Defending the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Inference to the Best Explanation (Part 8 of 8)

Table of Contents

8.0 Inference to the Best Explanation

As was set out in Chapter 1, the central argument of this series contains two primary steps:

  1. Establish the facts which will serve as the historical data that will need to be explained.
  2. Argue that the Resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of those facts.

The aim of the previous five chapters was to accomplish (1). Chapter 1 also described the objective criterion upon which Chapters 3-7 relied in their establishing the historical data to be explained. To reiterate, that data was as follows:

  1. Empty tomb
  2. Postmortem appearances
  3. Postmortem conversion and subsequent martyrdom of James
  4. Conversion of Saul of Tarsus
  5. Relentlessness of the apostles

Accordingly, the aim of the chapter will be to accomplish step (2): argue that the Resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of the aforementioned historical facts.

8.1 Testing Historical Hypotheses

The object of our inquiry will be the answer to the following question: From the pool of all live options, which hypothesis, if true, best explains the data. In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions , C. Behan McCullagh lists the factors which historians typically weigh in testing a historical hypothesis:

  1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
  2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses.
  3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses.
  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses.
  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses.
  6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs.
  7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions.

Next, we will assess the competing hypotheses composing our pool of live options according to this criteria.

8.2 The Conspiracy Hypothesis

According to this explanation, the disciples stole the body of Jesus and lied about his postmortem appearances, thus faking the resurrection. This explanation has been completely given up by modern scholarship, and in what it follows it won’t be hard to see why.

8.2.1 Must imply further statements describing present, observable data

Virtually any explanation offered for the resurrection will fulfill this first criterion, since such explanations are offered to account for the New Testament witness to Jesus’ resurrection and so will imply that the literary evidence contained in the New Testament will exist as a result of the events described in the proposed hypothesis.

8.2.2 Explanatory scope

The Conspiracy Hypothesis covers the majority of the scope of the evidence: it offers explanations of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and the relentlessness of the apostles; but it fails to explain the conversion of James and the conversion of Saul.

8.2.3 Explanatory power

This criterion reveals just how bankrupt the hypothesis really is. For starters, if the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse, then it is highly unlikely that we should have the story of women’s finding the tomb to be empty. As was explained in Chapter 3, this would not be the sort of tale Jewish men would invent due to the level of credibility of the testimony of women at the time.

It is again highly unlikely that we should have stories about the disciples that include their ineptness, their cowardice, the rebuke, the three denials, and their theological problems. If they were fabricating deliberate falsehoods to pass off as truth, it is inexplicable why they would portray themselves in such a negative light.

Moreover, is highly unlikely that we should have the data concerning Paul and James. As we saw, the scholarly consensus is that both men were converted due to each of their experiencing what they believed to be a veridical appearance of the risen Lord; they did not convert merely because they heard that the disciples claimed there were appearances.

8.2.4 Plausibility

No less damning than the previous criterion, the implausibility of the Conspiracy Hypothesis should be enough to eliminate it from the pool of live options. First, it is enormously implausible to think that several, sane-minded people would willingly endure a life of great suffering and hardships—knowing full well that their actions would ultimately lead to certain death—for the mere purpose of propagating what they knew was a lie. What had they to gain?

Second, it’s implausible to think that so elaborate a conspiracy could be pulled off given that to which the alleged conspirators were exposed. Even when threatened with and subjected to torturous deaths, none recanted. All stuck to their story till the painful end. History has no parallel of so elaborate a conspiracy whose conspirators where unrelenting in the face of certain agonizing death.

Third, the notion of first-century Jews’ intending to hoax Jesus’ resurrection is terribly anachronistic. The Conspiracy Hypothesis views the disciples’ actions through the rearview mirror of Christian history rather than through the eyes of a first-century Jew. As went to great lengths to show, there was no expectation of a Messiah who, instead of establishing David’s throne and subduing Israel’s enemies—i.e., the Romans—, would be shamefully executed by the them as a criminal. How would so many Jewish men all consistently endorse such an un-Jewish concoction if it were pure fiction?

8.2.5 Ad hoc

The hypothesis is terribly ad hoc since what it postulates fails to find even a shred of evidence in support of it. It is a completely unevidenced assumption.

8.2.6 Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs

The Conspiracy Hypothesis is disconfirmed by general knowledge of conspiracies—specifically their instability and tendency to unravel—, the widely accepted belief in the sincerity of the disciples, the nature of first-century Jewish messianic expectations, the common sense notion that people don’t willingly suffer and die for what the know to be a lie, as well as numerous others.

8.2.7 Exceeding rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6)

This criterion is not met because there are other hypothesis widely considered to be better. No scholar would defend the Conspiracy Hypothesis today.

8.3 The Hallucination Hypothesis

According to the most prominent defender of this view—German New Testament critic Gerd Lüdemann—, Peter, having denied Christ, was so consumed with guilt that he found psychological release in projecting a vision of Jesus, which led him to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead. Soon others—who did not share Peter’s trauma—also saw hallucinations of the Risen Lord. One of whom, Saul of Tarsus, struggled inwardly with guilt as he labored under the yoke of the Law zealously persecuting Christians; even though he himself felt a secret inner attraction to the Christian message! According to Lüdemann, “if one had been able to analyze Paul prior to his Damascus vision, the analysis would probably have shown a strong inclination to Christ in his subconscious; indeed, the assumption that he was unconsciously Christian is then no longer so farfetched” . On the Damascus road the pentup struggle erupted in a hallucination of Jesus, resulting in Paul’s wholesale conversion to the faith he once sought to destroy. Much later, the legend of the discovery of Jesus’s empty tomb arose.

8.3.1 Must imply further statements describing present, observable data

Again this is a condition that is easily met.

8.3.2 Explanatory scope

This criterion exposes the central failing of the Hallucination Hypothesis: it purports to offer explanations of the postmortem appearances, the conversion of Saul, and the relentlessness of the apostles; but it fails to explain the empty tomb and the conversion of James. Thus, its explanatory scope is too narrow. In order to explain the empty tomb and the conversion of James, one must conjoin some independent hypotheses to the Hallucination Hypothesis. As was mentioned above, Lüdemann denies the fact of the empty tomb on the basis of it being a later, legendary development. But that is a matter of establishing one’s inductive data base; and we saw in chapter 3 that the empty tomb is well-established as a historical datum.

8.3.3 Explanatory power

Regarding the empty tomb and the conversion of James, it’s easy to see that the Hallucination Hypothesis alone has zero explanatory power because it offers nothing by way of explaining these two facts. Still, even if one grants for the sake of argument the historicity of the hallucinations postulated by Lüdemann, the question then becomes whether this explanation has sufficient power to account for the other facts it purports to explain.

With respect to the appearances, the diversity of the appearances is not well-explained by means of such spurious visions. The appearances were experienced many different times, by different individuals, by groups, at various locales and under various circumstances, and by not only believers, but also by unbelievers. This diversity is very difficult to explain by recourse to hallucinations. There is no single instance in the casebooks exhibiting the diversity involved in the postmortem appearances of Jesus. It is only by compiling unrelated cases that anything analogous might be constructed.

We saw in chapter 3 that the fact that it was women who were the first recipients of a postmortem appearance of Jesus is both multiply attested and established by the criterion of embarrassment. Lüdemann himself calls it “historically certain” though his theory forces him gratuitously to deny its primacy . Nowhere in the New Testament is it said that Peter was the first to see a resurrection appearance of Christ. Rather, the women have priority. Consequently, this is fatal to Lüdemann’s hypothesis: the women’s experience cannot be regarded as a “secondary vision” prompted by Peter’s experience. Moreover, they did not share Peter’s guilt, having remained singularly faithful to Jesus to the end; they therefore lacked the special psychological conditions leading to hallucinations of Jesus. Thus, Lüdemann’s hypothesis has no explanatory power with respect to this appearance.

Likewise, the Hallucination Hypothesis has weak explanatory power with respect to the disciples’ belief in Jesus’s resurrection. Hallucinations have no extra-mental correlate; they are projections of the percipient’s own brain. So even if, as an eruption of a guilty conscience, Paul or Peter were to have projected visions of Jesus alive, they would have envisioned him in Paradise, where the righteous dead awaited the eschatological resurrection. In Jewish thinking there was already a category perfectly suited to describe thier postulated experience: Jesus had been assumed into heaven. An assumption is a wholly different category from a resurrection. To infer from heavenly visions of Jesus that he had been resurrected ran counter to Jewish thinking, whereas Jesus’s assumption into heaven would have been the natural conclusion.

In sum, the hallucination theory has weak explanatory power applicable to the fraction of the data it purports to explain—both in that it cannot account for the diversity of the appearances and in that it cannot account for the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’s resurrection.

8.3.4 Plausibility

There are at least two respects in which Lüdemann’s Hallucination Hypothesis is implausible.

1. There is little plausibility in Lüdemann’s psychoanalysis of Peter and Paul. Here two points may be made:

(a) There are insufficient data to do a psychoanalysis of Peter and Paul. All we have from Paul is a few autobiographical passages in his letters, and the information about Peter’s psyche is, by Lüdemann’s own admission, “incomparably worse” . Lüdemann’s whole theory is based on imaginative conjectures about Peter’s psychological state, of which we know almost nothing. Psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even with a patient seated in front of oneself on the couch, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures. Martin Hengel rightly concludes, “Lüdemann . . . does not recognize these limits on the historian. Here he gets into the realm of psychological explanations, for which no verification is really possible . . . the sources are far too limited for such psychologizing analyses” .

(b) The evidence we do have suggests that Lüdemann’s psychoanalysis of Peter and Paul is mistaken:

(i) Lüdemann’s imaginative reconstruction of Peter’s emotional state following his denials and Jesus’s crucifixion fails to diagnose correctly the true problem Peter faced. It was not so much that he had failed his Lord as that his Lord had failed him. Lüdemann thus fails to enter into the mindset of a first century Jew who had been following a failed Messianic pretender. As Grass has emphasized in his trenchant critique of the subjective vision hypothesis, one of the greatest weaknesses of that theory is that it cannot really take seriously what a catastrophe the crucifixion was for the disciples’ faith in Jesus . Ignoring the disaster of the cross, Lüdemann imagines without a shred of evidence a self-preoccupied Peter wrestling with his own guilt and shame rather than struggling with dashed Messianic expectations.

(ii) As for Paul, the evidence that we have indicates that Paul the Pharisee did not struggle with a guilt complex under the Jewish law. Stendahl writes,

Contrast Paul, a very happy and successful Jew, one who can . . . say . . . , ‘As to the righteousness under the law, (I was) blameless’ (Philip. 3.6). That is what he says. He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience. He is a star pupil, the student to get the thousand dollar graduate scholarship in Gamaliel’s Seminary. . . . Nowhere in Paul’s writings is there any indication . . . that psychologically Paul had some problem of conscience . . . 

Thus, both for its want of data as well as for its misconstrual of Peter and Paul’s experience, Lüdemann’s attempt at psychobiography has little plausibility.

2. It is psychologically implausible to posit such a chain of hallucinations.

(a) Hallucinations are usually associated with mental illness or drugs; but in the disciples’ case the prior psycho-biological preparation appears to be wanting.

(b) The disciples had no anticipation of seeing Jesus alive again; all they could do was wait to be reunited with him in the Kingdom of God. There were no grounds leading them to hallucinate him alive from the dead.

(c) The frequency and variety of circumstances belie the hallucination theory: Jesus was seen not once, but many times; not by one person, but by several; not only by individuals, but also by groups; not at one locale and circumstance but at many; not by believers only, but by skeptics and unbelievers as well.

Thus, the hallucination theory cannot be plausibly stretched to accommodate such diversity. We have seen that his psychoanalysis of Peter and Paul has in various respects little plausibility; and it is implausible to posit such a chain of hallucinations. Thus, the Hallucination Hypothesis does not fare well when assessed by the fourth criterion.

8.3.5 Ad hoc

The theory is unacceptably ad hoc due to a total lack of evidence for both the hallucinations and for the necessary conditions required for them to occur.

8.3.6 Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs

This hypothesis would compel us to abandon a number of beliefs which are generally accepted by New Testament scholars, such as the following:

  1. Jesus received an honorable burial (by Joseph of Arimathea).
  2. Jesus’s tomb was discovered empty by some of his women followers.
  3. Psychoanalysis of historical figures is infeasible.
  4. Paul was basically content with his life under the Jewish Law.
  5. The New Testament makes a distinction between a vision of Christ and a resurrection appearance of Christ.

All of the above statements are generally accepted conclusions of New Testament scholars; yet in order to adopt Lüdemann’s hypothesis we should have to reject all of them. This weighs against at least Lüdemann’s version of the Hallucination Hypothesis.

8.3.7 Exceeding rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6)

I think that we can say confidently that the Hallucination Hypothesis has not demonstrated its clear superiority to rival theories, especially to the Resurrection Hypothesis.

8.4 The Apparent Death Hypothesis

The Apparent Death Theory—or, Swoon Theory—, which was championed by the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century German rationalists, asserts that Jesus did not actually die immediately following his crucifixion; instead, after being placed in the tomb under the assumption that he was dead, he removed himself from the tomb and reappeared to the disciples under the guise that he was indeed the risen Lord. Today, however, the theory has been entirely given up.

8.4.1 Must imply further statements describing present, observable data

Again, this criteria is easily met.

8.4.2 Explanatory scope

The theory scores well under this criterion, as it explains all but one of the historical facts to be explained—the conversion of Saul.

8.4.3 Explanatory power

Here the theory runs into serious trouble. With respect to explaining the empty tomb, how could Jesus, on the verge of death and sealed inside the tomb, remove the stone by himself and escape? As an explanation for the appearances and the relentlessness of the disciples, how could a half-dead man desperately in need of medical attention convince anyone that he was the Risen Lord and conqueror of death? As Strauss so aptly put it:

It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.

The theory faces an even weightier difficulty when assessed by this criterion. One cannot exaggerate the degree to which the hypothesis is intrinsically improbable. In fact, it is so much so that the highly influential—and critical—co-founders of the Jesus Seminar, Marcus Borg  and John Dominic Crossan , both assert that the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion is the surest fact that we have from his career.1Crossan states, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be” For starters, it’s worth noting that the only recorded instance (of which the author is aware) where someone survived a Roman crucifixion was the case recorded by Josephus (Life of Flavius Josephus, p. 75). In said account, after Josephus sees some of his old acquaintances being crucified, he has Titus order that they be taken down and given the highest level of medical care possible. Even so, two still die under the physician’s care, while one manages to recover. Since Jesus was not taken down and given any—let alone the best—medical treatment, this sole case of a crucifixion survivor is irrelevant for our present purposes. What is of relevance, however, is the number of survivors who were not taken down and given medical treatment; and that number appears to be zero.

Moreover, there is also strong positive evidence to believe that Jesus would not have survived crucifixion: medical evidence. The majority medical view is that death by crucifixion is essentially death by asphyxiation. When someone hangs on a cross and the weight of his body pulls down on the intercostal, pectoral, and deltoid muscles around the lungs, the body reaches a state where the weight drags down on them and it is increasingly impossible to exhale. To alleviate this problem, they could push themselves up using their legs to press against the nail impaled through their feet. When the victim pushed up to relieve those chest muscles, they could breathe more easily. But when they could no longer stay up there and had to slump down again, they would began asphyxiating all over again.

After the Romans observed that Jesus was, by all appearances, dead on the cross, we are told that they stabbed him in the chest to make sure. Upon doing so, blood and water flowed out. By far, the most common medical view is that what is being described here is the simultaneous piercing of both the pericardial sac around the heart and the heart. Such an act would unquestionably be confirmatory of death. In a medical article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the decision was that Jesus’ death resulted primarily from asphyxiation. The researchers concluded that the spear entered Jesus’ heart, and that the water came from the pericardial sac surrounding the heart and the blood from the heart itself. The conclusion was that the blow insured that Jesus had already died.

However, as Strauss pointed out, these are not the main issues. The chief problem with the swoon theory is subtle and often overlooked: yes, the disciples would certainly have believed that Jesus was alive, at least for a little while; but they most certainly would not have believed that he had been raised from the dead! And if the disciples did not believe that he was raised, then they would have no cause to teach the New Testament message of Resurrection. The Apparent Death Theory cannot account for this fact, for it is diametrically opposed to it. Thus, the hypothesis cannot even get off the ground. Therefore, it is unacceptably implausible.

8.4.5 Ad hoc

The theory is excessively ad hoc in that it proposes nothing more than unevidenced assumptions. There exists no evidence supporting the notion that Jesus survived crucifixion, that he was able to move the stone to exit the tomb, or that anything else that the theory must propose actually occurred.

8.4.6 Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs

The theory is hugely disconfirmed by medical facts about what would happen to a person who had been beaten, scourged, crucified, and left for dead.

8.4.7 Exceeding rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6)

It goes without saying that this criterion is far from satisfied.

8.5 The Displaced Body Hypothesis

This theory encompasses any hypothesis that asserts that the disciples mistakenly thought that the body of Jesus was placed in the Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Upon visiting the tomb and finding that the body was not in it, the disciples erroneously inferred that he had been raised from the dead.

8.5.1 Must imply further statements describing present, observable data

This is easily met.

8.5.2 Explanatory scope

Since the theory does not offer any explanation for the postmortem appearances or the conversion of Saul, it has narrow explanatory scope.

8.5.3 Explanatory power

The theory lacks sufficient power to adequately explain the empty tomb. No matter where the Jews might have laid the body, the fact remains that they would have been all too eager to expose the disciples error by pointing them to the correct location. Moreover, the theory does not adequately explain the relentlessness of the disciples since, as was pointed out above, their belief in Jesus’ resurrection was rooted not in the empty tomb, but rather in the postmortem appearances of Jesus. Consequently, since the theory offers nothing by way of explaining the appearances, it cannot be said to adequately explain the relentlessness of the disciples.

8.5.4 Plausibility

The theory is highly implausible in light of the evidence that we have showing that the sight of Jesus’ burial was known to Jew and Christian alike.

8.5.5 Ad hoc

The theory is ad hoc due to our having no evidence of the body being placed in any location other than the one that is multiply and independently attested—the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

8.5.6 Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs

The theory is disconfirmed by the generally accepted belief in the historicity of the burial account described in the NT.

8.5.7 Exceeding rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6)

No scholar would agree that this is the case.

8.6 The Resurrection Hypothesis

The Resurrection Hypothesis asserts that “God raised Jesus from the dead.”

8.6.1 Must imply further statements describing present, observable data

This is easily met.

8.6.2 Explanatory scope

It has great explanatory scope: it explains all of the facts that need to be explained.

8.6.3 Explanatory power

It has great explanatory power: the facts we are looking to explain are exactly what we would expect to find if in fact the hypothesis were true.

8.6.4 Plausibility

It is plausible: given the historical context of Jesus’s own unparalleled life and claims, the resurrection serves as divine confirmation of those radical claims.

8.6.5 Ad hoc

It is not ad hoc or contrived: it requires only one additional hypothesis—that God exists. Accordingly, given that there exists an abundance of independent evidence in support of God’s existence, this additional hypothesis is not unevidenced and therefore cannot be said to be ad hoc.

8.6.6 Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs

It is in accord with accepted beliefs: the hypothesis that “God raised Jesus from the dead” does not in any way conflict with the universally-accepted belief that people don’t rise naturally from the dead.

8.6.7 Exceeding rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)–(6)

It far outstrips any of its rival theories in meeting conditions (2)–(6). Down through history various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered. However, such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship. The simple fact is that no naturalistic hypothesis has attracted a great number of scholars.


In bringing this series to a close, we have seen that The Resurrection Hypothesis fares very well when assessed by the standard objective criteria used for testing historical hypotheses. Unless and until an alternative theory emerges that better explains the body of historical data, the most rational position to hold is the one affirmed by the original eyewitnesses: God raised Jesus from the dead, thereby establishing the truth of Christianity.



References Cited

Notes   [ + ]

1. Crossan states, “Jesus’ death by execution under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be”
Posted in Historiography, Resurrection.

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