What’s the Best Explanation?

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 11/01/2019

Imagine driving home one evening to find a broken window on the side of your house. As you go inside, you realize your 80-inch 4K television is missing (the one you just bought for the big game!). You glance down and notice footprints that lead from the broken window to the missing television. Immediately, you ask yourself a question: What happened? You’ve now begun a common yet powerful and rational process that is also a tool that can point people to God.

This type of thinking is known as abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. Two steps are involved. First, you gather facts, Second, you ask, what’s the best explanation for those facts? Your answer must make sense of all the facts, not just some of them.

In the scenario I just mentioned, you observed three facts: a broken window, a missing television, and footprints. The natural next step is to ask, what’s the best explanation for those facts? Suppose you surmise that a tornado blew through your neighborhood. It broke the window and sucked the television out. That probably wouldn’t be the best explanation. Though a tornado can break a window and even suck a television out of your house, it can’t account for the footprints (or the fact that nothing else was broken or missing in your house). The tornado only explains two of the three facts, but not all of them.

Your next thought is that maybe a thief stole your television. He (or she…women love those new 4K televisions too!) broke through the window, tracked dirt through the house, and stole your television. Notice your thief explanation makes sense of all the facts, not just some of them. It has the greatest explanatory power (of the two theories) and is the best explanation.

Scientists and researchers engage in this type of reasoning. An archaeologist who discovers a sharp, pointy rock asks, “Is the shape of this rock the result of natural forces, or did a person chisel it for the purpose of making an arrowhead? Which is the best explanation?” A detective who finds a dead body in an alley asks, “Did this person die of natural causes, suicide, or was he killed?” He gathers clues and asks, “What theory best explains the facts of this case?”

This type of reasoning is equally at home in many apologetics-related subjects. We can use it to make a case for the Christian worldview. Here are two quick examples.

With recent advances in technology, scientists can study microscopic things like DNA molecules. It turns out DNA contains a four-character digital code. In humans, this code contains the design blueprints for making a human body. Geneticist and biochemist Craig Venter, known for developing the first draft sequence of the human genome, says, “Life is basically the result of an information process, a software process. Our genetic code is our software, and our cells are dynamically, constantly reading our genetic code.” The process is far more elaborate than can be mentioned here, but we do know at least three facts. 1) DNA contains a four-character digital code. This is nothing short of information, analogous to computer software. 2) The code found in DNA is the blueprint for how to construct every cell, tissue, and organ in our body. 3) There are systems in the body that read the DNA code and then manufacture tiny parts based on that code. These microparts assemble to form cells, tissues, and organs.

Given these three facts, we can use abductive reasoning to determine the best explanation. What best accounts for the design blueprints encoded in our DNA? We know from our universal experience that program code comes from a programmer. Even the simplest smartphone apps require an intelligent mind to write software code. The same should be true of DNA. There must be an intelligent mind that provides design blueprints in the four-character digital code present in the “software” of our DNA.

This same reasoning can be applied to the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Historians (even secular or atheist ones) have acknowledged a dozen facts pertaining to the death of Jesus. Four of those facts are: 1) Jesus died by crucifixion. 2) Jesus’ tomb was empty three days later. 3) The disciples of Jesus had experiences in which they saw the risen Jesus. 4) Paul, who once persecuted Christians and the Church, had a dramatic reversal in his behavior and began proclaiming he encountered the risen Christ.

What’s the best explanation for those four facts? Although naturalistic explanations (Jesus swooned, disciples lied, stolen body, wrong tomb, etc.) can explain some of the facts, none of them can account for all the facts. For example, claiming the disciples visited the wrong tomb can account for fact 1, but not facts 2,3, and 4. Claiming the disciples stole the body can account for facts 1 and 2, but not 3 and 4. The only explanation that seems to make sense of all the facts is that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That theory has the most explanatory power.

This type of reasoning is incredibly powerful because it draws upon a well-accepted principle of reasoning. It’s the approach I take when I’m training believers on these topics, and it’s one you can use too.