A common talking point in the New Atheist community is the assertion that the resurrection of Jesus contradicts science and thus must be wrong. Yet this argument is seriously misguided, as it depends on a faulty understanding of both science and Christianity.
If you want science to have a say on the resurrection, then you need to a) consider what Christians actually believe and b) show how science can address it through experimentation.
As for a), Christians believe Jesus was God incarnate and that his death/resurrection were a miraculous confirmation of the salvation work that took place on the cross. In other words, the theology clearly makes sense of the resurrection as a one-time event that is a promise for our resurrection at the end of history. Nothing in Christian theology would have us predict God would continually incarnate and resurrect throughout human history.
Once we recognize the theological dimension of the resurrection, it becomes clear that science cannot address the actual Christian belief. For how could you possibly test this one-time divine intervention with an experiment?
If science is going to address a claim, science must be able to formulate that claim as a testable hypothesis. If you want science to pass judgment on the Resurrection, you need some type of scientific analysis to determine whether or not this miracle occurred. You need to formulate the resurrection belief as a testable hypothesis. So what is it? If Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, what do you predict that we should be able to find in the lab or in the field?
Or fill in the blank. If Jesus rose from the dead, then we should be able to detect ___________.
Unless someone can answer this question and fill in that blank, any attempt to argue that science contradicts the Resurrection fails.
No testable hypothesis – no science. No science – no scientific judgment.Perhaps that explains why there are no peer reviewed scientific studies that attempt to determine whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead. That judgment call is not part of Science.
Since Christians have always believed the resurrection a miracle, there is no need for them to formulate a testable hypothesis. They do not claim science has shown the resurrection to be true. It is those who insist science has shown the resurrection to be false who must shoulder the burden of laying out their hypotheses and research results on the table. If they cannot do this, their claim is nothing more than vacuous rhetoric.
At this point, the New Atheist may attempt to sidestep the need to lay out hypotheses and research results and argue something like this:
“Look, the resurrection beleif about Jesus is incompatible with everything we know about biology. Biology teaches us that once an organism dies, it stays dead. The body has systems for maintainence, repair, adaptation, and reproduction, but not for resurrection. If it had such a mechanism, science would know this by now and the resurrection belief would be scientifically plausible. But it does not.”
Okay, but how would science know about this? Science could only have such knowledge if resurrections were repeatable events, common enough to be studied through experiment. That is, afterall, how science knows about the other systems. In other words, in order for science to have evidence of the resurrection, resurrections would need to be a common event.
Yet the resurrection, as a common event, would be incompatible with Christian theology. For Christians do not believe the Resurrection was some divine magic trick designed to impress, but instead was part of a transformative reality – Christians believe Jesus was God incarnate and that his death/resurrection were a miraculous confirmation of the salvation work that took place on the cross. From the point of Christian theology, the Resurrection is not just some historical fact. It is an event that is tied to massive theological and existential implications. So if one is to pass judgment on the Resurrection (a Christian belief), they must make an effort to come to terms with its Christian theology. And Christian theology fully embraces the common experience of people staying dead after they died. It is precisely that which makes the Resurrection stand out.
Yes, it would be easier to believe the Resurrection occurred if we had such scientific evidence. Surely, if Aunt Ethel and Cousin Steve had risen from the dead, it would not be hard to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, right? All true. But it would also mean the Resurrection becomes another piece of historical trivia. The atheist would argue, “Yes, I think Jesus rose from the dead. So what? Aunt Ethel and Cousin Steve also rose from the dead.”
Thus, the atheist position with regard to science and the Resurrection is a game of “heads I win, tails you lose.” We are given two choices: either there is no scientific evidence for resurrections, thus the Christian belief is false, or, there is scientific evidence for resurrections, thus the Christian belief is insignificant. “Not true” or “Trivia” is “heads I win, tails you lose.” And that is the very strategy the closed-minded would design to maintain their denial of the resurrection.