Can a Scientist Believe in the Resurrection?
Why the Resurrection of Jesus is the “inference to the best explanation for the available data.”
As a scientist, you are trained to be skeptical about extraordinary claims—and the Resurrection is definitely an extraordinary claim. On what basis do you accept this claim as true?
Jeff Hardin, chair of the department of zoology, University of Wisconsin (BioLogos Board Chair)
First I’d like to make a small correction. Scientists are taught to evaluate data. “Being skeptical” might mean that extraordinary claims need impressive evidence to back them up. That’s reasonable. But if it’s shorthand for “no matter what the evidence, I won’t believe it!”, then this is a disposition based on a prior commitment. While a unique historical event isn’t subject to scientific reproducibility, an open-minded person will find impressive historical evidence consistent with the Resurrection. This includes:
- The reality of Jesus’s life: Virtually all historians believe that Jesus of Nazareth was a real person in 1st Century Palestine;
- The finality of Jesus’s execution: The detailed accounts of the crucifixion ring true based on Roman and Jewish practices of the period, archaeological finds, and human physiology. These attest to the brutality of such executions, which were preceded by a savage flogging, followed by progressive asphyxiation. Jesus really was dead.
- The unaccountability of Jesus’s body: The quickest way to discredit the new Jesus movement would have been to produce physical evidence that Jesus had indeed remained dead. No one did this. This does not show that Jesus rose from the dead, but the stubborn fact of the empty tomb needs to be accounted for. The accounts make it extremely unlikely that the body was stolen, based on Roman practice regarding posted guards at burial sites, etc.
- The inexplicability of Jesus’s followers’ transformation: The first reported sightings of Jesus after his resurrection were by women, a massively counter-cultural detail that is a mark of authenticity. Then there is the incredible transformation of a group of weak, dispirited followers into the courageous core of the new Jesus movement, not to mention those with strong reasons to remain skeptics –Thomas the “doubting” empiricist, Jesus’s half-brother James, who became a leader of the Jerusalem church, and Saul of Tarsus, a one-time ardent persecutor of the new movement. These dramatic transformations are well explained if these people actually encountered the risen Jesus.
Christians have affirmed such evidence—sometimes at the cost of their lives—for almost two millennia. Will such evidence satisfy refractory skeptics? No. But for those who are open, such evidence provides a reasonable basis for belief, so that, as the Gospel of John says, “believing, you may have life in His [Jesus’s] name” (John 20:31).
Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College
In science we face extraordinary claims all the time: for example, that our universe began with a Big Bang, or that anatomically modern humans are a result of a long period of evolution stretching back some 3.8 billion years. Such events are non-reproducible in any kind of experimental manner. So we scientists believe such historical events or processes by a philosophical mode of reasoning known as the ”inference to the best explanation.” The various bits of relevant data only make sense if the purported events actually happened.
History shares with science the inference to the best explanation way of thinking. But a major difference in the case of history is that all historical events, by definition, are unique. However much of a creature of habit you may be, what you personally did last Friday is a non-repeatable non-reproducible event – there will never be another day quite like it with all its many details in place. So history is more like the historical sciences (like geology and evolutionary biology) than it is like the biomedical sciences. History is also like science in that both enterprises are thoroughly committed to the vital importance of evidence.
The claim that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead is firstly a historical claim. The evidence for it having happened is strong. The tomb was empty, despite being guarded by Roman soldiers. The risen Jesus was seen by many different eye-witnesses on different occasions, who touched him and ate a meal with him. This was no ghost. Had the body been stolen, it would have been relatively easy to locate the body, but that never happened. Unlike other great religious leaders in history, today there is no tomb of Jesus to which his followers make pilgrimage.
The early disciples experienced the risen Jesus for themselves and were transformed from a cowardly bunch who ran away at the crucifixion to a group of people who boldly proclaimed his Resurrection, even when threatened with imprisonment by the authorities (Acts 4). Today millions of Christians around the world experience the risen Christ in their lives on a daily basis.
So I myself accept the Resurrection because it is supported by good evidence. It provides the inference to the best explanation for the available data, and although we do not have the same potential data that were available to the early disciples, we can share in the empirical reasoning processes of the early followers of Jesus, such as Paul, as they invoked the possibility of it being otherwise—the implications of it being falsified (as in 1 Corinthians 15:14 and 17). In addition, I have myself experienced the reality of the living Christ in my own life for the past 60 years.
Sarah Bodbyl Roels, research associate/senior scientist specializing in evolutionary biology and education, Michigan State University (member of BioLogos Voices)
The Resurrection is certainly an extraordinary claim. However—although extremely unlikely based on our experience so far—the probability of such an event also cannot be demonstrated to be zero. Regarding the Resurrection of Jesus, no evidence to the contrary—such as an identified body—exists. As a supernatural, one-off, historical phenomena, we cannot expect the Resurrection to be definitively confirmed or denied by any specific scientific test. This does not, however, negate other evidence that supports the plausibility of the Resurrection as a real event embedded within a true gospel story. This evidence includes but is not limited to: records of eyewitness accounts, peculiarities of the Bible compared to other historical or religious texts, and of course personal experience. When considered individually, this evidence is not overwhelmingly compelling but cumulatively converges upon plausibility.
Personally, I choose to believe that not all things worth knowing can be examined through the scientific lens, which makes faith entirely reasonable. The entire gospel story is preposterous; a radical and even offensive story of love that is unlike anything else—and I want to be a part of that story.
Dennis Venema, professor of biology, Trinity Western University (member of BioLogos Voices)
One of the reasons I find the New Testament accounts of the crucifixion and resurrection plausible is that a crucified messiah is absolutely not what the Israelites of the time were hoping and longing for. We’re used to hearing “messiah” as some sort of spiritual term, but it merely means the human ruler anointed by God that the Israelites were expecting to rise up, remove foreign rule, and restore the golden age of the Davidic kingdom. Crucifixion by the Romans was emphatically not part of that picture! It’s not without reason that Paul says that a crucified messiah is “foolishness to Gentiles” and a “stumbling block to Jews.” In the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, we see most of Jesus’s disciples desert him when he is arrested—Peter denies him publically, and he the other men flee. Only the women and John, who is probably too young to be seen as a threat, stay faithful to him, likely not because they see him as messiah any longer, but because of their love for him.
There were other messianic claimants that we know of from around that time period, and several of them met similar fates at the hands of Rome. Predictably, their followers disbanded in defeat at the death of their leader.
What we see in early Christianity, however, is very different from these failed messianic movements. Early on, we see women and men who were disciples of Jesus claiming that he was, in fact, alive again. The apostle Paul, in his letters, references eye-witnesses of a resurrected Jesus—in one case, 500 people who saw him at one time. Paul notes that most of these witnesses were still alive at the time of his writing. We also see the formerly demoralized and disbanded disciples publically and boldly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Savior—political terms that should be reserved for Caesar alone—at great risk to themselves. In other words, they proclaimed that the crucified Jesus was not a failed messiah, but rather the true emperor of the entire world. That’s some serious chutzpah.
None of this makes sense to me unless the disciples genuinely believed that they had seen Jesus in the flesh after his crucifixion. From there, it becomes a choice whether one accepts that their testimony is reliable—reliable enough to name Jesus as the true emperor and give him my allegiance. In my own experience—which I recognize is subjective, and not well suited to scientific investigation—I have found that when I do follow Jesus’s way I am at my best and most fully human.
Loving God, loving others as myself, forgiving those who do me wrong, not returning evil for evil, and so on—these things do not come naturally to me. When I practice these counterintuitive practices, however, I experience such life and joy that I am convinced that they are sourced in a power that is not of this world.
Is belief in the Resurrection unscientific? What would you say to someone who challenges your scientific credentials because you believe that a dead man walked out of the grave?
Gregg Davidson, professor of geology, University of Mississippi (member of BioLogos Voices)
There is a considerable irony in the claim that belief in the Resurrection, or indeed any miracle at all, is unscientific. A good scientist is trained not to draw conclusions that go beyond the available data, or to make pronouncements about a phenomenon for which no objective measurements have been made. The tools of science, being confined within the bounds of time and space, are well equipped for measurements within the natural realm, but are inadequate for measuring or probing phenomena that are not equally constrained. To employ these tools to draw conclusions rejecting the existence or action of God, requires a presuppositional belief that the natural realm is a closed system, and that scientific tools are sufficient to measure all materials, forces, or energy that may act upon or within that system. Adherence to such a position is the antithesis of science, for it goes far beyond the data. It relies on the untested (and untestable) assumption that all that is real is testable by natural means, therefore science can be used to determine that only that which is deemed natural is real. This is dogma, not science.
Kathryn Applegate, Resources Editor, BioLogos (member of BioLogos Voices)
Yes, belief in the Resurrection is unscientific. Or, to be more precise, I don’t accept or reject the Resurrection on the basis of science. I accept it on the basis of eyewitness accounts of historical events, and the interpretation of those events, as recorded in the Bible. Is it a problem that I don’t have a scientific defense of how a person could be raised from the dead? I don’t think so. Each of us believes many things that are not grounded in science. I can’t empirically prove that I exist, or that my husband loves me, or that it is morally wrong to torture animals. I sincerely believe all of these are true statements, though they take faith to affirm. It’s the same with the Resurrection. The claim is reasonable, but it takes faith to affirm.
The Bible reveals a God who created an orderly world, where most things happen in regular ways that don’t violate normal cause and effect relationships. But a God powerful enough to make such an orderly world is not bound by time and natural law. Such a God might, for a good reason—like, say, redeeming a people by his own sacrificial death—choose to operate in extraordinary, highly irregular ways. Those irregularities, what we call miracles, were getting people’s attention long before science became the supposed artibiter of what is possible or not.
Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmund’s College
People knew in first century Palestine as well as we know today that dead people don’t come back to life again. You don’t need to be a scientist to know that. In fact they knew that better than we do, because in the culture of the time it was customary for the family to prepare the dead body for burial. They knew all about dead bodies. Which is just the point.
The philosopher David Hume famously argued that miracles do not happen because certain events invariably happen together and no-one has ever seen them not happening together. For example, death is invariably followed by a dead body rotting in the grave. The problem with that argument, is that this is not how science works. The mere accumulation of further instances that things generally happen in the same way is no guarantee that they will not happen differently in the future under different circumstances and in a different context. One convincing well-attested counter-example, can bring crashing to the ground a scientific theory built, until that moment, on an impressive edifice of “uniform human experience.”
Scientists—of all people—should be open to evidence. The scientist should be both cautious and skeptical concerning miraculous claims, but keep an open mind about such matters and examine the evidence on its own merits, not eliminate it by appeals to prior metaphysical presuppositions. There should be an openness to the way the world actually is, rather than an attitude which already knows the answer before the investigation has even begun.
About the authors
Sarah Bodbyl Roels
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
BONUS | Francis Collins & Phil Vischer
N.T. Wright | The Point of Resurrection
Leslie Wickman | Bring on the Multiverse
Phil Vischer | Being Evangelical