Yes, You Can “Prove” the Resurrection, Actually (A Reply to The Non-Alchemist)

So The Non-Alchemist apparently didn’t like my take on Reverend Brandan Robertson’s challenge to Christians to stop claiming they can prove the resurrection. Instead of engaging in a back-and-forth of responses that could go on indefinitely and potentially lose our audience’s interest, I’ve decided to share my thoughts on the matter in a blog post. The Non-Alchemist can choose to have the final word in any format he prefers or simply ignore this. It’s entirely his decision.

My original video is here. His response is here. Here’s how he starts off:

Here’s critically acclaimed Bible scholar Erik Manning getting upset at a pastor on TikTok:

Brandan Robertson: Christians, stop claiming that you can prove the resurrection.

Me: You know what? I’m gonna say that I can prove the resurrection even harder now.

Brandan: The resurrection is the most important event in the Christian story. The Apostle Paul goes as far as to say, ‘If the resurrection isn’t true, then Christianity is in vain.’

Me: Ah, come on now, preach, preacher!

Brandan: And yet, the resurrection has no historical proof. We have some testimonies of early Christians written down in the New Testament, but beyond their testimonies, there is no archaeological, historical, or scientific evidence that the resurrection actually happened.

Me: Yeah, that’s not how history works. If we limited ourselves to what we can know about history from science and archaeology, we might as well shut down almost all of our history departments. The fact is, we know a lot about history that comes from testimony…”

Non-Alchemist:. . . he goes on to give an example in support of this claim and then defends the testimony that we have in the Gospels.

Wow, thanks for the compliment. I’ll make sure to add “critically acclaimed Bible scholar” to my LinkedIn profile. When I said “I’m going to prove the resurrection even harder now,” I was making a lame reference to The Office. I tend to make cheesy meme and TV references all the time. For example, The Non-Alchemist riffs off one of my thumbnails in response to Bart Ehrman, but I’m just riffing off the slapstick British hidden camera show Trigger Happy TV, which is an insanely funny show. There are all kinds of clips available on YouTube, so be sure to check them out.

I’m not big mad or even lil mad here, but alright, I guess. But let’s move on from little old me and see what The Non-Alchemist has to say:

Now, in general, I agree that testimony is useful for doing history, even if harder data is more preferable when evaluating what happened in the past. But how does this really help his point? The question at issue isn’t whether there is some evidence for Christianity or even, as he wants to argue, enough to warrant belief. No, the question is: can we prove the resurrection happened with the data we have? Based on how Brandan and basically everyone else uses that word in everyday parlance, the answer is no. And having evidence for something a proof does not make. 

This seems a bit nitpicky to me, but okay. Brandan himself appears to have used the words ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ interchangeably when he stated that there was no scientific or archaeological ‘evidence’ for the resurrection, and that apologists should stop claiming they can ‘prove’ the resurrection.

I get that historical events are not like mathematical equations that can be definitively proven or disproven. Rather, they’re subject to probability and inference based on the available evidence. In this case, the cumulative case for the resurrection, based on multiple lines of evidence, provides a strong probability that it did in fact occur. In this sense, Christians can go about proving the resurrection in the way they would prove Caesar crossing the Rubicon or the Great Fire of Rome. With these thoughts in mind, I even included a message on the screen during my video stating that faith doesn’t require certainty to avoid any confusion.

When Brandan said “stop saying you can prove the resurrection” I’m saying no, your idea of what counts as historical evidence is all wrong.  

Me vs McLatchie?

In the a clip from an interview with Tony Costa, the Non-Alchemist tries to pit me against my friend Dr. Jonathan McLatchie, even though Jonathan and I actually agree on the topic. 

Tony Costa: “People say, ‘Prove it to me. Where’s your proof?’

Jonathan McLatchie: “Imagine that you have a court scene and the expert witness steps forward, the forensic scientist or the detective, to present the murder weapon as a piece of evidence. And on the handle of the murder weapon are the fingerprints of the accused. Now, does that prove that the defendant is guilty? Well, no. That is, you could think of some other potential explanations of how the fingerprints came to be there.

The Non-Alchemist: You all need to get on the same page.

Me: “You know what? I’m going to say that I can prove the resurrection even harder now.”

I’m not going to parse every point of disagreement between them, but Brandan’s concern seems to be that if apologists oversell the evidence for Christianity, it’s going to backfire, which is 100% correct. This is a point I’ve been making for years. But if apologists want to keep saying things like, ‘You know what? I’m going to say that I can prove the resurrection even harder now,’ then I guess they’re free to dig their own graves.

Instead of saying stupid things like that, what Erik should have done to defend his position was concede the general point but argue that Robertson’s solution just falls to the other extreme. He could argue something like, ‘We may not be able to prove that the resurrection happened, but we have very good reasons to believe that it did,’ and then proceed to defend his position by appealing to very conservative approaches towards biblical scholarship…

In his TikTok, Brandan seemed to set a standard of evidence based on three criteria: archaeological confirmation, scientific support, and texts from noted historians outside the Bible that say Jesus rose. This is what I was pushing back on.

First, if a major non-Christian historian attested to the resurrection they would have probably become a believer, so that’s a non-starter. 

And to paraphrase my friend Dr. McLatchie, although there’s no single spectacular scientific or archaeological evidence that can definitively demonstrate the resurrection, a sufficient amount of evidence can be collected from independent testimonies. Although these pieces of evidence may not be as spectacular as a single outstanding piece of evidence, when taken together, they can hold the same weight. And when something can be explained without difficulty by supposing a miracle occurred, but not, without larger implausibility, by assuming a miracle didn’t occur, that’s strong evidence for a miracle.

When Brandan said “stop saying you can prove the resurrection,” he seemed to have this kind of singular, spectacular piece of evidence in mind. That’s what I was reacting to.

If The Non-Alchemist thinks I have been stupidly imprecise in my use of the word “proof,” that’s his prerogative, but I believe my argument still holds. I welcome feedback on this matter. Do you think I was unclear in my original video? Let me know in the comments.

Passive-aggressive credentialism

The Non-Alchemist continues:

. . .most notably championed by a biologist, a philosopher, and his wife with an English Lit degree. Now, before McGrewpies watching this have an aneurysm, I’m actually reading Lydia McGrew’s newest book, and so are a few others. Expect a book review of sorts coming up at some point in the future.

I’m looking forward to seeing that book review. However, given the apparent snarky credentialism on display here, I think we can take a good guess how his review is going to go. But I applaud him, at least, for being one of the few skeptics who will actually read McGrew’s book. I hope he doesn’t stop at her recent popular level treatment, but reads her more scholarly books, like The Mirror or the Mask: Liberating the Gospels from Literary Devices and The Eye of the Beholder: The Gospel of John as Historical Reportage. McGrew interacts with and critiques more recent trends in modern biblical scholarship in those books.

It seems like whenever someone wants to criticize Jonathan McLatchie’s arguments for the reliability of the New Testament, they bring up the fact that he is a biologist. However, it’s unlikely that they would suddenly accept his views on Darwinism, even though he is qualified to speak on the subject according to their standards. So why even bring it up?

When atheist Scott Clifton makes criticisms against the Kalam Cosmological argument, I listen to him. Although he’s not a physicist or philosopher, he has a great understanding of the subject matter and a lot of common sense. Even if I disagree with his conclusions about God’s existence, I truly think he’s one of the argument’s better critics. I don’t try to discredit him by saying he’s a soap opera star who looks an awful lot like Star-Lord.

An advanced degree is indirect evidence that you know what you are talking about. It is useful as far as it goes. But indirect evidence must give way in the presence of direct evidence. Show me that you know what you are talking about, and I don’t care whether you have the degree. Show me that you don’t know what you are talking about, and I don’t care whether you have the degree.

And yes, Lydia McGrew has a PhD in English Lit that she obtained in the 90s, but why act like her CV ends there? She has published extensively in several philosophical journals and specializes in the theory of knowledge, with a focus on formal epistemology and its application to the evaluation of testimony and the philosophy of religion. Additionally, she has been published in a couple of peer-reviewed journals of NT studies. Her books have received endorsements from several notable scholars such as Paul N Anderson, Stanley Porter, Peter J. Williams, and many others.

While The Non-Alchemist and others want to paint her as some kind of rigid fundamentalist conservative without relevant credentials, someone with a background in epistemology and probability could be helpful as an outsider voice to the field of biblical criticism in several ways:

  • They could offer a fresh perspective on the epistemological assumptions that underlie biblical criticism, and help to clarify and refine the criteria used to evaluate the historical reliability of biblical texts.
  • They could provide insights into the nature of probability and how it is used in historical reasoning, which could help to shed light on the limitations and strengths of the methods used in biblical criticism.
  • They could help to develop more rigorous and systematic methods for evaluating the reliability of historical testimony, including the testimony contained in the biblical texts.
  • They could offer critical assessments of the assumptions and arguments made by scholars in the field of biblical criticism, and help to identify areas where further research is needed.

Her perspective can enable scholars to step out of their echo chamber and gain a fresh outlook, even if they ultimately disagree. Would that more biblical scholars had a background in analytic philosophy!

Furthermore, besides being a philosophy professor, Lydia’s husband Tim also specializes in the philosophical applications of probability theory. He wrote the entry on miracles for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. From 2014-16, he was the American director of the Special Divine Action Project, provided for a grant from the John Templeton Foundation on the subject of special divine action hosted by Oxford University. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of the deist controversy that raged in Western Europe from the late 1600s to the 1800s, a period during which David Hume wrote his infamous essay ‘Of Miracles’. The Non-Alchemist seems to be a big fan of the basic premise of Hume’s argument, as we’ll now see. 


Here’s what he says next:

The gist of how to push back against how Erik and others defend the gospels is twofold. One, go with him into the weeds of gospel reliability and argue that their arguments fail. Or two, call the utility of the entire project into question. The reasoning behind two is that even if we grant that some gospels can be classified as eyewitness testimony and others as being based on eyewitness testimony, still written decades after the fact mind you, it doesn’t help their case for the resurrection as much as they seem to think. Why? Because if the world seems regular to you, then miraculous testimony of a religious nature by itself should not be enough to overturn that unified experience. And even if I’m wrong about that and there were a situation where it should, what we find in the gospels ain’t it, Chief.

But let me put a pin in that and address a common accusation aimed at this style of reasoning. Erik Wielenberg explains, “Perhaps it will be objected that unless I can provide a sufficiently specific alternative explanation, it is irrational for me to reject the Christian explanation. But the principle underlying this objection, that a given explanation can be rejected rationally only if there is a sufficiently specific alternative explanation available, is false. The style of inference known as the inference to the best explanation would be labeled more accurately the inference to the best and sufficiently good explanation. Some explanations are so bad that they can and should be rejected, even if no detailed alternative explanation is available. And one way in which an explanation can be bad is by being extremely improbable. Reflection on some cases will reveal that this is so. Tabloid magazines are filled with accounts of incredible events. For a while, reported sightings of Elvis Presley abounded. Thus we examine all the available evidence for such events and develop detailed alternative explanations before it is rational for us to reject the claim that the incredible event in question actually took place. Of course not. We do not need to interview the witnesses, inspect the physical evidence, and devise alternative scenarios to reject rationally the notion that Elvis really was spotted recently at a blackjack table in Las Vegas,” end quote.

While Wielenberg is normally a good philosopher, and I hate to disagree with a fellow Erik with a K, his attempt to rehab Hume’s flawed argument is weak. To debunk it, all we have to do is run a simple thought experiment.

Imagine attending Skepticon and encountering a man with only one arm, accompanied by his parents who can attest to his being born in that condition. Suppose I were to anoint him with oil and command a second arm to grow in the name of Jesus, and five leaders of the American Atheists witnessed the event, resigned, converted, and signed affidavits confirming its occurrence. It would be absurd to dismiss the miracle explanation as unworthy of consideration, no matter how improbable it might seem. Yet, according to Wielenberg’s argument, the miracle hypothesis is considered so bad that we should reject it even if we cannot provide a good counter explanation. If the Non-Alchemist wants to defend this kind of stubborn incredulity, then he’s free to dig his own grave.

I want to clarify that I’m not suggesting the evidence for the resurrection is equivalent to the hypothetical scenario I described. I’m just saying that it might be more effective for The Non-Alchemist to focus on going the ‘book report of sorts’ route rather than this neo-Humean direction.

But obviously I’m not a critically acclaimed philosopher or probability theorist. However, Charles Babbage, a philosopher and mathematician of the nineteenth century, wrote that “if independent witnesses can be found, who speak the truth more frequently than falsehood, it is ALWAYS possible to assign a number of independent witnesses, the improbability of the falsehood of whose concurring testimonies shall be greater than that of the improbability of the miracle itself.” (Babbage, 9th Bridgewater Treatise, 1837: 202) A cumulative case can potentially be enough to justify belief by overcoming the intrinsic improbability of a miracle. There is no “everlasting check” against miracle reports.

But hey, if you don’t like hearing from dead philosophers, maybe it would be better to hear from a respected living philosopher who has researched the debate surrounding Hume’s argument for years. Dr. Timothy McGrew writes:

“Any initial prejudice against miracles—any ground for assignment of a low initial probability to the claim that a miracle has occurred—cannot be any greater than the rational prejudice (great or small) against the conjunction of two claims: that there is a God who has destined his human creations for a future state of existence, and that he wants to tell them about it in such a way that they can know the message comes from him. If there is a God who wants to make such a revelation, and he wants to make it in such a way that we cannot mistake it for the mere word of man, then there is really no other way to seal it than by a miracle. A miracle would be the guarantee to us that this is a genuine word from God and not just someone’s fine-sounding philosophy or a well-crafted tale. And the conjunction of those two claims should, I think, not seem to any well-informed person to be so absurdly low as to lie beyond the reach of evidence.”

(Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy, p. 148)

Here’s a lecture and a debate by Tim on the subject of Humean-styled objections against miracles. You can take your pick, and I promise that both are worth your time.

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