My nonconversion story, follow-up: Resurrection addendum

I hadn’t initially planned this post as part of the series, but OverlappingMagisteria had a question in comments that I thought deserved a full post to answer. On top of that, I also wanted to thank you all, because I was delighted by all the interest, the questions, and the positive comments. I spent months planning this series (not to mention years prior to that of having it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to write), but I didn’t know whether anyone would actually want to read it; I’d braced myself for everyone either being bored or telling me the whole thing was stupid. So, I’m thrilled that people liked reading it, and thank you for all the feedback.

By the way, I was also extremely amused that the site (which seems, as far as I can see, to be some sort of bot-run Christian site) picked up the last part of my series and posted the entire thing on their site. It’s very bad form that they’ve made it look like work from their site rather than crediting it properly, and in any other situation I’d be highly annoyed by that; but the fact that their bot has managed to post something explicitly anti-apologetic is so delightful that I’m just going to leave it be. I hope someone sees it and finds it useful.

Anyway, on to the question I’m answering here:

Did you ever have any resolution to your question of why the disciples would say that Jesus was resurrected? Or did that just fall away along with the rest of Christianity with what you described in this post?

Yes! Yes to both, in fact; once I’d finally established that the answer clearly wasn’t ‘Because he actually was resurrected AND, HEY, THE BIT ABOUT HELL IS TRUE AS WELL’, I stopped worrying about it. But the topic still interested me, so I was thrilled when, years later, I started finding potential answers on the Internet. Back in Part 3, where I first mentioned this, I did link in passing to the two articles on the subject that I’d found most helpful; but it’s probably worth writing a bit more about it, since it was important to me and is probably important to at least some of the people out there. So here we are.

First, however, a pre-emptive point. There are now a number of apologists trying to counteract these arguments, and the counter-arguments most often used boil down to ‘That can’t be the explanation because it doesn’t explain X, Y, and Z about the story’. What that doesn’t take into account, however, is that the early development of Christianity was – like most turning points in history – almost certainly multifactorial. It’s perfectly reasonable to look for a combination of plausible events that could explain it, rather than holding out for The One Uberexplanation To Explain Them All.

Hence… yes, I do know these explanations aren’t sufficent in themselves to account for why the gospels report multiple group appearances/a physical Jesus who could share the disciples’ dinner and show off his wounds. But that’s a total non-issue to me, because that has never been the part I had trouble explaining; even reading those stories as a teenager, I could see how exaggeration as the story got passed along, or people flat-out making things up to make it sound better to potential converts, could account for those parts. Similarly, ever since I read Maccoby’s The Mythmaker I’ve known that Paul’s influence is the most likely explanation for how Christianity developed such anti-Jewish ideas as traditional Christian salvation theology and a Messiah who was divine. (While Maccoby’s theories are highly speculative and it’s entirely plausible that he had the details wrong, we do have good evidence that Paul was highly influential in the church’s development, was going with what he believed theologically even where this conflicted with what the Jerusalem group were teaching, and had a much more Hellenised educational background than the disciples seem to have had, so we have a recipe for things going off in a new and unexpected direction.)

So, I was already OK as far as explanations for those parts were concerned. The part of the puzzle I was looking to fill in was, specifically, how the disciples could have originally come to believe that Jesus worked miracles and was resurrected. (And, as per apologist teaching, why the early church’s opponents wouldn’t just go and retrieve Jesus’s dead body as evidence if he was really still dead; however, I now recognise the obvious answer to that one because I’m no longer a teenager with an utter lack of understanding of how other human beings work. Just in case there’s anyone out there who’s still wondering who isn’t me or an apologist, the short answer is that, however much people might want to prove a point, they do not normally resort to grave-robbing in order to do so. You’re welcome.)

So; explanations. Let us now flash back to the turn of the century, when I found the website and first read historian Richard Carrier’s detailed multipart essay Why I Don’t Buy The Resurrection Story.

It was very much a ‘Where has this been all my life?’ moment (rhetorical question to which the answer was ‘Nonexistent, for the most part’; Carrier only wrote it a few years before I found it online). It was exactly the kind of detailed breakdown and debunking that I’d longed for. By the way, it also indirectly became how I found FreeThoughtBlogs in the first place. I randomly wondered one evening many years later what that guy who wrote the resurrection debunking was writing these days, and it turned out that at the time the answer was ‘a blog on a blogging platform that seems to have quite a few interesting posts on; should hang around and check this out’. And the rest is history. (Including the part where Carrier left the site three months later under a major cloud and then tried to sue us, so that was an unforeseen twist in the whole story. But I digress.)

Anyway, Carrier did exactly what I’d always wanted to see someone do; he went through various possible explanations in detail. He thought the most likely explanation to be that the disciples had had some sort of grief hallucinations that they took for appearances of a resurrected Jesus, and that the story spread from there; however, he also weighed up the chances of other explanations, concluding that even the vanishingly unlikely ones couldn’t be ruled out completely. Finally, I had some plausible suggestions for possible explanations as to what could have ignited the resurrection belief.

Carrier also, separately, wrote about how common it was at the time for people to claim and/or believe miracle stories. Apologists often talk as though the disciples would have been hardcore naturalistic skeptics, or at least would have had to convince hardcore naturalist skeptics in order to get anywhere; but those assumptions don’t really hold up. I began to see that the question here could more accurately be framed as “In a culture where belief in divine miracles was widespread, how could a group of people who desperately wanted to believe that their admired leader/their Messianic hopes were still alive have possibly come to believe such a thing?”, and to realise that perhaps that wasn’t, in fact, the kind of inexplicable mystery that required nothing short of a genuine bona fide resurrection to explain.

The other particularly helpful article was one I found several years later. I had by then discovered the blog of postgraduate history student Matthew Ferguson, who has produced some delightfully interesting posts debunking apologetic claims (such as his superbly comprehensive takedown of the oft-made claim that we have more evidence for Jesus’s life than for Caesar’s). This particular post, however, was a guest post; Kris Komarnitsky’s The Rationalization Hypothesis: Is a Vision of Jesus Necessary for the Rise of the Resurrection Belief?

Komarnitsky’s hypothesis builds on a feature of human psychology that’s been increasingly well explored in recent years; our responses to what is formally known as ‘cognitive dissonance’. In simple terms, cognitive dissonance refers to the sensation of holding contradictory beliefs or values, and the study of cognitive dissonance looks at the effects this has and the various ways in which we deal with it.

In most cases, we’re talking about simple ordinary day-to-day issues (for example, if you’ve ever wanted to have that bar of chocolate but also wanted to lose weight, that’s cognitive dissonance), but it’s also known that people who desperately want to hang onto a belief in the face of the evidence can sometimes come up with extreme rationalisations. Such as, for example, people who are faced with evidence that should logically shatter a powerfully-held religious belief. Some people deal with this by reluctantly accepting that their religious belief was incorrect, some deal with it by ignoring evidence to the contrary… and sometimes people, unable to do the latter or to face the former, manage to find a new explanation that will let them hang onto the previous one in the face of evidence to the contrary, even if the explanation seems to fly in the face of evidence or logical sense. Komarnitsky presents several case histories of religious or cult groups in whom this behaviour has been observed, of which all are interesting but the most notable, in this context, is the last one; the case of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Schneerson was a rabbi widely believed by Hasidic Jews to be the long-awaited Messiah… a belief barely dented by his death from old age in June 1994. That’s right; just a few years after I struggled with apologists’ insistence that nothing short of an actual resurrection could have led Jews to believe that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive, a group of Jews started insisting that their dead would-be Messiah was still alive. Almost thirty years later, his followers still insist he’s the Messiah, and there have been several reported sightings of him since his death.

I haven’t seen much about the Lubavitcher Rebbe in apologetics, in case you were wondering, but I did find this essay by Michael Brown insisting that the differences between this story and the Jesus story are enough to prove that the claims of Jesus’s resurrection can’t possibly be due to cognitive dissonance but must be the real thing. It’s reminiscent of those God of the gaps arguments in which the gaps keep shrinking; a ‘resurrection of the gaps’ argument. Make of it what you will, but the fact remains that we do now have conclusive proof that it’s possible for people to become convinced that their dead would-be Messiah is still alive even in the absence of an actual resurrection. I think it’s pushing it to require a documented example of a naturally-caused situation that turned out exactly the same way as the Jesus stories before believing that those stories might have been caused by something other than a genuine resurrection.

But, finally… what I’ve learned is that it’s OK not to know exactly what happened, and that that doesn’t mean we have to default to believing in the resurrection. When my daughter was little and would wake up scared in the night, she would sob to me that she’d heard a funny noise and thought it was a ghost coming to get her. And, when I didn’t know what had caused whatever she’d heard, she would say “But how do you know it’s not a ghost?” So there I was, in the middle of the night and half asleep, trying to explain to a three-year-old that the probability of our house being the one place ghosts would ever show up after ghost-hunters had utterly failed to find convincing evidence of them anywhere else was actually negligibly low, unlike, say, the probability of the funny noise having been air in the pipes or some other natural explanation. And, no, I don’t think I explained it as well as that at the time, though I think I eventually got the message across. But I also got the message myself.

Setting aside, for a moment, anything you do or don’t believe about the existence of gods or miracles or resurrections (or, if you prefer, assuming for the sake of this argument that all of them might exist)… Christian theology would require me to believe that Yahweh raised Jesus from the dead in order for him to show himself to what can be calculated on even the most optimistic estimates to be an infinitesmally small fraction of all humanity, in order to get across a message that was supposedly vital for the salvation of all of said humanity despite conflicting with what Yahweh explicitly told his people in the past. And, yes, yes, gods are gods and they get to do whatever they want even if it seems incomprehensible to mortals and all that, but the problem is that Christian theology also requires me to believe that Yahweh considers this message of vital importance for every human soul to hear… and that is extremely at odds with a method of delivery that would miss so many (not to mention that it would be deliberately ignored by so many others on the grounds of contradicting what were supposedly Yahweh’s express words). It’s not just that Christianity asks me to believe incredibly improbable things, it’s that it asks me to believe impossibly inconsistent things.

So, when Christianity is claiming that all of the above is the explanation for a sequence of events for which we do, in fact, now know of plausible natural explanations, then, no, I’m not going to believe that that is the case. Yes, I’ve loved getting actual alternative explanations after all the years of wondering. But, even without knowing exactly what caused the funny noises that my daughter heard in the middle of the night, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t a ghost; and even without knowing the exact sequence of events that led the disciples and then Paul to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, I still think it’s fair to conclude that it wasn’t Jesus actually rising from the dead.