It’s funny, but one of the best sources for evidence against Christianity is often believers themselves. And I’m not talking about ordinary garden-variety hypocrisy either. I mean arguments and tactics that make it entirely plausible to conclude that Christians are making the whole thing up, even intentionally so, yet somehow without admitting to themselves that this is what they are doing. If you can bear with me for one last paragraph from Ben’s comments, I think I have a sterling example.
For example, let’s imagine the following scenario: Christ rose from the dead. After he folded out of our space-time manifold, the disciples started to preach that he is the Lord. The Jews wished to quench the movement so they, of course, accused the disciples of lies and deception. To defend themselves (and since they can’t produce the resurrected Christ) the disciples point to the only piece of concrete evidence widely accepted: The empty tomb. The Jews reply that the disciples stole the body. The disciples, desperate to defend the truth, resort to untruth, and invent a story about guards.
That one paragraph really tells us all we need to know about the true origins of Christianity. Ben wants to believe that the resurrection is real, wants it so badly that he spontaneously invents embellishments (“he folded out of our space-time manifold”) intended to make the story sound more plausible in the current cultural context. He’s not motivated by a desire to deceive anyone (except possibly himself), yet it never even occurs to him that there’s anything questionable about mixing plot devices from Doctor Who into the original gospel story, as a way of enhancing the latter. And that’s just one detail in one paragraph by one believer. How many other culturally-significant details were added to story in precisely the same fashion?
But that’s not the best part. The best part is that he is adding this embellishment in order to give himself a reason to continue to believe the story even when he knows the gospel writers were lying about the details. He admits that Matthew’s story about the guards, presented as “eyewitness testimony” of the truth of the resurrection, is actually not a true story at all. He knows that Matthew, as a witness, is willing and able to lie about the resurrection in order to convince people that it really happened. And yet, because Ben wants to believe in a resurrection, he spontaneously invents a whole scenario just to lend credence to notion that the resurrection could still be true even if all the evidence for it were a lie.
Now, Ben will tell you that this is not what he meant, and that he’s not committed to saying that his version of the story is any more true than Matthew’s—he’s just suggesting one possible way the resurrection could still be true despite the New Testament reporting lies about it. But that’s not the point. The point is that believers are willing to spontaneously invent entire alternative scenarios to support their belief in an actual resurrection no matter what the nature of the evidence is.
That’s all it takes to create the entire resurrection story out of nothing more than the desire to have a resurrected savior. All you need is for the first century to have had its share of believers like Ben, contributing spontaneously-invented details in order to support belief in a risen Lord, circulating stories, and converging on whatever collection of invented details produces the most convincing narrative. And none of them, at any point, worrying that they are lying or being at all dishonest when they spontaneously invent the details that “must have been true” in order for the resurrection to be “real.”
In that kind of environment, it’s a lot easier to get apostles who die as martyrs to the truth of the gospel, because after they die, you can tell whatever story you like about how they died. Anything that makes the gospel more plausible must be true, because it reinforces what God would want you to believe. And conversely, anything that discredits the gospel, like, say, believers denying the faith (as Pliny reports they did fairly easily), is quickly forgotten in the context of evangelizing. All that matters is thinking of ways the story could actually be true regardless of the facts.
This is all it takes to generate a myth of resurrection and salvation. You don’t even need an actual Jesus. Just this. Once the story itself becomes so important that you’ll think up ways to believe it even when you know people are lying to you about it, the facts become irrelevant. Everyone will believe whatever seems right in their own eyes.