For the contemporary believer, Paul’s role in the historical setting of the Resurrection is far more than a matter of theological curiosity. In Paul, we find the earliest and best attested documentary evidence for a historical investigation of the claim that Jesus was raised from death by the power of God. Indeed, the Christian’s justification for rational belief in the Resurrection is in large part anchored in Paul’s justification for rational belief in the authenticity of his own encounter on the Damascus Road (Acts 9:1-9, 26:12-32; 1 Cor. 15:8; Gal. 1:11-24).
Christianity’s critics have attempted to account for Paul’s miraculous claim by a variety of naturalistic hypotheses, including:
Deception: Paul was a charlatan who manufactured his experience to invent the Christian faith (Hypothesis 1).
Delusion: Paul suffered from a psychiatric disorder and experienced a hallucinatory episode (Hypothesis 2).
Development: Paul came to believe a tale of religious folklore that arose in the period immediately following Jesus’ death (Hypothesis 3).
But of course, these are not the only explanatory options on offer. If (on the basis of sound philosophical arguments) one affirms the existence of God from the outset, and thus allows for a hypothesis of supernatural category, then we must consider a fourth hypothesis:
Dependability: Paul was sincere, mentally stable, and accurately informed. His claim is a trustworthy account of an actual historical occurrence (Hypothesis 4).
If the biblical data concerning Paul’s testimony is best explained by any of the first three options, then the believer must concede that he offers no contribution to the biblical evidence for the Resurrection. Contrastingly, if, as the fourth option asserts, Paul can be vindicated as dependable, then his eye-witness reportage must be treated as incontestable in the case for the earliest of Christian confessions: that Christ was “raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:4).
This brings us the matter of investigative approach. Since historical claims cannot be tested under the same controlled conditions as phenomena studied in the present, past events and their associated causal relationships must be determined through the consideration of evidence and application of the techniques of historical method. A now standard process of historical inquiry utilizes a method of logical inference known as abductive reasoning, or more frequently, inference to the best explanation. On the abductive model, historical descriptions are constructed upon the basis of accessible evidence, and then tested in terms of various conditions, including implication of other statements, explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, ad hocness, and so forth.
When tested against these standards of inference, the aforementioned naturalistic hypotheses fail for a number of reasons. For instance, the first (Hypothesis 1) that Paul’s testimony was a deliberate contrivance, which is severely implausible and lacks explanatory power. Paul’s experience can hardly be attributed to a hallucinatory episode (Hypothesis 2), since this hypothesis fails for the same reasons. Nor will it suffice to say that the content of Paul’s report can be attributed to legendary development (Hypothesis 3); this falls-short of satisfying any of the specified criteria!
The fourth and final hypothesis is that Paul’s belief in the Resurrection was grounded in an actual appearance of the risen Christ (Hypothesis 4). On every standard of assessment, this proves to be far superior to any alternative explanation. Consider:
Hypothesis 4, together with other statements already held to be true, implies other statements describing the present, observable data. In this case, the “present, observable data” is found in the biblical texts that provide the basis of our historical research. Hypothesis 1 implies the other post-mortem appearances of Jesus, as well as the advent of the early church. If Paul’s belief did in fact originate in the context of a divine call to apostleship, then we might expect to discover that the others were commissioned in like manner. Further, we might also expect to find that the apostles engaged in evangelistic activity to form a community of faith. These expectations are repeatedly confirmed by the New Testament.
Hypothesis 4 shows greater explanatory scope than any other incompatible hypothesis. In this case, the “scope” of data to be explained can be expressed in a single statement: Despite a strong predisposition to the contrary, Paul suddenly and sincerely came to believe that Jesus returned from the grave and appeared to him. This claim is explained in its entirety by positing that Paul did, as he reports, meet the risen Jesus.
Hypothesis 4 demonstrates greater explanatory power than any other incompatible hypothesis. The Dependability hypothesis renders the observation statements it implies, more probable than any competing explanatory option. A miraculous experience of the risen Jesus would make it very likely that Paul should suddenly come to believe in the Resurrection despite a strong disposition to the contrary. Given this hypothesis, Paul’s abrupt departure from a life of zealous pharisaism and unanticipated devotion to Christian ministry are also rendered more probable.
Hypothesis 4 is more plausible than any other incompatible hypothesis. Given a prior intellectual commitment to theism, the Hypothesis 4 is perfectly plausible. For any believer in God, the statement Despite a strong predisposition to the contrary,… is strongly implied by a variety of accepted truths concerning the nature of reality: namely, that God exists; that God is capable of performing miracles; that God may choose to bring about a miracle by raising someone from the dead; etc.
Hypothesis 4 is less ad hoc than any other incompatible hypothesis. For the theist, the Dependability hypothesis includes no new suppositions about the past which are not already implied to some extent by existing beliefs. Provided that one has sufficient independent arguments to ground belief in a God who can and might act within the course of human history, and the hypothesis posits that this miracle took place within an appropriate religious context, a miracle hypothesis is not contrived to fit the data.