Daniel Ang: A Scientist Looks at the Resurrection

It is my pleasure to present this confession from Daniel Ang, a doctoral student in physics at Harvard. Daniel has been a part of Peaceful Science since we met this last summer. I was pleased to see him at Urbana Mission conference in December again. Then, he attended the second workshop on The Genealogical Adam, along with A. J. Roberts, Ann Gauger, and William Lane Craig. Recently, his work determining the shape of an electron was in the news, after it was published in Nature. Spoiler alert: the electron is very very very…very round.

As a scientist, my daily work consists of encountering God through the empirical investigation of his creation. I work on an experiment in which lasers are used to detect tiny shifts in the energy structure of a specially chosen molecule, from which we can measure the shape of an electron orbiting the molecule. Whether the electron is perfectly round or not may hold the secret to understanding how all the matter in the universe is put together.

Because of how small any imperfection in the electron’s shape is predicted to be, we must perform our measurement extremely carefully. We comb our experimental apparatus for even the tiniest imperfections, as even the smallest flaw might fool us into thinking the electron to be round when it is not, or vice versa. No stone is left unturned and no hypothesis is left unquestioned as we seek to understand every single way in which the experiment can go wrong. Such is the standard operating procedure in this quirky, ambitious, neurotic sub-field of physics called precision measurement.

How Can a Scientist be a Christian?

Besides being a scientist, I am also a Christian. I believe in a personal God who loves us and desires to have a relationship with us. I believe that he has revealed Himself most supremely through the person and works of Jesus Christ, who was born 2000 years ago, carried out a ministry in Judea where he claimed to be the Son of God, was crucified, and is believed by Christians to be resurrected from the dead after two nights in a tomb. I believe these things actually happened – not metaphorically or subjectively, but as objectively and literally as any other event we thought happened in ancient history.

At this point the skeptic may ask: How can I, a scientist, believe in such grandiose, incredible, apparently unscientific claims? How can someone who works with quantum mechanics, molecules, and lasers also believe in the truth of a 2,000-year-old religion and having a personal relationship with a spiritual being?

For me, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the litmus test for the truthfulness of Christianity. If Jesus genuinely died and rose again, it makes it extremely likely that he was who he claimed to be: the physical incarnation of the Son of God (Matthew 16:16). If it did not happen, then Christianity would be a false religion. A scientist (or any rational person for that matter) would have no reason to believe it to be true.

Clearly, the resurrection of Jesus is unique, even within the context of many other claimed miracles about Jesus. Indeed, it is foundational to the Christian faith. From the days of the early church, it was central to the gospel message they preached: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and appeared to many of his disciples (1 Corinthians 15:3-6, see also Acts 2:22-32). On the other hand, if Jesus had died and stayed dead like any other human being, then as Paul says, Christians are most to be pitied of all people, for their faith would be based on a lie (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Three Key Facts

When asked to believe in something, scientists often ask questions about evidence. There certainly is evidence for the Resurrection, which can be summarized around three historical claims: 1) Jesus was crucified and died, 2) his body was buried in a tomb that was found empty a few days later, and 3) his disciples experienced encounters with who they believed to be the newly resurrected body. I will show that these three claims, backed by historical evidence and scholarly consensus, together constitute a compelling case for the Resurrection.

The first claim is the least controversial. Almost no historian disputes that Jesus lived in the first century AD, carried out a ministry for a few years and was crucified to death by the Romans. Even a skeptical scholar such as Bart Ehrman argues vigorously for the historical veracity of these basic facts, based on both Christian and non-Christian sources.[1]

The second claim is Jesus’ burial and the empty tomb. Skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman dispute this, arguing that it is more likely that Jesus’ body was left to rot for a few days, then buried in a common pit for criminals.[2] However, Ehrman’s views do not represent a widespread consensus. More comprehensive examinations of Roman crucifixion and Jewish burial practices by specialist scholars show us that the gospel account of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea is historically credible.[3] Similarly, there are strong arguments to support the claim that the tomb was found empty a few days later.[4] A commonly cited reason is that the gospel accounts are rendered more credible by their agreement that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. More recently, John Granger Cook has argued that based on linguistic, historical, and cultural reasons, it is unlikely Paul mentions a burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3-7 ) without presupposing an empty tomb.[5]

The third claim is that in the weeks after his death, his disciples claimed to have encountered the risen Jesus. The majority of scholars in the field concur that these visual experiences did occur.[6] More than mere visual apparitions, the accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are also replete with tactile details (e.g. Matthew 28:9, Luke 24:30, 40, John 20:22, 27). Additionally, only a limited number of Jesus’ disciples claimed to have witnessed the risen Jesus, as we see in the ancient creed of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.[7] Thus, the claimed post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are distinct from incidences of mass psychological hysteria commonly encountered in other religious contexts.[8]

Thus, we have good historical reasons to believe the following claims:

  1. Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. (Near-certain)
  2. Jesus was buried in a tomb which was found empty a few days after. (Highly probable)
  3. Over the few weeks after and in multiple instances, several of Jesus’ disciples encountered a person they believed to be the risen Jesus. (Near-certain)

What theory can best explain these three facts? Skeptics have proposed a wide array of non-supernatural explanations.[9] For example, it could be that some disciples of Jesus stole the body (Matthew 28:15), the disciples were experiencing mass group hallucinations, they went to the wrong tomb, or even that Jesus survived his crucifixion somehow. A combination of these alternative theories could be coincidentally true at the same time, resulting in the improbable but not impossible illusion that Jesus was resurrected.

However, once one removes the requirement that some non-supernatural explanation must be true, it seems clear to me that the theory that Jesus rose from the dead is a much more plausible explanation than any of the other ones.[10] One cannot dismiss this as a “god of the gaps” explanation. The resurrection hypothesis is limited and straightforward: it simply says that somehow, Jesus experienced a resurrection which restored his body completely, such that afterwards, he was able to be seen, heard, and touched by the disciples on several occasions.

Now, some might have independent reasons for assuming that supernatural explanations are a priori improbable. More specifically, a scientist might feel specially compelled to disbelieve the claim of supernatural occurrences. After all, one of the narratives of scientific progress is that things which we thought to be supernatural before turned out to have mundane scientific explanations. Isn’t it more judicious for careful scientists to be agnostic and assume that a better, non-supernatural explanation can someday be found?

With these objections in mind, there is potential wriggle room for some rational skepticism, but we shouldn’t overstate this wriggle room. Firstly, science cannot disprove the Resurrection, as we no longer have empirical access to the body of Jesus or any other relevant physical evidence. Secondly, the Resurrection is a one-time phenomenon that does not conform to the regularity and repeatable pattern of most events studied by science. Science is agnostic about such events. Thus, if one wants to remain skeptical, one cannot say that science compels them to do so.

The Personal Evidence

As we have just discussed, there is strong evidence that Jesus’ resurrection happened. However, this evidence is not definitive. Alternate explanations are available. As a scientist, I understand why someone might see this and still walk away in unbelief. In my opinion, historical evidence gives us a rational foundation to trust in Jesus, but it is not enough. This is unsurprising, as the gospels themselves were not originally written for the purpose of proving skeptics wrong. Rather, they were “…written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name ” (John 20:31, ESV). If Jesus is real, then He calls us to eternal life, not rational insight.

My own faith in Jesus works like this. It is informed by the evidence, but it is much more than that. After examining the evidence, at some point I chose to suspend any remaining doubts and see what would happen if I acted as if it was all real. A cynical skeptic might comment that I am merely imagining things. But to me, Jesus’ call is unrelenting, and the historical evidence gives me further rational reasons not to ignore it. And Jesus certainly does not want me to know him like I know cold, dispassionate facts about molecules or electrons. Instead, he wants me to know him as a living, personal, loving God. He challenges me to stop treating him like a philosophical proposition and surrender all to him, the God-man who showed through his resurrection that he has achieved victory over death. He gives us reason to hope that one day, all of us, too, will be resurrected as he was, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (1 Corinthians 15:52, ESV).

So I choose to believe. In doing so, I join in the confession of millions of Christians throughout time and space who also chose to follow Christ and let him change their hearts, minds, and way of life. The more I choose to surrender my life to Jesus, the more I grow in my relationship and trust in him. Far from undermining my scientific work, my faith gives it a purpose, meaning, and ultimate foundation. It is a foundation that I hope every person reading these words will share at some point.

[1] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

[2] Bart Ehrman, Why Romans Crucified People.

[3] See Craig Evans, The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practices and John Granger Cook, “Crucifixion and Burial”, New Testament Studies 57:2 (2011). Besides the fact that the burial by Joseph of Arimathea is consistent with Roman and Jewish laws, we also have archaeological evidence of the remains of a crucified person who was given a proper burial.

[4] The aforementioned Habermas article explains that 75% of scholars discussing the empty tomb accept arguments for its historicity. While this is not unanimous consensus, NT scholar Jonathan Bernier explains in his blogpost Consensus and Quackery that such majority-but-not-unanimous support is also the case for commonly cited statements about the Gospels such as Markan priority. In short, there are few unanimous claims in NT studies, and having 75% expert agreement on a historical claim should not be an insignificant factor for a non-scholar deciding how likely it is.

[5] John Granger Cook, “Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15”, New Testament Studies 63:1 (2017).

[6] Gary Habermas, “Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), pp. 135-153.

[7] Tim and Lydia McGrew point out that after the detailed, tactile appearances described in the gospel stopped abruptly; even the appearance to Paul (Acts 9:3-7) is of a distinctively different, more glorified quality. See McGrew and McGrew, “The argument from miracles: a cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” in Craig & Moreland (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

[8] Jake O’Connell gives a thorough and novel argument that the collective appearances of the post-resurrected Jesus are substantially different even compared to more recent reported collective religious visions (e.g. Marian apparitions). See O’Connell, “Jesus’ resurrection and collective hallucinations”, Tyndale Bulletin 60(1):69-105.

[9] Andrew Loke exhaustively categorizes the possible hypotheses in Loke, “The resurrection of the Son of God: a reduction of the naturalistic alternatives”, Journal of Theological Studies 60 (2009): 570-584.

[10] Thorough comparisons of competing explanatory power of the different proposed theories can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. If I were forced to take a naturalistic position, to me the most plausible theory would obviously be mass hallucination, which is also dealt with in detail by the O’Connell paper cited above.

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Notable Replies

  1. @swamidass and @John_Harshman , it can go both ways, actually. (Tim and Lydia Mcgrew make this point in their article that @dga471 references. )

    Independent reasons for believing in God raise the prior probability for the resurrection, and the historical evidence for the resurrection also raises the posterior probability that God exists.

  2. How many of these people were publicly executed (evidence), and buried because everyone had given up on them (evidence)? How many of them were seen by the devote opposition of Sai Baba after rising from the dead, and convincing this opposition that they had risen from the dead (evidence)? When did Sai Baba himself die and rise again (evidence)? What happened after he died (evidence)?

    What do the “cultural controls” tell us (evidence)? What do people in Sai Baba’s Indian context do when they try and demonstrate they are a religious leader (evidence)? How does that compare with the Messiah figures of 1st Century Palestine (evidence)?

    In those questions you will see why you are comparing apples to oranges here. The similarity is only superficial.

    THere is far more than stories.

    The Resurrection of Jesus is, believe it or not, better supported.

    I understand you have your apologetic arguments. I’m not sure what the purpose is here though. I’m willing to explain why I trust in Jesus. You don’t have to agree with it. If you want to understand, it is understandable. No one is forcing you to agree with us.

  3. Avatar for dga471 dga471 says:

    Hi Vincent,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Your objection basically boils down to, how can one decide the priors for Jesus’ resurrection? You rightly point out that arguing for a high prior is complicated and involves subjective elements. The subjectivity of priors points to what I’ve said before: that a naive Bayesian model fails to accurately capture how we actually reason. Both atheists and Christian apologists use Bayes’ theorem to attempt to support their case, and in most instances I have encountered, the resulting odds always end up being hugely in favor of one stance over another. For example, the McGrews calculate the odds of R vs. non-R to be in excess of 10^40!

    Such drastic results, besides discrediting the reliability and repeatability of Bayesian probability estimation, also fly in the face of day-to-day reality of reasoning, where people have major disagreements in topics from politics to religion to economics to New Testament studies, and we often come away unable to decide definitively which viewpoint is right. There often seem to be smart and reasonable arguments on both sides of a debate. Yet I’ve never come across someone running Bayesian calculations of all of these stances and churning out reasonable probabilities which are between 1 to 99%. It always curiously seems to be the case that one’s preferred conclusion has >0.99 probability while the alternatives are a meagerly <0.01. Nobody has ever been convinced in a debate by Bayesian calculations; one simply disputes the subjective priors, which we are doing here, as we did last time. So, it’s clear that Bayesian calculation is not the way we actually reason; it also seems clear that it’s not the way we should reason.

    Instead, I think it is more accurate to say that humans reason dynamically and constantly, such that the Bayesian priors of an event happening are constantly updated. As each of the naturalistic theories to explain E are examined and found to be ad hoc, contrived, or wanting in some other way, we increase the prior for R. As we examine the rest of Jesus’ life, his teachings, the history of the church, and other aspects of the Christian worldview, we increase or decrease the prior likelihood of R accordingly. It is hard to write out this process mathematically - we would effectively be trying to model the human brain. So it’s hard to assess how “rational” a person is when undergoing this process. It is more practical to just analyze the different hypotheses using a set of pre-determined, neutral explanatory criteria, similar to what Licona and Craig have done.

    Your second objection is regarding whether we have reliable evidence that the disciples experienced the same thing with regards to the postmortem appearances of Jesus. Your observation here

    is pertinent - @Andrew_Loke in his exhaustive reduction of the naturalistic alternatives to E (it is a pretty neat paper - and downloadable for free), observes that if one establishes the historical credibility of Luke 24:36-43 (which claims that the disciples touched Jesus’ hands and feet and saw him eating), all of the viable naturalistic theories are rendered implausible.

    Just to bring it back to the source, here is the passage (ESV translation):

    As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.

    As a layman, I don’t claim to have expertise in deciding what criteria should be applied in order to determine whether this passage is reliable. Still, I note that many historians claim Luke is the most historically detailed, accurate and well-written of all the gospels. Secondly, I don’t think it necessary for an event has to be attested in all four gospels (or other sources) in order for it to be historically credible, as that would be applying a “hermeneutic of suspicion” to the gospels that we seem to not apply to other historical sources. At least for layman observers, the main reason for doubting the reliability and accuracy of this passage (and other post-resurrection passages) seems to be precisely because it claims to talk about the post-resurrected Jesus - which in this context would be begging the question. Which is why I wrote in my piece: if you are predisposed against any sort of the supernatural in historical accounts, then you will not be convinced by my case. And I accept that.

  4. Avatar for dga471 dga471 says:

    A prescient observation. The embarrassing reality is that the gospels agree pretty well that most of Jesus’ disciples fled and denied Him during His crucifixion. They were only prepared to die for Him after seeing Him resurrected.

  5. Avatar for dga471 dga471 says:

    Yep. Which is why often these discussion break down to what you consider “rational” basic beliefs. Often in my discussions with atheists, it all goes down to whether you intuit if there is a need for an external explanation for the existence of the universe. If you are determined to take it as a brute fact, then no amount of discussion about the cosmological argument will convince you.

  6. Here’s an exposition of it.

    Physical fragments are far from the only evidence for the dating of an ancient text. Good thing, too: there’s much longer gaps between the time of the events and the earliest manuscripts for most of our textual information about the ancient world.

    Ah, the old “ancient people are gullible” argument. I actually don’t think there’s any good indication people in 1st century Palestine were any more gullible than people in our “scientific, modern” society. Nor is there any evidence for a “stage trick” or similar explanation for the Resurrection.

    Extraordinary evidence can look ordinary if you dismiss the details out of hand.

  7. I’m baffled as to why you think that being tied to the cross rather than nailed would somehow help the situation. The flogging alone was enough to insure severe blood loss and the quick onset of serious dehydration and infections. The body weight being suspended from the arms was meant to produce exhaustion and slow asphyxiation. That doesn’t require nails.

    Especially in mass crucifixions (such as those following slave revolts), the Romans “economized” and didn’t bother with nails. Rope was cheap and just as effective for attaching the condemned to a cross.

    Your “staged crucifixion” scenario has surprised me. And as to Islamic commentators, there are at least three major views among them as to Jesus’ crucifixion. However, considering that the Quran was written many centuries after the event and reflected Mohammed’s limited information about Isa/Jesus and not scholarly investigation, I’m not sure why you are rejecting the conclusions of both secular and Christian historians and bringing up the Islamic scholars instead.

    In any case, Dr. Swamidass is trying to bring this thread back into a tighter focus so I will conclude my comments accordingly.

  8. Avatar for dga471 dga471 says:

    “Evidence is always more convincing from the inside” holds for any worldview or collection of beliefs. Of course we remember that - that’s why I made sure to qualify my argument, several times!

  9. Okay. I don’t think you’ve really managed to show that, if it’s intended as a generalization about all or most religious believers. (And no one really contests that it’s true about some religious believers.)

    But, I should not have let the gullibility thing distract me. Because something else you haven’t shown is that the evidence for the resurrection is poor: you’ve just asserted that it is, and dismissed it.

    It isn’t just religious believers who find the evidence for the resurrection to be quite strong. One example is J. Warner Wallace, who was an atheist before he was convinced by the evidence that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

    And many NT scholars believe that we can conclude that the tomb was empty and the early disciples had experiences leading them to believe that Jesus was raised. But if you think the facts can be explained (in all the details) by some combination of hallucinations or body stealing or death faking conspiracy theories, I suppose that’s your call.

  10. That is a consequential error.

Continue the discussion discourse.peacefulscience.org

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