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.


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    Awesome! Thanks for the reply. And thanks for the links to more reading material about this.

  2. tuatara says

    I have really enjoyed reading about your journey through this subject.

    One source that above all others reinforced my own sceticism of christianity (my first experience of feeling embarrased for some one elses beliefs was the one and only time I attended sunday school at age 7) is the excellent book “Jesus the Man” by Barbara Thiering. It was originally published under the title “Jesus and the riddle of the dead sea scrolls”
    Anyone with a genuinely sceptical interest in the origins of christianity would do a lot worse than reading it.

    It was not well received by most theologians which is a good enough reason to recommend it highly!

  3. Allison says

    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.

    We’ve seen a lot of non-religious examples of this, too. That’s what QAnon is about, for instance.

    However, it’s not unreasonable to be a little skeptical of “evidence to the contrary,” since “evidence” is not always reliable, sometimes even being a flat-out lie. QAnon et al. are simply this taken to an extreme.

    Also, what is considered “reasonable” or “obvious” evidence to the contrary (or in support of one’s beliefs) depends upon the worldview you’ve grown up with. That’s why it took so long for science as we know it today to develop — people’s ideas of evidence had to hit upon something that came up with beliefs that had practical applications that worked. In fact, I would say that for most people, the “evidence” for believing science is all the miracles that it’s able to produce.

  4. StevoR says

    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.

    That is classic! LOL! 😉

  5. Owlmirror says

    [Trying to post again, with link coded out]

    There has been recent excitement regarding the Lubavitch movement, due to tunnels being excavated under the main headquarters of 770 Eastern Parkway.

    I am particularly interested in the doubling-down of death-denialism by the fervent Messianists/Meshichists. They don’t claim that the Rebbe resurrected; they just deny that he died.

    Over time, some students began to institute practices stemming from their fervent messianic beliefs. During prayers and gatherings, they began to place Schneerson’s empty chair in the sanctuary to symbolize his continued presence. They also began to place his lectern in its old place during gatherings, as if setting it up for an address Schneerson was to give. At the time, these small acts weren’t particularly controversial. “It wasn’t a belief that he was physically sitting in the chair,” Sam recalled. “It was a symbolic thing.”

    [ . . . but time passed, and the Messianic faction became more passionate . . . ]

    A significant flashpoint centered around control of literature publication. For decades, Kehos, the movement’s main publishing arm, issued most of Chabad’s literature, including writings by previous leaders as well as prayer books and other religious works. But Kehos, too, was affiliated with the anti-Meshichists. According to Lerner, “The Meshichists needed the Kehos literature, but any mention of the rebbe had that long posthumous epitaph: ‘may the memory of the righteous and holy be blessed.’ So the Tzfatim would either tear the page out or put a sticker over it. They had to use the literature published by the other side, but they’d edit it, deface it, to fit their own reality.”

    One notable incident in 1999 involved the defacing of a plaque that marked the cornerstone in the shul at 770. The plaque contained the epitaph “may his holy memory be blessed,” typically reserved for the deceased. In the middle of the night, two Tzfati students defaced the plaque by scratching out the offending phrase. After administrators tried to restore it, it was defaced again.

    By the late ‘90s, the Tzfatim had achieved substantial control over 770, and the Detroitniks had, for all intents and purposes, conceded their territory. By the early 2000s, the Tzfatim grew more and more radical, their denial of Schneerson’s death grew increasingly literal, and they developed elaborate sets of rituals around the invisible rebbe. Many of the practices they instituted appeared to many community members to be dangerous and delusional. They have nonetheless continued until the present day.

    One of the most emblematic Tzfati rituals was the creation of the “shvil” — or pathway — which involved parting a crowd as if to make way for the rebbe to pass through. To the Tzfatim, the rebbe’s presence was so profound that it could almost be felt, even if unseen.

    Other practices included setting up a lectern and microphone as if Schneerson were about to deliver a live talk. A recording of one of Schneerson’s past addresses would then be played, creating the illusion of a live speech.

    During some gatherings, the Tzfatim began to file past the rebbe’s chair as if to receive wine from his goblet. Another practice was an imitation of Schneerson handing out dollars for recipients to give to charity, which he had done regularly during his lifetime — though even many Tzfatim thought this was going too far.

    These actions created a bewildering atmosphere for those who did not share the Tzfatim’s fervor for Meshichism. It also created a sense of chaos for Crown Heights residents — even for those who were themselves Meshichist but more moderate in their views.

    (In the original article, there are links under some of the words to Youtube videos showing the various practices being described. I skimmed through them, but even seen quickly, you can see what performative collective death-denialism looks like.

  6. Owlmirror says

    This is interesting because it describes one case of deconversion from Messianism, based on basic Jewish doctrine from the well-known and revered historical scholar, Rambam aka Maimonides:

    Rabbi S. began by explaining how the Rambam (Maimonides) was the only rabbinic decisor to matter when it came to issues of the Messianic Age. Maimonides concluded his magnum opus, “Mishneh Torah,” with two chapters on the enigmatic events of the Messianic Age, where he lay out the criteria to discern whether the purported Messiah is in fact a legitimate Messiah or an imposter. Following the criteria, which include building the Temple in Jerusalem and gathering all the Jews back to Israel, Maimonides states the following:

    “If he did not succeed to this degree or was killed, he surely is not the redeemer promised by the Torah. Rather, he should be considered as all the other proper and complete kings of the Davidic dynasty who died. God caused him to arise only to test the many, as Daniel 11:35 states: ‘And some of the wise men will stumble, to try them, to refine, and to clarify until the appointed time, because the set time is in the future.’” (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, The Laws of Kings and Their Wars, Chapter 11:4).

    After quoting the Rambam, Rabbi S. became animated and declared: “You see, the Rambam is very clear! Since the Rebbe did not build the Temple in Jerusalem and gather all the Jews back to Israel prior to his death, then he is not the long-awaited Messiah. An honest reading of Maimonides leaves no doubt that the Rebbe’s death disqualifies him from being the Messiah.”

    It’s interesting to me that many of his fellow students walked out after this basic lesson in orthodox belief — which is of course heresy to Chabad Messianism.

    Rambam’s statements are also why most Orthodox Jews will not convert to Chabad Messianism. Yet Lubavitchers, despite being in most ways ultra-Orthodox, simply ignore or reject that part of what the Rambam wrote.

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