The Minimal Facts Argument of the Resurrection: Applying Occam’s Razor to the Explanations

Introduction

To begin, the amazing thing about Christianity is the claim of Jesus Christ; Matthew 16:21 tells us:

“…Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day.”

Wow. Who makes such claims?! Well, Jesus…Son of God. Ok. Next, I’ll present, with some background info, what is only one argument in defense for Christ’s resurrection.

Scholars use specific methods to determine historical manuscripts for textual reliability, such as how closely oldest manuscripts match later ones (more here on textual criticism). The Gospel accounts contain a wealth of information that biblical scholars actually agree on, regardless of theistic or atheistic belief. So, to say we cannot use any of the Gospels accounts or any other book in the Bible as a source for historical purposes is a fallacy. That’s not to say that I can personally prove events of the Bible. However, some factors used, that can attest to high probability of truth – establishing facts – are historical confluence; independent, early attestation; embarrassment; dissimilarity; semitisms; coherency. I won’t get into details, but more here on these types of qualifiers, according to William Lane Craig.

Habermas uses some facts based on criteria, that we have briefly touched on, to suggest that these specific events (as written below) can indeed be considered factual. Habermas goes on to say that these facts are agreed upon and “almost every religious and philosophical persuasion recognize as being historical.”[1]

Now, let’s discuss only 6 of the many (14 or more) minimal facts about Jesus’ claim to be raised from the dead. The list of minimal facts can be as long or short as wanting, considering the long list of facts that have been established. So, what are the minimal facts that virtually all of said scholars accept? The following list is slightly different from the ones I gave in my first blog, titled “Evaluating Scientific Naturalism and Christianity.” Anyhow, here is the list, given by Gary Habermas, PhD., whose beginnings for the Minimal Facts argument grew from his dissertation topic: “The Resurrection of Jesus: a Rational Inquiry,” at Michigan State University (1976):

Minimal Facts for the Resurrection of Christ

1. Jesus died by crucifixion

2. His disciples believed to have seen a risen Jesus

4. His disciples had a transformation; they were ready to die (and some did) for their beliefs

5. Jesus’ brother, James, became a Christ follower after believing he saw a risen Jesus

6. The Apostle Paul, former Christian persecutor, became a Christian after having an experience attributed to Jesus

The Minimal Facts argument for the resurrection of Christ posits that the best explanation for these events occurring is that Jesus was, in fact, resurrected from death and showed himself to His disciples, along with others.

Let’s attempt to remove that which is least likely, using Occam’s razor. What is Occam’s razor? It’s a philosophical principle that says within a number of hypotheticals, the best explanation is the one with the least assumptions (leads to increased probability). Typically, this has been used in order to refute God as Creator of all things, but here we will see how the resurrection might stand up.

Premise: The disciples preached the gospel of Jesus, many falling unto martyrdom or being willing to as confessors of Christ Jesus.

Hypothetical Explanations

1. Assumptions:

  • They didn’t see Jesus or have any Jesus experience
  • Made up claims about seeing and/or experiencing Christ

Refutation:

  • You may believe that we should assume these 13 people (11 original disciples + James & Paul) lied without motivation, but why would they do so? Considering many ending up martyred or at least were willing to confess Christ as savior – knowingly putting themselves in danger?
  • Think of Watergate: Charles Colson famously described the cover up that didn’t last more than two weeks between 10 members (including himself) of the Nixon era. Not likely at all a lie would stick, especially without worldly motivation – riches, power, etc. – which they clearly didn’t have, though those involved in Watergate did, but with the end result of martyrdom for some of the apostles.

2. Assumptions:

  • They all hallucinated
  • All believed their hallucination enough to preach Jesus

Refutation:

  • Modern psychology does not support this theory at all, nor do most serious skeptics of the resurrection of Jesus (albeit there are a few). If hallucinations occurred, this would assert that each disciple believed in a risen Christ because of the use drugs, dementia, etc. But there is simply no evidence of this nor could the claim of the same hallucination be anywhere near plausible.
  • If they were simply deluded (believed they saw Jesus as product their own “wishful thinking”) then this would even more so contradict why so many touched Jesus and spoke to Him and, as Groothuis states, “…the disciples gave Jesus up for dead and were quite shocked at the first reports of his resurrection (Luke 24:1-11; John 20:24-26).”[2] To simply see Him as a result of hoping would be one thing, but to have His appearance as an unexpected occurrence and preach the gospel of Christ? That is simply another! So, this one is one of the least plausible arguments against the resurrection.

3. Assumptions:

  • They all saw who they thought was Jesus
  • Who they saw was not Jesus

Refutation:

  • This does not make sense considering his wounds (died by crucifixion): nail holes in his hands; wounds in feet; lashes upon his back; pierced in His side. Jesus’ answer to our doubting Apostle Thomas would indeed make sense, as we read in John 20:27:

Then He said to Thomas, ‘Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.

  • Think about how much it would take for you to believe in a person who has risen from the dead; they would have to literally be raised from the dead! Yet, that’s just what these apostles believed…why?

4. Presumption: They each truly saw and/or experienced a risen Jesus.

The word “presumption” is used, and not “assumption,” because this is what the available evidence tells us occurred. Although those that are die-hard naturalists will continue to deny, we simply cannot refute this one in the same way that we have the others. Explanations 1-3 have been refuted simply based on our observations of human nature. This is to say that we have evidence that supports the refutations listed.

Occam’s razor would say to go with the theory that has the least amount of assumptions – if we go with what the disciples said, we are presuming truth in what God’s apostles asserted, yet you could say we are assuming a supernatural event. However, this doesn’t sound so far fetched when we think about claims of the naturalist (and many Christians), of whom many believe in a Big Bang model which created the universe – hardly a natural occurrence! Correct?!

We have to think about those who were there and what they believed they observed. A risen Jesus implies the power of God, which if we cannot give any real positive likelihood for the other possible natural hypothetical arguments, we ought to highly consider. If we cannot disprove God’s existence, then it is entirely possible He exists; Occam’s razor seems to make this all the more probable, ironically, regarding the resurrection of Christ. Considering the context of the argument, this seems more likely than the other alternatives that have been offered, even if we have not witnessed a resurrection ourselves.

If we take a plainly scientific approach, we can’t validate any case for a legitimate 3-day long death, followed by a resurrection. Hence, if he was raised from the dead, there was indeed a supernatural power that was at work. But, if we simply allow only the natural to be considered, not at least considering the supernatural that may exist (the scientific method cannot deny the supernatural, it can merely confirm the natural; also remember the Big Bang model, of which necessitates a supernatural cause), then essentially the argument for or against, based on the scientific method, is unwarranted on grounds that we have no method for testing a supernatural hypothesis (would need to conform to the natural).

What can we do?

Well, we can consider each argument, evaluate the cumulative evidence for each case, and decide for ourselves. Which is what we all have done to some degree, if we consider ourselves theists, atheists, or agnostics (we all believe something). Truly, all we really need to is accept the gospel and repent as He tells us to – He is the revealer of truth.

Let’s end with an anecdote: Two men, both professing Christians, desiring to serve and learn more about God, graduate from university and go on to further their knowledge in subjects with specialties in the resurrection of Christ and the other in New Testament textual criticism. One increases his faith, the other decides that he no longer believes. These two men are William Lane Craig and Bart Erhman. William Lane Craig being a very popular Christian apologist, and noted as one of 50 greatest living philosophers, and Erhman as a notable author on various books regarding New Testament and Jesus studies. The point is, with the same information, we choose to either trust or distrust in Jesus. Which is to say we have faith that he did do as he said he would, or we have faith that he did not.

We have to ask ourselves, where does our faith lie?

In the end, if I personally had never had a transformational experience through Christ, I couldn’t for the life of me profess to be, and remain, a Christian. It is only because of Him that I have become a new creature. No brainwashing, but some “washing of the brain,” as I so heard recently from Pastor Sam just a couple of weeks ago! God reveals Himself when one exercises their willingness to trust in Him and let Him do as He says He will.

Be in Christ.

1 Peter 3:15

“But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”

References

[1] Habermas, Gary R. “The Minimal Facts Approach to the Resurrection of Jesus: The Role of Methodology as a Crucial Component in Establishing Historicity.” In Southeastern Theological Review 3.1 Summer 2012, 15.

[2] Groothuis, Douglas R. Jesus In An Age Of Controversy. Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock Pub., 2002, 278.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑