Opinion guest column

MIT students examine Easter

Can belief in the supernatural coexist with a scientific worldview?

Editor’s Note: Professor Anne McCants of the History Department contributed to the editing process of this article.

This past weekend, Christians at MIT and around the world celebrated Easter. The occasion recalls a time two thousand years ago when, according to the New Testament, a man named Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion in Jerusalem. It would be strange to celebrate such an event, except the accounts also record that, three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb and an initially bewildered but ultimately emboldened group of disciples, who began announcing his resurrection to the rest of the world.

At a place like MIT, an occasion like Easter raises the question of whether belief in supernatural events can coexist with a commitment to serious scholarship. Can someone be a credible academic and yet affirm a resurrection narrative that defies the laws of science? What we hope to explain is how, for Christians at MIT, belief in the resurrection complements rather than contradicts our scientific worldview. Along the way, we will consider limits to what science can tell us about the world, and how one can rationally evaluate a singular event from history that is not amenable to repeated testing.

By the standards of a modern biography, we know relatively little about Jesus. We have no descriptions of his appearance, nor do we know much about his family life beyond the names of his parents and four brothers. The New Testament describes his birth, includes a lone anecdote about a childhood episode at the temple, then skips ahead by more than two decades to the final years of his life. With so much lacking in the portrait we have of Jesus, there are those who suggest that he was an entirely mythical figure, conjured out of thin air like one of the Greek gods.

Yet in the context of history, we know more about Jesus than about any other individual from that era. Whereas we derive our knowledge of ancient rulers sometimes from a single coin inscription or a scrap of papyrus, there are more than 40 different authors who mention Jesus within 150 years of his life — the writers of the New Testament, early church figures, a prominent Jewish historian named Josephus, several Roman intellectuals, and more. To put this in perspective, we have many more sources writing about Jesus than about the Roman emperor at the time. Consequently, the consensus among scholars is that there was certainly a man named Jesus who, after amassing a substantial following, was eventually condemned to death by crucifixion as an enemy of Rome. This is as much a fact of history as anything from the ancient world can be.

Beyond this consensus, there are prominent scholars like Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan who reject the supernatural elements of the Jesus narrative as fictional embellishments. In their view, it was only after his death that his followers invented stories of miracles and the resurrection, to lend legitimacy to the continuing movement. However, there are also influential Christian thinkers such as N. T. Wright, Bruce Metzger, and F. F. Bruce who insist that, based on the manuscript evidence, the Jesus narrative cannot be so easily dismissed. The earliest New Testament documents were written within one generation of the events being recorded, rather than much later by authors with more room for invention. This leaves the text sprinkled with precise details of people and places that have been confirmed by archaeological evidence. The recorded teachings of Jesus also do not touch on any of the most fractious debates from the first centuries of Christianity, making it unlikely that the original text was embellished to advance the agendas of later religious factions.

Yet even if one does not by default dismiss the resurrection as fabrication, it still presents the ultimate challenge to the integrity of the Christian narrative about Jesus. Surely we know from science that dead people do not come back to life again! In affirming the reality of the resurrection, though, Christians are not declaring that science is wrong — that people actually come back to life shortly after they die. The assertion is instead that, at one unique point in history, God overrode the laws of nature and restored life to a single person. This is by definition an “unscientific” truth claim, although not in the pejorative sense, but rather in the sense that it goes beyond what can be verified using the tools of science. We cannot devise a laboratory experiment to test whether Jesus rose from the dead. At most we can confirm that there are no contemporary examples of bodily resurrection, and be ready with our medical instruments to collect data if something extraordinary does happen moving forward.

This brings us to the philosophical question of whether we can know anything about reality beyond what science tells us. In the materialistic worldview, all of reality can be reduced to interactions between matter and thus probed by the tools of science, but the position is “unscientific” in the same sense as the resurrection truth claim above. The Christian perspective on the question is perhaps best articulated by the eminent physicist-turned-Anglican-minister John Polkinghorne. In his words: “Science deals with an objective dimension, in which things can be manipulated and events repeated, thereby affording it access to the great weapon of experimental verifiability. Yet we all know that there are many levels of encounter with reality … in which neither manipulation nor repetition are possible without doing violence to the reality encountered.”

How then can one rationally interact with these realities that are not accessible to the tools of science? Perhaps, in the case of the resurrection, one must decide whether it happened in history, not whether it can happen in science. Did the disciples actually find an empty tomb and later encounter the risen Jesus, as the New Testament accounts describe?

Skeptics have suggested that the disciples fabricated the idea of the resurrection as a coping mechanism in the wake of the devastating death of their leader. However, their insistence about the reality of the risen Jesus took them down a brutal road of persecution, and often death. While people have been known to martyr themselves because of abstract beliefs, the disciples died for insisting on the reality of their personal experiences. Another possibility is that some of them were hallucinating, but the manuscript evidence indicates that hundreds of people shared the same experience of encountering Jesus after his resurrection. Finally, even unsympathetic sources from the time acknowledge the presence of the empty tomb, offering only that the disciples must have stolen the body.

In the end, these considerations do not prove outright that the resurrection happened, because the tools of history cannot deliver the same certainty as the tools of science, especially when it comes to extraordinary claims of supernatural events. What they do suggest is that belief in the resurrection should not be casually dismissed as an irrational fantasy, but lingers even in the face of careful historical examination. For Christians at MIT who are committed to serious scholarship, the New Testament accounts of Jesus remain compelling under the light of rationalism, and accounts of an Easter resurrection echo still.

David Kwabi is a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Tout Wang was a recent visiting graduate student in the Department of Physics.