Monday, August 27, 2012

The Probability of the Resurrection of Jesus

Here is a brief summary of the argument Richard Swinburne makes in his book The Resurrection of God Incarnate. I have not yet read it but I have put it on my reading list as it seems to offer a different argument for the resurrection than the ones put forth by Mike Licona, Gary Habermas, and NT Wright which tend to focus more on the historical evidence for the resurrection. Swinburne is a theologian and a philosopher and his main argument can be outlined as follows (you may have to read it more than once):

"God has major reasons for intervening in human history by becoming incarnate himself—to identify with our suffering, to provide atonement for our sins, and to reveal truths.

Given there is at least a significant probability that there is a God, there is at least a modest probability that he would become incarnate and live a life and provide teaching appropriate to one who sought thereby to realize these goals. Jesus lived and taught in the appropriate way. If it was God Incarnate who did so live and teach, he would need to show us that it was God who had done so, and so could be expected to put his signature on that life and teaching by a super-miracle, such as the Resurrection.

So there is a modest prior probability in advance of considering the direct historical evidence of the Resurrection, to expect that it would happen to someone who lived and taught as Jesus did. Jesus is the only person in human history about whom there is significant evidence both that he led the appropriate kind of life, and that his life was culminated by a super-miracle. So we do not need too many witnesses to the empty tomb or too many witnesses who claimed to have talked to the risen Jesus, to make it probable that Jesus did indeed rise. We do have some such witness evidence, which it is very improbable would occur (in connection with someone who led the appropriate sort of life) unless the Resurrection occurred.

In consequence it is overall very probable that the Resurrection occurred."


  1. Swinburne seems to be pretty analytically minded. Though I wonder though if atheists and/or non-believers would contend the very first assumption - "Given there is at least a significant probability that there is a God".

  2. Yeah it's more of an argument for the Christian God for people who already believe there is some type of god out there I think. Though I think you could modify it and say "modest probability" and then conclude with "overall probable."

  3. By what criteria do we determine an infinite being's motivations?

  4. Hmmm… I would debate that there is at least a 'significant' probability that there is a god - though it of course depends on his definition of 'significant'. Then I'd debate that there's a 'modest probability' that he would become incarnate - since a deistic god is not necessarily a 'his' in any way (an entity with potential to love, care, etc). We just have no reason to classify a god as having such attributes.

    And then... It seems funny to me that as part of his argument to validate Jesus' resurrection, he assumes the validity of the resurrection event saying Jesus' live was culminated by a 'super-miracle'. Let's put two quotes of his back-to-back to see how silly it is:

    "his life was culminated by a super-miracle"
    "in consequence it is overall very probable that the Resurrection occurred"

    Umm… okay… that's like saying "I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God because we know that he lived a life where he heard directly from god and prophecied. The conclusion is built into the premise.

  5. Well David already beat you to the "significant probability" thing. I think that's misunderstanding his argument a bit though. He's not saying that "there is definitely" a significant probability that God exists. He is saying that if it is "given" that there is a good chance that God exists, then there follows at least a slight probability that he would become incarnate and teach the things he wants to accomplish (message of love, tolerance, eternal life, insert ____ etc). Then he says IF God did all this we could expect (though it's not necessary) a super miracle. So first he is saying if it is given "god exists", then there is a possibility that he is a non deistic God. RIght? Because if there is a god then there is a possibility that he is a theistic, deistic, or polytheistic god. So then he builds the argument on the possibility that would assume a theistic one and what we could possibly expect.

    Then he just demonstrates how Jesus fit the description of what we might expect of a loving person God. As in Jesus lived and taught the appropriate way and has historical evidence for that and also for a "super miracle" which just happens to be the resurrection. He never said his life "was" culminated in a super miracle, he said there is evidence that it was. That's why he concludes that the event was probable and not that it for sure happened.

    It's not at all like saying that about Joseph Smith because he neither lived a life we would expect of a prophet of God, taught what we would expect, or have concrete historical evidence that he did. Whereas in contrast we have better historical evidence to the contrary.

    In any case if I had to argue against something from it I would say this doesn't make the resurrection "very probable" I would say it more like "it is overall a realistic probability that the resurrection occurred."

    Hmm I hope that wasn't too convoluted.

  6. I'm sure the Mormons would be able to debate you better than I on that topic. You and I both know that once you're a believer - in whatever - that positions become far more defendable. See: saturday sabbath, the resurrection, mormonism. I know to you that one stands out like a sore thumb... but to Mormons it would be "the Sabbath" that stands out as unsupported and to most other christians the 1st and 3rd would seem strange (and to Jews the 2nd and 3rd).

    I just think it's a goofy argument overall. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this seems like a basic summary: If there's a god, then there's a chance it's a personal god - and if it's a personal god he probably loves us - and if he loves us there's a good chance he may have lived as one of us - and if he lived as one of us, then he would live as a perfect example and prove himself with a super miracle - and only one person has done this... hence resurrection.'s just assuming way too much, and ONLY making assumptions through the lense of Christianity. You don't think any other religion could try to make itself 'more reasonable' through this sort of argument?

  7. Here's one attempt: "If there's eternal life, then it's quite possible that we never die (otherwise, what is 'eternal'?) - and if we don't die, then it's likely that we can live in various forms since we know our bodies pass away but our spirit would not - and if we can live in various forms, then it's reasonable to assume that we could experience life as other animals - and if we can live as other animals, mighty and meek, then it seems reasonable that we would be moved up and down the scale of greatness based on our deeds... hence karma and reincarnation."

  8. and of course there's all sorts of evidence for reincarnation... really powerful evidence... just google "evidence for reincarnation" and be prepared to be convinced :)

  9. Well I think you are reducing it to sound more absurd than it actually is (not that I think it’s absurd to begin with of course haha). Sure once you adopt a belief it becomes more defensible to you but that doesn’t mean the evidence for belief (a) is equally as strong as for belief (b) or as weak as for belief (c). For example the belief that the sun revolves around the earth has some “evidence” as in we see the sun move across the sky every day in a circular motion. But the evidence that the earth revolves around the sun is obviously greater and so I think would be a highly more defensible position to argue from. I’ll use a quote by Antony Flew to summarize my point (who remained a Deist to his dying breath I should add):

    “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstandingly different in quality and quantity.”

    Though he didn’t become a Theist he still recognized that the evidence behind some religious beliefs are stronger than the evidence behind others.

    Swinburne has simply laid out one of the possible scenarios we could expect if there is a god and showed that based on the life of Jesus a Theistic god becomes one of the more probable ones to believe in. I think you would agree though that we could make a good argument, perhaps just as strong, using the same format for a Deistic god based on our observations of the natural world. However, I don’t think you could make just as strong as an argument for every kind of god or belief system. I’m not saying Swinbrune’s argument is proof of the Theistic Christian God but it at least puts a fresh perspective on how one can view the resurrection as a possible perhaps even probable historical event.

  10. Yeah, I agree with your points... for whatever reason the way Swinburne lays it out just doesn't jive for me. If you want to discuss the evidence, that's one thing... but to build it like he did just doesn't make sense to me. But it's definitely an interesting and unique approach, I'll give him that.

    (I'm referring to: If there's a god, then there's a chance it's a personal god - and if it's a personal god he probably loves us - and if he loves us there's a good chance he may have lived as one of us...)

  11. Yeah it's not my favourite way to approach thinking about the subject and I actually read it about a month before I decided to share it on here because it wasn't my favourite. Ultimately I decided to post it because why not, it's unique.

  12. I go into more detail along similar lines, but independently of Swinburne, here. You may find this interesting:

  13. Thanks David I'll read that when I get some free time.