On the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth after his unjust death stands at the very heart of the Christian faith.


If materialism is true, it goes without saying that the prior plausibility of a corpse coming back to life through random physical processes is extremely small.

However, some atheist apologists go farther than that and argue that even if God existed, the probability of His raising Jesus from the dead would be incredibly low.


Atheistic philosopher Jeffery Jay Lowder (who is a nice, respectful, well-articulated, intelligent and decent man) put it like this:

B3: Approximately 107,702,707,791 humans have ever lived. Approximately half of them have been male.
B4: God, if He exists, has resurrected from the dead at most only one person (Jesus).

B3 and B4 are significant because they summarize the relevant evidence about God’s tendency to resurrect people from the dead (assuming God exists). They show why the resurrection has a low prior probability even for theists. Once we take B3 and B4 into account, the prior probability of the resurrection is less than or equal to 5.0 x 10-12. In symbols, Pr(R | B1 & B3 & B4) <= 5.0 x 10-12.


I shall reformulate his argument in a simpler way while emphasising a most problematic hidden assumption.

  1. From the 100 000 000 humans who have ever lived under the sun, none has been resurrected by God’s mighty hands.
  2. Consequently, the probability that a human being chosen at random gets raised from the dead is less than 10-11.

3. God would be as interested in resurrecting Jesus as he would be in resurrecting a random human being.

4. Hence the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection is less than 10-11.

Although premise 1) might be begging the question against claims of miracles, I shall accept it as true.

Premise 2) is totally uncontroversial. So what truly stands in the way of the conclusion is premise 3).

Why on earth should we assume that Jesus was only a random human being to God? This probability seems unknown to me unless one makes assumptions about the divine Being, i.e. one engages in theology.

(The are good articles written by professional philosopher of science John Norton explaining why epistemic ignorance cannot be represented by a probability distribution [1], [2], [3])

Lowder seems to be aware of this. A (godless) commenter wrote:

“Your estimate of 5.0 x 10-12. assumes that Jesus is a typical human. But if not, if B1A: Jesus is the second person of the Trinity is true, P(B2) becomes much higher, possibly of order 1. In that case the relevant unknown is P(B1A | B1). While that may be small, I doubt if it’s anywhere near as small as 5.0 x 10-12.”

His response was:

“There are not any reliable statistics for the reference class of men who are the second person of the Trinity. Thus, the reference class that must be used is the broadest one for which we have reliable statistics, viz., men.”

But this is clearly begging the question.

  • Why should we  assume that Jesus was a random human being to God?
  • Because this is the only way we can approximately calculate the prior probability of his resurrection.
  • And why should we assume that this value approximates anything if we don’t know whether or not he was just an ordinary man to God?

So I think that unbelievers cannot argue from ignorance here. They should instead give us positive grounds for thinking that Jesus wasn’t special to God.


Thematic list of ALL posts on this blog (regularly updated)

My other blog on Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP)

4 thoughts on “On the prior probability of Jesus’ resurrection

  1. Theology is not science. It is not antiscientific, but it is ascientific.

    A seminary friend, more conservative than I, asked me an honest question. “Do you believe in the resurrection?” I gave him an honest answer. “I do not know whether God raised Jesus from the dead. But I choose to live as if God did.”

    You preface your article with words concerning the unjust death of Jesus. Very important. The death of Jesus stands as THE unjust death of all human history. If God is God of justice, God could not let that stand. Thus God raised Jesus from the dead.

    How and in what form? I still do not know. But I choose to live in my feeble caricature of a Follower of the Way as though God indeed raised Jesus from the dead.

    And that is a promise to all who have died unjust deaths. Including Joselina (sp.?) in the desert in Arizona. And all her brothers and sisters.

    • Hi Charles, thanks for your profound comment!

      Actually, I think it is clear that nobody can know that Jesus rose or didn’t rise from the dead as this is a singular historical event based on a limited number of witnesses.

      But there are decent grounds for believing that Jesus was an exceptionally good man, that he was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, that some female followers found an empty grave and that many disciples had visions of him.

      While this cannot give us a factual knowledge that Jesus was resurrected, it certainly provides us with reasons to hope the miracle occurred, if we are otherwise open to the existence of God and of an immaterial realm.

      In an older blog post, I went into the nature of beliefs and evidence and argued that we cannot show that we (plausibly) don’t live in some computer simulation having started 10 minutes ago without begging the question.

      Thus every human being has to “choose” to live his life as though the world were real even if it cannot ultimately be justified.

      As such, I think that the Christian hope is certainly justifiable.

      Of course, I also believe that hoping in other worldviews might be justifiable to people having a different background and different experiences.

  2. The picture of Jesus addressing a crowd cleared up a point of confusion that I have had. Since Jesus was allegedly born of a virgin with XX chromosomes, then Jesus could not have had XY chromosomes, That is because his mother would have no Y chromosomes to give him. Thus Jesus must have been female. I assumed that since Jesus is always referred to as a male in the Bible that he must have been a female transgender person — a biological female who identified himself as male.

    But your picture show Jesus as wearing a skirt, so he seems to have presented himself as female.

    Now my only problem is accounting for his beard.

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