Friday, February 23, 2007

"Jesus rose from the dead" is an Empirical Claim

The weaker sense of the claim "Jesus rose from the dead" (JRD hereafter) can be clarified in terms of three historical claims:

(1) Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in or near Jerusalem in about 30 CE.
(2) Jesus died on the cross on the same day that he was crucified.
(3) Jesus was alive and walking around within a few days after he was crucified.

If all three of these assumptions are true, then so is JRD, at least on the weak-sense interpretation of that claim. Since these three claims are empirical claims, I conclude that it is possible, at least in theory, to confirm that JRD is true on the basis of empirical evidence.

If one of these assumptions were known to be false, one could reasonably conclude that JRD is also false. This latter inference is not logically necessary; however, since we can imagine scenarios in which one of the three assumptions was false while JRD was true.

For example, suppose that Jesus suffered on the cross for three days then died (instead of hanging on the cross for part of one day, as indicated in the Gospel accounts) and that he came back to life two weeks later (instead of two days later, as indicated in the Gospel accounts). In this case it would be true that Jesus rose from the dead, but at least two of the above assumptions would be false.

However, this scenario is significantly different from what we find in the Gospel accounts. So, if this imaginary scenario were the case, then the Gospel accounts would be unreliable and untrustworthy, at least in terms of some of the key details they present about the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, and about the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus. If the Gospel accounts are unreliable and untrustworthy, then it is difficult to see how we who live in the 21st century could ever have solid reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead. The three assumptions above provide a general summary of the resurrection of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. If one or more of the assumptions is false, then the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, burial, and post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus are unreliable and the case for the resurrection of Jesus collapses.

If a solid case cannot be made for the resurrection of Jesus, then one should reject JRD. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since common experience and scientific medicine agree that a person who dies and stops breathing for two hours or more will stay dead, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, it is reasonable to conclude that this applies in the specific case of Jesus, and thus that the Gospel accounts of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus are in error.

The falsehood of one or more of the above historical assumptions could thus reasonably be taken as disconfirmation of JRD, in view of the fact that JRD is presumptively false on the basis of common experience and scientific medical knowledge. The burden of proof rests upon Christians to provide solid evidence in support of the above three assumptions.

So, it seems to me that JRD could be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical evidence. JRD is a factual, empirical, and historical claim which is subject to evaluation in terms of empirical and historical evidence.