The Evidence of the Miracle of the Resurrection
T. H. Huxley

Metaphysical Society (January 11, 1876)

[1] In the course of a recent discussion, a strong desire was expressed by a believer in Miracles that those who fail to perceive the cogency of the evidence by which the occurrence of miracles is supported, should not confine themselves to the discussion of general principles, but should grapple with some particular case of an alleged miracle.

Being assured that such a proceeding on our side would not be regarded as an offensive attack upon beliefs dear to those who hold them, I undertook the task, and now fulfil my engagement, though it is not without a strong unwillingness, arising from the fear that I may, by some oversight, let slip phrases that may needlessly wound some of my hearers; or, what would be still worse, fail in expressing my own profound reverence for the subject of the alleged miracle of which I propose to treat.

I am not one of them whose zeal for Science would suffer him to "botanise upon his mother's grave," and I shrink from speaking of even the bodily frame of the greatest moral genius the world has seen as if it were a fit subject for physiological study. Indeed, if I thought that the attempt to clear away some of the mist which has so long shrouded and obscured the real grandeur of Jesus of Nazareth–and which has, in my judgment, degraded him from his unique place, as the realised ideal of almost perfect humanity, to a mere niche in the pantheon of deifications–could be justly interpreted as an indication of want of veneration for him, I should be disposed, for my own sake, if for no better reason, to treat of some other miracle.

But, on this ground, the miracle of the Resurrection has an advantage. By the nature of the case, Jesus himself cannot have professed to have worked this miracle; and I see no reason for holding him responsible for the opinions which have been held respecting the occurrence, if it was no miracle. In the next place, [2] we have all been talking at this miracle, though not of it. Moreover, there are persons courageous enough to affirm that it is the best-established of all miracles, and that the doctrine of Jesus stands or falls by it–both propositions from which, in passing, I may express my utter dissent. Finally, the subject-matter of this particular miracle is such as I may appropriately deal with, for the affirmation of the occurrence of the miracle involves the proposition that a dead organism has been made to live. Whether an organism said to be dead has been revivified or not a is a question of evidence, and must be decided by the general laws of evidence. But whether the organism said to be dead was really dead or not so, is a question of biology. It therefore falls within the range of those questions with which it is my ordinary business to concern myself. I may therefore be permitted to deal with the question exactly as if it were one respecting which I expected to be called as an expert before some medico-legal tribunal. And I shall state the case as it is put by the three Synoptical Gospels, assuming that the statements upon which they are all agreed are true; and leaving on one side those points on which they disagree, or respecting which one only testifies.

Jesus of Nazareth was affixed to a cross, and remained in that position for a period of not more than six, nor less that three hours. He then suddenly ceased to exhibit any signs of life. The body was taken down by certain of his friends, wrapped in linen, and placed in a rock sepulchre, the mouth of which was barred by a large stone, the same evening.

Of what happened between the time of deposition in the sepulchre and the early morning of the next day but one, there is no evidence. But, at the period last mentioned, some of the friends of Jesus visited the tomb, and found the body gone.

On the same day, several persons saw Jesus alive and spoke with him.

This I apprehend to be a full and fair statement of all the facts of the case about which the witnesses tell the same story. I, for my part, see no reason for doubting its general accuracy. Moreover, it appears to me to be quite possible to accept the final conclusion of the followers and friends of Jesus, that God had raised him from the dead, if we are careful to attach to their words the significance which they attached to them and if we avoid those modern connota[3]tions of which they certainly had as little conception as the ordinary mass of people at the present day have.

A man left for dead on the field of battle at Sedan or Bazeilles, and picked up by some kind-hearted peasant after six-and-thirty hours of unconsciousness, would say, and very justly, in one sense, that he owes his life to God; that God preserved him, that without the help of God, he had been a dead man. Still more would the Palestinian Jew, to whom God was immanent in a sense few Western people realise, but which is still familiar enough to the Oriental, see in such a restoration to life of a man who was dead in the only sense of the word they comprehended, an event only to be understood as the result of a direct intervention of the Deity.

But if the case is put to me as a question of physiology–if I am asked whether the facts here stated afford sufficient proof of the propositions which theological speculators have based upon them–I reply that so far from being proof, they are not even evidence. They are hopelessly and utterly irrelevant to the issue.

For the theological speculator, thrusting aside the modest and, as I believe, substantially truthful statement in which the Evangelists concur, will have us accept two propositions, which, we may safely assume, neither Matthew nor Mark, nor even Luke, the "physician" himself, could have comprehended.

1. That this body of Jesus of Nazareth died in the strict sense of modern physiology.

2. That this mere dead organic fabric was miraculously re-endowed with the composition, structure, and functions which it possessed before death, and became a sound and healthy human body.

Now I affirm, without the slightest hesitation, that if I ventured, before the medico-legal tribunal which I have imagined, to maintain that the facts of the case, as established by the concurrent testimony of the witnesses, offer the slightest justification for such conclusions as these, the lawyers, who understand the rules of evidence, would regard me as a fool; while the biologists, who understand what is needed to prove the occurrence of death, would, I fear, look upon me as something worse, inasmuch as they would be aware that I was asserting that which I knew to be untrue.

The former would probably look up Dr. Carpenter's "Human Physiology," and would read me such a passage as the following–:

[4] "The state of Syncope is sometimes so complete, that neither can the heart's action be perceived, nor any respiratory movements be observed, all consciousness and powers of movement being at the same time abolished; and yet recovery has spontaneously taken place, which could scarcely have been the case, if all vital action had been suspended" (p.904). And I should further be asked if I had ever heard of the history, avouched by competent witnesses, of the Indian Fakeer restored to life after burial for three days, under the direct superintendence of an English officer, and who, when disinterred, was quite corpse-like, and no pulsation could be detected in the heart or in the arteries; the means of restoration employed were chiefly warmth to the vertex and friction for the body and limbs."

The cross-examination of the physiologist would be still more severe, and I should be obliged to make the following damaging admissions:

1. There is a broad distinction to be drawn between somatic death or the cessation of the obvious functions of the living body, which result from the activities of the molecules living of the body–and molecular death, which is the cessation of those activities. If a wound-up watch should stop, because a hair had got into the escapement, it might be said to be somatically dead; but if it should stop because the materials of its spring and of its wheels had become soft and pasty, it would be molecularly dead. From the one condition, the watchmaker could readily restore it to activity, but the other would be irrevocable stoppage.

So, in the animal body, after somatic death, even though the obvious functions may have been long suspended, restoration is possible; but there is every reason to believe that molecular death is final and irreparable.

2. The fundamental physiological point in the story of the Resurrection is the proof, whether molecular death did or did not occur. but it is one of the most difficult of problems to determine whether, in any given case, molecular death has taken place or not.

It is well known that many animals such as the common wheel animalcules, can be dried and reduced to a condition of apparently lifeless matter; that they may remain in this condition for weeks or months, and that yet when placed in water, they speedily pass into full vital activity.

[5] In this case, somatic death has taken place, and even (so far as our means of investigation enable us to judge) a negative molecular death, I mean a cessation of all manifestations of vital activity. Yet the molecular structure of the living matter remains; the works of the watch are, so to speak, jammed by the withdrawal of something essential to their mobility, and when this substance, in the present instance water, is restored, they go on again. In such a case as this, there is no test by which we can judge whether molecular death has taken place, or not, except moistening the creature. If it comes to life again, we say it has never been dead. But this is a petitio principii. In the case of the higher animal organisms, it is not certain that there is any single absolutely trustworthy test of irreparable molecular death. But there are three indications of the occurrence of molecular death upon which reliance may be confidently placed.

The first, is the occurrence of death-stiffening, or rigor mortis ; the second, is the fall of the temperature of a warm-blooded animal to that of the surrounding medium; the third, is the commencement of general putrefaction.

It is safe, in the present state of knowledge, to assume that molecular death has really set in if these three signs are present; if they are not present, it is wholly impossible to declare that irrecoverable dissolution has occurred.

All these statements must be admitted. They are part of common, every-day physiological knowledge. But having admitted these propositions of my examiner–if I further had to admit that the case, as stated, does not contain an iota of evidence bearing upon them; if I had to admit that it is just as likely as not that the death of Jesus was somatic and not molecular; if I had to admit that the friends of the teacher, who saw no harm in healing the sick on the sabbath, might themselves see no sin in rescuing their loved master from the grave at the cost of sabbath-breaking; if I had to admit that it is quite possible that he may have been brought to life after thirty-six hours of somatic death, by means such as those which restored the Fakeer after three-days' persistence in a like state; if I had to make all these fatal admissions, what would become of my credit for honesty, if I still maintained that there was, I will not say good evidence in support of the miraculous nature of the Resurrection, but so much as a shadow of justification for professing to believe in it?

[6] Not only is that justification absent now, but it can never have existed. It would be at once foolish and revolting to suggest that Joseph of Arimathea, or any of the sorrowing friends who bore the body of their beloved Master to his resting-place, looked upon it with the eye of a physiologist; but if Galen himself had formed one of that grief-stricken little company, the brief moment before the white linen cloth had reverently hidden the corpse from observation would have yielded him no sufficient opportunity for observation; and even if the opportunity had sufficed, Galen himself, without modern appliances, could have given no opinion worth having.

Therefore it is as absurd as it is repugnant to imagine such an investigation. But if no such investigation did take place, the question whether Jesus died or not, in our modern scientific sense of the word, not only never can be answered, but never could be answered. And if it is not possible for us to say whether the body of Jesus underwent molecular death or not, it would be a mere futility to discuss the further question, whether he was miraculously resuscitated or not.

The students of physical science are not unfrequently told that their pursuits unfit them for the estimation of moral probability. And it may be so, for I am afraid that to those who are accustomed to severe reasoning, either in the province of Science or in that of Law, reasoning from 'moral probability' is apt to be regarded as a process of accumulating inconclusive arguments, in the hope that a great heap of them may, at least, look as firm as one good demonstration.

But, on the other hand, we have one advantage. We are daily, and by rough discipline, taught to attach a greater and greater responsibility to the utterance of the momentous words, 'I believe.' The man of science who commits himself to even one statement which turns out to be devoid of good foundation loses somewhat of his reputation among his fellows, and if he be guilty of the same error often he loses not only his intellectual, but his moral standing among them. For it is justly felt that errors of this kind have their root rather in the moral than in the intellectual nature.

Doubtless, men thus sharply disciplined, are apt to apply their own standards of right and wrong universally. And when such a [7] story as the miraculous version of the Resurrection is presented to them for acceptance, they not only decline to believe it, but they assert that, from their point of view, it would be a moral dereliction to pretend: to believe it. Looking at fidelity to truth as the highest of all human duties, they regard with feelings approaching to abhorrence, that cynical infidelity which, when Reason reports "No evidence," and Conscience warns that intellectual honesty means absolute submission to evidence, attempts to drown the voice of both by loud assertion, backed by appeals to the weakness and to the cowardice of human nature.



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Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden