Odds on the Resurrection of Jesus: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1

There are quite a few academic and quasi-academic studies in which statistical analysis seems to be employed as a substitute for thinking. It is, perhaps, fairly understandable why some people are tempted by the allure of numbers. Those mysteriously complex formulae, mindnumblingly boring statistics and obscure mathematical notations lend a magical aura of scientific objectivity and plausibility to even the most patently absurd claims.

What gets me talking about this at this moment is my dumbfounded reading last night of an article published by Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew, entitled “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” (2009). In this article, the McGrews utilize Bayesian probability in order to argue to the “scientific” conclusion that the probability of the resurrection of Jesus is a “staggering” 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Are you staggered? overwhelmed? swooning? Were you previously skeptical about the Christian claim that Jesus was resurrected, but now you’re feeling pretty silly? Perhaps not.

There is nothing new about these kind of claims. You can find similar claims in populist apologetic works ranging from Robert Anderson’s The Coming Prince to Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands A Verdict. And in every case, the flimsy basis for the odds is covered over by meaningless statistics that are intended only to impress. What is disturbing about the McGrews’ article is that it appears in a volume published by academic publisher, Wiley-Blackwell, and is typical of the approach of those trying to “resurrect” that impossibly inconclusive field known as Natural Theology. While both of the editors of the volume are academics, one, William Lane Craig, is better known for engaging in popular apologetic debates, and the other, J.P. Moreland has recently disclosed that he once “had an encounter with three angels.” This descent of purportedly academic publications and fields to the field of popular apologetics has its counterpart in recent biblical studies publications where the line between the apologetics and scholarship is increasingly hard to draw. Essentially apologetic works such as N.T. (Tom) Wright’s The Resurrection of The Son of God and Joseph (“The Pope”) Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth have been widely received within New Testament studies, a field now dominated by U.S. Southern Baptist Seminaries and Universities – a state of affairs which has meant that even a book as out-of-touch with scholarship as the Pope’s Jesus of Nazareth could be largely uncriticized within the field and in fact championed by scholars in the response volume, The Pope and Jesus of Nazareth: Christ, Scripture and the Church (2009).

The major trick Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew pull when they produce their tremendous, if not entirely fanciful, odds for the resurrection of Jesus is to cover up the substantial issues regarding the resurrection of Jesus in layers of probability formulae. Moreover, by already assuming the accuracy of the Gospel accounts, the paper is as close to circular reasoning as one can get, without being completely circular. The assumptions pragmatically, if not technically a priori, rule out in advance any alternative explanations, because the Bible is assumed to provide the most accurate idea of what really happened: the major implication being that alternatives are already effectively deemed less likely. The whole exercise is deeply and unavoidably farcical. Therefore, as you read the following formulae, bear in mind that what their claim all boils down to is one very old and tired apologetic claim: if we accept the Gospel stories as credible eyewitness accounts (which is itself at best a highly disputed contention), the best explanation of what really happened is exactly what the Gospels claimed to have happened.

First up, here is the McGrews’ statistical formula for, in effect, saying “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

P(F1 & … & Fn|R) / P(F1 & … & Fn|~R) >>1
where P=’probability of'; F=’fact'; and ‘R’ is ‘resurrection’

The McGrews then provide a derived formula for multiple independent facts, which, again, basically says, “Given what the Bible says, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(F1|R)/P(F1|~R) x … x P(Fn|R)/P(Fn|~R)

The McGrews then consider three “facts” (taken from the Bible) in order to apply this formula: the reports of the resurrection by the women who visited Jesus’ empty tomb (“W”); the testimony of the disciples (“D”); and the conversion of Paul (“P”, again). And this provides the following formula, which basically equates to the claim, “Given what the Bible says, especially about those women, disciples, and Paul’s conversion, I reckon the resurrection really happened:”

“P(R|F1 & … & Fn)/P(~R|F1 & … & Fn) = P(R)/P(~R) x P(W|R)/P(W|~R) x P(D|R)/P(D|~R)x P(P|R)/P(P|~R)

For reasons that escape both me and the authors themselves, the probability concerning the women is then assigned odds of 100:1, the disciples each 100:1, and Paul’s conversion 1000:1. As there are 13 “disciples” mentioned in the stories, the McGrews multiply the 100:1 odds for each one of the disciples – even though they all appear in the same story – to get 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000:1. And if you multiply that by the women’s odds (100:1) and the odds from Paul’s conversion (1000:1), you get another five zeroes: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1.

Which is a real scientific way of saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.”

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17 Responses to Odds on the Resurrection of Jesus: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 1

  1. steph says:

    wotz the definition of ‘academic’?
    Be imaginative, creative, artistic, poetic if you like, how divine.

  2. donovanschaefer says:

    Wow. Great piece. I think if anything sort of illuminates the way that thresholds of what counts as acceptable evidence can be manipulated by a burning desire for something to be true, this would be it.

  3. seems like he did a lot of work to try to make his magical thinking sciencey sounding.

    so “A” for effort, but “F” for the wrong conclusion, despite showing the work

  4. Jeremy says:

    “if we accept the Gospel stories as credible eyewitness accounts (which is itself at best a highly disputed contention), the best explanation of what really happened is exactly what the Gospels claimed to have happened.”

    I am not qualified to comment on the math, so i wont. But on the subject of “a priori” assumptions, it would seem from the above quote that you clearly bring them to the table as well. Now all you have to do is establish why your assumptions are better or more reasonaable than anyone elses.

    • satan augustine says:

      Jeremy,
      I’m obviously not the author of this article, but I will attempt to answer your question anyway.

      Simply put, the resurrection stories in the bible do not agree with one another. Not one agrees with another. To take just one of the McGrew’s “facts” – the women at the tomb: none of the gospels agrees on who was at he tomb, what they saw, what they did or said, whether the stone was gone before they arrived, after they arrived, or as they were watching. Of course the gospels don’t agree with each other on many of the “facts.”

      Another important factor to consider is the complete lack of any extra-biblical, historical mention of Jesus from the time he supposedly lived.

      • Silas says:

        yes Satan I agree with your post…there is no proof of jesus only myth. People need to read the many books out there but the ones that are the most informative is:
        “The Jesus Mystery: was the Original Jesus a Pagan God” deals with the NT
        “The Laughing Jesus” deals with the OT

        Both of these books are very well research…it is not information that is pulled out the authors ass but is true research.

  5. Madeleine says:

    Seriously Deane read this.

    BTW Tim has replied to you on my blog.

  6. Boz says:

    P(P|R)/P(P|~R) = 99.9%

    Now, what they are saying here, in laymans terms, is that:

    For every 1001 times that ANY person in the world says: “I had a vision of a deity”, on average:

    1000 of these 1001 instances will involve an actual deity.
    1 of these 1001 instances will not involve a deity.

    That is retarded.

  7. I was under the impression that the odds were a mere 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 to one. Now I’ll have to re-read the Gospel of Mark and rethink my life.

  8. Jon Jermey says:

    I know it’s annoying, but seriously, this kind of stuff is a good sign. It shows that all the sensible people are giving up on Christianity, and they have literally nobody left who can put together (or appreciate) even a halfway plausible argument.

    When you want to concentrate worms in a pile of dirt you form it into a cone, let the worms move to the bottom, then take off the top. Do it often enough and you concentrate all the worms in a small space. That’s what’s happening to Christianity: the moderates are being taken out and only the loonies are left.

  9. I haven’t read the McGrew’s article yet (not this one, anyway), but I am struck by how put out Galbraith is that any scholars believe differently than himself about how the universe operates. If the number given is meant to be a straight computation of the historical odds against the Rez, I agree that’s bogus. But having read an earlier work on the same subject by the McGrews, and noting some suspicious comments here, I suspect Galbraith is not being entirely forthright in how he represents their argument. But let’s see . . .

  10. My mistake, I HAD read the article, and frankly, Galbraith is not telling the truth. Far from saying, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it,” the McGrews spend much of the article ARGUING HISTORICALLY for the general trustworthiness (not divine inspiration) of the Gospel records. They give a number of arguments for all the points Galbraith claims they gloss over — he’s the one doing the glossing. They do NOT ignore alternative arguments. In fact, compared to the McGrew’s article, this one is petulant, unprofessional, and frankly less than honest.

    I take a very different approach to supporting the general reliability of the Gospels in my Why the Jesus Seminar can’t find Jesus, and Grandma Marshall Could. I can’t vouch for the McGrew’s numbers — they seem way too high to me, too. But Galbraith grossly misrepresents their argument, and ought to be ashamed of his hatchet job.

    For those interested, also see “Does Confucius Prove Jesus?” and “Discovered! The DNA of Jesus!” http://christthetao.blogspot.com/2011_03_01_archive.html

  11. Pingback: Guest Post: Tim McGrew defends “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” | MandM

  12. downtown dave says:

    Circular reasoning is no longer necessary. http://atheistlegitimacy.blogspot.com/

  13. David says:
    “McGrews spend much of the article ARGUING HISTORICALLY for the general trustworthiness (not divine inspiration) of the Gospel records. ”

    It would be interesting to see Deane go over this some. It does seem important, but I have more faith than David that Deane is more than qualified to justify his skepticism.

  14. Andyman409 says:

    100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 – According to Stephen Hawking, thats more than the amount of particles in the universe that we can observe!

  15. Andyman409 says:

    David Marshall: Correct me if I’m wrong… doesn’t this line practically answer your question?

    “Therefore, as you read the following formulae, bear in mind that what their claim all boils down to is one very old and tired apologetic claim: if we accept the Gospel stories as credible eyewitness accounts (which is itself at best a highly disputed contention), the best explanation of what really happened is exactly what the Gospels claimed to have happened.”

    I think this line summarizes why we dont buy this line of arguementation. Quite frankly, the whole thing depends on Markan priority being wrong- and that is a historical claim that seems implausible by what I’ve read. There- do I really need to elaborate on this any further?

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