This month, I will be recording a radio debate with skeptic Jonathan MS Pearce, author of several books including The Nativity — A Critical Examination; The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story; Why I Am Atheist and Not a Theist; and Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument. The topic of our dialogue will be “Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?”, a topic about which I have written previously. In this essay, I review Pearce’s book on the resurrection.  The first chapter of the book makes the case, rightly in my view, that the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection is a high stakes issue. If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then, as the apostle Paul put it, “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” (1 Cor 15:17). Without the resurrection, there is no Christianity. On the other hand, if Jesus has in fact been raised from the dead (Pearce does not make this point), then that is a very compelling piece of evidence that Christianity is indeed true, since the hypothesis of Jesus’ resurrection becomes much more probable on the supposition that Christianity is true. Both sides, then, have a high stake in this debate.
Probabilities and Extraordinary Claims
In chapter 4, Pearce offers a defense of the popular slogan, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, a slogan first coined by the late astronomer and popular science communicator Carl Sagan (though the idea itself goes back to the famed Scottish philosopher David Hume). To illustrate this idea, Pearce asks us to consider the following claims (p. 40):
“Claim 1: I have a dog.
Nothing more than verbal testimony needed.
Claim 2: I have a dog which is in the bath.
As above, with one eyebrow raised.
Claim 3: I have a dog in the bath wearing a dress.
I would probably need a photo of this to believe you.
Claim 4: I have a dress-wearing dog in the bath with a skunk wearing a SCUBA outfit.
I would need some video evidence at the least.
Claim 5: I have the above in the bath, but the bathwater is boiling and the animals are happy.
I would need video and independent attestation that the video was not doctored agreeing that this is what appeared to be happening.
Claim 6: All of the above, but the dog has a fire-breathing dragon on its shoulder and the skunk is dancing with a live unicorn.
Well, I’ll be damned, I’ll need video, plus video of the video, plus independent attestation from multiple recognizably reliable sources, and assessment and evaluation by technological experts and biological experts, plus a psychological evaluation of the claimant, and so on.”
Unfortunately, Pearce fails to justify his criterion of what counts as acceptable evidence. Why would a photograph not be sufficient evidence to justify claim 4, whereas it was sufficient to justify claim 3? These are not qualitatively distinct claims. Thus, in principle, there is no reason to demand a different sort of evidence. Pearce appears to be assigning the sort of evidence required to justify these propositions arbitrarily and subjectively. Before any discussion about miracles can proceed, there need to be clear standards of evidence which are relevant to the sort of claims being made. One cannot simply gerrymander the standards of evidence to conveniently fit either their faith or their skepticism. This critical point seems to have escaped Pearce.
Nonetheless, Pearce does make a valid point that, in general, each successive claim requires more evidence to justify belief than the one prior. The background information informs what is, in Bayesian terms, called the prior probability – that is, the probability of a proposition being true prior to our evaluation of the evidence in question, based only on the background information. For example, our background knowledge informs us that boiling water has a tendency to cause severe tissue damage to animals, denaturing their enzymes. Thus, the prior probability is extremely low that animals that are sitting in a bath of boiling water are happy. This claim will therefore require more evidence to justify believing it than the same assertion without the boiling temperature. On this, there is no disagreement between myself and Pearce. However, Pearce goes on to argue that (p. 40),
“If we then make a claim that is about as unlikely as can possibly be, that a man-God dies and is resurrected (or performs any of his miracles), then these claims are of events that defy the laws of nature as we know them. This is, almost by definition, the most improbable set of claims. As a result, they should demand the highest level of evidence, especially when not witnessed first-hand.”
How did Pearce come to conclude that miraculous divine intervention is “about as unlikely as can possibly be”? This is simply asserted without argument. Pearce does contend that “these claims are of events that defy the laws of nature as we know them.” However, the physical laws only describe how nature behaves when left to itself – not what happens when nature is not left to itself (as is the claim with the hypothesis that God has worked miracles). Nobody is asserting that the resurrection of Jesus was a highly improbable anomaly that violated the second law of thermodynamics. Rather, the claim is that God intervened in nature to miraculously raise Jesus from the dead. Furthermore, the concept of miracles in both the Old and New Testaments is that they were to function as authenticating signs, serving as evidence confirming the special divine appointment of a messenger. In the Old Testament, the Hebrews were to evaluate whether a prophetic claimant spoke from God by his accuracy in forecasting the future (Deut 18:21-22). In the New Testament, miraculous signs were used to confirm the Messianic and divine identity of Jesus (Mt 11:2-6; Jn 2:18-22; 20:30-31; Acts 17:31) and the credentials of the apostles (Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:12). But, for miracles to function in this way, and grab our attention, they need to stand out against a regular natural order. In other words, it is necessary that they deviate from the normal course of nature. If the hypothesis that God has used miraculous signs to authenticate his prophetic messengers strongly predicts that these hypothesized miraculous occurrences will stand out against the way nature normally behaves, the observation that they do in fact stand out against the ordinary course of nature cannot be taken as evidence against them. Deviation from the physical regularities, therefore, is hardly a useful consideration in determining the prior probability of a miraculous occurrence such as the resurrection.
Furthermore, Pearce’s statement that “these claims are of events that defy the laws of nature as we know them” is quite ambiguous. What does it mean to defy a law of nature? If we take laws of nature to be descriptions of natural regularities, then it is not clear that something like a miracle defies them. Miracles differ from natural regularities and, therefore, natural laws do not describe them. But there are plenty of events which natural laws do not describe. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at the battle of Waterloo cannot be described by the laws of nature because it is not a natural regularity. Does the battle of Waterloo also defy the laws of nature simply because it cannot be described by them? If not, then, by the same token, neither does a miracle.
Evidence of Modern Miracles
A further problem with Pearce’s argument is that there is in fact strong testimonial evidence, which must inform our background knowledge, that (though not normative) God continues to act in miraculous ways in the world, even today. While not all testimonies reflect actual miracles, there are certainly, in my assessment, enough credible reports to make a robust cumulative case for special divine action in the world up to the present day. Testimonies to modern miracles also vary in kind, which makes it significantly less likely that what is perceived to be a miracle is explicable by some physical process that has hitherto gone undetected (since no single physical process could plausibly explain all of the many types of miraculous events that are being attested to). I am not talking here about testimonies of healing that are easy to explain by some kind of sensory illusion or sleight of hand, or that plausibly would have gotten better anyway. I am talking about cases that seem to defy naturalistic explanation. Dr. Craig Keener has compiled a two-volume set on claims of such miraculous occurrences.  To take one example, he discusses a friend of his, Leo Bawa, the former director of research at Capro, a prominent Nigerian missions movement. One intriguing miracle (of several) that he told Dr. Keener about is that “among some tribes in Adamawa and Taraba State, I had instances where no interpreter was available and the Lord gave me understanding and ability to speak the people’s languages, a feat I never performed before or since after that incident.”  Keener notes that “Other accounts of this phenomenon exist, though many of these are secondhand”.  In a footnote, Dr. Keener elaborates, “I have direct accounts in which others recognized the languages from Dr. Derek Morphew (Nov. 12, 2007); Pastor David Workman (Nov. 12, 2007); Pastor David Workman (April 30, 2008); Dr. Medine Moussounga Keener (Aug. 12, 2009, secondhand about Pastor Daniel Ndoundou); my student Leah Macinskas-Le (April 25, 2010, regarding her Jewish mother becoming a believer in Jesus because she understood the Hebrew prayer of an uneducated pastor’s prayer in tongues); Del Tarr, personal correspondence, Sept. 30, 2010 (noting three cases he has witnessed, including a recent one involving Korean; cf. also Oct. 5, 6, 2010).” 
I have heard about this sort of phenomenon from others as well, and it does not seem to be the type of thing that could be explained naturalistically. I trust Dr. Keener and I presume that he trusts his sources since these are personal contacts of his (the fact that the phenomenon is multiply attested helps as well). So, it seems unlikely in these cases that Keener’s sources are all lying to him, and these also seem to be phenomena about which it would be quite hard to be honestly wrong. Now, one might object at this point that in this case the testimony is coming from someone whom they do not know personally. With public figures such as Dr. Craig Keener, though, one can, to a certain degree, evaluate whether this is someone who is likely to make stuff up. Dr. Michael Brown (another public figure and Biblical scholar) has also told me (on public record) about similar events to those described above, both that he was a witness to and testimonies of friends of his (including one individual, who was a cessationist and therefore not predisposed already to believe in miraculous events, who reported the incident to Dr. Brown in shock). The fact that this sort of occurrence is multiply attested by different credible sources leads me to think that something miraculous is indeed going on here. I chose this particular category of miracle claim as an illustrative example since this is one type of phenomenon that seems to defy naturalistic explanation and also seems to be something that it would be very difficult to be honestly wrong about having witnessed.
Another class of modern miracle claims is the healing of blindness. Craig Keener notes, “In the modern period, I have come across claims of perhaps four hundred healings of blindness through prayer, the majority of them from sources that I trust (some of them from eyewitnesses I personally interviewed or know personally), and these can be regarded as merely a representative sample. Certainly a vastly larger number of blind persons are not healed, but the healings of blindness nevertheless remain significant. Some of these healings have included medical documentation of organic problems, including, as noted earlier, scarring of the eye tissue, which disappeared during the healing. In some cases of healings from blindness, the eyewitness reporters have observed eyes white from cataracts immediately change as the cataracts have disappeared. As noted earlier, cataracts can normally be removed medically only by surgery.”  Many such examples of the blind being instantaneously healed in answer to prayer are documented in chapter twelve of Keener’s book on miracles.
A further category of miracle is healing of multiple sclerosis. Keener notes that “Robert Larmer, professor and chair of the department of philosophy at the University of New Brunswick, generously shared with me some interviews that he conducted with persons who had experienced unusual recoveries. One case involves Irene MacDonald of Fredericton, New Brunswick, who had been experiencing rapid deterioration from clearly diagnosed multiple sclerosis. A specialist warned her that her condition was terminal and that she would soon die. Soon bedridden, she needed spinal injections for pain every ten days. As the decline continued, however, one Friday afternoon a friend assured Irene that God was saying that he was going to heal her soon. Given all that she had been through, Irene was understandably skeptical of such an encouragement by this point. Nevertheless, a dream and increased strength encouraged her, and Sunday she asked to be carried into church. During prayer for her there, feeling suddenly returned to her arm and legs. Instantly she had full ‘control of her body and fully regained muscular strength.’ Although she had long been confined to bed, she walked from the church and returned to all her pre-illness activities. That was more than a quarter of a century ago, and none of the symptoms have ever returned. Dr. Larmer not only interviewed Irene but also knows well many of those who witnessed the original healing.” 
In an interview with Lee Strobel, recorded in The Case for Miracles, Keener also mentions another case of a healing from multiple sclerosis – that of Barbara Snyder, who was diagnosed with progressive multiple sclerosis. According to Keener, “I’ve confirmed the facts with two physicians who treated her. There are numerous independent witnesses to her condition and years of medical records. In fact, two of her doctors were so astounded by her case that they’ve written about it in books.”  Barbara’s condition continued to worsen and her diagnosis was confirmed through various diagnostic tests, including spinal taps. In the sixteen years that followed, “her condition continued to deteriorate. She spent months in hospitals often for pneumonia after being unable to breathe. One [half of her] diaphragm was paralyzed, rendering a lung nonfunctional; the other lung operated at less than 50 percent. A tracheostomy tube was inserted into her neck, with oxygen pumped from canisters in her garage. She lost control of her urination and bowels; a catheter was inserted into her bladder, and an ileostomy was performed, with a bag attached for her bodily waste. She went legally blind, unable to read and only capable of seeing objects as gray shadows. A feeding tube was inserted into her stomach. ‘Her abdomen was swollen grotesquely because the muscles of her intestine did not work,’ Adolph said, ‘She now needed continuous oxygen, and her muscles and joints were becoming contracted and deformed because she could not move or exercise them,’ Marshall said. ‘Mayo [Clinic] was her last hope, but they had no recommendations to help stop this progressive wasting disease except to pray for a miracle.’” 
Strobel further explains that “By 1981, she hadn’t been able to walk for seven years. She was confined to bed, her body twisted like a pretzel into a fetal position. Her hands were permanently flexed to the point that her fingers nearly touched her wrists. Her feet were locked in a downward position. Marshall explained to her fairly that it was just a matter of time before she would die. They agreed not to do any heroics, including CPR or further hospitalization, tot keep her alive; this would only prolong the inevitable. Barbara entered hospice care in her home, with a life expectancy of less than six months.”  A caller informed a radio station of the Moody Bible Institute about Barbara’s story, and a requet was made for listeners to pray for her. Consequently, Barbara’s church received some 450 letters from Christians indicating that they were praying for Barbara. In 1981, on Pentecost Sunday, Barbara’s aunt was reading to Barbara some of the letters they had received, offering prayers for her healing, joined by two other friends. Barbara reportedly heard a male voice speak from behind her – “My child, get up and walk!” According to Marshall, “Barb felt compelled to do immediately what she was divinely instructed, so she literally jumped out of bed and removed her oxygen. She was standing on legs that had not supported her for years. Her vision was back, and she was no longer short of breath, even without her oxygen. Her contractions were gone, and she could move her feet and hands freely.”  That same evening, there was a worship gathering at Wheaton Wesleyan Church, where her illness was widely known. When the pastor asked whether there were any announcements, Barbara walked forward, to the astonishment of the congregation. The following day, a chest X-ray confirmed that “her lungs were already ‘perfectly normal,’ with the collapsed lung completely expanded. ‘The intestine that had been vented to the abdominal wall was reconnected normally,’ Adolph said, ‘She was eventually restored to complete health.’”  In more than thirty-five years, Barbara’s illness has not recurred. A compelling interview with Barbara, conducted by Lee Strobel, can be found here (the whole video is also worth checking out for further examples of well documented modern miracles).
Of course, one can dismiss these miraculous claims out of hand on the grounds that they go against the uniformity of human experience. However, these claims (and this is just the peak of the ice berg) call into question whether human experience is in fact uniform. Thus, one cannot dismiss them on these grounds without engaging in circular reasoning.
There is still a further problem with Pearce’s argument. While it is certainly true that the prior probability of any given person being miraculously raised from the dead, even supposing that God exists, is vanishingly small, it does not necessarily follow that the prior probability in Jesus’ case is equivalently low. If one can show, by appeal to independent evidence, that God plausibly has motivation for raising Jesus of Nazareth specifically from the dead, this is positively relevant to the prior probability. The idea that Israel’s Messiah would be raised from the dead traces its roots to the Hebrew Bible. In Isaiah 53:10, we read, “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” Of course, Jesus himself also stated that his resurrection from the dead would be God’s vindication of his divine and Messianic self-claims (Lk 11:29-30; Jn 2:18-22). Therefore, if there is evidence, independent of that bearing on the resurrection, to suggest the truth of Jesus’ radical self-claims, this would provide reason to believe that God may have motivation for raising Jesus particularly from the dead. I believe there is merit to C.S. Lewis’ famous Trilemma argument – either Jesus was and is who he claimed to be (Israel’s Messiah and God incarnate) or else he was a deceiver or delusional. That Jesus was a deceiver seems unlikely, since Jesus was willing to suffer a humiliating and excruciating death by crucifixion on account of his radical self-claims. This provides compelling evidence that Jesus was at least sincere. On the other hand, it is very difficult to be sincerely mistaken about the fact that one is God incarnate, the creator of the Universe, unless one is insane. But one does not at all get the impression from reading the gospel history that Jesus was insane. Rather, Jesus is composed and collected, intelligent, and rhetorically skilled. Having thus reduced the plausibility of Jesus being a deceiver or delusional concerning his radical self-claims, the probability of Jesus’ self-claims being true are significantly increased (even if insufficiently to justify belief without bringing in other considerations). In turn, this raises the prior probability of Jesus being raised from the dead.
Another line of evidence that bears on the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection is the phenomenon of what I call Messianic convergence. That is, instances in the gospel accounts where an episode in Jesus’ life intersects in some striking way with the Old Testament Scriptures but which also enjoys strong historical support. This is best explained by giving examples, so I will give a few here. The evidence is compelling that Jesus died on the Day of Passover, the 15th of Nisan. I won’t get into the details here of how we know the gospels are historically reliable on this detail, since I only wish to illustrate the principle. Given the theological theme in the New Testament of Jesus being the fulfillment of the Passover lamb (e.g. 1 Cor 5:7), this is quite striking. This is not by any means a conclusive proof that Christianity is true, but that striking correspondence does seem to be somewhat more probable on the hypothesis that Christianity is true than on the falsehood of that hypothesis, and may therefore be counted as evidence (not proof) that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. This argument may be developed as a cumulative case. Another example is the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy of Micah 5:2. I realize that this proposition is controversial. However, I will not argue the case (which I think can be made strongly) for Jesus being born in Bethlehem in this article. Here, I only intend to show how in principle such evidences can be relevant to the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection. Another example is the fact that Christianity became the dominant international religion that it became. The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would be the light to the gentiles, that God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the world (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6). Jesus Himself, during His ministry, said, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come,” (Mt 24:14). This entails that it is quite probable that, on the hypothesis that Jesus really is the Messiah, Christianity would bring people of all nations to a recognition of the God of Israel. However, this seems to be really quite improbable on the falsehood of that hypothesis. Until 313 A.D. (when the Edict of Milan, under the Emperor Constantine, guaranteed religious freedom and made Christianity legal), Christians endured intense persecution under multiple Roman Emperors. Under the circumstances, the odds of Christianity prevailing and becoming an international religion seemed vanishingly small, and yet it did. Again, then, we have a significantly top-heavy likelihood ratio where Christianity’s spread across the world is much, much more expected on the hypothesis of its truth than on its falsehood. I have only offered three examples, and there are many more that I could provide. Cumulatively, I would argue, this sort of evidence leads one to think that God may plausibly have motivation for raising Jesus of Nazareth specifically from the dead as God’s vindication of Jesus’ claims, message, and teaching.
Pearce further writes (p. 41),
“What is the prior probability of a god-figure being resurrected after dying, and of dead saints rising and parading around a city? Well, since no Christian, let alone skeptic believes any previous similar examples in those categories, then the probability of such a new claim being true, before evidence is evaluated, is exceptionally small indeed.”
As stated above, I do not believe that frequency of occurrence is the only, or even the best, way to assess the prior probability of special divine action in the case of Jesus’ resurrection. To illustrate why, philosopher Dr. Timothy McGrew has given the following example from the physical sciences. According to one proposed theory in nuclear physics, spontaneous proton decay occurs, though it is such a rare event that no instances have ever been observed. In order to test this theory, scientists set up sensitive detectors in underground water tanks and leave them there for decades in order to determine whether spontaneous proton decay in fact occurs. By Pearce’s metric, this would be judged to be an extraordinary claim. But the mere fact that the great many protons so far observed have not decayed does not entail we should always, in accounting for the data, prefer alternative explanations to the hypothesis that spontaneous proton decay has taken place. But if we are permitted to conclude, on the basis of sufficient evidence, that something unprecedented has happened in the physical sciences, then should we not also be able to do the same thing in a religious context? Furthermore, the rarity or unprecedented nature of an event should not be the only, or even the primary means by which we assess the prior probability of said event. As in the case of spontaneous proton decay, there may be theoretical considerations that inform our background knowledge and therefore increase the event’s prior probability. The hypothesis of spontaneous proton decay, despite its having never been observed, is not a wild guess, but rather has a theoretical underpinning. Likewise with the resurrection, the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, even before consideration of the direct evidence, is not some wild guess without any relevant background considerations. Rather, it is made plausible by other background considerations, as enumerated above.
There is also an additional problem with asserting that an event is “extraordinary” because it is unprecedented, and that is that any event can be defined with sufficient specificity to meet that criterion. For example, consider Joe’s marriage to Sally. Joe being married to someone with the specific traits and characteristics of Sally is enormously improbable — especially when one considers the numerous other couples who had to meet, and the specific sperm cells that had to meet specific egg cells, all the way back to the dawn of humanity, in order for Joe and Sally to both be living at the same time. And yet Joe would be able to offer sufficient evidence that he is in fact married to Sally – adequate evidence to overcome a low prior probability. Is the fact that Joe married Sally an extraordinary event? Well, it depends on what you mean by “extraordinary.” The point I am trying to make here is that you cannot simply define an extraordinary event as an occurrence that is highly improbable or unique (i.e. that it is something that lies outside of what normally happens), since that takes us into the realm where we can show that lots of events are very improbable or unique, if they are defined with enough specificity. Instead, the argument here is going to need to be more sophisticated. So, let me try to steel man the atheist’s argument and formalize why we tend to treat the resurrection differently from how we would treat the case of Joe marrying Sally.
Why, then, do we treat a miracle claim, like “Jesus rose from the dead”, differently from how we might treat a more mundane claim, like “Joe married Sally”? Clearly, it is not that the former is more improbable than the latter, or that the former is a very unique or an unprecedented event, since mundane claims, like “Joe married Sally”, can be defined with enough specificity to make them highly improbable, unique and unprecedented events as well. Obviously, the very same problem would be encountered if Joe had married any other woman, and so this consideration may be ‘cancelled out’. This is equally true of a lottery. The lottery being won by any given individual is extremely improbable. But since this is equally true of all participants in the lottery, we can ‘cancel’ that consideration. On the other hand, suppose that someone wins the lottery who happens to be the spouse or son or a close friend of the lottery commissioner. In that case, we get more suspicious because that can be thought of as more probable on an alternative hypothesis than that of chance coincidence. Notice here that we do not get suspicious simply because something extremely improbable has happened — because this individual winning the lottery is no more improbable than any other individual selected at random winning it. Rather, we get suspicious because we consider that this particular individual winning the lottery is more expected (more probable) if something suspicious has happened than it is on the hypothesis of chance.
This is a good parallel for how the skeptic thinks about a miracle report such as the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead. Just like the hypothesis of fraud picks out the lottery example for special suspicion, so in this case, the skeptic argues, the hypothesis of hallucination or deceit picks out the resurrection reports for special suspicion. But note that this is not based on a purely inductive approach that argues that the event of the resurrection or of the suspicious lottery win is improbable by itself (because of the problem I raised above). Instead, the argument ought to be something to the effect that in the past we have found such claims to be more explicable by way of alternative hypotheses, so most likely this one is too. This then moves us into a discussion of alternative explanations of the evidence under consideration and whether those explanations are reasonable.
The Argument from Silence
Pearce goes on to assert that (p. 43),
“Not only do we not have video evidence of the Resurrection claims, but we have no independent attestation. One would expect this given that supposedly five hundred plus people at one time (according to only one source) witnessed a risen god and yet there is absolute silence. Where one would expect to have evidence and voice, if we do not have it, then this absence of evidence is evidence of absence. Sometimes Christians claim that this does not follow, that there is usually the idea and claim that because you don’t have some evidence for something happening it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. But as you will see here, this is not always the case.”
When one calibrates one’s expectations by inspection of other ancient literature, it quickly becomes apparent that the argument from silence is particularly weak. Indeed, there are plenty of other events – even hugely significant ones – that are recorded in only single sources that we nonetheless have good reason to believe happened. To take just one example, Josephus and Philo both omit to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius, an event that is documented by the second-century historian Suetonius (Life of Claudius 25.4) and by one first century source, as it happens Acts 18:2 from the New Testament. Another example is the destruction of Pompeii and Herculanaeum in the eruption of the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, in A.D. 79, which is written of in no surviving first century source — even though Pliny the Younger gives a detailed account of the eruption itself (his uncle Pliny the Elder was in fact killed in this eruption). We even only have one first century source (Josephus) who mentions the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 under Titus. A myriad of additional examples could be offered.  Quite aside from this consideration, much of what was written in the first century has been lost. Thus, even if one of the five hundred did write concerning Jesus’ resurrection (which itself is not obvious – bear in mind that many people at this time were not literate), we would not be particularly expected to still possess his work.
Furthermore, it is entirely arbitrary for Pearce to pick “one of the five hundred.” Presumably those five hundred included the apostles John and Matthew. Matthew even tells about a meeting in Galilee which may have been the meeting with the five hundred (Mt 28:16-20). Why should one of the five hundred in particular have written an account? Even if he was literate, why not give instead a verbal account to one of the evangelists? It is not as though people were writing brief blog posts of individual events. We do have accounts, with names, of people like Cleopas and Mary Magdalene, included in the Gospels. And we have a fairly detailed account of a group appearance in Luke 24 to quite a number of people—the eleven, Cleopas and his companion, and an undefined number of other people who were with them. But Pearce dismisses these. Thus, what would be any more helpful or special about a person other than one of the apostles who was one of the five hundred, such that he would not dismiss that?
Is Christian Epistemology Circular?
On page 44-45, Pearce asserts,
“If you ask the Christian, ‘why do you know that the Resurrection accounts are true?’ they will likely reply, ‘Because I have faith (in Jesus).’ Faith, in any meaningful sense, is belief absent evidence, and oftentimes merely hope. The Christian Bible states clearly, ‘Now faith (πίστις) is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it, the people of old received their commendation’ (Hebrews 11:1-2). This becomes apparent when we ask, ‘Why do you have faith in Jesus’, and they likely reply, ‘Because of the Gospels and the New Testament.’ But that is not evidential because it defers to the faith position. The faith in Christianity comes predominantly from the New Testament, and faith that the New Testament is true comes from faith in Christianity, qua Jesus. Here we have circular reasoning.”
This would indeed be a circular argument, though I am not aware of any thoughtful Christian who reasons in this way. I am sure that one could find lay-level Christians who reason this way, but a book attempting to respond to Christian arguments should engage with the best arguments, not those at the bottom of the barrel that anyone with rudimentary training in logic would immediately recognize as fallacious.
Pearce contends that “Faith, in any meaningful sense, is belief absent evidence, and oftentimes merely hope.” This, however, is not the Biblical concept of faith. Rather, Biblical faith is a trust that is exercised in God in response to the evidence. As such, the degree of faith that one places in a proposition should always be apportioned to the available evidence. For example, I might say that I have tremendous faith in an airplane because of the inductive evidence that commercial air travel is extremely safe. As I have shown previously, the Bible repeatedly (in both the Old and New Testaments) encourages us to be able to justify our faith by appeal to public evidence.
Though Pearce attempts to support his view of the concept of faith by appeal to Hebrews 11:1, he misrepresents what the text is saying. As can be seen from an examination of the context of this verse, the author is in fact arguing that faith involves trusting God with his as-yet unrealized (that is, unseen) promises in view of the evidence of his past faithfulness – in much the same way that a man, on his wedding day, has faith that his bride will perform her wedding vows, not because he has already seen her do so (it has not happened yet), but rather in view of her past faithfulness.
Pearce continues (p. 45),
“Perhaps the Christian can draw on personal revelatory experiences. However, an Amazonian tribesman will never have a revelatory vision or appearance or some kind of experience that will point to Christianity if he has never heard of or come across Christianity. Religious experiences of Christians concerning Christianity come about precisely because they already have knowledge of the Bible, of the New Testament. In other words, Christian religious experiences supervene on (depend upon) knowledge of the Bible. These experiences do not truly break the problem of circularity, but actually feed into that circle.”
One wonders how Jonathan Pearce knows that Amazonian tribesmen, who have not hitherto encountered the gospel, have never had a revelatory vision or some sort of experience that confirms Christianity. How did he go about confirming this? This is simply asserted without any sort of justification.
Pearce further remarks (p. 46),
“The theist already believes in a world (background knowledge) where resurrections and general supernaturalism are possible (and perhaps even expected – though the question is where they derive this from). With this background knowledge, the probabilities of the resurrection claims are massively adjusted upwards. They already believe in a world where there is a god, God, and where this god has been in human form, Jesus.” But these are the very claims we are trying to evaluate. The existence of God as Jesus and resurrections are what we are analysing in the formula, so you can’t presuppose the truth of the Resurrection by already having the Resurrection or resurrections in your background knowledge.”
No, this is not circular reasoning. The Christian appeal to the public evidence ought to be acceptable to the person who, although not persuaded of God’s existence, allows that it is at least possible (that is, to say, assigns it a non-zero prior probability). Provided that it is possible that God exists, one must remain open to the possibility of miracles. The fact that I already believe in God is just irrelevant to the specific evidence being used in support of a miracle claim since one can accept this evidence without a prior theistic commitment. Indeed, it is entirely possible for the probability of the negation of the resurrection hypothesis together with the evidence to be lower than the prior of the resurrection hypothesis (even though the resurrection would be a miracle) due to the need to cobble together multiple theories to account for the variety of evidence for the resurrection. Thus, it is paramount that the specific evidence for the resurrection hypothesis be considered.
Even appealing to other theological considerations when assessing the prior does not engage in circular reasoning provided that one possesses (as I contend that we do, and have argued above) independent grounds for thinking that God exists and that he may have special interest in raising Jesus of Nazareth specifically from the dead.
In conclusion, the slogan that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” is true in the trivial sense that claims with a low prior probability require more evidence to justify believing them, but is untrue in the sense that most skeptics of Christianity intend the slogan to be taken – that the resurrection is an extraordinary event by virtue of its being unprecedented or immensely improbable to occur by means of natural law. Since the resurrection is intended, in Christian theology, to function as an authenticating sign, it is highly predicted that Jesus’ resurrection will deviate from the normal course of nature. That the resurrection does, in fact, deviate from the normal course of nature should not be taken as a cause for concern. Situating the resurrection within its religio-historical context, taking into account independent evidence for Christianity as background data, allows one to assign a prior that is significantly higher than many skeptics, including Jonathan Pearce, would suppose.
 Jonathan MS Pearce, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story (Onus Books: 2021).
 Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).
 Ibid., 328.
 Ibid., 1769.
 Ibid., 748-749.
 Ibid., 730–731.
 Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018), 101-102.
 Ibid., 102-103.
 Ibid., 103.
 Ibid., 104.
 Timothy McGrew, “The Argument from Silence”, Acta Analytica 29, 215-228 (October 2013).