The Probability of a Past Event is One

asIn recent posts, we’ve been discussing the difficulties inherent in defining and recognizing the miraculous. The skeptic usually approaches the issue with the set presupposition that miracles, however defined, are not possible. What the believer concludes is a miracle is in fact the product of limited knowledge or ignorance. The skeptic’s “god” – science – will someday show how the miracle we assumed occurred was actually no such thing at all.

This is a difficult topic to tackle in the abstract. If a miracle is defined as a departure from the known laws of nature, then it is easy to assert that with enough additional knowledge, we will be able to see that the event in question wasn’t actually a departure after all.

The problem with abstract discussions is that they sometimes cause us to lose focus on the issue at hand. The issue, as it relates to Christianity, is whether a particular miracle occurred. Did Jesus of Nazareth – the historical figure most scholars acknowledge lived and was crucified some two thousand years ago – emerge from his tomb in a resurrected and incorruptible body? Countless believers have staked their lives – their eternities – on the answer to that question.

The skeptic already has his answer: since a dead man always stays dead, it is exceedingly improbable that this account could be true. The “probabilities” favor some naturalistic explanation – he didn’t die, this was a myth, a product of hallucinations, etc. But approaching the issue in this fashion demonstrates an a priori rejection of the evidence that one is supposed to be considering. And relying on probabilities in making the assessment of whether a past event occurred is generally fallacious. A past event either occurred or it didn’t; the probability of a known past event is one.

Consider: if I play the lottery, my chances of selecting the correct sequence of numbers is exceedingly small, on the order of one in many millions. The probability of my winning is extremely low. If my lottery ticket corresponds to the posted lottery results, then I have beat the odds. The event has now moved from one in the future, for which probability assessment applies, to one in the past, for which assessing whether it occurred based on probability makes no sense. Once I see that the numbers match, the argument “this can’t have happened because millions to one shots don’t occur” would be inane.

Yet the skeptic does this all the time. Because resurrections are improbable, we must keep looking for more probable solutions, regardless of what the actual evidence tells us. In fact, many don’t consider the evidence at all, having concluded that improbable results cannot occur. To use the lottery analogy, they never bother to look at the lottery results or their tickets because they are sure that they can never win.

A probability assessment of a past event does have some value. First, it may tell us whether an intelligent agent was at work in causing the result. If I keep winning the lottery, it may mean that someone is tipping me off about the numbers or altering their selection. If life on earth is statistically a one in a trillion-trillion-trillion event, it may be that an intelligent source created it and that it did not arise by naturalistic means. And if a man who claims to be God doesn’t stay dead, it may mean that he is who he said he is. However “unlikely,” if the evidence is adequate to support that the event occurred, dismissing it from our minds as “not possible” is less than rational.

Second, probability assessments may allow us to draw inferences about the way people acted. How probable is it that 500 people all experienced the same hallucination of the risen Jesus? How probable is it that dozens of people who knew the truth insisted on falsely claiming that they had experienced the risen Jesus so that they too could be put to death? Assessments as to probable behavior allow us to evaluate the legitimacy and likelihood of the claimed behavior. But probabilities can’t tell us whether a past event actually occurred. For that we need to evaluate the actual evidence, fairly and completely.

The case for the Resurrection is compelling. Perhaps it is the product of wishful thinking, but my study of the facts tells me otherwise. Because of what is at stake, each of us needs to consider the case on its merits. Enough has been written about it that this can easily be done. What we shouldn’t do is close our minds to the possibility without ever having considered the evidence.

Posted by Al Serrato

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One Comment

  1. Mark says:

    I like what Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (speaking through his character, Sherlock Holmes) said: Once you have eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, HOWEVER IMPROBABLE, is the truth.

    Jesus never existed: impossible
    Jesus never crucified: impossible
    Jesus crucified but never died: impossible
    Tomb not empty: impossible
    Disciples stole the body: impossible
    Authorities moved the body: impossible
    Women, disciples, went to the wrong tomb: impossible
    Impostor appeared to disciples: impossible
    Disciples hallucinated risen Christ: impossible
    Disciples lied for personal gain: impossible

    Conclusion: He is risen, He is risen indeed.

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