for “the Resurrection” that I’ve examined is that they all have something conspicuously in common with each other: by the time I get to the conclusion of those arguments, I find that I have no alternative but to imagine Jesus rising from the dead. And according to the stories we have in the NT, this is supposed to have happened while Jesus was locked away in a sealed, earthen tomb where no one could witness him coming back to life. So appeals to “eyewitnesses,” embarrassingly flimsy as they are, are unhelpful here. And even if there were stories that placed witnesses in the tomb with Jesus as he was coming around, I’d still have no alternative but to imagine this all the same.
As Hays himself has stated elsewhere, “an imagined Jesus is just an imaginary Jesus.” Similarly, an imagined resurrection is just an imaginary resurrection. So in order to “believe” that Jesus was resurrected, I first have to imagine this, based on the storybook depictions in the NT narratives, and thus the Jesus rising from the dead that I imagine is merely imaginary. I already know that there’s a profound distinction between that which is real and that which is imaginary.
Now I readily grant that anyone can imagine that Jesus rose from the dead. That’s fine. We can all imagine Harry Potter flying around on a broomstick, too. But did it really happen? No, I don’t believe Harry Potter really flew around on a broomstick either. Again, I’m not playing favorites here.
The question I have at this point is: why would I “believe in” something if I don’t think it’s true? Or, am I supposed to “believe in” it first and then later come to think that it’s true? If so, that means I would go first from imagining, then to believing, then to calling what is merely imaginary “true” because I believe it. But that’s plainly irrational. (No, we won’t learn such primary-level insights from the bible.)
Perhaps I’m supposed to adopt Mike Licona’s attitude of “I want it to be true.” This is very similar to Hays' own attitude of, "Even if it didn't happen, I still insist on believing in it!" But I already know, given the primacy of existence, that wishing doesn’t make it so. See, that’s the beauty of the primacy of existence principle: it slashes off an entire category of arbitrary, useless and irrational ideas. Religions have no such principle. In fact, religions thrive on abandoning this very principle and requiring philosophically defenseless minds to be “open” to all sorts of silly mystical notions. But the primacy of existence gives me all the justification I need to reject such silliness. See for example here. Thus, I already know that one does not need the approval of Christians to reject silliness.
Notice that it’s only in storybooks where we find wishing and commands holding metaphysical primacy over reality. It’s only in storybooks where we find “accounts” of somebody going up to a dead man and uttering the command “Rise!” and the corpse obediently reanimates. Neat trick. Who wouldn’t wish this were possible?
But reality is not a storybook, nor are such stories going to equip us with the rational principles we need in order to deal with reality on its own terms. As Bacon observed, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” In other words, we can’t order reality around, and imagining that some invisible magic being can order reality around does us no good. So a storybook worldview will only hinder our success at living life. Instead of religion, we need rationality and science. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of knowledge, one’s only standard of judgment, and one’s only guide to action. Science is the systematic application of reason to some specific area of study. The basis of reason is the primacy of existence. Consider the expression: wishing doesn’t make it so. One is not holding consistently to this fundamental principle if he adheres to a worldview which ultimately characterizes all the universe as being the product of wishing. And a worldview premised on wishing won’t give us the power that only reason can give us.
Now, I admit that I myself have wishes. For example, I wish that I lived in a world in which no one would mindlessly obey the command to go kill another person. But you see, I made a choice years ago to be honest, to face facts, and to use my mind in an adult manner, not in the manner of a child as Christianity requires of its adherents. So I know that, regardless of how much I wish for a world of rational men, there are still many who are passionately eager to take Abraham as their model.
Abraham models the kind of “character” required of a man who is willing to sacrifice his values upon command. When Yahweh orders Abraham to prepare his son Isaac as a burnt offering, the story does not portray Abraham as even flinching. He does not even ask, “Gee, Lord, did I understand you correctly? You really want me to kill my son Isaac?” He does not ask for clarification, let alone show any sign of resisting such a destructive command. On the contrary, Abraham’s obedience is ready, unquestioning, immediate. (I’m reminded of the Nazi officers on trial after the fall of Berlin and their infamous “I vas only folloving ödors.”) This is the great forefather of three of the world’s “great religions.” Luckily, two of those religions have been more or less tamed by western Enlightenment ideals (cf. man has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), at least in the west. But we cannot take for granted that this will always be the case. Religionists even today are bucking for a comeback of pious hegemony.
Now stories of people obeying commands, whether it’s the command to kill one’s own child or the command to rise from the dead, no doubt impressed many in ancient times when there were no intellectuals who understood the nature of consciousness and could identify its proper relationship to existence. Consciousness for them was this spooky, mysterious, otherworldly thing that was well beyond the level of intellect predominant at the time, and its biological nature had yet to be explained by science. In their view, guided by imagination and fear rather than by reason and science, consciousness was assumed to hold metaphysical primacy over existence. There existed minds, the ancients imagined, which could compel existence to conform to wishing. In fact, some even took this mystical premise to its ultimate conclusion and imagined that all existence is a product of conscious activity, that a “supernatural” mind, which the ancients (and we today) could only imagine, essentially wished the universe into being, thus eventually giving rise to creation stories. Such stories no doubt left dreadful impressions on those who bought into the primacy of consciousness metaphysics (which was most likely virtually everyone at the time), for once they granted this key fundamental premise, they could only doubt the efficacy of their own minds (“Gee, reality doesn’t obey my commands as it does the gods’ – there must be something wrong with me!”) and were consequently overcome by fear – the kind of fear which is said by Christians to be “the beginning of knowledge” (cf. Prov. 1:7).
Once this sleight of hand took root (which happens quite swiftly if one has no philosophical defense against it – just look at today’s Christians), the believer was right where the witch doctors wanted him: willing to sacrifice his mind to a “higher authority” (cf. “die to self”). Soon he would be told, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Prov. 3:5), never detecting the insidious contradiction lurking behind such a directive (what is a “mind” if it cannot even go by its own understanding? Blank out).
Now today, in 2015 America, we still find a significant portion of the population which still takes wishing and imagination as their “ultimate presupposition.” This “ultimate presupposition” that an imaginary consciousness controls all of reality and represents a perennial threat to man’s values has multiplied itself in innumerable ways, alienating many men’s minds from reality, contaminating their choices and actions, and crippling our culture from the inside. This pervasive syndrome of subjectivism is by no means restricted exclusively to the overtly religious among us, where it’s most obvious, but has also afflicted many secular thinkers and philosophies.
Just ask yourself: what really is the functional difference between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union? Both are examples of hell on earth, and the “ultimate presupposition” of the primacy of consciousness can be found in the roots of both.
So since it is understood how essential the primacy of consciousness is to such mystical notions as a reality-controlling consciousness, “the Resurrection” and other miracle stories, the conclusion that today’s believers embrace such irrationality in preference over the objective understanding of reality, the mind and the relationship between consciousness and existence, is unavoidable.
Hays wants us to humor him:
But as a thought-experiment, you grant the Resurrection.
Some thought experiment!
Hays goes on:
As far as I can see, that would make absolutely no difference in how unbelievers lay odds on the Resurrection.
As for me, I don’t think things like “the Resurrection” are a matter of “laying odds.” Similarly with "the Force." On such matters where we're dealing with obvious fictions, I don't need to resort to calculating odds. Instead, I have a fundamental rational principle. That’s my guide. I know this is difficult for Christians to grasp since they have no counterpart to this (and yet they borrow my fundamental rational principle any time they say something to the effect of “saying so doesn’t make it so” or “wishing doesn’t make it so”). If existence exists independent of conscious activity, then Christianity (including its miracle stories) is completely out of the running. This is not a probabilistic affair. There’s no “probably” here at all. Reality is 100% reality, not 95% reality and 5% imagination. Like it or not, rational philosophy does not strike compromises with mysticism.
Even if it happened, they'd still say it was too improbable to happen.
Then again, I don’t know anyone who would say what Hays suggests here. Can Hays quote any “unbelievers” making statements to this effect? I see that he hasn’t quoted anyone in his little blog entry.
Again, speaking for myself, I know that improbable things happen all the time. So again, the issue of probability is a non-starter here. For example, I reach into my wallet and find a five dollar bill with the serial number MG79666982A. Now, what are the odds that this particular five dollar bill would wind up in my wallet in November 2015? Out of all the five dollar bills circulating out there, and the occasion for five singles or other combinations instead of a five to be given as change, I’d say it’s borderline astronomical if not more. And yet, it happened. But so what? This highly improbable event doesn’t cause me to stop and reconsider my fundamental “presuppositions.” Why should it?
The point is that the primacy of existence (i.e., the founding principle of my philosophy) is not a matter of probability, nor is its sufficiency as a rational principle a matter of mere probability. The primacy of existence is unalterable, absolute, incontrovertible fact. Only in one’s imagination are there any exceptions (and of course, we have cartoons).
Even though (ex hypothesi) it happened, they'd refuse to believe it because their probability calculus discounts it ahead of time.
To say that any or all of these are logically incompatible with one another, is to appeal implicitly to the axiom of identity and the primacy of existence, which have already been systematically rejected by the acceptance of any one of these fictions as though it were fact. An appeal to logical norms is radically inconsistent with any position assuming the primacy of consciousness.
Also on this note, there’s a broader point that’s being missed here, namely: a specific historical event, whether real (like the Hindenburg disaster) or imagined (like "the Resurrection"), is no substitute for rational philosophic principles. A philosophic principle is universal in scope and thus applies to all members of a class of existents. This means (among other things) that time and place (which are specific to any particular historical event) are omitted measurements. For example, the principle *man needs values in order to live* applies to every man, whether he lives now, lived in the past, or will live in the future (i.e., temporal constraints are left unspecified) and whether he lives in the tropics, in a frozen wasteland, or on the lunar surface (i.e., constraints of place are left unspecified). (Here it should be apparent how the principle of measurement-omission, as it is informed by the objective theory of concepts, is key to making universal identifications.)
But a specific historical event, even an actual event like the Hindenburg disaster, is not a universal principle which an individual can use to guide his choices and actions. Far from being universal in scope, historical events are only historical once they've happened, and thus any meaning one might ascribe to them could have content only after they've happened.
Until an event has taken place, one can only at best say that in the future it might happen. So it can’t possibly serve as anything of value to those living before the event has taken place. But even after it has happened, a historical event does not have the same standing as a philosophical principle. For example, I cannot apply the specifics of the Hindenburg disaster to the task of raising my daughter, but I can apply the principle that man needs values in order to live to this project. This is not to say that we cannot draw general conclusions from things that happen, but that there’s a fundamental distinction between specific historical events and universal philosophical principles. Unfortunately, in Christianity, this distinction is ignored.
Moreover, when the alleged historical event in question is supposed to be a single, exclusive exception to all other events involving similar circumstances, as in the case of “the Resurrection” (i.e., all men die and remain dead, except for this one guy who magically came back to life and now resides in an imaginary place called “Heaven”), it’s entire purpose is to defy universal principles which we can rationally draw from reality and to replace those principles with irrational notions which require the abandonment of reason in preference for faith - i.e., an emotional commitment to that which is merely imaginary.
Oddly, it seems that Hays is inordinately concerned about why people he does not know and will never know, do not “believe in” the resurrection story of the New Testament. Or, perhaps he doesn’t really care so much about why they don’t, but is more concerned about casting people he’s never met before in a bad light as part of his blog’s propagandistic mission. For the believer, it’s always a collectivistic matter, classing people in terms of “the chosen” vs. “the damned.” Hays of course considers himself among “the chosen,” and just about everyone else as “the damned.” No doubt this is one of the reasons why Christianity attracts people who suffer from depression. Christianity feeds on the emotionally vulnerable just as it feeds on the philosophically defenseless.
But isn't there something screwy about that? The fact of the matter has no impact on their outlook. Whether or not it happened makes to no difference to their believing that it never happened.
Again, specific historical details are not universal principles. Nor should one confuse the former with the latter. So one should not treat something that happened (or allegedly happened) two thousand years ago as though it could stand as a universal principle. To do so is to demonstrate a failure to understand what a universal principle is.
But this is precisely what Christianity does: it requires the believer to treat an alleged event deep in the distant past, an event which he can only imagine, not only as though it really happened, but as though it held some kind of moral primacy over his life. Thus he is at best to subjugate everything he does learn about life in the here and now to an interpretive paradigm which grants metaphysical primacy to the imaginary and obediently surrender his mind to the will of churchmen who’ve happened to seize control of the pulpit before him. It’s all about self-sacrifice, and until one sacrifices his mind fully, he hasn’t sacrificed enough. So let us ask: Is there anything Steve Hays is not willing to sacrifice for Jesus? What is he not willing to sacrifice for Jesus? Perhaps we’ll find his answer in the Book of Evasions.
Hays concludes with the following question:
If our probability calculus treats events and nonevents exactly alike, don't we need to revise our probability calculus?
So here’s a friendly little challenge for those who, after reading this, still think that I should accept “the Resurrection” as factually true: Present a defense of “the Resurrection” story as Christianity informs it in a manner that is wholly consistent with the recognition that wishing doesn’t make it so. If your defense involves a supernatural being which brings about any event essentially by means of wishing, willing, commanding, etc., then you fail. Game?
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick