When it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, Christian historians such as Gary Habermas, Michael Licona, N.T. Wright, Lee Strobel, and others will typically conclude that “Jesus’ resurrection [is] the best explanation of the known facts” (Habermas & Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Chapter 4).
So what are the known facts? For the sake of brevity, since this is a massive topic with books upon books written on both sides of the debate, here is an ultra-brief summary of the known facts surrounding the resurrection of Jesus:
- Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died somewhere between 30-33 A.D.
- The tomb where Jesus was buried was found empty.
- Jesus’ disciples genuinely believed that they saw Jesus risen from the dead.
- Saul of Tarsus (later known as the apostle Paul) was an enemy of the church but became one of its biggest promoters after seeing what he believed was the risen Jesus.
- James, the half-brother of Jesus, was a skeptic during Jesus’ 3 years of ministry but became a leader in the Jerusalem church.
- The disciples went from fearful for their lives to boldly proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection even under pang of death.
Now, it must be stated that these facts are not all granted by all historians, and that several mythicist arguments demonstrate that it is difficult to consider anything to do with Jesus’ life as a fact. However, for the sake of this article, we will grant the above list as facts.
When considering the list of facts, it seems at face value that there is only one true explanation: Jesus must have been supernaturally resurrected! How else do you explain it? He died, his tomb was later found empty, people believed they saw him after he died, and people boldly proclaimed their belief in his resurrection. So what other explanation could there possibly be?
Instead of getting into the arguments against the resurrection (here’s a link with some, if you’re interested), I’m going to create an analogy and hope you follow along.
Time for a magic trick…
Imagine a magician came up to you and a crowd of others and offered to perform magic that would blow your mind. You accept. As the magician performs, there are several facts established along the way:
- The magician cuts and shuffles a deck of cards a couple times. You and other audience members catch glimpses of different cards.
- You are asked to remove a card from the deck, memorize it, and place it back (wherever you wish) into the deck of cards.
- After you return the card, you are asked to name the card you had removed. “Queen of hearts!”, you proclaim.
- The magician puts the deck of cards into his mouth. He bites down, groans, wiggles, and acts like the card is moving down his body into his leg and continuing downward. After quite a struggle, the magician asks you to pull off his right shoe and look inside.
- You remove his right shoe, and within it you find the queen of hearts.
- Unprompted by the magician, you grab the deck of cards, examine it, and find that it is missing the queen of hearts.
How do you explain this event?
Do you immediately proclaim to the rest of the world that the magician swallowed your card and somehow made it appear in his own shoe? How else could you possibly explain such a thing? You were right there, you held the card, you placed it in the deck, you watched the magician as he seemed to swallow it, you removed the shoe, you found the card, and you later examined the deck to find that the queen of hearts was missing.
Would you reach a conclusion that is similar to that of the Christian apologists and submit that ”the magician’s magical powers are the best explanation of the known facts”? Or would you still be unconvinced?
A rational person would not conclude that supernatural magic was the best explanation for the card trick. Magic may be the most obvious explanation, the simplest explanation, and the cleanest way to resolve all the facts, but this doesn’t mean it is the best explanation!
You will likely agree that the true and natural explanation for the magic trick is far more difficult to find. You may have dozens of different reasons as to why you don’t think it was actual, supernatural magic – and yet you may still not be able to create a narrative that fully resolves the known facts.
Perhaps you will never be able to explain the magic trick completely, but you should still stubbornly submit that “there’s not enough evidence to conclude that it was magic”, because you recognize that the more reasonable explanation is that you were missing some very important details.
The true explanation is far more difficult to find…
The actual explanation for the trick may seem horribly unbelievable if you are only willing to grant the six fully-supported known facts, as it might combine rare and unlikely explanations together… and require adding additional details to the picture that were otherwise unavailable to you from your initial vantage point. Meaning, in order to reach the actual best explanation for the magic trick, you will necessarily need to go beyond the known facts.
However, even if you never find out the true explanation for the magic trick – and cannot on your own (or with input from others) formulate a natural theory that addresses all of the known facts – you should still not agree that ‘magic’ is the best explanation. Quite simply, to suggest it was magic would be to assert an extraordinary claim without having an extraordinary amount of evidence to support the claim.
Do you want the real explanation for the magic trick?
I have performed this trick multiple times – and nobody has ever come close to guessing the actual explanation. But… here it is. The actual explanation requires these additional facts:
- The magician was using a special deck of cards with 18 queen of hearts cards, 18 ace of spades cards, and 18 two of diamonds cards.
- The magician had pre-planted a queen of hearts in his right shoe, an ace of spades in his left shoe, and a two of diamonds in his wallet – so that no matter which card you selected from the deck, it could ‘magically’ appear in either a shoe or the wallet.
- The magician switched decks while you were pulling the card out of the shoe, so that if you ever desired to examine the deck after the trick, your card would be missing (along with the two other hidden cards).
But that’s not good enough for a magic-apologist!
While an observer might be able to come up with these possibilities in order to explain what happened without appealing to the supernatural, a staunch magic-apologist would argue against considering any of them as valid. For one, none of the real-life witnesses (audience members) were able to corroborate any of these details. And you certainly can’t prove that it was a special deck, that the magician had pre-planted cards on himself, or that he switched decks.
Not only is there zero evidence to support any of these ‘additional facts’ – but each of them are so far-fetched and unreasonable that they should be washed away as meaningless speculation.
The magic-apologist would conclude that if we were to examine and value the actual evidence, rather than speculate with unsubstantiated guesses, that magic remains the best explanation. And yet… you and I know otherwise. We know that magic is not the best explanation for the known facts. We know that the more difficult, disjointed, and convoluted explanation is better; and even if we never knew the actual explanation, we would not believe that the magic trick was supernatural. So why should we treat the resurrection any different?
If it truly was magic, the truth should be able to set itself free!
If you did believe that magic was the most reasonable explanation, you would expect that this belief would be confirmed time and time again in the future, without relying on confirmation bias. As in, if the magic was real you would expect that it would be able to pass the tests of both believers and skeptics! If you believed the magician could perform supernatural magic, then you would think that he would be able to provide extraordinary evidence to support this extraordinary claim.
It wouldn’t be enough to allow the magician to choose his tricks and perform them whenever or however he wishes. In order to prove his supernatural abilities, the magician would need to prove his abilities in a monitored environment – such as being examined to make sure he doesn’t have trick cards or pre-planted cards on his body, being given a normal deck of cards and only being able to use it during the trick, and so forth. Actual magic should be able to prove itself throughout all sorts of tests and inquiry!
(Note: magicians, psychics, faith healers, mediums, fortune tellers, and so forth all fail to prove their abilities according to this sort of test… and nobody has ever passed James Randi’s One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge.)
And once again, there’s a parallel here to the story of Jesus. If the resurrection story is true, and Jesus is in fact still alive and well today and personally involved in our world, then we should expect to find evidence that supports his existence. And I’m not talking about the sort of evidence that passes the test for current believers such as ‘feeling his power’ or interpreting positive events as being caused by him. Rather, I’m talking about evidence that would be able to withstand the scrutiny of skeptics. And yet… it just isn’t there.
The evidence for a personal God that is interacting with our world is unrecognizable, at best. God is either non-existent or impossible to measure. Terminally ill people who pray to Jesus for healing do not have a statistically significant better chance of recovering from their illnesses than non-believers who don’t pray, or to people of other religions who pray to other gods. Quite simply, the studies on intercessory prayer fail to produce any significant findings. And it extends beyond prayer as well. There is simply no empirical evidence to demonstrate that there is a personal God, which is why believers of all religions must necessarily rely on faith.
So should we believe in a magical explanation simply because it does the best job of accounting for all of the known facts? Or should we instead question a response that appeals to the supernatural – and require such an extraordinary claim to have an extraordinary amount of evidence to support it before we accept it as true?
When it comes to a card trick, it seems obvious that magic isn’t the best explanation. So why should magic be considered the best explanation for the resurrection story? I don’t think it should…