What is the probability that Jesus rose from the dead?
Here I'm going to construct a foolish partner to advance certain arguments. This is just a rhetorical device. I have to be careful to not commit a straw man here, nor do I wish to insult anyone. I don't intend to imply that anyone actually thinks like my partner. But while he's too foolish to actually stand in for any real person, he can therefore be useful, by standing in as the lower bound on what a reasonable person may think. Please, just understand him as the artificial rhetorical construction that he is.
Now, my foolish partner may say, "the probability that Jesus rose from the dead is zero. What's there to talk about?" But by doing so, he has committed the cardinal sin in Bayesian reasoning. Any real, non-theoretical probability CANNOT be absolutely zero or one. Think about what a zero probability value means: this represents a state of mind where absolutely NOTHING - no amount of even theoretically possible evidence - can alter their beliefs. There is no possible reasoning with such a person.
I am very certain that the sun will rise tomorrow. I may be 99.9999...% certain, but I cannot be 100% certain. That tiny difference between 99.9999...% and 100% represents possibilities like a super-advanced alien race stopping the rotation of the earth, or me being momentarily confused about what is meant by "the sun". And I am not 100% certain, because I can, at least in theory, be shown evidence that such an alien race exists, or that I had momentarily confused "the sun" with "the north star".
My partner may then say, "well, the probability may not be actually zero, but it's very close to it. Like, 0.000.....001%. Nobody has ever come back from the dead before." But actually, isn't that the very thing we're talking about? Whether Jesus had come back from the dead? Furthermore, it's presumptuous to think Jesus was just like everyone else, that he wasn't special in any way. Even if nobody else came back from the dead, we would need to do some additional thinking in the case of Jesus.
My partner would reply, "see, that's just special pleading. I don't see why Jesus should be special. Empirically, people do not come back from the dead. Therefore it's also highly unlikely that Jesus came back."
At this point, I'm going to simply give away the point about whether Jesus was special or not. I obviously believe that he was - but quite frankly, the argument for the resurrection is so strong that I can just handicap myself in several different ways like this without materially affecting the conclusion. I'll be doing this multiple times throughout this post.
Now, let's talk about how many people came back from the dead, "empirically". How many different people have you seen die and stay dead? Remember, we're talking about "empirical" evidence here, meaning that we only count people that you, yourself, have seen die in person. For many people, that number is probably zero. It might be one or two - maybe you've seen a grandparent pass away. Maybe more, if you're a health care worker or something like that.
My partner may say, "Even if I didn't see someone die in person, if there was a real resurrection, it would be all over the news. And there hasn't been any such reports, because people do not rise from the dead."
Well, at this point, my partner is begging the question on whether there has in fact been such reports, and is becoming slippery about what "empirically" means. But again, I will simply handicap myself and give away these points. "Empiricism" in the sense of "I only believe what I can see" is fundamentally flawed, anyway (It's self-defeating). So let's say news reports are enough, that a direct observation is not necessary. So, how many people have been covered in the news that you've seen? Thousands? Millions? If the argument is that Jesus was no different than these thousands or millions of other people, then I freely acknowledge that this does in fact establish an upper bound on the probability of the resurrection. However, this does NOT prove that the probability is zero, no more than a dozen coin flip of heads proves that the coin will always land heads. Instead, it merely says that the probability for the resurrection is likely to be below a certain level.
For example, say that you've examined a thousand swans, and they all turned out to be white. You want to use this fact to investigate the report of a black swan. Now, your thousand white swans don't prove that the probability of the reported swan being black is zero. Instead, combined with that report, it does say that the probability is likely to be below 1/1000. If you've examined a million swans, and all of them have been white, then your probability of observing a black swan would correspondingly drop to around 1/1 000 000 as the upper limit.
Now, the modern media is pretty comprehensive, so my partner may say, "The world news covers at least millions of other people. And none of them have come back from the dead. So the chance that Jesus came back from the dead is, at best, one in a million. That's basically zero. How could you believe in something that has only one in a million chance of being true? That's irrational."
Well, one in a million is a pretty small probability. But actually, I think we can just go ahead and say that out of the entire world population of 7 billion people, none of them are going to be raised from the dead. So, the probability for the resurrection has now dropped to 1 in 7 billion. I'm just giving away everything here. I've almost dropped the condition about an "empirical" probability. I'm making a blanket statement that absolutely nobody in the world, independent of anything that may be know about them, will rise from the dead. So, if we apply this general "observation" to the likelihood of Jesus's resurrection, that probability must be below 1 in 7 billion.
My partner may respond, "Um... So now you're making my argument for me. So yeah. The probability of the resurrection is less than 1 in 7 billion. Obviously you can't believe in something that unlikely to be true. This is why any naturalistic explanations must always be preferred to a supernatural one in these discussions of miracles, because the supernatural is always so unlikely."
Oh, but I'm not done yet. I'm going to give away even more of the argument. Why not just drop all pretense of an "empirical" probability? Why not say that everyone who has EVER lived - about 100 billion people in total - have all died, without a single one of them being raised from the dead? Forget saying anything about "empirical observations". Forget any semblance of reasoning from our direct experiences. I will simply grant that every single one of these 100 billion people have died and stayed dead. And against the weight of those 100 billion people, we'll estimate the probability of Jesus's resurrection. According to our previous line of thinking, this puts that probability at 1 out of 100 billion.
My foolish partner may say, upon the strength of this evidence that I have made up for him, "One in a hundred billion! Do you know how unlikely that is? That's 1 out of 100 000 000 000. That's a probability value of 0.000 000 000 01. That's basically zero. Just concede the argument - it's virtually impossible that Jesus rose from the dead. Absolutely any naturalistic explanation is going to be more likely than that." Oh, but I'm not done yet.
I'm going to give away another multiplier in the probability. I'm going to make it even smaller - not by an additional factor of ten, or even by a factor of a thousand. No, I'm going to give away far more. I'm going to SQUARE that tiny previous probability of 1 in 100 billion, and use that as the probability of Jesus's resurrection. One in a hundred billion, squared, is this:
probability = 1/10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000, or 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1
There is no reason to do this. Squaring the probability makes no rational sense. I did it just to make the probability smaller, to handicap my argument further. I started with the "Nobody rises from the dead. It's never happened before. So Jesus also didn't rise from the dead" argument. I then stretched it to its strongest form, then started making stuff up to make it even stronger. I then ran out of stuff to make up, but I still wanted it to be even stronger - so I simply squared the already tiny probability value, with no possible rationale, to arrive at the absurdly minuscule probability value above. So now, as it stands, the probability of Jesus actually having risen from the dead is 1 out of 10 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 - essentially zero. That's game over, right? How could I, or anyone, believe in something so unlikely to be true? How could any hypothesis with a probability of 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1 ever be taken seriously?
"Um... so yeah. What are you doing?", my partner may ask.
You'll see. Next week, you'll behold and understand the power of evidence.
You may next want to read:
Basic Bayesian reasoning: a better way to think (Part 1)
Miracles: their definition, properties, and purpose
Another post, from the table of contents