The Evidence for the Resurrection in a Court of Law

OK, so why don’t we always do this?

Someone’s accused of murder. DNA evidence and security camera footage clearly put him at the scene of the crime.

His defense: A “supernatural” being assumed his bodily form and committed the crime.

So do we now call in a series of expert witnesses from philosophy and theology to argue whether this could have happened? And if they are not able to reach agreement (and good defense attorney should have no problem finding an expert to support his position), then should the accused then be found not guilty on the basis of reasonable doubt? He’d have to be, if we are to take Loke’s position seriously. After all, if it is not reasonable to accept “supernatural” explanations in this situation, then why is it reasonable in the one he is discussing?

The fact is that there are myriad, countless claims of supernatural events. And that does not even include the claims that, while not strictly supernatural, are nonetheless rightly dismissed out of hand by serious people, such as alien abductions and Bigfoot sightings. It is only when certain religious claims are involved that suddenly the “supernatural” becomes something that should be given serious consideration, at least according to a small cadre of people within the scholarly community.

This is just special pleading, aided and abetted by religious privilege. Nothing more.


Your latest example doesn’t even resemble the argument about the resurrection. It’s an exceedingly poor comparison. If there’s DNA evidence and security camera footage, then the odds are high that he actually committed the crime - a naturalistic hypothesis. Similarly, if we had security camera footage that the disciples stole the body from the tomb, that would dramatically increase the odds of that naturalistic hypothesis.

Secondly, I observe that we’ve now switched from “does this exist in scholarly publications and textbooks” to “how would we decide this in a court of law in 21st century Canada/America”. As I said before, you are changing the standards of evidence to whatever is convenient for you.

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That evidence is equally consistent with a supernatural being assuming the bodily form of the accused.

Remember, this is a criminal trial. One needs to demonstrate that the accused committed the crime “beyond a reasonable doubt”. It does not matter that it is more likely that he actually committed the crime. If it is reasonable to consider supernatural causes, then there must be reasonable doubt in this case.

OTOH, if supernatural causation is an unreasonable explanation, then Loke’s argument requires that we accept unreasonable explanations. Which, obviously, is not reasonable to do.

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It resembles very closely the point I raised on an earlier thread which was that, if we walk away from Methodological Naturalism, all probabilities, supernatural or natural become incalculable. Or to put it into less mathematical terms: outside MN, anything goes.

This means that the moment you walk away from MN, then all the assumptions, inferences and conclusions that you drew within MN immediately become invalid. We cannot ascertain that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians did not contain a magic spell compelling belief. We cannot ascertain that Loki didn’t send the apostles visions of a resurrected Jesus (simply because that’s the sort of thing a Trickster God might do).

Without MN, all the methods and conclusions of the fields of Science and History go out the window.

So you quite simply cannot justify a supernatural event (one that violates MN) by using the findings of any field that MN underlies.


Yup. Couldn’t have said it better myself. Or, maybe I could have, but I didn’t.


And, by the way, sign me up for the Loki hypothesis. Though I did sit next to Hiddleston on a BA flight once and he looked much less threatening than in the films…perhaps that’s that godly capacity for deceptiveness, though.

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Hi @Tim,

Without MN, all the methods and conclusions of the fields of Science and History go out the window.

I have to respectfully disagree. I hope you will not object if I quote from an online article by theoretical physicist and outspoken atheist Sean Carroll, titled, Is Dark Matter Supernatural? (Discover magazine, November 2, 2010):

Let’s imagine that there really were some sort of miraculous component to existence, some influence that directly affected the world we observe without being subject to rigid laws of behavior. How would science deal with that?

The right way to answer this question is to ask how actual scientists would deal with that, rather than decide ahead of time what is and is not “science” and then apply this definition to some new phenomenon. If life on Earth included regular visits from angels, or miraculous cures as the result of prayer, scientists would certainly try to understand it using the best ideas they could come up with. To be sure, their initial ideas would involve perfectly “natural” explanations of the traditional scientific type. And if the examples of purported supernatural activity were sufficiently rare and poorly documented (as they are in the real world), the scientists would provisionally conclude that there was insufficient reason to abandon the laws of nature. What we think of as lawful, “natural” explanations are certainly simpler — they involve fewer metaphysical categories, and better-behaved ones at that — and correspondingly preferred, all things being equal, to supernatural ones.

But that doesn’t mean that the evidence could never, in principle, be sufficient to overcome this preference. Theory choice in science is typically a matter of competing comprehensive pictures, not dealing with phenomena on a case-by-case basis. There is a presumption in favor of simple explanation; but there is also a presumption in favor of fitting the data. In the real world, there is data favoring the claim that Jesus rose from the dead: it takes the form of the written descriptions in the New Testament. Most scientists judge that this data is simply unreliable or mistaken, because it’s easier to imagine that non-eyewitness-testimony in two-thousand-year-old documents is inaccurate that to imagine that there was a dramatic violation of the laws of physics and biology. But if this kind of thing happened all the time, the situation would be dramatically different; the burden on the “unreliable data” explanation would become harder and harder to bear, until the preference would be in favor of a theory where people really did rise from the dead.

There is a perfectly good question of whether science could ever conclude that the best explanation was one that involved fundamentally lawless behavior. The data in favor of such a conclusion would have to be extremely compelling, for the reasons previously stated, but I don’t see why it couldn’t happen.

. . . if the best explanation scientists could come up with for some set of observations necessarily involved a lawless supernatural component, that’s what they would do. There would inevitably be some latter-day curmudgeonly Einstein figure who refused to believe that God ignored the rules of his own game of dice, but the debate would hinge on what provided the best explanation, not a priori claims about what is and is not science.

And here’s New Atheist and evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, in a blog article titled, Shermer and I disagree on the “supernatural” (November 8, 2012) over at Why Evolution Is True:

I don’t see science as committed to methodological naturalism—at least in terms of accepting only natural explanations for natural phenomena . Science is committed to a) finding out what phenomena are real, and b) coming up with the best explanations for those real, natural phenomena. Methodological naturalism is not an a priori commitment, but a strategy that has repeatedly worked in science, and so has been adopted by all working scientists.

As for me, I am committed only to finding out what phenomena really occur, and then making a hypothesis to explain them, whether that hypothesis be “supernatural” or not. In principle we could demonstrate ESP or telekinesis, both of which violate the laws of physics, and my conclusion would be, for the former, “some people can read the thoughts of others at a distance, though I don’t know how that is done.” If only Christian prayers were answered, and Jesus appeared doing miracles left and right, documented by all kinds of evidence, I would say, “It looks as if some entity that comports with the Christian God is working ‘miracles,’ though I don’t know how she does it.”…

There is not an iota of evidence for The God Hypothesis, but I claim that there could be.

I think those views arise from a different understanding of MN from how, at least, I am using the term here.

As I wrote earlier, I understand MN as being based on the premise that the world can be understood in terms of laws and patterns that can be derived from the observation of what does and does not happen in the world.

When someone arbitrarily and unilaterally declares that this is not going to be applicable to one particular claim he wishes to make, no one is under any obligation to take this position seriously. He’s just making up his own game with his own rules, and demanding that everyone else play.