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.