September 17, 2016

Did the Easter miracle happen?

Note: The following article was published in 2004 in The Record (a Kitchener-Waterloo newspaper) and I post it here to make it available to interested readers. The article was the 2005 winner of the General Readership category (newspaper article) awarded by The Word Guild.

A scene from the 2004 film The Passion of The Christ, directed by Mel Gibson
Did the Easter miracle happen?
By Hendrik van der Breggen
The Record, April 10, 2004

Think of Easter and immediately bunnies and coloured eggs come to mind. However, as Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ has reminded us, Easter has more to do with Jesus and the Christian gospel than it has to do with chocolate.

The traditional Christian gospel or good news is that God (God the Son) came to Earth in the man Jesus, He took our punishment for sin onto Himself by suffering and dying on a cross, and then God (the Father) raised Jesus from the grave (tomb). Jesus' resurrection, that is His return to life in the same body but somehow wonderfully renewed, is said to be a glorious sign to help us believe—accept by faith—the good news.

Of course, this begs the question: Is it reasonable to believe that Jesus actually resurrected?

In the little book The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (Zondervan 2003), former journalist and former spiritual skeptic Lee Strobel argues that, yes, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus actually resurrected.

Strobel makes his case for Jesus' resurrection by appealing to, and defending, three historical facts:

○ Jesus was actually killed by crucifixion;

○ The tomb in which Jesus' dead body was placed was found empty a couple days later;

○ And Jesus was subsequently seen alive and well for several weeks in various locations, not only by a skeptic who touched Him to make sure He wasn't a ghost, but also by other individuals and variously sized groups of people, many of whom engaged Jesus in conversation and had meals with Him—and would later endure torture and death rather than recant their testimony.

THERE ARE OTHER EXPLANATIONS

Strobel also considers alternative, non-resurrection explanations—such as Jesus didn't really die, the witnesses hallucinated, a conspiracy occurred or it's all legend—but argues that they are all weak. Strobel's arguments are, I believe, strong, but because of space limitations I won't discuss those arguments here. I recommend that anyone who is interested in the problems with the non-miracle theories check out Strobel's book.

What I find interesting is that the alternative non-resurrection explanations, even the most outlandish ones which haven't a shred of evidence in their favour, such as Jesus has an unknown twin who pretended to be the resurrected Jesus after Jesus died, tend to be set forth by many—and clung to—primarily because of a philosophical reason.

How so? The proponents of the far-fetched have been infected by a skeptical philosophical view that has been transmitted to us from the Scottish philosopher David Hume.

If your son or daughter goes to university today and takes an introductory philosophy class, he or she will probably run into David Hume. Well, not David Hume in person, but a philosophy professor who is a kindred spirit.

Hume lived from 1711 to 1776. He is famous, rather notorious, for, among, other things, his argument against miracles. According to Hume, no matter how good the historical evidence is for a miracle such as Jesus' resurrection—even if the miracle actually occurred—the evidence is never good enough.

Hume argues that a miracle is a violation of a law of nature and that the laws of nature are very well established. The result, according to Hume, is that a miracle's occurrence is maximally improbable, and this maximal improbability counts against any good testimony for a miracle, either balancing the testimony (thereby providing grounds to suspend belief) or outweighing it (thereby providing grounds for disbelief). In reality, Hume thinks the latter is the case. Either way, though, Hume would have us dismiss miracle testimonies as unreasonable to believe.

CIRCULAR REASONING

Having studied Hume's argument for my master's thesis in philosophy at the University of Windsor and for my PhD dissertation in philosophy at the University of Waterloo, I have come to conclude that Hume's argument fails.

His argument fails because it begs the question. It “begs the question” in the sense that it engages in circular reasoning, it assumes as proven that which is at issue, and it sneaks the conclusion into the premises.

As mentioned, Hume takes the violation-of-law-of-nature aspect of a miracle to be sufficient grounds for counting the violated laws of nature wholly and destructively against miracle testimony—to judge the miracle to be maximally improbable.

Interestingly, in the case of Jesus' resurrection, such an event is maximally improbable, given the laws of nature and given that there is no intervention from outside the physical system. Significantly, this brings to light the fact that Hume makes the assumption that to make a probability judgment all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature.

But, it should be emphasized, we are supposedly talking about a miraculous resurrection (as suggested by the evidence), and so, although we are given the laws of nature, we are not given that there is no intervention from outside the system.

So in assuming that all that is needed is our knowledge of the relevant laws of nature and nothing about any possible intervention from outside of nature, Hume is, in effect, assuming that either God does not exist (and so God never intervenes via miracles) or, if God does exist, God's intentions concerning nature are shown to us wholly by the laws of nature (and so God never intervenes via miracles).

But if, as Hume assumes for the sake of argument, there is good evidence for what seems very much to be a miracle—Hume even allows it to be a real miracle—then Hume's assumption about the background knowledge is at issue.

In other words, in order for Hume's argument to work, it requires the assumption that the laws of nature express either all the goings-on of a universe without God or, if God exists, all of God's intentions concerning the universe. But the truth of this assumption must be put on hold when a miracle (whether actual or alleged) is supposed to be under investigation.

Indeed, for one's mind to be actually open to the possibility of the occurrence of an occasional real miracle—a possibility Hume allows, at least for the sake of argument—requires that the assumption Hume makes be suspended—at least when one is purportedly investigating the evidence for a miracle.

In other words, Hume's argument works only if we assume that there is no God who on rare occasions intervenes in nature, but this assumption is at issue when we are considering any alleged evidence for miracles.

LOOK AT THE EVIDENCE

Thus, by assuming the above-described background knowledge, Hume mistakenly begs the question which only the (alleged) miracle evidence can answer.

Hume's mind is already made up then, and not open to what the evidence suggests.

The upshot is that if your mind is not already closed to the possibility of a God who occasionally does a miracle, that is, if your mind is open to the possibility of God's existence and the possibility of this God intervening in nature, then the facts surrounding Jesus' alleged resurrection may make a miraculous resurrection explanation plausible, and even reasonable to believe.

If you weren't a believer in the past, Easter might now take on a whole new meaning.


Hendrik van der Breggen is a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at the University of Waterloo. His dissertation is titled “Miracle Reports, Moral Philosophy, and Contemporary Science.” Hendrik teaches philosophy part time at Emmanuel Bible College in Kitchener and at Heritage College and Seminary in Cambridge. Besides Lee Strobel's The Case for Easter, Hendrik also recommends Strobel's latest book, The Case for a Creator: A Journalist Investigates Scientific Evidence that Points toward God (Zondevan 2004).


Postscript (September 17, 2016): The notion of God “intervening” in nature can also be understood as God engaging in a special act vis-à-vis God's ongoing act of sustaining the creation. Space limitations in a newspaper article are not conducive to adding philosophical-theological nuance.

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Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is associate professor of philosophy at Providence University College.

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