Post-debate thoughts on Prof Atkins’ arguments

On 27th April 2012, I engaged in a debate with Prof. Peter Atkins, at Christ Church, Oxford. The topic was, “Does God Exist?” Prof. Peter Atkins is the former Professor of Chemistry at Oxford, and has written the seminal textbook on physical chemistry. He was very cordial and polite before and after the debate, and very generous in giving his time – I had a great time at the debate. Of course, I disagree strongly with his arguments, and so offer my thoughts here – I responded to as much as I had time for during the debate, but there were inevitably issues left untouched. Hopefully this will be a more comprehensive review. The debate video is available here.

Arguments for atheism

As blunt as it might sound, I’m still not convinced that Prof. Atkins actually offered an argument for atheism – that is, the proposition that, probably, God does not exist. Indeed, he explicitly noted at the start, “all I can do is to assemble evidence that… leads to the conclusion that God is not necessary for any aspect of the current world, and that there is a far simpler explanation for everything.” Note that it does not follow at all that God does not exist, or that God probably doesn’t exist. So it seems to me that, at most, we are left with agnosticism. As I argued in my opening speech, unless we have an argument for why theism should be improbable, or evidence against theism, we ought to remain agnostic. Nevertheless, Prof. Atkins did offer some arguments to at least some kind of problematic conclusion for theism, so I will address them more comprehensively here.

1. God is complex

Prof. Atkins’ argument here is that “an entity as functionally unbounded as a God must be of extraordinary complexity.” But this seems to me to be little more than an assertion, so I’m not sure what reason we have to accept it. While I would accept that simplicity is an indicator of a priori probability and complexity an indicator of a priori improbability, God simply doesn’t seem to be complex in this way. Prof. Atkins gave no account of what simplicity is: I gave a generally well accepted account. Simplicity consists of positing few entities, few kinds of entities, few properties, few kinds of properties, and so on. This is what Occam’s razor suggests. It has recently been more precisely expressed as fewness of independent adjustable parameters, and there have been some attempts to try and quantify simplicity more rigorously (some have gone for information theory, looking at things like Kolmogorov complexity), but either way, it seems far from clear that Prof. Atkins’ assertion is correct. At the very least, there needs to be some alternative account of simplicity, to the generally accepted “Occam’s razor” type simplicity, which it seems to me clear that God fulfils. And, as I explained in the debate, Prof. Atkins’ view seems to commit him to the view that Newton’s law of gravity is extremely complex: after all, it suggests that there exist tiny, invisible particles, which exert a force on every other particle in the universe at infinite speed (consider that “functional unboundedness”). But, of course, we recognise Newton’s law of gravity to be extremely simple. Moreover, it is typically characteristic of a good explanation that it explains a lot of data – and it can only explain a lot of data by having many powers, in this way. Hence, Prof. Atkins holds Darwinism to be a very good theory on similar grounds: “it is arguable that the theory of natural selection is one of the most powerful theories ever proposed, for from a simple acorn of an idea, a great forest of consequences follows”.

Moreover, it seems to me that any explanation for the universe has to be extraordinarily powerful – after all, it has to have the power to cause a universe to come into existence. And, again, it seems to me that the neatness of omnipotence – limitless power – is simpler than a large, finite amount of power, because it does not raise the question of why this incredibly powerful entity has precisely that limit. Infinite degrees of properties can be seen to be simpler than large, finite degrees, by other examples from the history of science: as I noted in the debate, the speed of light was held to be infinite until empirical observations showed otherwise – because it was a simpler hypothesis.

2. Theism is a lazy hypothesis

I hope I responded to this well enough in the debate. Firstly, in any case, it does not mean that it is less likely to be true, so we are again left with agnosticism at most. But I also made the point that many explanations we give do not provide mechanisms, as Prof. Atkins wants – but that does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms. My example was with alcohol abuse and liver damage. To say that alcohol abuse caused liver damage, and even that liver damage is evidence of alcohol abuse, does not give us a mechanism in terms of molecular or cellular effects of alcohol on the liver. But clearly it does not prevent us from finding out such mechanisms, and clearly the liver damage can still be used as evidence in favour of alcohol abuse, despite the mechanism not yet being made clear. So it’s a complete non-sequitur to say that theism halts science on these grounds: indeed, if I am right in my own argument, it is theism which provides us with the rational ground needed to engage in science in the first place.

3. Theism is unnecessary

Once again, this does not show that theism is false, or even that it is improbable. Moreover, as I note, no scientific hypothesis is strictly necessary to explain some data – there will always be some contrary hypotheses at least compatible with the data. But this is hardly a mark against the hypothesis, and it does not show that the data do not constitute evidence for the hypothesis. I think these considerations should suffice to rebut this point.

4. The problem of evil

Aside from Prof. Atkins’ opening remarks about theism’s being unnecessary, complex and lazy, this was the only ostensible argument given against theism. And, I must confess, my ADHD actually allowed me to completely miss this point: I was only told after the debate that it had even been raised. So I am obliged to address it, at least very briefly, here.

It seems to me that Prof. Atkins didn’t give much by way of argument for his claim that the suffering in the world is evidence against the existence of God. But, of course, it will not do simply to assert that some datum is evidence in favour of a hypothesis: some argument has to be given, as in my opening speeches, for why that datum should be likely on a hypothesis and unlikely otherwise. So I am not even convinced that Prof. Atkins’ assertion should be found persuasive as evidence against theism, even in the absence of a response from me. But my lack of response in the debate was nevertheless a glaring omission on my part, and has compelled me to consider Ritalin before taking part in future debates. I will give a few brief thoughts.

As I explained, in order to argue that something is evidence in favour of a proposition (in this case atheism), one needs to show that it is unlikely given that the proposition is false (theism), but reasonably likely if the proposition is true. It doesn’t seem to me that Prof. Atkins justified either of these claims, but I think we have good reason to be sceptical of both. Firstly, I do not see why suffering is particularly unlikely on theism. Most people would accept that, on some occasions, there is some suffering which serves a greater purpose – that is, there is often a morally permissible reason for permitting suffering. Whether this is for teaching purposes, or a surgical procedure, we all generally agree that there can be morally permissible reasons for permitting suffering. This fact alone leaves us able to easily doubt the premise. But we can also give at least plausible reasons why God might permit suffering in a universe. We are not committed to saying that any of these are the actual reason God might permit suffering – only that they are possible reasons, which ought to make us doubt the idea that a theistic universe would be extremely unlikely to include suffering. For example, some unique goods simply cannot be instantiated without suffering, or without the possibility of suffering. For example, free choices, which very plausibly allow for much more meaningful commitments and relationships, necessarily involve the possibility of suffering and evil. Or, consider other unique kinds of goods which cannot be achieved without evil: forgiveness, grace, mercy, comfort, compassion, and so on. These greatly enrich our world, and yet would not be possible without evil. So we have reason to at least moderately expect evil or suffering, on theism. It also seems to me that the critic here is committed to the idea that this universe was, on balance, not worth creating. The argument suggesting that the world would have slightly less suffering, on theism, seems to assume not only that such a world would be overall better, but also that that world doesn’t, in fact, exist. But there seem to me to be no such restrictions on God’s creation – it seems to me perfectly possible that he not only created the best of all possible worlds, but is free to create any worlds which are, on balance, morally better to create than to not create. And when we bear this in mind, that this world may not even be the best kind of world overall, but merely better to be instantiated than to not be instantiated, then I think we have very strong reason to doubt this premise.

But I also think we have reason to doubt the premise that suffering would be reasonably likely on atheism. There doesn’t seem to me to be any good reason to accept this. For one thing, suffering requires consciousness, but consciousness seems to be a very strange, ontologically awkward appendage on atheism – it’s far from clear that we should expect consciousness to arise at all on atheism. But it would, of course, fit very neatly on theism: since the ultimate explanation for everything would be in terms of a conscious agent, it is easy to see why consciousness would arise. And, of course, the fine tuning required for suffering of embodied agents is extremely unlikely on atheism, as I argued in my opening speech. So I think we have ample reason to doubt the premise that suffering would likely arise on atheism.

Finally, of course, I argued in my opening speech that one of the reasons God would likely become incarnate is in order to share in our suffering. Permitting one’s creation to suffer (think parents and children) generally gives one at least some kind of obligation to share in that suffering to at least some extent – to take on some of that burden. Now, if this is the case, this only seems to confirm my argument for the resurrection, since it gives us far more reason to suppose that God, if he existed, would become incarnate. If God would very likely become incarnate, and if Jesus is the best candidate for that, then this acts in confirmation of the claim that, if God existed, we would likely to expect the resurrection facts to obtain. It then follows, as long as the resurrection facts are unlikely otherwise (a non-controversial claim), that they are evidence for theism.

Now, Prof. Atkins criticised me for not addressing all the arguments in his opening speech, but it seems to me that most of the rest of the opening speech did not actually consist of arguments against theism – at the very most (and even then, not all of them), they were intended as responses to typical arguments for theism. So, unless I actually advocated these arguments, it does not seem as though I am really rationally compelled to address them at all. For example, Prof. Atkins first gave an overview of some of the scientific issues in contemporary cosmology and studies of the origin of the universe. Well, sure. There’s nothing really to be said there. Similarly, Prof. Atkins addressed the argument from purpose by saying that there is no evidence of purpose. Aside from the fact that this begs the question against people who argue from purpose (or for purpose?), it seems irrelevant to my own presentation. Almost exactly the same is true of Prof. Atkins’ argument to do with miracles – again, it does not argue for atheism – at the most, it begs the question against those who argue for (and from) miracles. And the section on morality was, again, not an argument against God. So, the only argument offered which was non-question begging and which at least plausibly stood a chance of undermining my case, was his response to the fine-tuning argument, which I shall deal with next. (Prof. Atkins also offered some alternative hypotheses to the resurrection, which I shall also address).

Arguments for theism

1. Argument from order

It’s not clear that there was really a response at all to this argument. There was an explanation of how order (in some sense) can arise from disorder (in some sense), but nothing that really addressed the premises of the argument, and especially not all the data I used in my argument. Let me make a few points:

Firstly, it would be no criticism of my argument that order can arise from disorder – that is perfectly compatible with my argument. If anything, it might seem to be an admission of the second premise. But moreover, the argument is far from diminished in case one law is explained by a more fundamental law. Of course some laws are explained by more fundamental laws – my example in the debate was that Newton’s laws might be seen as following from Einstein’s (and Kepler’s from Newton’s). This ought to serve as a rebuttal to Prof. Atkins’ claim that, on my view, light travels in straight lines “because God says so”. Clearly this simplistic strawman is a misrepresentation of my view: my view is that God sustains the most fundamental regularities (both temporal and spatial, though no doubt the dividing line between the two has become blurred in the last century of physics) in the universe, and that other regularities arise from the more fundamental ones (as with Einstein, Newton and Kepler’s laws, for example). While I am not well versed enough in physics to speak authoritatively on the nature of light, in particular, it seems to me that Prof. Atkins’ example here clearly only shifts the problem one step further: instead of the regularity that light travels in a straight line, we are told that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to a particular point. Aside from concerns about how true this is, it doesn’t seem to help us out here: all we have done is appeal to a more fundamental regularity, namely, that light travels in all directions and takes every possible route to get to a particular point (as opposed to simply taking some routes, for example). Of course I accept that some regularities can be explained in terms of other regularities, but appealing to a regularity in explanation is unpersuasive when it is the existence of fundamental regularities themselves which we are using as a datum to support theism over atheism.

Prof. Atkins’ other example was to do with the conservation of energy and the uniformity of time. According to Prof. Atkins, if time is uniform, then energy is conserved. Again, I am not sufficiently educated in physics to know if the conservation of energy follows necessarily from the uniformity of time – I suspect it doesn’t, but am open to being persuaded – but I will even grant this, for the sake of argument. The argument was that, supposing the universe emerged from nothing, then that ‘nothing’ was uniform. Therefore, if that uniform ‘nothing’ gives rise to something (by “nothing happening at all”), then whatever it gives rise to will assume that uniformity henceforth – leading to the uniformity of time.

There seem to me to be obvious problems with this. Indeed, the reason I did not use the kalam cosmological argument is because I think it is a caricature of the atheist’s position to suppose that they think that the universe really did come to exist from nothing – I wouldn’t expect any atheist to actually accept that. But, bizarrely, Prof. Atkins seems to. The problem with the kalam cosmological argument, as I see it, as that to “come into being” seems to denote a temporality such that there was, at one point in time, absolutely nothing, and at a later point, a universe. But, of course, time itself began with the universe, according to the standard Big Bang model, and so on no view would it be the case that there was originally nothing, and then something at a later date. But Prof. Atkins’ presentation of his view seems to imply exactly that. The problems with this are obvious: absolutely nothing lacks the potential for anything (or else it would be something), and so it can hardly be said to give rise to anything. And, of course, in the absence of time, it remains to be seen what sense can be made of Prof. Atkins’ view that uniformity is preserved with the inception of the universe – preserved over what? Time? It cannot be preserved over time, since there is no time.

But even if we take Prof. Atkins’ view more literally for the sake of argument, we see that it begs the question entirely, in a way similar to the light example. For the key assumption of Prof. Atkins’ view, even if it did maintain coherence in light of the above considerations (which I strongly doubt), is that uniformity is preserved over time (or whatever other parameter is supposed to connect nothing existing and the universe existing). But this is precisely one of the data that I am using in the argument: Hume’s whole problem of induction is that we have no good reason to believe that the uniformity we observe extends into the unobserved: the spatially distant and the temporally distant (namely, the future). So appealing to some regularity to explain the regularity is, I think, utterly impotent. So Prof. Atkins’ view here is not only contradictory; it also fails completely to explain either past order (spatial or temporal) in the universe, and brings us nowhere nearer to solving the problem of induction.

2. Argument from fine tuning

It is in order to give a few brief thoughts on Prof. Atkins’ response to my fine tuning argument. I noted in the debate that there were other problems with his alternative hypotheses which I didn’t have time to go into, so I will go into just a small bit more detail here. Note that both Prof. Atkins’ alternative hypotheses, necessity and a multiverse, are irrelevant to the argument as I have presented it: presenting possible alternative hypotheses does not diminish either of the premises of my argument, but this is especially emphasised when the alternative hypotheses are themselves very improbable or problematic. I will give a few considerations here:


As I mentioned in the debate, the primary difficulty with the multiverse is its gross violation of Occam’s razor, which tells us to posit as few entities as possible to explain the data (NB: this latter clause explains what is wrong with Prof. Atkins’ suggestion that nothing is the simplest explanation at all, which implies that God doesn’t exist – I agree that nothing is very simple, but it is also causally impotent, and so does not explain the universe – I hope this point would already be obvious to anyone watching, however). This ought, also, to answer Prof. Atkins’ question, “If there is more than one universe, then there is no obvious reason why there is not an infinite number of universes. Why stop at 2? Why stop at 42?” The answer seems obvious: Occam’s razor.

And so, if we have an alternative hypothesis for which there is no independent evidence, and which is itself extremely complex by violating Occam’s razor in the most incredible way possible, this will do nothing to damage the argument at all. The prominent physicist Paul Davies, himself a deist, puts the problem this way: “In spite of the power of the many-universes theory to account for what would otherwise be considered remarkably special facts about nature, the theory faces a number of serious objections. The first of these I have already discussed in chapter 7, which is that it flies in the face of Occam’s razor, by introducing vast (indeed infinite) complexity to explain the regularities of just one universe. I find this “blunderbuss” approach to explaining the specialness of our universe scientifically questionable … my conclusion is that the many-universes theory can at best explain only a limited range of features, and then only if one appends some metaphysical assumptions that seem no less extravagant than design. In the end, Occam’s razor compels me to put my money on design.”

Moreover, it is hardly a more “natural” or “scientific” hypothesis. The whole point of the hypothesis is to explain why our “nature” is the way it is, by positing a multitude of different universes, completely contrary to the laws of our own, one of which is life-permitting. While the demarcation between science and non-science is a very controversial area, it is hard to come up with any epistemically privileged notion of ‘science’ according to which the multiverse hypothesis would be scientific and theism would not. As John Polkinghorne puts it, “people try to trick out a ‘many universe’ account in sort of pseudo-scientific terms, but that is pseudo-science. It is a metaphysical guess that there might be many universes with different laws and circumstances.” (And, indeed, Prof. Atkins himself admits elsewhere that one of the proposed models supporting a multiverse, M-theory, “might not be science”).

Now, a brief look at some of the theoretical models which Prof. Atkins claims gives the multiverse some credence. The first group, random fluctuation models, aim to explain the low entropy of the universe by positing a field with generally high entropy, but which has random fluctuations giving rise to small ‘islands’ of entropy. The problem with this is that such a model would lead us to expect that any given observer would be in a tiny region of order, no larger than our own brain, and especially no larger than our solar system. As Cambridge astrophysicist Martin Rees writes, If Boltzmann were right, we would be in the smallest fluctuation compatible with our awareness  – indeed, the overwhelmingly most likely configuration would be a universe containing nothing but a single brain with external sensations fed into it”. But in that case we should expect far less entropy than we currently observe. The conclusion? Either our not being a so-called “Boltzmann brain” serves as a defeater for the random fluctuation model, or it is probable that we are, indeed, Boltzmann brains, and thus should consider any external reality to be highly misleading, illusory, or otherwise unreliable. Both, I suspect, will be unfavourable conclusions to Prof. Atkins.

The only theoretical models which have even theoretical plausibility (though no evidence, as Atkins concedes, and perhaps even in principle no experimental tests available to verify it) are those based on a mix of inflationary cosmology and superstring theory (M-theory might be seen as an elaboration of the latter). I’ll give a brief overview of some of the problems with each.

One problem with inflationary cosmology is it’s simple disagreement with observation: as Bennett et al. put it, “[inflation’s] prediction of a perfectly flat universe seems to disagree with observations showing that the total density of matter (including dark matter) is only about 25% of the critical density.” And, of course, there is little (if any) independent evidence for inflation’s being true – Prof. Atkins himself notes that “inflationary theories are highly speculative”, and Earman and Mosterin note: “In sum, inflationary cosmologists have never delivered on their original promises. The newer models to which they have been driven depart radically from the original goal of improving the standard big bang model by means of a straightforward modification. And the link to concrete theories of elementary particle physics that initially made inflationary cosmology so exciting has been severed. The idea that was “too good to be wrong” has led to models that an impartial observer might well find contrived or fanciful or both.”

But, perhaps most importantly, inflationary models seem themselves to require fine tuning, and arguably make the problem worse in some respects. Even if it does solve the problem of low entropy (though it doesn’t, as we shall see), it only serves to emphasise the fine tuning of the cosmological constant: as physicist Robert Brandenberger writes, “the field which drives inflation … is expected to generate an unacceptably large cosmological constant which must be tuned to zero by hand. This is a problem which plagues all inflationary universe models.” And, of course, as I mentioned in the debate, it makes the problem of low entropy far worse, Penrose explaining: “it is fundamentally misconceived to explain why the universe is special in any particular respect by appealing to a thermalization process. For, if the thermalization is actually going anything … then it represents a definite increasing of entropy. Thus, the universe would have had to be more special before the thermalization than after. This only serves to increase whatever difficulty we might have had previously in trying to come to terms with the initial extraordinarily special nature of the universe … invoking arguments from thermalization, to address this particular problem, is worse than useless!”

String theory and M-theory are barely more helpful – Atkins concedes that string theory is “an example of a theory that appears to be experimentally untestable”, and that it “might not be science”. Michio Kaku, the prominent physicist writes, “Not a shred of experimental evidence has been found to confirm … superstrings.” And on M-theory, Atkins concedes: “what direct experimental tests it suggests … [are] likely to be forever outside our technological capabilities … there is no direct experimental motivation for M-theory: it is a gorgeously beautiful idea, with suggestions of how it can resolve deep questions, but it has not made a single numerical prediction.” And, he concludes, “scientists working on M-theory rightly yearn for it to be true, as it is so beautiful; but I have said before, and must emphasise again, that the satisfying warmth of faith alone is insufficient in science.” The chemist has spoken.


There are also problems with this response. Again, of course, it doesn’t respond to the argument – no premise is denied, in the absence of any positive reason to think that the constants necessarily had to have the values they do. As I mentioned in this debate, this kind of pure speculation would stultify scientific enquiry: if it were really a serious objection against a hypothesis being used to explain some datum, then there is nothing stopping us from suggesting that any datum might be necessary – but this would hardly be convincing – there’s no obvious contradiction in saying that the gravitational constant is 4 m3 kg-1 s-2, so it remains to be seen how this is any more than sheer conjecture.

Moreover, this is contrary to the practice and beliefs of theoretical physicists – those physicists frequently make ‘toy’ universes with different laws. As Davies explains, “There is not a shred of evidence that the Universe is logically necessary. Indeed, as a theoretical physicist I find it rather easy to imagine alternative universes that are logically consistent, and therefore equal contenders for reality.” And, of course, even if the values of the physical constants were logically necessary, the initial conditions of the universe are an entirely different matter. Davies goes on: “Even if the laws of physics are unique, it doesn’t follow that the physical universe itself is unique … the laws of physics must be augmented by cosmic initial conditions … There is nothing in present ideas about “laws of initial conditions” remotely to suggest that their consistency with the laws of physics would imply uniqueness.”

Finally, it seems that Prof. Atkins’ response to the argument is multiply contradictory. He argues that the multiverse is possible, but note that this necessarily commits him to the view that other universes are possible – in other words, he is committed to the view that it is not possible that this universe is the only possible universe. Indeed, the theoretical models which he cites as ostensibly “giving credence” to a multiverse, explicitly allow the possibility of other universes (cf. for example, Stephen Hawking: “Does string theory predict the state of the universe? The answer is that it does not. It allows a vast landscape of possible universes, in which we occupy an anthropically permitted location”). So it is literally contradictory for him to offer both a multiverse and a necessity-type response to the argument. Moreover, this response is inconsistent with his empiricist philosophy and his antipathy towards logic. For the ultimate irony is that, if this is really the only logically consistent universe, then we should, in principle, be able to work out the structure of the universe, all its laws and initial conditions, by logic alone – all we would have to do is take logic as far as possible and avoid a contradiction! But Prof. Atkins explicitly claims that logic alone will not get us anywhere, and that we have to look at the world to gain a posteriori knowledge about contingent facts. So, ironically, Prof. Atkins’ view is contradictory here, too. So, even aside from its sheer speculative nature and contrariness to theoretical physics, Prof. Atkins’ view is also multiply contradictory, and so need not be considered as a reasonable objection to my argument.

3. Historical argument

As with any historical enquiry, there is an enormous amount of material that could potentially be covered here. It’s not really clear that Prof. Atkins responded to the actual argument at all: there were a few assertions about other possible explanations (on which, cf. again, my opening speech) and about how the gospels are wholly unreliable, but none of the key facts or the actual argument were addressed. In a sense, this makes it harder to respond: Prof. Atkins’ bare assertions that the gospels are not to be trusted in anything contradicts the overwhelming majority of New Testament scholarship, including non-Christian historians. This is wholly apart from the fact that many of the resurrection facts I mentioned can be established through Paul’s writings alone. Let me say it plainly: irrespective of whether gospels are to be trusted in each minor detail, there is overwhelming agreement on these particular facts which I used in my argument. And the reasons I gave for the actual argument were not challenged. For time, I am not going to provide the evidence for the resurrection facts here – this can easily be found elsewhere, and I am happy to respond to e-mails on them. So, just a brief word about the suggestions Prof. Atkins did make – you will have to trust that there is a lot more to be said than is outlined here: I am currently revising for exams, so do not have time to go into much depth at all.

Swoon hypothesis

Prof. Atkins, remarkably, suggested the swoon hypothesis – that Jesus didn’t actually die, but was in a coma and recovered on his own. This, really, was put to death in the 19th century, and has not been advocated by any reputable historian since. Back in the 19th century, the German New Testament scholar David Strauss – who denied Jesus’ divinity – put it this way: “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening, and indulgence, and who still at least yielded to his sufferings, could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression he had made upon them in life and in death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

This point alone is, I think, sufficient for us to discard the swoon hypothesis – even if true, it has no explanatory power whatsoever to explain the faith and experiences of the disciples. But there are other serious problems with the hypothesis: for one, it would make Jesus a deliberate deceiver, which is extremely unlikely given the evidence for his sincerity during his life. It also fails to account for the overwhelming evidence and prior probability that Jesus was, indeed, dead. Aside from the prior improbability of Jesus surviving purely on the grounds that he was crucified as an attempted execution (and such people generally die – executioners could get in big trouble if they didn’t make sure the victim died), we have multiple attestation of Jesus’ death, no evidence of medical help, evidence of a burial (with no fluids for 3 days) and evidence of specific death-ensuring practices (e.g. the spear in Jesus’ side). Moreover, if one takes Jewish burial practices seriously, as well as the evidence for Jesus’ burial in a tomb (and the guard story), we have yet more obstacles to Jesus pushing away the tombstone and escaping beyond the guard to demonstrate to the world that he had been raised from the dead – as much in grave need of immediate medical attention as he would be. So it seems to me that, when one is multiplying extraordinary improbabilities by extraordinary improbabilities in order to come up with a hypothesis which itself does very little to explain the data we have, we are not here faced with a hypothesis that need be taken very seriously.

Wrong tomb hypothesis

Once again, this hypothesis, even if true, would do very little to explain the data we have – most notably because of the appearances, but also for other reasons. Let me give a very brief overview of some of the factors counting against this hypothesis.

For one, note the gospel attestation to women noting the burial place – if this were a made up story, it is extraordinarily unlikely that women would be the witnesses, given their perceived negligible importance as witnesses in that context. This story, which has a priori plausibility because of the importance of proper burial, anointing and ossuary-making in Jewish society (cf. for example, Josephus: “Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even malefactors who have been sentenced to crucifixion are taken down and buried before sunset”), thus seems to be confirmed beyond doubt from this datum alone. It is inconceivably unlikely that a Jewish figure so important to a good number of people, would have been buried so carelessly such that the burial place remained unknown. As the renowned historian Craig Evans writes, “suggestions that Jesus’ followers would not be able to find the correct tomb in which their master had been interred … have not impressed qualified historians and archaeologists. The conspiracy theories are even more ludicrous, not only unable to explain how it is that such a grotesque secret was kept by so many, but also unable to discover a cogent motive for such a caper in the first place.”

And, of course, all this is supported by the specific evidence we have for Jesus’ burial: the multiple attestation in the gospels (including in the very early material in the Markan passion source), the independent attestation from the very early creed (c. 2 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, maximum) in 1 Corinthians 15, the unlikelihood of a sympathetic Sanhedrin member being created by the early Christian community, the lack of any competing burial story (or shrine veneration elsewhere) and the fit with Jewish burial practice in general. Thus, there is substantial agreement on the burial of Jesus even among the liberal end of New Testament scholarship: the late JAT Robinson concludes, “the burial is one of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus.” And Bart Ehrman argues that “we can conclude, with some certainty, that Jesus was in fact buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb and that three days later the tomb was found empty.”


And so I am convinced that neither of these two alternative hypotheses carry much weight at all, and can comfortably be dismissed as untenable. So, in addition to Prof. Atkins not really addressing my argument, and in addition to my point about possible alternative hypotheses not showing that some data are not evidence for the proposed hypothesis, but the alternative hypotheses which Prof. Atkins advanced are abject failures when it comes to having any prior plausibility, and when it comes to explaining the data. I conclude, therefore, that my argument remains very much intact. There remain just a few points of clarification and contention.

Firstly, I hope to have sufficiently dealt with the idea that the resurrection facts arose because of, or are explained by, deceit on the disciples’ part. It beggared belief to see this objection still launched in the face of all the evidence of the disciples’ persecutions and martyrdoms, as well as the evidence of the persecution of James and Paul, who were unsympathetic to Jesus during his ministry. In his closing speech, Prof. Atkins made the point that plenty of people die for false things, and so it doesn’t prove that what they believe is true. This is a strawman of my position: I never argued that this proves that it is true, only that it shows that they were sincere about their beliefs, and thus the narratives’ being deceitful, political propaganda, is an untenable hypothesis.

Similarly, the idea of Jesus as a composite image of a typical Jewish rabbi is undermined by enormous marks of dissimilarity relative to his Jewish context. Some of the features mentioned in the debate were the claim to be the Son of Man, the idea of a crucified Messiah and the claim of a resurrection before the end of time. Indeed, these facts strengthen my case, since it implies that something truly extraordinary must have happened to account for the disciples believing these propositions, despite their being completely contrary to Jewish expectations (it also puts an enormous dent in the hallucination hypothesis, since hallucinations typically involve experiences of something expected).

Finally, clarification. Prof. Atkins alleged that I made the argument that Jesus must exist because he was so inspiring. I hope it is clear from the video alone that I never made this absurd argument but, just in case, that was not my argument. The point was that this is one of the marks we might expect from an incarnate God – and thus that Jesus fulfilling this criterion raises the likelihood of God vindicating him – thus supporting the premise that we would moderately expect the resurrection facts to obtain on theism. A second point of clarification: I do not have to believe in the virgin birth simply because the gospels say so. I am not committed to biblical inerrancy, and so believe in the virgin birth for quite different reasons. And finally, as much as I expect those set firm in their beliefs that all religious people are brainwashed to disagree, I have not been brainwashed. I do not know when exactly I began believing that Jesus was God – though I know for certain that I did not believe it until I was 16 and a half, at the earliest. I was then convinced by looking into the historical evidence more thoroughly. I should hope, despite the speculative assertions and emotional protests of others, that the period of extreme vulnerability to indoctrination would have finished by then. And I should think that my disagreement on plenty of points with most Christians should make it obvious that there is no indoctrination there. In any case, there is little here to support Prof. Atkins’ assertion other than sheer determination that he is right, and perhaps the psychological force audiences perceive this assertion to have because of his prominence in academia. But for those of us concerned with arguments, evidence and reason, I think it is obvious that we should remain unpersuaded.

As I said, there is plenty of material I have not had the time to engage with, and I may even have missed some points entirely. But I hope what I have offered here suffices to respond to Prof. Atkins’ arguments reasonably comprehensively, and I am happy to respond to queries (including suggestions for further reading on some of these points I may not have demonstrated sufficiently persuasively) by e-mail.

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