Science requires that we repeat events. History doesn’t allow it. Does science prove that Jesus did not rise from the dead?
Last Easter I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the Resurrection of Jesus, a popular topic at that time of year. Considering the source, I knew that the author’s conclusion would be something other than affirming the physical, bodily resurrection that is the cornerstone of authentic Christianity. As Paul wrote, “if Christ is not raised then our preaching is vain and your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14).” Genuine Christians may disagree on many things, but to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ is to deny Christianity; no real Christian can do it. The article met my expectations, stating that the sightings of Jesus after the crucifixion had a “dreamy sense” and suggesting that His resurrection was either spiritual or illusory altogether. This is a standard line of secularists and others seeking to discredit Christianity. Unfortunately, such people never provide reasons for their arguments except that “people can’t rise from the dead.” This apriori assumption makes it impossible for those who hold it to ever believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
On the face of it no other reason is necessary because in all of human history, as far as many people know, everyone has died. There have been many stories of people physically rising from the dead, but most are rendered suspect by the circumstances. Was the person really dead? Did they merely resuscitate? Is the whole story a myth? In most cases, it is impossible to verify the medical diagnosis of death, which is typically brain death. In other cases, the story bears all of the traits of myth, such as the Egyptian story of the “resurrection” of Osiris. Considering the purported resurrections commonly noted in history, it is easy to conclude that since everyone else died and stayed dead, Jesus must have also. If this is true, there must be some other explanation for the story in the Gospels, and Biblical Christianity must be false.
If one analyzes the accounts in the Bible and grants that they are largely historical, it is hard to reject Jesus’ resurrection. I have written about that in On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ and On the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today I would like to discuss the underlying assumption: people can’t rise from the dead.
Critique on the apriori assumption that bodily resurrection is impossible
The first major problem with the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is that two conditions are required to support it. First, that no one has ever physically risen from the dead and second, that there is some impenetrable barrier, physiologic or otherwise, to a body regaining life after it has lost it. If anyone has ever risen bodily from the dead then the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is false. If anyone rises in the future, the statement is false. If it is possible that someone could conceivably resurrect in the future, the statement is also false. It is safer to say “people don’t rise from the dead” or “people haven’t risen from the dead”. Still, since no one has perfect knowledge, “people can’t, don’t or haven’t risen bodily from the dead” is too much for any mortal, in good conscience and intellectual sincerity, to say. The honest skeptic can affirm no more than “in my experience, personal and educational, no one has ever risen physically from the dead. Therefore I reject the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
If Nothing Exists Outside the Natural Universe
Someone might contend that the laws of nature make resurrection impossible. However, the Laws of Nature as they are known in modern science are basically theories which have been confirmed repeatedly by multiple observers over time. They are not laws in the legal sense that something is forbidden but laws in the scientific sense that something is impossible. As such, there is always a “danger” in science that a natural law will be challenged, or at least modified, by an event which conflicts with it. Thomas Jefferson recognized the advance in understanding of natural laws when he wrote “that there are means of artificial buoyancy by which man may be supported in the Air, the Balloon has proved, and that means of directing it may be discovered is against no law of Nature and is therefore possible as in the case of Birds, but to do this by mechanical means alone in a medium so rare and unassisting as air must have the aid of some principal not yet generally known.” In another example, the Newtonian concept of the universe was highly functional and supported soundly by observations in the 19th century. However, further discoveries challenged it, and today the concept, while still helpful, is recognized as incomplete.
Quantum theory suggests that singular events of any type are possible, and this would include a bodily resurrection. All that would be required is that the fluctuations occur in a way that supports that restoration of the body to life. If quantum theory teaches anything, it teaches that nothing is impossible.
As a result, no honest skeptic can contend that natural laws refute the resurrection of Christ; they can only assert that the laws of nature make it extremely unlikely that such an event occurred. However, the Laws of Nature are continually being modified and expanded in the Halls of Science, and who is to say that in 10 or 100 years we will not have unlocked the scientific secrets of resurrection? Again, the best an honest atheist can affirm is that “in my experience, personal and educational, the idea of resurrection violates the Laws of Nature. Therefore I reject the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
If Something Exists Outside the Natural Universe
If anything exists outside the natural universe but cannot affect the natural universe, that “something” is irrelevant from our perspective. If that “something” can affect the natural universe, then it is difficult to judge what it can or might do. If, as Christians contend, that “something” is a personal God who created the natural universe, then for Him to bodily resurrect a man from the dead is not only possible, it is easy. To create something from nothing, truly nothing, not preexistent matter in the form of quarks or whatever, is far harder than to reverse the process of decay implicit in death.
What If Our Comparison Group is Wrong?
Jesus was a man, but according to the Church He was also more than a man. Therefore the experience of other men, staying in the grave after death, may not apply to him. As portrayed in the Bible, Jesus was a singular man, and His resurrection was a singular event. People may assume that since no other human seems to have risen from the dead, Jesus could not have done so. However, this may be making a generalization beyond what these data support. Perhaps we should not compare Jesus to other men but should compare Jesus to other men who were just like Him; fully man and fully God. If so, since no other man like Jesus exists, we do not have an appropriate group for comparison and therefore can make no conclusion on the basis of routine human experience whether or not Jesus could have risen bodily from the dead.
Are There any Other Singular Events that We Can Compare to the Resurrection?
The other most famous singular event is the “Big Bang”, the expansion of the Universe from a near-infinitely hot and near infinitely dense point of matter somewhere in nothingness. To say that the Big Bang occurred in space and time is ridiculous because the Big Bang created spacetime and so it could not have occurred in what it later created any more than a man can be born in a house which he was to build. Further, the Big Bang cannot account for the initial existence of mass and energy; they have to be presupposed for the theory to work. Even the seemingly scientific notion that the Big Bang occurred from random quantum fluctuations presupposes the existence of energy. Many scientists find overwhelming evidence that the Big Bang caused the universe, but no matter how compelling the theory is, it cannot explain how something, our universe, came from nothing.
It is difficult to compare the singularity of the Big Bang with the singularity of the Resurrection, but there are some parallels that we can draw. The Big Bang is supported by scientific evidence such as the expansion of the universe and cosmic microwave radiation, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is supported by historical evidence such as the Biblical and extrabiblical accounts. Many would make the point that scientific evidence is more reliable than historical evidence, but without historical evidence we would know nothing about any nonrepeatable event. Even more, without the historical evidence (oral and written) of scientists and mathematicians of the past, we would know nothing about science. The transmission of knowledge from one generation and one land to another requires historical evidence, so it is unreasonable to reject it on the basis of it not being scientific. To reject the Resurrection of Jesus because it is only attested to by historical evidence is to reject every past event for the same reason.
Further, while mankind can still see the direct evidence of the Big Bang, we can also see the direct evidence of the Resurrection, the existence of the Church. Mohammed was a conqueror and Buddha was a prince so we would expect their opinions to outlive them, including the religious ones. Jesus, however, was a poor itinerant preacher in a small province of a mighty Empire. There have been countless such men in history, and they and their movements have all been buried by the sands of time. Jesus and His movement, however, has endured and grown into the largest religious force on the planet. It has done so on the strength and power of His resurrection. Perhaps the existence of the Church is to the Resurrection what the cosmic radiation and the expansion of the universe is to the Big Bang?
This article does not prove that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, and it never intended to. Hopefully, it has demonstrated that the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is unprovable at best and more likely incorrect. As such, it is an illogical basis on which to reject the resurrection of Jesus. It is not those who believe in the resurrection who are unscientific, it is those who reject it on this faulty assumption. Everyone should evaluate for themselves who Jesus is, and part of this vital question is “Did Jesus rise bodily from the dead?” However, their starting point should be “while extremely rare, bodily resurrection from the dead is possible.”