Science, Evidence, and the Resurrection

I am a scientist, and I am often asked by my colleagues about evidence I see for the resurrection. This is how I explain it to them.


Without the physical resurrection, two thousand years of history are left begging for explanation, like a movie missing a key scene.

The explanation is that early Christians came to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead some time after he died, and Christianity spread thereafter thru a series of historical events, none of which required an actual resurrection take place.

With dates established by radiometric analysis, prophecies from centuries before Jesus’ birth predict his life, death, and resurrection.3

This largely explains why early followers of Christianity were predisposed to believe that a resurrection took place.

Jesus was a real person in history who died.

That someone was alive and died does not appreciably increase the odds that he then rose from the dead.

The early accounts of the resurrection and prophecies predicting it were reliably transmitted through history.

That people believed as part of their religious faith that a resurrection would and/or did occur is not strong evidence that their beliefs were true.

Accounts of the resurrection include inconvenient and unflattering details, which make most sense as attempts to reliably record what had happened, free from embellishment. They do not fit expectations of a fabricated account. For example, women are the first witnesses of the resurrection. In a culture that did not admit the testimony of a woman as valid evidence in court, this detail is surprising.

Which only increases the likelihood that this was an embellishment added to the narrative to make it a better story. Also, it should be remembered that it would not be women providing this testimony. Rather, it would most likely be men telling a story about some women who found an empty tomb.

This also points to a deeper problem with attempts to argue for the resurrection as an historical event. Let’s concede, for the sake of argument, that it would be a really weird thing for a group of women to claim they had found an empty tomb and for others to believe them. Exactly how weird would this be? Any weirder or more unlikely than a dead person coming back to life? I don’t see how that could be argued.

Likewise, all the disciples, the leaders of the early Church, flee as cowards when Jesus is taken.

Maybe that part really happened. It does not seem at all unlikely.

After Jesus’ violent death, his followers were frightened and scattered. Then, something happened that grew a strong, bold, and confident belief that resisted sustained, murderous opposition. Unlike other movements with executed leaders, once the disciples came back together, they did not replace Jesus with one of his family members. Their resistance was entirely nonviolent and devoid of political power. Yet they were all suddenly willing to die for what they saw. What changed them?

There are abundant examples of people who have belonged to a cult led by a charismatic leader and have believed things with such fervour that they will give up their lives rather than renounce their beliefs. Why must we believe that this is the one, single example in all history where such beliefs were actually true?

More than just a fact about our past, the resurrection creates a connection to God that is perceived by people from all times, cultures, socioeconomic statuses, personalities, and metal capacities, across the last two thousand years of history. Its reach includes some of the most famous scientists: Blaise Pascal, Johann Kepler, Robert Boyle, Gregor Mendel, Asa Gray, Michael Faraday, James Maxwell, Santiago RamĂłn y Cajal, and Francis Collins. Is this unmatched reach and influence a sign of a living God working his purpose in history?

No more than the wide influence of Islam is good evidence that Mohammed actually received messages from God.


Joseph Smith, anyone?


Here is how it went for me:

At around age 11, I heard of the resurrection. This was truly miraculous, but it was possible for an omnipotent God. I became a Christian.

At around age 17, I reread the account of the resurrection. I believe it was the version in Matthew. It described earthquakes, and a the resurrections of many of the dead. This was truly miraculous, but it was possible with an omnipotent God.

But … miraculous events like these would not have gone unnoticed. Even before there was a profession of journalism, reports of this would have spread around the world. Humans are humans, and you cannot stop them from spreading these reports. So there should have been stories about the resurrection coming from many parts of the world. But there weren’t. So it didn’t actually happen.

At that point, I gave up belief in the physical resurrection. I was not yet ready to leave Christianity, so I settled on a purely spiritual resurrection. But I had begun my move away from Christianity.

At the time of my final departure, about 6 years later, I did think about the two thousand years of history, and about the billions of believers. But then I thought about Joseph Smith, and the millions of believers in the stories he told. It was clear that the existence of millions of believers proved nothing.

In the end, it is real evidence that matters. And there wasn’t any real evidence of the resurrection.


The problem, to me, is that historical evidence simply isn’t competent to demonstrate a miracle. I will repeat my usual example: if a multitude of witnesses of the highest credibility insisted that Napoleon was good at throwing stones, and could knock a small target off a fencepost at fifty feet ten times in a row, I’d probably believe it. But if they said he could fling a one-pound cobble ten miles with a flick of his wrist, arguments over the value of their testimony and the high credibility of their accounts could do nothing to persuade me that this was true.

And, more to the point, there is no established discipline or epistemological method that is sufficient to demonstrate it. We are often told we can’t use the scientific method here, because that entails methodological naturalism, and the resurrection, if it happened, would have been a supernatural event. OK, but has anyone spelled out how methodological supernaturalism is supposed to work?


Yeah, I’ve been waiting, rather impatiently, for something there. But the answers, when offered, are so hilariously unsatisfactory that one has to wonder why necromancy and Tarot aren’t equally good options.

My first reflexive reaction was to think that your Napoleon story and the Resurrection aren’t comparable. But then I asked myself why they aren’t comparable? Why is it less absurd to believe that Napoleon could effortlessly throw a rock 10 miles than to believe someone was God Incarnate, born of a virgin, and raised from the dead? One’s upbringing certainly has an interesting effect on their inherent biases.


Very definitely. It took me a long time to realize that even as I tried to carefully scrutinize claims of the paranormal within Christian belief, I was still failing to exercise the same skepticism that I knew to be appropriate when evaluating claims of the paranormal outside of Christian belief. It strikes me as particularly funny that people will insist sometimes that atheism arises from some sort of prejudice against these beliefs; it seems to me that most of us, including most atheists, have an unspoken and unmeasured prejudice in FAVOR of these beliefs. I think I’m still not free of this prejudice.

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Here’s where your Bayesian priors come into play. If you already believe that Jesus was the son of God (and Napoleon wasn’t), then resurrection becomes more credible.

True, but of course it becomes circular if the truth of the resurrection is being offered as evidence that there is a god, or that Jesus is the son of that god. Since I usually see the resurrection being advanced specifically for that purpose, I don’t usually tolerate the circular reasoning, Bayesian or otherwise.


Isn’t an omnipotent being capable of lifting himself by his own bootstraps?

Mostly I think omnipotent beings just hate philosophy. I am reminded of the classic bathroom wall graffiti:

“God is dead.” --Nietzsche

“Nietzsche is dead.” --God

I wholeheartedly agree. We almost reflexively give religious claims the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason that their popularity within human culture. One of the processes I have gone through as an atheist is wrestling with my own biases, and making peace with them. I don’t think it is possible to be unbiased as a human, but we can at least understand what those biases are and acknowledge them.


Here’s an example from a Master’s thesis I found online:

The goal of this thesis is to determine under which circumstances a supernatural
hypothesis should be preferred over the most probable natural hypothesis to explain a set of
historical facts. The supernatural hypotheses include the objective vision hypothesis and the
resurrection hypothesis, while the subjective vision hypothesis is taken to be the most probable
natural hypothesis. Each of them can be found in the recent literature on the Resurrection and is
still advocated by major proponents. The facts by which these three hypotheses are judged are
agreed upon by most scholars. They include (1) Jesus’ death by crucifixion, (2) the disciples’
claim that Jesus was raised and appeared to them alive after his death, and (3) the transformative
experience of Paul. This thesis argues that, unless it is extremely improbable that God exists and
that He would raise Jesus from the dead, the best historical explanation for the set of historical
facts herein considered is that Jesus appeared alive in bodily form after being crucified.

I have not read the rest of the article. However, it is clear that he already tips the scales in his favour by deeming “the subjective vision hypothesis” to be the most likely naturalistic one. I don’t see why that would be the case. It seems to me by far the most likely naturalistic scenario is that the stories regarding the resurrection are legends that are not based on detailed and reliable first hand accounts. I admit I am not inclined to read the whole thing to see if he addresses this issue.

In addition, he repeats the error I allude to above by weighing “natural” against “supernatural” explanations. If we waive that distinction, then how do we determine that “subjective vision” is less likely than a bodily resurrection?

(Oh, just noticed that the thesis is from Liberty “University.”)


“I think you should be more explicit here in step two.”


Unlike some contributors, I don’t have a methodological problem with the evidence for miracles. Arch-atheists Sean Carroll and Jerry Coyne have both argued that there could be scientific evidence for the supernatural which would warrant at least a provisional belief in miracles. However, despite having once propounded Christian apologetic arguments for the resurrection (see here and here), I have now reluctantly concluded that they simply don’t work. The following points may help explain why:

  1. What did the earliest Christians believe about Jesus’ resurrection? To answer this question, apologists typically appeal to the pre-Pauline creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, arguing that it goes back to around three to seven years after Jesus’ death. The problem with this line of argument is that many Biblical scholars now believe that the original creed was much shorter, and concluded at the end of verse 5. In other words, it would have gone like this: [I believe] “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” In this shorter creed, there’s no record of an appearance to more than 500 people at one time, or to James, or to all the apostles (whoever they were). And if you look carefully, you’ll notice that the shorter creed doesn’t even say that the twelve saw Jesus “at one time,” as the longer creed does with the 500 witnesses. Nor does it say that Jesus’ tomb was found empty, or even what kind of tomb he had. All we can be reasonably sure of is that the early Christians believed Jesus had been buried, and that shortly afterwards, he had appeared to Cephas (who may or may not be the apostle Peter), and to a group of followers called “the twelve” (no mention of Judas’ suicide here), either individually or collectively. We cannot be certain whether they believed Jesus had a tangible body, or walked out of his tomb. Nor can we be certain that they all saw or heard the same thing, as we have no records of them being interviewed separately. (It is worth noting that the three Fatima seers didn’t see or hear the Virgin Mary in the same way: Francisco didn’t see her lips move and couldn’t hear her speak. Also, at least one of the prophecies made by the Virgin about World War I on October 13, 1917 - “The war will end today” - didn’t come to pass. Despite this, the three children steadfastly maintained that their visions were real, even after being kidnapped and imprisoned by police who tried unsuccessfully to make them confess it was all a hoax. This fact refutes the oft-heard apologetic argument that the apostles’ accounts of what they saw and heard when they encountered the risen Jesus must have tallied pretty well, otherwise the discrepancies would have surely destroyed their faith that what they saw was real. People’s minds don’t work like that - especially when they’re intuitive thinkers.)

  2. Three of the twelve apostles - namely, Peter, James and John - are said to have been visionaries, even prior to Jesus’ alleged resurrection. I’m referring to the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, where they are said to have seen Moses and Elijah and heard the voice of God from a cloud. What’s more, these three individuals (Peter, James and John) are the most prominent apostles in the Gospel accounts. Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe a case of “birds of a feather”: their proneness to seeing visions could have been mutually reinforcing, giving them a false sense of confidence in their mystical experiences. Peter, especially, was the acknowledged leader: his name is mentioned no less than 100 times in the Gospels. In the pre-Pauline creed, he is said to have been the first to have seen the risen Jesus. Ask yourself: can one trust as witnesses three individuals who were already known to have had visions, and nine other individuals about whom we know little except their names? And should we trust the combined testimony of “the twelve,” when none of them (to the best of your knowledge) were ever interviewed separately about what they’d seen?

  3. On top of that, Jesus’ twelve apostles were most likely under the age of 18 (with the exception of Peter and possibly Matthew). Ask yourself: would you credit the testimony of eleven teenagers and one guy in his early twenties, who claimed they’d seen a man that had risen from the dead?

  4. There are serious disagreements between the Gospels as to even the most general questions that might be asked about the Resurrection appearances: why did the women visit Jesus’ tomb? Who saw Jesus first? Where did he appear? When did he appear? To whom did he appear? If the Gospels cannot agree on even these basic points, how much credence should we place in their accounts?

  5. The Gospels themselves declare that Jesus repeatedly told his apostles before he died that he would be raised again. This might be called a prophecy, or it might be called “creating an expectation.” Now suppose that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty by his female followers on Easter Sunday morning. (There are a number of reasons why it might have been empty, and not all of them are supernatural: for instance, Christian theologian Dale Allison, playing devil’s advocate, posits that it might have been stolen by grave robbers who wanted to steal the body of a charismatic healer because they believed it still possessed magical powers.) A skeptic might urge: “Is it not plausible to suppose that one of the apostles (say, Peter) may have then wondered whether Jesus had been raised from the dead, after all, seeing the empty tomb as a confirmation of what he’d previously been told by Jesus?” Exactly how plausible you find this scenario is will depend a lot on your background beliefs. But the point I want to make here is that belief in the Resurrection did not spring out of nowhere. For one to three years, the apostles were exposed to the presence of a larger-than-life charismatic healer and preacher who appeared to have cured people of all manner of diseases (“The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed”) and who (according to the Gospels) appeared in a vision (along with Moses and Elijah) to three of the apostles, and who foretold his own crucifixion and resurrection. The sight of their leader being captured and crucified might have temporarily shattered the apostles’ faith, but the women’s report of the empty tomb could have been the spark that restored it.

  6. Contrary to the claims of apologists, we have no good historical evidence that any of the apostles were killed specifically for their belief in Jesus’ resurrection, or that they could have avoided death by recanting. In the absence of such evidence, we are not entitled to call the apostles “martyrs for their faith in the Resurrection.” The fact is, we simply don’t know. And for most of the apostles, we have no reliable information as to where they ended up or how they died.

  7. Finally, none of the Scriptural passages adduced by apologists in support of Jesus’ death and resurrection would convince anyone who was not already predisposed to believe. Take Isaiah 53, which is said to be the clearest prophecy of Jesus. Does it say that the Messiah will die and rise again? no. Does it specify the manner of Jesus’ death (crucifixion)? No. Does it name any individuals connected with Jesus’ life or supply any biographical details? No. Does it give any dates, times or locations? No. Enough said. And there are more problems with Christians using this text as a prophecy of Jesus, not to mention the fact that Jesus did not “see descendants and live long life” as the Suffering Servant is said to have done in Isaiah 53:10; nor were “kings … shocked by his exaltation” (Isaiah 52:15). The other leading prophecy, Psalm 22, rests on a mistranslation: even the Christian Net Bible now translates the passage as “like a lion they pin [not pierce] my hands and feet.” In short: the prophetic argument for Jesus’ resurrection is no longer suitable for using on a non-Christian audience. Only Christians and people who are disposed to see multiple layers of meaning in Scriptural passages (as some of Jesus’ contemporaries were) will find the prophecies impressive.

To sum up: while there’s good historical evidence for the fact that Jesus was crucified and was buried, and for the fact that Jesus’ disciples believed in his resurrection as early as 35 to 40 A.D, there’s no good historical evidence that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. The sources for this story are too weak and unreliable to render such a judgement probable or likely, even to someone who is willing to allow for the possibility of miracles. Belief in the Resurrection can only rest on the accomplishments of the Christian Church. If you see it as a great force for good in history, despite the appalling faults of some of its members, then you might come to believe that its founder was divine. In the end, it comes down to how you view the unfolding of human history. Belief in the Resurrection is an act of faith.


I am in ageement with much of what you write in your post, but the bit I quote is a logical fallacy. The accomplishments of the Church, for good or bad, are achieved by its members and are founded on their beliefs. This is correct. However that many people believe that its founder was divine has no bearing on the truth of their beliefs. It is the same fallacy that was trotted out by those who claim that the 2020 election was stolen. When pressed for actual evidence the only thing they came up with was to say that a great many people believe it. This argument was rightfully dismissed.

There are many religious beliefs in the world, and if the truth of their claims depends on how their followers perform, many of these beliefs would be valid by the same reasoning. Because of all the contradictions between these various beliefs they can’t possibly all be valid. Ergo, the argument is unsound.

This is really the long and short of it. Historical evidence doesn’t come into it, because if it does, then many religions would have equally valid claims, which is impossible.


Hi @faded_Glory,

I quite agree that the goodness of Christianity does not establish its truth. At best, it can only be a confirmatory sign. Ultimately, one’s assessment of Christianity stands or falls on what one thinks of the character of Jesus, as revealed in the Gospels (which are admittedly imperfect records, but which can tell us quite a lot about Jesus’ personality, mission and teachings). There are, of course, aspects of Jesus’ life which appear problematic: his apparent belief that the end was nigh, not to mention the Gadarene swine and fig tree episodes (although these are most likely either stories or embellishments). From my own perspective, there are a number of unique aspects of Jesus’ ethical teachings which, when combined with the force of his personality in the Gospels, impress me a great deal. Looking at his life and works, and the fruits of his movement, I conclude that if there was an individual in whom God incarnated Himself, Jesus would have to be our best historical candidate. (Buddha was also a worthy individual, but made no claims about himself or about God.) And on top of that, people seemed to have believed from the get-go that Jesus had actually risen from the dead. One could easily dismiss this claim as poorly evidenced, and I probably would myself, if it was made about anyone else in history. But Jesus is not just anybody else. Cheers.