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How Might a Scientist Think about the Resurrection?

April 14, 2017

IMAGE ABOVE: The Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Mechernich, Germany (near Köln), built 2005–2007 following the plans of the Swiss architect Peter Zumthor. Photograph by Michael Shermer

For the world’s two billion Christians, Easter marks the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion death at the hands of the Romans. It is the resurrection that sets Christians apart from all other religions. In fact, as denoted in 1 Corinthians 15: 13–14: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

Did Jesus die and come back to life? In the parlance of current events, is this a fake news story, an alternative fact invented by the followers of Jesus, or did it really happen?

As a scientist who was once a born-again evangelical Christian I have given this question much thought. Although I am no longer a religious believer, I think there is reasonable evidence that a man named Jesus probably did exist, and that there are good reasons to believe he was crucified by the Romans, which was a common tool of capital punishment at the time, employed against even common thieves, such as the two men crucified on either side of Jesus. Whether or not Jesus “died for our sins” is a pure theological dogma untestable by science, but the matter of his resurrection is open to scrutiny. There are reasons to doubt the claim.

First, Jews and Muslims, along with the world’s other four billion religious people, do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus. This is especially noteworthy in the other Abrahamic religions, given that Jews and Muslims worship the same God. And although the veracity of a truth claim is not determined by majority rule, if there were compelling evidence for this all-important event wouldn’t it at least convince some in a few other religions? That Jewish Rabbis and Muslim Clerics are so well educated and professionally trained in the art of evaluating arguments and evidence speaks volumes to their skepticism of the resurrection.

Second, resurrecting someone back to life who was truly dead would be one of the most unusual events to ever happen in history, given the fact that to date approximately 100 billion people have lived and died before us and not one of them has returned to life. So the resurrection would be a one in a hundred billion event, beyond miraculous by our normal conception of that word. And yet the evidence for it is far less than the most commonplace events of that time, such as Roman wars and conquests.

Third, the scientific principle of proportionality means we should adjust our confidence in a truth claim according to the proportion of evidence for it, and the more extraordinary the claim the more extraordinary the evidence for it must be. The evidence for the assassination of Julius Caesar, for example, is extensive, even though political assassinations have been commonplace throughout history. The resurrection of Jesus is far more extraordinary, and yet proportionally the evidence for it is far less.

Fourth, there are no reliable extra-biblical sources documenting Jesus’s resurrection, which is surely something Roman scribes would have noted, given the extensive written records we have of a wide range of Roman events, from the mundane affairs of daily life to the consequential affairs of political leaders.

Fifth, the biblical sources we have for the resurrection are not dependable. The gospels were written many decades after Jesus’ death, and we know how unreliable human memory is for even recent events, much less those decades in the past. Perhaps the eyewitnesses saw or heard what they wanted or were expecting to see and hear. Such post-death apparitions are not uncommon among people who have lost a loved one. Maybe the story was exaggerated over multiple retellings, which is another commonplace phenomena. Perhaps the gospel authors added miraculous elements to real events in order to make them more divinely inspired and thus to elevate their religious beliefs to a higher status.

Sixth, even the Catholic Church—home to one billion of the world’s two billion Christians—states in its Catechism: “Although the Resurrection was an historical event that could be verified by the sign of the empty tomb and by the reality of the apostles’ encounters with the risen Christ, still it remains at the very heart of the mystery of faith as something that transcends and surpasses history.”

Ultimately, any claim that transcends and surpasses history means that science cannot, even in principle, prove or disprove it. If that is the case, then the resurrection is not a truth claim at all, but an article of faith belonging to one religion among hundreds, and with no means of determining if it is a fact or an alternative fact. In that case skepticism is warranted.

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15 Comments to “How Might a Scientist Think about the Resurrection?”

  1. Christopher Cornwell Says:

    I understand that when death occurs, there is rapid degradation of the physical body. Presumably after three days this would be extensive. Resurrection i.e. bringing back to life, would mean a wholesale reconstruction of the body, including what happens on the quantum level. If this degradation did not occur then he did not die.

  2. David Masterson Says:

    I, too, am not religious, so look at Michael Shermer’s arguments with the skeptical eye of a (semi-) scientist.

    His first argument seems to have the problem that, if a Jewish rabbi or a Muslim cleric accepted the resurrection, then they would no longer be a Jew or a Muslim — they would be Christian.

    His second argument fails in that many great discoveries have been hidden away by the people in power not yet ready to accept the discovery. The discovery that leaps to mind is Galileo who was forced to recant his proof that the Earth is not the center of the Universe.

    The third thru sixth argument all demonstrate that the resurrection is an article of faith more than anything else which I agree with.

  3. Michael Alter Says:

    Hello Michael:

    In agreement with your opinion, there exist several works that raise insightful questions, challenge and/or refute the assertion that Jesus experienced a physical, bodily resurrection. In my opinion, the most substantial text is actually my work The Resurrection: A Critical Inquiry. It includes 120 contradictions and 217 speculations. Please note that a speculation is just that, a speculation. The bibliography is 80 pages in length.

    Additional texts include:

    The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave. Robert M Price & Jeffrey Jay Lowder eds. 2005

    The Resurrection Fantasy: Reinventing Jesus. Gerald Sigal. Xlibris. 2012.

    Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What happened in the Black Box? 2nd edition. Kris Komarnitsky. Stone Arrow Books. 2014.

    The Trouble With the Resurrection From Paul to the Fourth Gospel. Bernard Brandon Scott. Polebridge Press. 2010.

    Resurrecting Jesus: the Earliest Christian Tradition and its Interpretation. Dale C. Allison. T&T Clark. 2005. [Written by a Christian and a professor at a seminary]

    Please note that every book, pro or con has it weaknesses. And, of course, detractors can cherry pick the weaknesses/errors of that respective work.

    In closing, there are numerous arguments that refute Jesus’s purported resurrection.

    Thank you.

  4. Kevin Says:

    And yet, the apostles who had abandoned their faith immediately after Jesus was crucified, came back after witnessing the resurrected Christ. These same people who would have known first hand if this was a hoax, chose to suffer horribly to defend their faith after witnessing the resurrection. I can see people dieing for a cause, but not if they knew firsthand that it wasn’t true.

  5. Daniel Calvert Says:

    It must be said and is surprisingly not addressed here, that at least three gospel texts — Matthew, Luke, and John — make specific effort and sometimes clearly stated intent to provide evidence in the form of researched historical accounts towards a factual understanding of Jesus’ supernatural ministry up to and including the resurrection itself. This is why it has been a popular tactic in Christian apologetics to treat the resurrection in the courtroom drama of eyewitness accounts and historical documentation. What is important for an article like this, is the fact that science and scientists have a place in the courtroom, because forensic science, archaeological evidence, and even carbon-dating have a place there. How might a scientist think about the resurrection is worth a much longer article.

  6. EDWARD D MCDOWELL Says:

    I have a very simple question. Does anyone know the name of the doctor who sined the death certificate?

  7. Thys Human (Pretoria) Says:

    Surely any investigation into the possible resurrection must start with the question: Was he really dead?

    There are a number of books with very plausible arguments and “facts” making a case that Jesus (if then in fact he did exist) spent a very short time on the cross – too short to die so quickly. Deaths on the cross sometimes took days. And unlike his two cross-mates his bones were NOT broken.

    It is also pointed out that the decision by Pilate to allow Joseph of Arimatea to take the body down and put it in a shallow cave, was most unusual in those days. As it is, according to Mark, Pilate found it strange that Jesus had already died and asked the officer in charge whether it was true. Interestingly that same officer is quoted in Mathew that he believed that Jesus was truly the “Son of God”. (Though Luke again says the officer said that “this man was not guilty”)

    And Jesus did not spend three days in that grave but probably only about 36 hours – not more than 40 – from Friday late PM to early Sunday morning.

    The great number of discrepancies between the versions of the four Gospels (including the contradictions in the stories about how the grave was found empty) also indicate that this was a story that was made up long after the event – and made up by different writers or reporters!

    Conclusion: It is all one big “fake news” story! But Christians will go on believing it – because if they don’t their whole belief and religion falls to pieces.

  8. Tim Says:

    It is the resurrection that sets Christians apart from all other religions

    Not really, Muslims and Jews know resurrection too. So do the Zoroastrians. It’s an idea much older than Christianity.

  9. Jaime Says:

    Some arguments in favor:

    1. Resurrection is not usually seen but this does not mean that it is not true. Think about this and you will find many things that are extraordinary but are true.

    2. Holly Shroud is a clear evidence that something really happened.

    3. All universe is full of sense. It seems that an extremely farsighted mind has thought about every detail. If this is the case so might happen also with human life. If death is the last word life has no sense at all which it is against of all what we see beneath creation.

    4. Disciples were very cowards (they run away from the Calvary) and went back home after Jesus died. Suddenly they become the most courageous men and even let themselves being killed in the most violent manner for the name of Jesus. It seems reasonable to think that something very surprising happened.

    5. Intelligence and willingness are spiritual skills that exceeds corporeal dimension of humans (I can think that I think, but I cannot see that I see or I cannot hear that I hear). This faculties are only attachable to human beings and led philosophers to think that spirit has a deeper life than bodies.

    6. All things in life are very complex (even the chair I am using is comprised of billions of atoms that I cannot easily understand…) and hence it does not make sense to think that philosophy or religion is something simple and that it can be dismantled with simple arguments.

    7. Not all things in life can be scientifically demonstrated and that does not mean that they are false. Let´s think, for instance, in love.

  10. Cinthia Says:

    Interesting article. I know it is difficult to believe that Jesus’ body fixed itself and then went back to life, but it would be interesting in the same manner discussing about the love revolution he led and his lessons and then we could understand why it was necessary he came back to life.

  11. Akis Froussios Says:

    The very first comment by Christopher Cornwell speaks my mind. I am a chemist (retired now ) and I cannot accept that smoke can come back down the chimney and reconstruct the piece of wood I just burned. I simply cannot conceive a world where the second law of thermodynamics is negotiable. Therefore it didn’t happen. Not in this world we live in.

  12. Gerry Lavell Says:

    “Maybe the story was exaggerated over multiple retellings, which is another commonplace phenomena” – ‘phenomena’ is plural, it should be ‘phenomenon’.

  13. Tom Morton Says:

    Faith does not require empirical evidence. By it’s very nature it is elevated to a position which cannot be touched. Faith exists on a level which is isolated from matter, time and space.
    Who was there who is here now? And yet you speak as if you hold authority in your hand. What is your point or concern if I should possess faith in the unseen? Will you forever turn like a worm in the soil to disprove the substance of faith?
    Pontius Pilate said ” what is truth” as a rhetorical statement Michael; because ,as you should know, Jesus said (partial John 18:37) “I have come into the world , to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” In that day and time as now, truth is relative and Jesus knew better than to argue with a skeptical politician. Make up your own truth ! Jeffery Dahmer, Hitler, Mussolini, the Jews who insisted upon crucifying Jesus. Spend your skeptical mind somewhere more productive Michael………Like maybe the preposterous notion of evolution. 1 flower would take a billion years to even explain much less “evolve”
    Skeptics skeptic.

  14. Tom Morton Says:

    Michael, you state you were once a “born again evangelical christian”
    As a skeptic, you should naturally be skeptical of this comment.
    This comment infers that you had an inside line and knew God almighty. A transendence took place where faith took the place of lowly science. But what? You thought your way out with your heretofore transformed mind back to a place of physical and scientific dogma? I am skeptical but mostly sad.
    Skeptics skeptic.

  15. anti Says:

    re ” Kevin Says: ”

    do you have any contemporary evidence, est outside the NT, that the so-called apostles existed, and if they did, they were indeed sniveling cowards and only the resurrection transformed them to fearless leaders?

    Acts is not contemporary evidence and evidence independent of the NT.