Does Science Prove the Resurrection Was Impossible?
Dead men don’t rise again. No other fact is so clearly established in science. You could quibble and say some people have been resuscitated under intense medical care, but that means nothing for the resurrection story that really counts: Jesus’. Science says he couldn’t have risen after three days, and that’s that. It could be a legend, a myth, or at best the naive mistake of a gullible, pre-scientific people, but it certainly isn’t the true account of a really dead man really rising in victory.
But does science really say that? Before we dive into that question, let’s pause and give these supposedly naive people a break. They knew death better than most of us do. They lived with it, both animal death and human death. They may not have known what we do of decomposition and entropy , but they knew this much as well as we do: No one’s going to rise from death unless it’s a miracle, because dead men don’t live again.
But there’s that naïveté again: They believed in miracles! That’s exactly what science rules out, right? Galileo, Newton, Boyle and thousands since them have proved the world runs by natural law. And natural law tells us in a thousand ways that death is for keeps.
So, game over — the resurrection couldn’t have happened, right?
Science Studies Nature, Right?
Science is surprisingly tricky to define, but everyone agrees its purpose is to study what happens in nature. The natural world is where science is competent; and it is very competent indeed. There’s no doubting how well science works for us in understanding, predicting and controlling our world.
Science has been so incredibly effective in discovering truths about nature, it’s tempting to think it’s the one method for discovering truth, period. We could boil this thought down to two rules: If it isn’t scientific, it isn’t true; or, if you don’t know it scientifically, then you can’t know it, period.
These “Rules” Against Miracles Aren’t Rational
There are three great problems with this, though. First, both of those rules break themselves. There’s no lab test for them, no fieldwork that could possibly discover them; therefore neither of these rules is scientific.
For if the first rule isn’t scientific, taking it as true it leads straight to the conclusion that it isn’t true. And the second rule tells you that even if it were true, you couldn’t know it was true. Both rules do as much good (none!) as saying, “Every sentence in the English language is meaningless.” They’re irrational; they can’t be true unless they’re false!
For that reason we know they really are false, and so is the thinking behind them. There is more to what we know in the world than what we know scientifically.
Science Has Limits
The second problem is that if the supernatural exists, science simply has nothing to say about it. Science is competent dealing with the natural world, and nowhere else, by definition. If there is a God, He’s not the kind of being science can count, compare, measure or (especially!) manipulate or control. Science has limits, and this is one of them.
The God Christians believe in is therefore out of the reach of science. Therefore, if He decided to insert Himself into natural processes and redirect them from their usual course, science would have exactly nothing to say about it.
Science still tells us the world runs according natural law nearly all the time. It tells that if miracles happen at all, they must be exceedingly rare. Fine. But is this news? Did we really need science to tell us that? Has anybody ever said miracles were common? No; they’re exceptional, by definition. Do Christians claim anyone but Jesus has ever risen from the dead — really resurrected, that is, never to die again?
So the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead is simply out of science’s reach. Science literally can’t speak to it one way or the other. The truth about Jesus rising from the dead depends on only one thing: Did He in fact rise from the dead?
We Can Still Know if It’s True
As for knowing whether he rose, that’s not a question for science, either. If competent, trustworthy observers reliably observed Jesus to be dead one day, and if they (or other competent, trustworthy observers) reliably saw him alive days later, that gives us good reason to believe He rose from the dead. That’s all it takes. No lab tests. No video, even.
Now, you have every right to wonder whether we have those trustworthy witnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection. That’s for another day, later this week, though; we’ll come back to it.
For now, though, let’s set aside any thoughtless idea that science says the resurrection couldn’t have happened. That’s just a bad case of someone forgetting what science is good at — and what it isn’t.
Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream, and the author of A Christian Mind: Thoughts on Life and Truth in Jesus Christ. Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.