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On April 8, 2021, during a debate between Matt Dillahunty and Catholic Apologist Trent Horn titled Is belief in the Resurrection reasonable? Trent Horn Vs Matt Dillahunty Debate, hosted by Pints With Aquinas, Matt Dillahunty said:

20:56:

It's important for people to recognize there is a difference between verification and falsification. Verification is the concept that we should produce the thing. If we were to say that all intelligent beings are on planet earth, verification you could run around "hey, there's an intelligent being on earth, there's one on earth and there's one on earth, there's one on earth", but verifying it exhaustively could be completely impractical because you would have to search every planet at all times in order to determine in fact that all intelligent beings are on planet earth. But falsification is a separate issue. Falsification is whether or not it is theoretically able to be shown to be false. And so, whole we may never be able to verify that all intelligent beings are in fact on planet earth, we could at least in theory falsify it because if we produced an intelligent being that wasn't on earth, that would falsify the claim. Now that would show that the claim is wrong. But if we have a claim that is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, it is essentially untestable. And my foundation is that if you have an untestable claim, it'd better be mundane, trivial and consistent with the facts of reality before you should ever risk believing that it is in fact the case. Well, we can't really believe, or we can't argue that it's rational to believe something that we can't test at all. So we do the best we can when it comes to history, and so when we take a look at history all we have are reports. Somebody said they saw this, somebody said they knew this person, somebody said this other thing. That's all well and good when we're trying to put together the best understanding of history we can. But we shouldn't be proclaiming it as truth, and we shouldn't be necessarily saying that this particular version of history is particularly reasonable. As history tends to be written by the victors. So history is always suspect. And there are two quotes from David Hume that are the cornerstone how and why I go about determining if something is or should be considered reasonable ... [Matt then proceeds to quote/paraphrase David Hume on why miracle claims are unreasonable to be believed on insufficient evidence.]

24:56

So if a claim isn't falsifiable and there's no way to show it's wrong, we can't reasonably accept that it's correct. And if we're left with no physical evidence about the existence of Jesus, or the interactions of Jesus, or his death and resurrection, what we are left with is ... testimony. Now, I'm not willing to dig in on whether or not the gospels were written by eyewitnesses. I don't think they were, I don't think that most reasonable scholars aren't going to say these are witnesses but it doesn't matter to me because even if they were all eyewitnesses, we already know that eyewitness testimony is unreliable under the best circumstances. In this case we don't know whose testimony, eyewitness second or third hand, and we can't investigate it at all. All the things they say happened don't have corroborating evidence. They don't have supporting physical evidence. We don't have any way to question them about their reliability. We don't have any way to talk to them to determine, you know, are these stories accurate, you know, do they overlap. [...]

27:29

[...] I have a hard time going through some of these things and saying "yes, that's being reported as this has actually happened". So what evidence do we have? Copies of copies of translations of copies from unknown sources that may have been but probably weren't eyewitnesses, and if they had been eyewitnesses it wouldn't be sufficient to confirm that someone actually rose from the dead. What sort of evidence would we expect for a claim that someone rose from the dead? Depends on the time frame. Sure, back in 1st century Judea, probably not a lot! You don't have a way to test for sure that somebody's dead. You don't have like x-rays, you don't have DNA. Well, the question is: if this story is true, then Jesus was divine, and God exists. And what sort of evidence could a God provide? God could provide the best evidence possible such that there would be no reasonable debate to be had at all [...]

49:32:

And I'm not here for interesting. I'm here to find out what's reasonable. And here is the crux of it, which we can have this discussion afterwards because I don't have any follow-up questions after this. And that is this: you are willing to accept that an extraordinary miraculous event occurred based only on testimony, and I'm not. That's it! That is the foundational difference between our epistemology. I will not accept that the physical understanding of the universe was suspended for an individual based only on testimonial accounts. It is unreasonable. That is how you get conned. That is how magicians fool you [...]

How do Christians rebut Matt Dillahunty's objection that the resurrection of Jesus is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, untestable, lacking supporting physical evidence beyond mere reports, and therefore unreasonable to believe?


Note: my question is about Jesus' resurrection, not about Jesus' existence. One could concede that Jesus existed and still be skeptical of his resurrection and other related supernatural claims. For Dillahunty's position on the existence of Jesus, see Did Jesus Exist? | David - Oklahoma City, OK | Atheist Experience 21.25. Here is the transcript of an excerpt from the video in case it gets taken down:

Caller: Well, what do you believe? Do you believe he actually existed in history or not?

Matt: I think it's very likely that there was a historical figure that the stories are tied to, but we don't know much at all about him and there may actually have been a number of different people molded into one after the fact. I don't ... I have no idea.

Jen: I'm unconvinced that there was a single individual on which the stories are based.

Matt: And even if we were convinced that there was a single individual. I don't know how we would know anything about that person specifically because if you, if you go through for example the gospel stories and ... there is no way to verify anything right down to, you know, the name or the date or anything.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Ken Graham
    Mar 5 at 0:49
  • Dillahunty's argument is too absurd to warrant an answer (i.e. I think this is not a good question for SE). "I can't falsify a claim, therefore the claim is as good as false." It should be obvious that "maybe false" == "maybe true." Mar 6 at 22:12

6 Answers 6

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Dillahunty's argument is self-refuting.

He commits the error inherent to all forms of verificationism. A simple, jargon-free description of verificationist principles would be: "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science" (see the link above for a much more in-depth discussion of the philosophy).

The trouble is this: the statement itself--the statement "you shouldn't believe anything that can't be demonstrated by science"--that statement cannot be demonstrated by science! So by its own admission, it shouldn't be believed. As a result of its own self-contradiction, verificationism has long since been discredited.

Dillahunty does the same thing--he makes the claim:

But if we have a claim that is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, it is essentially untestable. And my foundation is that if you have an untestable claim, it'd better be mundane, trivial and consistent with the facts of reality before you should ever risk believing that it is in fact the case.

And yet his claim is unverifiable, unfalsifiable, essentially untestable, and decidedly not mundane. By his own criteria, he shouldn't believe his own standard. Neither should anybody else.


Appendix--other errors in Dillahunty's argument

God's evidence

From Dillahunty:

Well, the question is: if this story is true, then Jesus was divine, and God exists. And what sort of evidence could a God provide? God could provide the best evidence possible such that there would be no reasonable debate to be had at all

This entirely misses the point of Christian theology. His statement can be rephrased into the age-old question "why doesn't God just show Himself to everyone?" I offer an answer to that question on my channel here.

God didn't want to make it so that we had to believe; in fact, that would be quite at odds with His purposes (see link above).

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Was the resurrection falsifiable?

We could ask this question of numerous historical events--some of which are currently falsifiable through empirical means, some of which used to be but no longer are.

The weight of the apostles' claim is that it was empirically falsifiable at the time. All the enemies of Jesus had to do was produce His body, and Christianity is stopped dead in its tracks (no pun intended) (okay, maybe it was). Little wonder that they placed a guard at the tomb; little wonder that they invented a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of Jesus' body--and yet in doing so, they provided corroborative hostile testimony (see Matt. 28:11-15). They wouldn't have had to invent a story to explain the absence of Jesus' body if it were available for examination.

The single detail of the Easter story that is found in all 4 Gospels--without variation or omission whatsoever--is that the tomb was empty. Christian theology does not work without the empty tomb. The Sanhedrin's own efforts to squash the story demonstrate that they knew it was empty, and all the scheming in the world couldn't get around this well-known fact.

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Dillahunty's foray into 1st-century medicine

You don't have a way to test for sure that somebody's dead. You don't have like x-rays, you don't have DNA.

At least three problems with this diagnosis:

  • The claim that they didn't have x-rays & DNA is not falsifiable. Oops =)
  • People did in fact have DNA at the time (if they didn't, Dillahunty's own worldview has some serious problems)
  • The Romans did have at least 2 foolproof means of testing whether someone was dead: a) beheading & b) crucifixion. A person being crucified must push up with their legs in order to breathe (the "up position"), they can then release the pressure on their legs until they need to breathe again (the "down position"). If they are in the down position for 10-15 minutes, they're dead (see article by Habermas here).

And why exactly are we using x-rays to determine if a body is dead??? I'm curious how many coroners Dillahunty knows that do that.

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Scientism

Dillahunty's argument smacks of scientism--the worship of science. It is common for adherents of this dogma to exalt science and mock philosophy. The trouble is, science doesn't rest on a foundation of science, science (like theology) rests on a foundation of philosophy. Science & theology are variant, valuable means of exploring truth, but both require a set of philosophical assumptions in order to do anything at all. Scientism is just as dogmatic as any other religious doctrine.

(For example, if you're interested in a mind-bender: try proving that cause-and-effect is real. If this exercise proves unsuccessful, try doing science without a belief in cause-and-effect)

[Editorial insertion - my comments here appear to have ruffled some feathers; I believe it is worth clarifying 2 matters:

  • I am not critiquing a belief in science; I am critiquing the worship of science
  • For those who do choose to worship science, it is inconsistent to denounce those who worship something else for having beliefs that do not meet a standard, if one's own belief--scientism--cannot meet that standard either]

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Eyewitness Gospels

I explore this topic extensively in my video series here.

Several of the specific claims therein defended:

  • The Gospel of Matthew was written by an eyewitness, in a time & place where his claims could be scrupulously fact-checked
  • Claims that Matthew was written a generation (or more) after Easter presuppose naturalism and are circular
  • All of the major theories on the Synoptic Problem have inconsistencies--the overwhelming evidence for the historical reliability of Matthew cannot be reasonably rejected on the basis of the underwhelming evidence for Markan Priority.

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The risk of erasing history

The statement there is no way to verify anything right down to, you know, the name or the date or anything is but a reassertion of verificationism, which was shown to be self-refuting above.

This statement is also vulnerable to a reductio ad absurdum that is beloved to historians. You see, Dillahunty's statement about the lack of verifiability could be made of any historical event (or if video evidence constitutes "proof"--which is itself a debatable claim--the statement could be made of most historical events). This extreme form of skepticism undermines history at its own peril.

Let's say we believe the statement in 1905 Einstein demonstrated the existence of atoms using Brownian motion (a very reasonable claim that is broadly accepted even by hyper-skeptical naturalists, by the way). But we have a problem. We cannot in fact falsify the claim that Einstein did this--this is a historical claim subject to the same lack of direct observation or repeatability as countless other historical claims. Like all statements about history (or all statements about history lacking video evidence, if you like), the best we can do is support this claim about Einstein through abductive reasoning.

If we reject this means of historical inquiry, we can reject along with it everything (or nearly everything, if you like) humans have ever tested or discovered through science. In this manner the naturalistic worldview demolishes its own foundation.

But if abductive reasoning is on the table, we certainly can establish names and dates related to the ministry of Jesus. One of Luke's trademarks is telling his readers who to talk to (by name!) in each town so the reader can go check the story.

As for dates, this video series contains my historical arguments that there are events in Jesus' ministry that can be dated with a high degree of certainty.

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Competing epistemologies

Quote: you are willing to accept that [something]...occurred based only on testimony, and I'm not.

Unless Dillahunty claims to have personally tested every view held by contemporary scientists, he too is accepting all manner of statements based only on testimony (and this includes some claims in the quantum realm that are decidedly not intuitive)

Quote: I will not accept that the physical understanding of the universe was suspended

This is a strawman if applied to Christianity generally. I can't speak for Horn's beliefs, but it is unnecessary to claim the natural order/understanding/laws of the universe were suspended to account for God doing something we cannot explain. This claim is the modern equivalent to a person from the 17th century crying "witchcraft" if they'd had the opportunity to examine a mobile phone.

If we are truly skeptical, shouldn't we acknowledge that just maybe there are things in this universe we do not yet know how to explain?

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Why do we believe?

I've argued elsewhere that the principal reasons people trust the testimony of the apostles are their fruits, their willingness to die, and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

The witness of the Holy Spirit appears to be the most widespread and enduring reason given for trusting the apostles: their words, preserved in the New Testament, have been ratified by the Holy Spirit in the hearts & minds of millions (if not billions).

Most Christians have probably never read 1 Clement chapter 5 (early evidence for Peter & Paul's deaths as martyrs); yet they believe the words of Peter & Paul based on their own personal experience engaging with the Divine.

Paul himself would doubtless be pleased:

And my speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Cor. 2:4)

If Dillahunty believes that nobody in modern times has received direct, personal, Divine affirmation of the reality of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, I would ask: are you sure?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – curiousdannii
    Mar 4 at 4:38
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    I downvoted this Answer because it seems to be one person's personal argument rather that quoting various Christian sects to show what they have argued. When I first joined, at least, such answers were discouraged. We weren't to do our own apologia, but report on what already exists. And that is what the Question asks for: it doesn't ask "how do you rebut" but "how do Christians rebut." But there is no claim that this is anything but the author's own argument. (I also don't find it particularly persuasive, despite being a Christian myself.)
    – trlkly
    Mar 6 at 0:58
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    @trlkly I really appreciate your explaining the reason for the downvote, thank you. FWIW, I don't claim any personal ownership of logical reasoning. If there are specific sectarian teachings on Dillahunty (I'm not aware of any), that would make for an effective answer. Several of my arguments are admittedly non-sectarian: as the votes on the post indicate, people of many faiths hold several of these beliefs in common. Mar 6 at 1:29
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    @trlkly : Ironically, this is an arbitrary demand. If I open a Bible to cite what Christians believe, more objections will come, yet the demand is to cite what Christians believe. "That's your interpretation!" Indeed, welcome to philosophical discussion. No reasonable argument can be made for why a 400-year-old opinion is better than a novel opinion formed late last night. Not even in the natural sciences are such limitations reasonable. Mar 6 at 22:03
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator answer updated per the new details added to the question (see antepenultimate & penultimate sections) Mar 9 at 4:58
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I'd suppose that the same arguments regarding existence might be made about Confucious, Plato, Melchizedek, Nero, and other historical figures. But what are counter arguments?

You might look for verification in any number of ways besides what is his essential claim that he (Mr. Dillahunty) wasn't present.

For example, Josephus mentions Jesus Christ.

Then there are church fathers like Ignatious, Polycarp, Clement, Papias, and others.

There is prophecy that had to be fulfilled in a certain time frame (Daniel's 70 weeks). He may as well assert that the Old Testament is uncorroborated.

So, if his standard of truth is "I must be present", then he must toss out everything from the last thousands of years. That is the silly argument. As to Christ, there is plenty of evidence that Jesus existed.

Now that we know Jesus existed, what about the resurrection? The same arguments would apply. History is replete with eyewitnesses and their reports. The OT is full of prophecies. For example, Peter quotes David that His soul will not be left in hell (Psalm 49:15, Acts 2:27).

So, once you accept Christ's existence based on source documents, you then either must reject the accounts of His resurrection you've just agreed to or hope they are wrong or cherry pick or deny, deny, deny.

PS Josephus on the resurrection from here.

About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
--Flavius Josephus: Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 3, 3[50]

While some believe this to be a later Christian interpolation, I believe it is true as written. One Josephus knew the prophecies. Two the temple had been destroyed in 70 ad and he had moved to Rome.

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    As to Christ, there is plenty of evidence. - The debate was about the resurrection, not Jesus' existence. You can concede that Jesus existed and still not be convinced about the resurrection. What is the plenty of evidence for Jesus' resurrection specifically? Mar 3 at 15:16
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Dillahunty also questions Jesus' existence, as he mentions in the second quote you use. If you can't even get Dillahunty to admit Jesus (Caesar, Nero, etc.) existed then you can't even begin to discuss the evidence for Jesus' resurrection.
    – Null
    Mar 3 at 15:25
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Based on what you've quoted in your question, it sounds like Dillahunty is/was questioning Jesus' existence. If that is not the case then you need to put Dillahunty's acceptance of Jesus' existence in your question (e.g. link to the video you just linked to) because the answer to your question will at least partially depend on Dillahunty's beliefs regarding Jesus' existence. If Dillahunty believes Jesus existed then you can answer that His resurrection can be falsified by producing His body. If not then you first have to convince him Jesus existed.
    – Null
    Mar 3 at 15:34
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator Believing in Jesus' existence, how? What are his sources? NT, OT prophecy, historical works. There are numerous people and religions that believe Jesus existed, yet do not believe He died, was buried, and resurrected. Cherry pick the evidence? But I'll add these comments to my answer.
    – SLM
    Mar 3 at 15:47
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    For 1700+ years historians have held that the referenced Josephus quote is an interpolation. Josephus certainly mentioned Jesus--but it is likely that the original wording of Antiquities 18:63 is the version preserved by Agapius (see here), which is still significant, but falls short of Josephus believing the resurrection really happened. Mar 3 at 17:29
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Apart from the point about the argument being self-refuting from another answer, this argument proves too much. By the author's logic, the claim that George Washington used to be President of the United States is not testable, falsifiable or mundane, so it must be nonsense. If you think about it, there's remarkably little (if any) physical evidence that can be conclusively linked to George Washington without also relying on eyewitness evidence (which the author completely discounts). There were no photographs, videos, or audio recordings; there are portraits, but those are hardly conclusive because how do we know that they're actually portraits of the "real" George Washington? Wait for it... eyewitness testimony, which the author claims is notoriously unreliable. You could apply this to many historical figures, many of which we have little or no physical evidence to support.

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    Your profile page helpfully enlightened me as to this Stack site which I had no idea existed. Your suggestion for reading of Belarusian literature here literature.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1238/… deserves fresh support in light of current events.
    – Anne
    Mar 5 at 15:52
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Centuries ago people argued about whether the parallel line postulate (parallel lines never meet) could be proved using the other axioms of geometry. It was finally proven that you cannot. If you substitute alternatives to that postulate you get various non-Euclidean geometries for curved spaces which are consistent, useful, and different.

Does that make the parallel line postulate unreasonable? No, it is a useful axiom that can form the basis of one flavor of geometric reasoning.

God chose to make belief in the Resurrection an axiom, not a theorem built from other more basic observations. The religious, moral, and philosophical systems that you can build from that faith can be very reasonable, if they are built using reason.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (1 Corinthians 2:2)

Paul spoke as one who regarded the Crucifixion of Christ, the effects produced by it, and the associated resurrection as axiomatic, the basis of all else.

There are in mathematics undecidable propositions: statements which may be true but which cannot be proven to be either true or false due to the limitations of all systems of logic. This discovery by Kurt Gödel was deeply upsetting to the scientific community. If mathematicians are forced to accept the existence of the undecidable into their science, why not philosophers of religion?

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    Paul spoke as one who regarded the Crucifixion of Christ, the effects produced by it, and the associated resurrection as axiomatic, the basis of all else. - Paul didn't believe in the resurrection axiom all his life though. Something extraordinary had to happen to him for this dramatic change of mind. See Acts 9 for the details :-) Mar 3 at 15:58
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    As an atheist, this is a very interesting and entirely respectable answer to me. I stopped arguing against faith after I tried to corner a devout friend with reasoned arguments, and he finally said, "You're trying to use reason to talk me out of faith. But my faith isn't based on reason. It's faith. I make a leap of faith. Whatever you say, I put faith in the truth of these things." I was floored. Most atheists think faith and reason are opposed, but he made me realize: they're not. They're orthogonal. You can't use one to support or rebut the other, unless you're misunderstanding one or both.
    – John Smith
    Mar 5 at 3:44
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Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more [John 14:19 KJV]

Deliberately, Jesus of Nazareth, risen from the dead and thus 'declared to be the Son of God' (as preached, first, by Paul the Apostle after his conversion) :

... declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, [Romans 1:4 KJV].

... deliberately, Jesus Christ is not visible to the world. He is preached, in the gospel. And he is believed on, by those who are called of God, so to believe.

The 'proof' is the experience of knowing Him, which is the result of 'receiving the report'. The result of repentance. The result of admitting the sin that is present in one's own humanity and the sinful actions one is conscious of.

The result of seeking salvation. The result of being broken and guilty and needy. Blessed are the pure in heart, they shall see God. None else do.

They shall find a Saviour and they shall know the power of his resurrection. None else will.

To this will I look, saith the Lord, to him that is of a broken heart and a contrite spirit - that trembleth at my word.

To the rest : the world seeth me no more.

It is quite intentional.

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Peter Stoner, Chairman of the Departments of Mathematics and Astronomy at Pasadena College, was passionate about biblical prophecies. With 600 students from the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Stoner looked at eight specific prophecies about Jesus. They came up with extremely conservative probabilities for each one being fulfilled, and then considered the likelihood of Jesus fulfilling all eight of those prophecies.

The conclusion to his research was staggering. The prospect that anyone would satisfy those eight prophecies was just 1 in {10 raised to 17}. In Science Speaks, he described it like this:

"Let us try to visualize this chance. If you mark one of ten tickets, and place all of the tickets in a hat, and thoroughly stir them, and then ask a blindfolded man to draw one, his chance of getting the right ticket is one in ten. Suppose that we take {10 raised to 17} silver dollars and lay them on the face of Texas. They will cover all of the state two feet deep. Now mark one of these silver dollars and stir the whole mass thoroughly, all over the state.Blindfold a man and tell him that he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up one silver dollar and say that this is the right one. What chance would he have of getting the right one? Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing these eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man, from their day to the present time, providing they wrote using their own wisdom."

And, there are OT prophesies on the Resurrection of Jesus which got fulfilled in Him. For instance, Ps. 16:9-11:

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay.

And Isaiah 25:7–8:

On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken"

If one believes in OT prophesies on the Messiah and is able to relate how Jesus fulfilled each of them, one can easily believe that the Lord rose again from the dead.

(Courtesy for inputs: https://www.jesusfilm.org/blog-and-stories/old-testament-prophecies.html)

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  • I don't quite follow how this answers the question. The OP was asking about how to address a specific argument, not for general arguments in favor of Jesus being who He said He was. Mar 14 at 21:18

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