The AA Delusion

As fascinated as I am over the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous—a physician and stockbroker who created a mass movement because they couldn’t stop drinking—I would not be much of a freethinker if I didn’t offer a more candid analysis.  The Big Book, despite containing some obvious truths, is a muddled piece of work that seems to only intrigue its members but not the experts.

Although it contains many pithy statements to give it its appeal, the book is far away from a scientific understanding of alcoholism and substance abuse.  Even though it is wrong in its details, the approach works for many (iii) by creating a group consciousness that their pseudo-selfish (i) behavior is destructive to them and to others.  The group acts to reinforce the new social norms created.

Too Smart For Own Good

Now we come to another problem, the intellectually self-sufficient man or woman… far too smart for own good… blow ourselves into prideful balloons… [2]

The theme throughout the book is that the ego, self-will, or willpower is something to be smashed and looked down upon.  The ego is the part of us that we feel when we self-indulge—I want, and I need—and helps us to differentiate ourselves—I am better than he, she, or they—as well as engages in self-appraisals—I did this and everyone needs to know.  The ego is the ugly part in all of us.

But the ego is also the part of us that helps us to advance in life since it drives us to compete with others.  The problem with the Big Book is that it generalizes the ego and equates it to sin.  This isn’t surprising given the Protestant background of the founders, and the same fear tactics are used from religion concerning over-indulgence.  But a big ego in itself doesn’t cause addiction (ii).

The book contradicts itself often and one noteworthy paradox is that the same will and self that is condemned is the same will and self that helps the member to learn new habits and stay clean and sober.  Maybe the founders anticipated members to be critical—”far too smart for own good”—of the newly learned beliefs and hence they decided to denigrate the concept of the ego altogether.

The Self-Centered Man (iv)

Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles. Driven by a hundred forms of fear, self-delusion, self-seeking, and self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. [3]

Selfishness can’t be the cause of addiction.  We usually stand to benefit when we are being selfish and alcoholics and addicts are beyond the stage of pleasure.  They are driven by an obsession to use the substance and can act compulsively on that impulse.  Selfishness is just not an accurate description especially since their willpower has been hijacked by a very strong desire to use.

Even in the beginning stages of addiction, a member that drinks occasionally would be no more selfish (ii) than someone that indulges in chocolate.  From an outsider, it looks like a selfish act since the attention is on them, but in the long run, there is no net benefit for them, and they end up harming themselves.  At best, we have to settle for a label of quasi or pseudo selfish [1].

The Big Book of course gets it right when it says that arrogance and over-indulgence usually backfire on us, but that does not mean that these qualities cause addiction.  Furthermore, there is no shortage of grandiose personalities who are not addicts or alcoholics, and there has to be the right situational and genetic factors that lend hand to creating what we would call an alcoholic or addict.

A Harmless Delusion

We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. [3]

During the course of the day, many of us will think and feel that we are better than average in capabilities, appearance, and intelligence.  This can’t be true if these traits have a bell-shaped curve.  But we operate best when we delude ourselves into thinking that we are slightly better than others.  So is there anything wrong with members believing that God is helping them stay sober?

We should be careful to not dismiss members out of hand because there are well-understood benefits to surrendering ourselves to something greater than ourselves.  This concept is endorsed by Western psychology and even evolutionary psychology as a way to deescalate the defense system (involuntary defeat system) which is what is activated in periods of failure, rejection, and stressors.

The founders wanted members to be demoralized, hence the humiliation of “My name is __, and I am an alcoholic”, so that they realized the severity of their problem.  Members often are in denial to protect their egos, so perhaps this method works in combination with surrendering their willpower to something greater than them so that they open up and address the problem.

But if we want an analysis of what is really going on, then members need to realize that believing in something that feels good doesn’t mean it’s grounded in reality.  A belief in God is optional but is probably harmless.


i) The best analysis that I have seen on AA was brought to my attention by Dr. David Allen.  Please see the references section [1].

ii) Two personality traits that are related to what we would think of as egotistical would be narcissistic and self-centeredness.  Addiction is correlated with these two traits but that does not mean that they cause addiction.

iii) An analysis of over 27 randomized controlled studies concludes that 42% of 10,565 participants of a 12-step approach will remain abstinent for a period of 1-year or more whereas only 35% would remain abstinent through other approaches.

iv) When I use the word man, I am implying the pronouns he, she, or they.

v) The group’s “serenity prayer”—”. …accept the things we can’t change, the courage to change what we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”— is powerful and although we may not know it in words, we intuitively do it all the time by letting go of concerns that are out of our control.


[1] Allen, Dr. David. “The 12 Steps of AA: A Translation.”  Psychology Today

[2] 12 Steps and 12 Traditions.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

[3] The Big Book.  Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc.

Hell, Christianity’s Most Damnable Doctrine

And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.  [Revelation 20]

This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown in the lake of fire.  [Revelation 20]

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. [John 3]

Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus, they will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. [2 Thessalonians]

This title is borrowed from a chapter in a book I reference often titled “The End of Christianity”, edited by John Loftus.  And this piece is of the same spirit and done in commemoration.  The first set of quotes shows how Christianity paints a ghastly image of judgment and hell that can reverberate in your soul (metaphor!), while the quote below aptly explains how I feel about hell.

What if I’m wrong, and what if this Christian thing is right?  … I get to the pearly gates and find out that I’m wrong.  “Say, well gentleman, I was mistaken.”  Is God going to be a peevish theology professor and say “too bad you bastard you are going to fry”?  If that’s God, then that’s a God not worth worshiping.  I’m going to hell in someone’s dogma anyway, Nation of Islam or Johavos Witness for example.  [Robert Price]


Some ask me why I have an obsession with Christianity.  I let them know that it’s because I have the drive to abolish falsehoods that haunt humanity, and Christianity is no exception.  But what has perturbed me as of late is Christianity’s haunting doctrine of hell.  Being judged and condemned to an eternity of punishment if you don’t follow the rules, that you may not have agreed to in the first place, is inherently totalitarian and doesn’t seem to be a fair system, to say the least.  This doctrine has affected members of my family—as they age, they seem to become more and more fearful of God’s judgment, or they become inordinately concerned with getting in his special favor.  We should not be living in unnecessary fear.  Some may argue that if it wasn’t for the potential wrath of God that man would sin egregiously and profusely.  They may have an argument because I’ve seen what fear can do to us homo sapiens, but I’d prefer that people rely on themselves, others, and punitive institutions to remain accountable for their actions and words.

I would like to shed some light on this doctrine of hell and figure out if there is any merit to it because as an agnostic I’m committing a grave sin.  But this is all very confusing since some liberal Protestants say I’m forgiven and will receive God’s grace regardless, while Catholics’ Catechism (book of doctrines), on the other hand, clearly states it’s a mortal sin (if not forgiven before death by repenting, I’m punishable to eternal hell).  Pope Francis in 2013, by contrast, said Jesus’ redemption is for all, even atheists, justified by a passage in the Gospel of Mark, but later rebuffed by the Vatican.  To be fair, in their attempt to be just, Catholicism even has legal jargon to explain what’s a mortal sin: it has to be grave in matters, committed with full knowledge, and have deliberate consent.  Still, these contradictions don’t surprise me as the Gospels and Epistles each have their own unique theology, and if you cherry-pick, which all denominations do, then the end result is this rainbow of doctrine you see.

Play with our Emotions

Before I start on the particulars of hell, I thought the following quote by Michael Shermer sums up the possible evolution of monotheistic faiths and how religion can manipulate our emotions, especially playing upon fear.

Religion is a social institution to create and promote myths, to encourage conformity and altruism, and to signal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of a community.  Around five thousand to seven thousand years ago, as bands and tribes began to coalesce into chiefdoms and states, government and religion co-evolved as social institutions to codify moral behaviors into ethical principles and legal rules, and God became the ultimate enforcer of the rules.  In the small populations of hunter-gatherer bands and tribes with a few dozen to a couple of hundred members, informal means of behavior control and social cohesion could be employed by capitalizing on the moral emotions, such as shaming someone through guilt for violating a social norm, or even excommunicating violators from the group. But when populations grew into the tens and hundreds of thousands, and eventually into millions of people, such informal means of enforcing the rules of society broke down because free riders and norm violators could more readily get away with cheating in large groups; something more formal was needed. This is one vital role that religion plays, such that even if violators think that they got away with a violation, believing that there is an invisible intentional agent who sees all and knows all and judges all can be a powerful deterrent of sin.

Pervasiveness of Hell

The concept of an afterlife, in general, is present in some way or another in most religions, with hell, in particular, being present in most modern religions with the exception of early Judaism and early Hinduism.  I don’t know the inter-dependencies of these religions, but it’s fascinating to note that most have some form of what we would call “hell”.  The best attempt I’ve seen at explaining the pervasiveness of belief in an afterlife is by Michael Shermer in his book titled, “The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths.”  To touch only on the religions with an influence on Christianity, Judaism, for example, like the notion of their heaven, has an ambiguous version of hell.  There is Sheol, where the spirits of the dead go, and Gehinnom, which is a dump that was constantly burning to which became a place for sinners – not until much later does hell become a place of actual punishment.  What’s unique about Judaism in contrast to Christianity’s concept of hell is that the punishment is temporary, not eternal.  In Greek mythology, there is an underworld, also known as Hades, containing a component known as Tartarus, which is the place where torment and suffering take place.  So Tartarus is to hell as Hades is to Sheol.  Christianity recycles these words and usage can be a bit different, but the point is that hell is referenced frequently and vehemently, in fact over twenty times in the New Testament.  It was a vivid belief back then, and it still thrives today in most denominations.

The Necessary Ingredient, Soul. 

As a confession, I do not accept Scripture as divinely inspired by the holy spirit nor as it being inerrant.  In fact, the more I study the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament the more I view it as a very human book indeed.  A descriptive analysis of what hell is to most Christian denominations includes a very unpleasant place of fire and torture, unlivable but yet mostly ongoing, and has an element of punishment for committing grave sins.  The details across denominations of how one goes to hell vary so much, which is typical, that it boggles the mind how anyone can conclusively agree with one over the other.  Besides, like most religious truths, this is all based on a priori reasoning or top-down deductive logic.  This is where one’s conclusions are based on-premises, in a more or less closed system, derived on reason alone—that is, there is zero empirical evidence for hell.  Not that truths can’t be ascertained deductively, like mathematics or syllogistical reasoning, but if the premises are false, then your conclusions and rationale are nothing more than fairytales.

To get back to how one gets to hell, we must first understand the concept of the soul.  For brevity, we’ll look at just how key denominations view the soul and see how it’s integral to the understanding of hell.  For starters, the concept of mind-body dualism and the immortality of the soul is completely foreign to the Bible; the immortality and separation of the soul from the body is a Greek phenomenon, espoused by Socrates and Aristotle.  Moreover, the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) uses the word soul (nephesh) to mean “life” or “vital breath”, and there is no equivalent English version of the word soul in Hebrew.  Moreover, the Jews believed in a whole-body resurrection not an ascension of the soul.  However, the Hebrew bible does say that the soul—a vague concept of life itself—can die and does go to Sheol upon death, regardless of status with God.  Also, some have argued that the bible has a notion of duality, see Luke 16:19–31 on Lazarus, 1 Samuel 28, and Luke 23:43.  Regarding the New Testament, it is a little more complicated and uses the Greek word psuche, which means “life”, while the word spirit is used interchangeably.  The apostle Paul generally describes death as “sleep” awaiting the final resurrection.  Although much is spoken about eternal life, nowhere is there a teaching of the immortality of the soul or of that of an explicit duality existing between mind and body.  These concepts were introduced by the Greeks and incorporated into church doctrine by the church fathers Origen of Alexandra and Augustine of Hippo and by the philosopher Thomas Aquinas.

How does it work?

So if you are a biblical inerrantist, then there may be some challenges to accepting the Greek’s version of the soul, for, conceptually, it is not found in the bible at all.  And yet it is one of the more popular beliefs of Christianity.  Changes to scripture or needs to establish doctrine are usually made to overcome common objections or to solve theological problems.  Although I can only widely speculate as for the need for immortality and duality of the soul, it is possible that it allows for immediate judgment, i.e., suffering, or exaltation, of the individual upon death since bodies don’t rise from the dead, which was the common expectation of the time.  Moreover, since the second coming has yet to come (and never will come), where universal resurrections would occur, this duration of time can pose a problem as the body does decay and disappear, so raising an immaterial, immortal soul would be a solution to that problem.  A universal resurrection is when all the dead from past to present get resurrected by Christ at the last judgment: see John Chapter 5:28-29.  And eschatology, so we know the theological discipline, is the part of theology concerned with death, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind [Webster’s Dictionary].

I’d say there are two broad categories that sum up how the soul interacts with hell.   For Catholics and Greek Orthodox, they believe that during the general resurrection and last judgment – when the second coming of Jesus Christ occurs to raise and judge all – those who are not worthy will be permanently separated from God and, of course, eternally punished for their sins.  One’s soul dies after committing a mortal sin (grave) and is separated from God if they don’t repent beforehand, but the venial (slight) sins get purified in purgatory, which is supposedly a less severe form of a transient hell.  And those lucky ones without any mortal sins go to heaven.  Also, all this occurs at the last judgment, where the soul is reunited with the body, but, confusingly, this does not necessarily mean that those that die don’t get judged immediately as well, in what’s known as the particular judgment—double judgment?  Most Protestants, on the other hand, believe in conditional immortality – that is, the soul does not live until the resurrection of the dead or second coming of Christ – so the soul dies with the body at death.  This doctrine is more specifically known as Christian mortalism, and can be found as far back as the Protestant Reformation with Martin Luther and as recent as with N.T. Wright from the Anglican church.

A Damnable Doctrine

So far we’ve read about how Christianity sends horrific messages that we will be damned to an eternity of hell if we do not believe in him, obey the gospels or commit grave sins without repenting.  I argued that it seems rather totalitarian to have to accept these terms without consent.  But of course, some will argue that any decent parent would punish their children for misdeeds without the child’s consent.  And this is the part that I just can’t accept—complete submission to an authority that I have doubt exists.  And, even if God did exist, I don’t understand this obsession with submission and worship.  I suppose if God did create all that exists and is the very nature of existence itself, then reverence for him would be appropriate but not necessarily submission.  Regardless, the real crux of the issue is how can a merciful God punish sinners.  Again, the analogy of a good parent could challenge that, but, wait a minute, this punishment is for eternity.  And this is not in accordance with the Gospel of Matthew’s teachings on the Sermon on the Mount.  For example, Matthew Chapter 5:38, one of the six antitheses, talks about how the Hebrew Law promotes peace and justice in a community by “taking an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” although he takes it a step further and suggests that one should suffer the wrong by not retaliating at all, by turning the other cheek.  So, first, Matthew agrees with the Code of Hammurabi, which is about the punishment fitting the crime, but then builds upon it with a radical conclusion of non-violence.  So if he believes in the Hebrew Law of justice, how could Jesus also agree that being damned to eternity is just; that is, how could any crime ever warrant an eternity in hell if God is merciful.  We know he’s just, but he’s also merciful and benevolent.

To compound on matters, Matthew discusses in the parable of sheep and goats, Matthew 25:26, that those that are charitable to others will inhabit the Kingdom of Heaven.  The Kingdom of Heaven (God) has various interpretations by theologians and secular scholars, but it suffices to say for now that it is a desirable place if one is in God’s good favor.  So Jesus’ parable is commanding you to be compassionate, and I, therefore, have great respect for it; however, it ends poorly by saying, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”  The parable is essentially saying those that do not follow suit in charitable acts are damned to eternal punishment.  Now perhaps this is hyperbole for effect, but this is not the way Christianity takes it.  So in taking it how Christians take it, this does not sound, once again, like a just and merciful God.  Some may say that’s just God’s prerogative and leave it at that.  I, however, when trying to square it aware with theological attributes ascribed to him, e.g., righteousness, love, merciful, and so forth, have a difficult time taking the claim seriously.  If the religion is taken seriously, by contrast, these claims of eternal hell frighten people and may possibly even work as recruitment or retaining mechanism for the more than two billion worshippers.  I, on the other hand, believe that people should be committing good deeds for the sake of the actin it of itself, not for a reward such as the Kingdom of Heaven.

So the doctrine arguably doesn’t always coincide with scripture’s message, with a merciful and just God, and is totalitarian in its structure.  However, there have been arguments proposed to counteract these objections, e.g., free will.  Free will is the ability to freely choose between different courses of action.  I think free will should be viewed on a continuum—with some behaviors and thoughts giving the person more freedom to choose over others—say the instinct to eat, on one extreme, versus the decision to go for a car ride or stay home, on the other extreme.  I’d say it’s even more convoluted than that since genes, emotions, influences, and so forth, make it even more difficult to really ever have a truly free decision.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t be taking responsibility for our actions, for who else is going to?  Many believe that God has given us this free will, and therefore we have the ability to choose him or to exclude him.  As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.'”  I’d argue that why would God give us this freedom of our ultimate destiny in the first place if he knew we were susceptible to the wrong choices.  The counterargument is that there had to be free will, so someone could choose to love him, and you can’t love someone if you don’t have that choice to do so.  But I’ve always wondered why God has this obsession with wanting you to love him in the first place?  Why can’t he just let go and be free?

Some theologians say that God can’t determine someone’s actions ahead of time, which contradicts omniscience by the way, because of free will and that he can’t interfere with someone’s will as it would no longer be free will. That’s a simplistic black and white reading of human behavior.  As I discussed, free will is complex, and it’s not an all or nothing concept.  Moreover, if everything God creates is good, he wants good for everything he’s created, he’s omnipotent and omniscient, then why couldn’t he interfere occasionally to assist with good decisions and create a change in the hearts of atheists?  If he didn’t make the person aware of it, this would still keep the integrity of free will intact, as theologians define it.  The bottom line is that theologians don’t want to part ways with scripture; they must accept the passages that contain eternal damnation references because of the inerrancy criteria. They are then forced to come up with an explanation that will also be compatible with God’s attributes.  This flimsy explanation is free will.  Free will appears to be a convenient tool that theologians use to rationalize suffering and why some go to hell—it is nothing more than an oversimplified abstraction of human behavior used to their advantage.  It’s fraught with semantic problems and doesn’t portray the reality of decision making.  And, also, it’s not necessary since you can love someone without making a choice; it happens all the time, unconsciously.  Lastly, there’s one more argument often put forth and that is the mystical – esoteric or transcending human knowledge—explanation.  So some will claim that it’s beyond our understanding, which is possible, but I’d propose that the more probable explanation is that, like free will, this is a cop-out or rationalization.  It’s time we put the concept of hell as a destination to rest.


[1] Harris, Sam. Free Will. Free Press.

[2] Horn, Trent. Why We’re Catholic: Our Reasons for Faith, Hope, and Love. Catholic Answers Press.

[3] Loftus, John. The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.

[4] Loftus, John. Christianity in the Light of Science. Prometheus.

[5] Mele, Alfred R. Free. Oxford University Press.

[6] Miles, James B. The Free Will Delusion: How We Settled for the Illusion of Morality.

[7] Musolino, Julien. The Soul Fallacy. Prometheus.

[8] Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies—How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. Henry Holt and Co.

Miracles and Probability III


We discussed the challenges of accepting a miracle as true because it contradicts how we know the world works. We then proceeded to ask the question: well, what happens if we have good evidence for the miracle? The solution to that problem was to translate our hypothesis, evidence, and background knowledge into terms of degrees of certainty and inputting that into our logically valid formula developed by Thomas Bayes. We could always resort to informal argumentation, but using Bayes’ theorem gives us special insight by breaking the problem down into components – hypothesis, prior knowledge, new evidence, etc. — and preventing us from falling victim to confirmation bias. This bias is reduced because we are given the opportunity to consider alternate hypotheses in the theorem, which are often ignored through “armchair” arguments. In this post, we will try to show that extraordinary claims do indeed require extraordinary evidence. The hypothesis we will be testing is whether or not Jesus was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent. The formula will be given again below for reference.

P(h|e,b) = P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) / [ ( P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) ) + P(~h|b) * P(e|~h,b)]

P(h|e,b) = probability that the hypothesis is true: Epistemic probability or Posterior probability
P(e|h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true: Explanatory probability or Consequent probability
P(e|~h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is false
P(h|b) = how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is: Prior probability or Intrinsic probability
P(~h|b) = how atypical our explanation is: (1 – prior probability)

It’s helpful to see this formula in terms of an argument to the best explanation, which is often used by historians, especially apologists. It is a type of abductive reasoning. You can think of prior probability as being how plausible your hypothesis is when combined with ad hocness. Plausibility has to do with how typical our explanation is – that is, how much is it in accord with how we know the world works (background knowledge).  If you try to develop excuses (ad hoc) for your evidence in order to make it fit your hypothesis, then you lower the prior probability, P(h|b).  The other components in ABE, or argument to the best explanation, are the ones that affect the probability of the evidence explaining the hypothesis, P(e|h,b) and P(e|~h,b). The first one is explanatory power which asks if the hypothesis has a higher probability of being true than competing hypotheses, and it should account for the facts without forcing it. Increasing your explanatory power will increase P(e|h,b). Explanatory scope, on the other hand, is about explaining a wider range of evidence better than the competing hypotheses. Increasing explanatory scope lowers P(e|~h,b) relative to competing hypotheses, and if ~h has a greater scope, then P(e|h,b) drops. Lastly, explanatory fitness can’t contradict any well-established beliefs, and it functions like explanatory power in terms of probabilities affected.

Getting back to priors, an example of ad hocness could be making the assumption that at least one person can defy gravity and fly into the sky without using any special technology [Matthew Ferguson]. We would have to make this assumption or excuse in order to make the hypothesis that Jesus was raised, by natural means, into the sky plausible. Now of course if we said, b, our background knowledge includes the assumptions of metaphysical theism, then God can do anything, and it wouldn’t be ad hoc. However, if we accept that premise, then we are at the mercy of God’s will and whims. And I have yet to be convinced that a theistic God or any other god is at work behind the scenes. Even if you have the hypothesis that God interferes in everyday life, you can’t derive any reliable predictions from it. God is not like a subatomic particle that we can’t see because, as in the case of the particle, we can make predictions as to how it behaves but not so with God. We are at a loss when it comes to modeling God, for God is knowable and incomprehensible at the same time. Moreover, as theistic Christianity defines him, he’s a philosophical construct, not a scientific one. But, to be fair, we didn’t even assume naturalism in our reference class. We actually relaxed our constraints and claimed that we’ll consider all cases of god raising purported persons from the dead.

Quality of Evidence

Now, before we continue, it’s worthwhile to acknowledge that we will all interpret evidence in different ways based on our presuppositions or how skeptical we are or are not. For example, if we assume miracles are impossible to begin with, then we will underestimate the likelihood of P(h|b) and P(h|b,e). Likewise, if we assume that miracles occur all the time, then we will overestimate the likelihood of P(h|b) and P(h|b,e). We did see how we could reduce these biases in the determination of P(h|b) by keeping the reference class as narrow as possible and by being conservative on our estimates. But how do we reduce the chances of inaccurately predicting P(e|h,b)? To be candid, at this point of my investigation, I have yet to find a systematic way of determining the probability of consequent probabilities. And thus there will be an amount of subjectivity involved, which is true in general of epistemic probabilities, which come as ‘degrees of belief’ when assessing the uncertainty of a particular situation [wikipedia]. The best way to minimize bias would be to be as charitable as possible when ascertaining our probabilities.  We will be relying chiefly on Matthew Ferguson’s analysis of the evidence in addition to Richard Carrier’s, while contrasting it against Mike Licona’s and William Lane Craig’s.

Here’s the evidence we have for the fantastical claim that Jesus rose from the dead by God. Why is this claim essential to the Christian faith? Well, because the apostle Paul aptly declared, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

  • Jesus was crucified.
  • Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
  • An empty tomb was found by the women.
  • Postmortem appearances to Peter, Paul, James, apostles, disciples, and the “500”.
  • The disciples, James and St. Paul’s belief in the resurrection.

It’s important that we consider the quality of the evidence. The above evidence comes from the Gospels, written forty to fifty years after Jesus’ death, and the Epistles, written twenty years after Jesus’ death, all contained within the New Testament.  So, first, we have evidence decades after the fact. Keep in mind also that the above claims are not necessarily facts. After all, some of these are elements in stories contained in hagiographies (i.e. the Gospels) that are mainly used as propaganda to promote a theology or movement. We have already concluded that the genre of the Gospels are legendary biographies, meaning that the author’s chief objective was to proselytize a message about Jesus Christ and not to teach us history.  The sources also don’t have independent attestation since I consider the Gospels as dependent on one another, with the exception of, maybe, John; the Gospels may or may not have had access to the Epistles, but we will grant independency.  But it’s not until the second century do we get extra-biblical (outside of the bible) evidence of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Moreover, the Gospels are all anonymous, surely not based on eyewitness testimony, and are most likely a combination of literary creations and oral tradition.  And, lastly, although we don’t know with certainty, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that superstition and the belief of gods, demons and spirits were more accepted by the population than would be now, probably because the Bronze age did not have the luxury of experiencing the Enlightenment era. The following paragraph underscores the type of evidence we have, by Matthew Ferguson.

Instead, our knowledge for many historical events in the ancient world relies solely on the reports found in ancient texts. Ancient texts, however, cannot be scrutinized as thoroughly as the evidence studied in forensic science, and thus using ancient texts as a form of evidence for knowing about the past is often far more speculative and less certain (especially when such texts are highly literary or symbolic in their composition). Frequently, the ancient sources that a historian consults will be biased, vague, misinformed, speculative, or simply outright liars (see Bart Ehrman’s Forged: Writing in the Name of God).


So how do we approach the analysis of the evidence – what’s our methodology? Do we take the authors’ – that are often anonymous – word for it, for example, when they say that Jesus Christ’s empty tomb was discovered by women, or do we take the skeptical stance since we don’t know who the authors were, the authors had an agenda, and no extra-biblical corroboration exists near the event? The assumptions and skepticism one exercises affect the outcome, so this is very important. So important that it (skepticism) drives Matthew Ferguson and Richard Carrier to conclude that the resurrection is very improbable while Mike Licona and William Lane Craig conclude that it’s very probable because they take the evidence at face value. Given the kind of evidence we have described in the previous paragraphs and knowing human nature and the era of that period in history, I find no reason other than to approach the evidence with skepticism, giving credence to evidence that is independently corroborated by disinterested sources and discounting that which is not.  This may not seem fair since we really don’t have any disinterested sources and the absence of evidence is not evidence for absence.  However, this presumption – that of taking a skeptical stance – is one that most reasonable people would adhere to if they were assessing others’ faith. It’s also important to acknowledge, justifying my stance, that we have better evidence for other supernatural events; for example, the Salem Witch Trials, and we don’t accept those as true.  As another good example, see Why the Resurrection is Unbelievable by Richard Carrier, where he discusses if we don’t believe Herodotus’ accounts why would we believe the Gospels or Paul’s account?  Before we get into the analysis of the evidence, I believe this excerpt by Richard Carrier in “Proving History” illustrates that we always have to be mindful of our background knowledge since P(e|h,b) is conditioned on that:

     The smell test is a common methodological principle in the study of legend, myth and hagiography.  This tests can be most simply states as if it sounds unbelievable, it probably is.”  When we hear tales of talking dogs and flying wizards, we don’t take them seriously, even for a moment.  We immediately rule them out as fabrications.  We usually don’t investigate.  We don’t wait until we can find evidence against the claim.  We know right from the start the tale is bogus.  Yet the only basis for this judgment is the smell test.  Is that test valid?
     It is certainly ubiquitously accepted by historians in every field.  It is suspiciously only rejected by religious believers, and then only when it’s applied to amazing claims they prefer to believe.  They ground this rejection in the claim that we shouldn’t be biased against the supernatural, and God can do anything.  Yet if they honestly believed in those principles they would be compelled to concede the miracle claims of every religion because “you shouldn’t be biased against the supernatural, and God can do anything.”  This includes all the pagan miracles (incredible apparitions of goddesses, mass resurrections of cooked fish, wondrous healing, and teleportation), Muslim miracles (splitting moons, wailing trees, flights to outer space), Buddhist miracles (bilocation, levitation, creating golden ladders with a mere thought), and indeed every and any amazing claim whatever.  Tales “proving” reincaration?  We can’t reject them – because God can do anything.  Ghosts confirming to the living that heaven is run by a Chinese magnate and his staff?  We can’t rule it out.  That would be bias against the supernatural.
     Honestly living that way would be impossible.  You would believe everything you read … In other words, our bias against the supernatural is warranted, just as our bias against the honesty of politics warranted: we’ve caught them being dishonest so many times it would be foolish to impolitely trust anyone in politics.  Likewise, amazing tales: we’ve caught them being fabricated so many times it would be foolish to implicitly trust any of them.
     The smell test thus represents an intuitive recognition of the low prior probability of the events described (i.e., P(h|b) << 0.5); the ease with which the evidence could be fabricated (i.e., P(e|h,b) is always high, unless we have sufficient evidence to the contrary), in fact often the ease with which such an even if real would produce or entail much better evidence (i.e., P(e|h,b) is often low); how typically miracle claims are deliberately positioned in places and times  where a reliable verification is impossible, which fact alone makes them all inherently suspicious; and sometimes the similarity of a  medical story to other tales told in the same time and culture is additionally suspect, like the odd frequency with which gods in the ancient West rose from the dead, transformed water into wine, or resurrected dead fish, oddities that curiously never occur anymore, and which are so culturally specific as to suggest more obvious origins in storytelling.


[1] Boyd, Gregory A.. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition . Baker Book Group.

[2] Byas, Jared. Genesis for Normal People (Study Guide Edition): A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible . Patheos Press.

[3] Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

[4] Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

[5] Carrier, Richard. Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith. Philosophy Press.

[6] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group.

[7] Harrison, Guy. Simple Questions for Every Christian. Prometheus Books.

[8] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism . Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Loftus, John W.. God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. Baker Publishing Group.

[10] Loftus, John W. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True . Prometheus Books.

[11] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

[12] Bruno A. Olshausen. Probabilistic Models of the Brain: Perception and Neural Function (Neural Information Processing). A Bradford Book.

[13] Price, Robert M.. Evolving out of Eden. Tellectual Press.

[14] Robert M. Price. Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?.

[15] Templeton, Charles. Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith . McClelland & Stewart.

[16] Thomson, J. Anderson. Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith . BookMasters.

[17] Unwin, Dr Stephen D.. The Probability of God. The Crown Publishing Group.

[18] John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

Miracles and Probability II

In the previous post, we focused on how you can use the principle of analogy to conclude that if something contradicts what you already know (what we will call background knowledge), then, unsurprisingly, in all likelihood it is false.  We saw the limitations of this principle, however, especially when generalized to mean rare and new events, not just miracles.  So we need some other tool or insight to allow us to conclude that if something rare and new occurs that we don’t necessarily rule it out, assuming we have good evidence.  To illustrate, we can see all the background knowledge that we have as all the accepted truths in the world, and identify a miracle occurring in the Gospels as our hypotheses.  We can then assign a degree of certainty (probability) to our belief that the miracles are true, given our background knowledge; this is known as the prior probability.  Now, we were essentially arguing in the last post that the prior probability of miracles is low because our background knowledge consists of truths that contradict it.  But what if, say, as Mike Licona and others claim, that we have good evidence for a miracle, for example, the resurrection.  We need to find a way to incorporate that “good evidence” into our argument.  After all, we can’t a priori rule out miracles because we can never be one hundred percent certain that the supernatural doesn’t exist.

Bayes’ Theorem

The solution to this problem is Bayes’ theorem.  The theorem’s conclusion takes into account our background knowledge, and the evidence we have for the hypothesis we make.  Whereas before we were jumping to the conclusion that the probability of a miracle is low based on our prior knowledge of how the world works, we will now take into account the actual evidence of the miracle.  Quantitatively speaking, the theorem makes us express our premises in terms of degrees as opposed to absolutes by forcing us to numerically label them as probabilities.  This is important because most claims in life, especially about historical events, can only be discussed in terms of probabilities, with us often saying things like “most likely” or “more likely”, for example.  So, those that object to doing math in history, think again, because every day we already speak in terms of probabilities.  Moreover, the theorem forces you to think of an alternative hypothesis, reducing confirmation bias.  This formalized and systematic approach to viewing your hypothesis allows for clarity unrivaled by other methods.  I offer two quotes below that explain its history and importance.

In simple terms, Bayes’s Theorem is a logical formula that deals with cases of empirical ambiguity, calculating how confident we can be in any particular conclusion, given what we know at the time.  The theorem was discovered in the late eighteenth century and has since been formally proved, mathematically and logically, so we now know its conclusions are always necessarily true if its premises are true (probabilities).  [Richard Carrier]

Bayes’s theorem is at the heart of everything from genetics to Google, from health insurance to hedge funds. It is a central relationship for thinking concretely about uncertainty, and–given quantitative data, which is sadly not always a given–for using mathematics as a tool for thinking clearly about the world. [Chris Wiggins, Scientific American]

It’s probably best to jump into the formula because the mathematical relationship between the premises reveals a lot about the theorem’s mechanics.  We are trying to find how likely or unlikely (probability) our hypothesis is.  A hypothesis we’ve been working with is whether or not miracles occurred as purported in the Gospels.  So our question is how probable is it that miracles occur in the Gospels relative to the evidence and background knowledge we have, P(h|e,b), which is the posterior or epistemic probability.  The prior probability itself is how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is, P(h|b), or how plausible it is, relative to our background knowledge.  And, finally, the evidence that we have for the miracles occurring, e, can be best thought of as how expected the evidence is if our explanation (hypothesis) is true, P(e|h,b), often called consequent or explanatory probability.  In summary, we have a prior probability, P(h|b), that when it takes into account new evidence, P(e|h,b), the posterior probability, P(h|e,b), gets updated. Two forms of the equation are given, one that takes into account one hypothesis and antithesis hypothesis, while the other takes into account multiple hypotheses.  Equation, 2, can be thought of as the probability or the ratio of your hypothesis (h1) to the competitor’s hypotheses (h2, h3, … ), again, reducing our confirmation bias.  The prior probabilities must sum to one while the expected probabilities don’t.  Please see below for more detail.

1)  P(h|e,b) =  P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) / [ ( P(h|b) * P(e|h,b) ) + P(~h|b) * P(e |~h,b)]

2)  P(h1|e,b) =  P(h1|b) * P(e|h1,b) / [ [P(h1|b) * P(e|h1,b)] + [P(h2|b) * P(e|h2,b)] + [P(h3|b) * P(e|h3,b)]  + …]

P(h|e,b) = probability that the hypothesis is true; Epistemic probability or Posterior probability
P(e|h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is true; Expected probability or Explanatory probability
P(e|~h,b) = how expected the evidence is if our explanation is false

P(h|b) = how typical our explanation (hypothesis) is; Prior probability or Intrinsic probability
P(~h|b) = how atypical our explanation is; (1 – prior probability)

Prior Probability

Calculating our prior probability is one of great importance because it can mean the difference between a probable event and an improbable event.  A prior is derived from all known information about your hypothesis.  This leads us to the concept of reference classes.  A reference class can be thought of as a category of claims that all address a similar scenario.  This information can be used (referenced) to assist us in finding how typical our explanation is; in other words, it estimates our priors. As an example from “Proving History” by Richard Carrier, a hypothesis you may promote to explain the evidence in the Gospels, empty tomb, etc., is that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  How do you derive a prior probability based on your background knowledge?  Well, what you can do is look for similar scenarios that were believed to have occurred in the past.  For instance, Romulus, Asclepius, Zalmoxis, Inanna, Lazarus, many Saints in Matthew or the Moabite of 2 Kings have all been purported to have been raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  So our reference class is all persons purported to be raised from the dead by a supernatural agent.  We have at least ten of them from antiquity and probably more.  Since prior probability is only based on background knowledge and not conditioned on the evidence, we can assume that each one of the persons claimed to have been raised by a supernatural agent is equivalent.  That is, there’s no more reason to believe one story over the other since all equally contradict our background knowledge.  If that is the case, then classical probability theory says we can divide the sample space into equivalent pieces such that they sum to one.  So the prior probability would be 1/10 or 0.1 that Jesus Christ rose from the dead by a supernatural agent.

It’s important to realize that we could have used a broader reference class and achieved a much lower probability.  For this fact and others, probabilities formed via Bayesian are classified as subjective, but they are not arbitrary since we have good reasons for our methodology.  To be conservative, we picked the narrowest reference class possible.  But we could have found other attributes in common and defined a more generic class.  For example, all of these claims of risen figures also have the attribute in common that they are supernatural, miraculous, or mythological.  If that’s a new class, then we know that there are hundreds of thousands of cases where people wrote, spoke, or claimed that a miracle was true when in fact it wasn’t.  That would give us a prior of 1/100,000 at least.  But as a heuristic, we will pick the narrowest reference class in order to produce the most conservative estimates.  This rule of thumb reduces the chance that our presuppositions or biases will influence the estimate. This is known as a fortiori estimate.  Getting back to reference classes, it’s worth noting that our background knowledge of all accepted truths is quite large – that is, there are a lot of truths that can contradict our belief in a miracle occurring.  For example, the fact that we are creative and inventive would make us believe that a lot of miracles are fabricated, that we are meaning-making machines and see agency in inanimate objects, that we make things up in order to influence others, that we could be honestly mistaken, that we can be credulous and so forth – all are apart of b and all are viable hypotheses that can explain the evidence.  If incorporated, these can have the effect of lowering the posterior probability, but creating reference classes for multiple hypotheses can be challenging albeit the principle is the same as in the single case.

Epistemic Probabilities

It’s significant enough to make the distinction between epistemic probabilities and physical probabilities.  Epistemic probabilities are beliefs that an event that happened is true versus someone making it up (or being mistaken), and physical probabilities are probabilities (relative frequencies) of events occurring.  An example might be what’s the probability of someone at random having a myocardial bridge in their heart, which is pretty small, the incidence of occurrence is 3%.  But the probability that you believe someone has a myocardial bridge can be quite high since it’s based or conditioned on the evidence at hand, say a recent angiogram.  Moreover, epistemic probabilities often measure events that occur just once, like historical claims, versus physical probabilities which are often statistical averages of repeated phenomena.  So you can’t empirically derive epistemic probabilities by repeating an experiment – say by taking the long term average of flipping a coin resulting in a relative frequency or probability of 0.5 – instead, you must rely on thought experiments by deriving a reference class.  The former method is known as the frequentist approach, while the latter method is known as the Bayesian approach.  It’s best to think of these methods as different approaches designed for different kinds of problems rather than as rivals.  Please see the quote below, emphasizing the fidelity of the Bayesian method.  The next post will discuss the consequent probability and eventually compute an epistemic probability of our hypothesis; we’ll stick with the miraculous hypothesis that Jesus was raised from the dead by a supernatural agent in order to explain a wide range of claims found in the Gospels and Epistles.

The specification of the prior is often the most subjective aspect of Bayesian probability theory, and it is one of the reasons statisticians held Bayesian inference in contempt. But closer examination of traditional statistical methods reveals that they all have their hidden assumptions and tricks built into them. Indeed, one of the advantages of Bayesian probability theory is that one’s assumptions are made up front, and any element of subjectivity in the reasoning process is directly exposed. [ Olshausen]


[1] Boyd, Gregory A.. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group.

[2] Byas, Jared. Genesis for Normal People (Study Guide Edition): A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. Patheos Press.

[3] Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

[4] Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

[5] Carrier, Richard. Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith. Philosophy Press.

[6] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group.

[7] Harrison, Guy. Simple Questions for Every Christian. Prometheus Books.

[8] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Loftus, John W.. God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. Baker Publishing Group.

[10] Loftus, John W. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True. Prometheus Books.

[11] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

[12] Bruno A. Olshausen. Probabilistic Models of the Brain: Perception and Neural Function (Neural Information Processing). A Bradford Book.

[13] Price, Robert M.. Evolving out of Eden. Tellectual Press.

[14] Robert M. Price. Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?.

[15] Templeton, Charles. Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith. McClelland & Stewart.

[16] Thomson, J. Anderson. Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith. BookMasters.

[17] Unwin, Dr Stephen D.. The Probability of God. The Crown Publishing Group.

[18] John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

Miracles and Probability I

We deem them myths not because of a bias that there can be no miracles, but because of the Principle of Analogy, the only alternative to which is believing everything in The National Inquirer.  If we do not use the standard of current-day experience to evaluate claims from the past, what other standard is there? And why should we believe that God or Nature used to be in the business of doing things that do not happen now? Isn’t God supposed to be the same yesterday, today, and forever? [Robert Price]

The principle of analogy, presented above, is really just a summary of David Hume’s argument involving the likelihood of miracle stories.  Hume’s argument says that since our uniform experience does not include miracles, it’s very unlikely that miracles have occurred in the past.  This is analogous reasoning.  It’s not that miracles are impossible; it’s just that we should remain agnostic towards them since it’s far more likely that a natural explanation is a cause.  Now the principle of analogy has its shortcomings, especially when generalized to mean rare events.  What if, for example, Einstein didn’t move forward with his theory of relativity because it contradicted his present-day uniform experience?  What if we observed a nuclear explosion and explained it as a conventional explosion just because we had no experience with nuclear physics?  Moreover, there are many quantum mechanical phenomena that appear to violate the laws of Newtonian physics.  Do we also outright reject these, at the time, very rare events just because they don’t agree with our current background knowledge?

The answer to the above questions is obviously no.  If the new observation, model, or prediction pans out empirically and is corroborated by other means, then we must accept it.  So it has been argued by many philosophers that Hume’s argument is circular, that the definition of miracle need not be a violation of natural law, and that Hume, in a Bayesian sense, does not take into account all the probabilities involved, to name just a few.  So the principle of analogy, in my view, is most useful as a heuristic—a guiding principle rather than a law.  It’s there to tell us that if a claim doesn’t square away well with what we already know as plausible (things measured against our background knowledge), then it’s probably false.  A caveat is that if something conflicts with our background knowledge, but, we have a suspicion that it’s true because of good evidence, then we must test it or observe many other instances to change the state of our current background knowledge.  Since Hume primarily had miracles (violations of natural law) in mind, we will investigate miracles further.

So, more specifically, how can we adjudicate the validity of miracle claims in the Gospels?  I argue here that a historian can’t say much of anything about them.  This is not born out of prejudice from metaphysical naturalism; in other words, I’m not saying this because a worldview doesn’t permit me to do so.  A historian can’t say much about it because the way in which we understand how the world works—today, yesterday, and tomorrow – is at odds with the way in which miracles occur.  This knowledge accumulated over the centuries is known as background knowledge, which comes from our scientific testing of claims and observations.  And miracles contradict our present-day background knowledge.  We will show in the next post thru Bayesian’s theorem that if things aren’t plausible (a technical term), then, not surprisingly, the probability of them occurring is low.  And in the case of miracles, there is, in my view, an insurmountable amount of contradictory evidence, presented as background knowledge, to overcome.

Our scientific knowledge base gives us a relatively reliable way of understanding how the world works – from predicting the speed of light to understanding complex human behavior—it has a pretty good track record.  It doesn’t have all the answers—for example, why are we here or why is there something rather than nothing—but it’s the best we’ve got to work worth.  Moreover, it’s important to understand that history is not the proper purview for establishing the kind of world we live in, for that should be reserved for the scientific community.  And, as of today, there are no peer-reviewed periodicals by forensic scientists or medical professionals confirming a single miracle.  That is not to say that one can’t or hasn’t occurred, but they just haven’t been able to stand up to scientific scrutiny.  A good example, one of many, is a large study in 2006 on whether or not prayer would assist one in recovering from major cardio surgery.  It was found that prayer had no effect on the experimental group, while in some cases the control group actually fared better.  So, as to another point, miracles are within the realm of experimental science—that is, they can be tested.

Some of our background knowledge includes not only our inability to observe and reproduce miracles in the scientific community but also our understanding of how human nature functions.  For example, we know that humans as a species are fairly creative and inventive, in addition to having a deep need for meaning-making.  In fact, humans have lots of faculties that collectively make them receptive to mythology, like a strong tendency to see agency (intentionality in the inanimate), to see design and purpose in the natural world (a river’s purpose is for us to fish in), and to detect patterns out of otherwise meaningless stuff (Marian apparitions).  In other words, we have a tendency, starting at a very early age, to connect-the-dots in order to explain why things happen.  These meaningful patterns we create become our beliefs and guide us to understand reality, regardless of their accuracy.  And these explanations can give us psychological comfort as a reward.

This above is a powerful way of explaining why people believe and create mythology but falls short in explaining the genesis of the Gospels.  On the contrary, I believe the Gospel writers invented literary miracles to highlight Jesus Christ’s role as Lord and savior that primarily functions as propaganda.  Lastly, we know that there has been plenty of mythology created in the past that is not believed now, see “Why is Jesus so special?”.  So why do we dismiss other mythology but not the mythology of the Gospels?  There are various explanations to this question, but argument by analogy says that since those were creative inventions, there is a likelihood that the Gospels’ mythology is as well.  In conclusion, our background knowledge thus far tells us that miracles aren’t plausible.  However, we noted early on that things can contradict our background knowledge and nevertheless be true if good evidence exists.  In the next post, we will gain insight into this problem with the aid of probability theory.  Probability theory says that there exists two probabilities, a prior probability—chances a miracle can occur in light of what we already know—and an explanatory probability—how expected the evidence is if the miracle is true.  As a hint, the explanatory probability is a miracle’s only hope.


[1] Boyd, Gregory A. The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Baker Book Group.

[2] Byas, Jared. Genesis for Normal People (Study Guide Edition): A Guide to the Most Controversial, Misunderstood, and Abused Book of the Bible. Patheos Press.

[3] Carrier, Richard. Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed.

[4] Carrier, Richard. On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press.

[5] Carrier, Richard. Why I Am Not a Christian: Four Conclusive Reasons to Reject the Faith. Philosophy Press.

[6] Copan, Paul. That’s Just Your Interpretation. Baker Publishing Group.

[7] Harrison, Guy. Simple Questions for Every Christian. Prometheus Books.

[8] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism . Penguin Publishing Group.

[9] Loftus, John W.. God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions. Baker Publishing Group.

[10] Loftus, John W. The Outsider Test for Faith: How to Know Which Religion Is True . Prometheus Books.

[11] Michael R. Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

[12] Bruno A. Olshausen. Probabilistic Models of the Brain: Perception and Neural Function (Neural Information Processing). A Bradford Book.

[13] Price, Robert M.. Evolving out of Eden. Tellectual Press.

[14] Robert M. Price. Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?.

[15] Templeton, Charles. Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith . McClelland & Stewart.

[16] Thomson, J. Anderson. Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith . BookMasters.

[17] Unwin, Dr Stephen D.. The Probability of God. The Crown Publishing Group.

[18] John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.

Why Is Jesus so Special?

I’m often baffled when I get such a question as to why I don’t take Jesus Christ as a god and savior seriously.  My reasons why, I hope, are apparent when one considers other literature and evidence that involve belief in the supernatural.  I mean, after all, it would be nothing but special pleading for me to take one serious (Jesus Christ) and forget the rest (other gods).  For example, there are dying and rising sons (daughters) of gods that go through a passion (suffering) in order to obtain victory over death that have some elements similar to Jesus.  To expound upon those predating Christianity, Osiris from the mystery religions was a son of a deity and offered an afterlife for those baptized into his death and resurrection, Romulus, a Roman God, had his death and resurrection celebrated in annual passion plays and was born of a virgin, while Inanna, a Sumerian goddess, had a resurrection and escaped from the underworld [Richard Carrier].  Robert Price describes below how apologists, in the 2nd century, admitted to these parallels existing:

The early Church fathers understood [parallels] as a problem because they were already getting the same objections from pagans.  They said, “What you say about Jesus we’ve been saying about Dionysus and Hercules all the time.  ”What’s the big deal?  I mean they didn’t believe in them either anymore.  And so the Christian apologists (Justin Martyr) – the defenders of the faith – would say, “Well, yea, but this one is true. And you see Satan counterfeited it in advance because he knew this day would come.”Boy, I’ll tell you that tells you two things right there that even they didn’t even deny that these other Jesus like characters were before Jesus or they never would have resorted to something like that Satan knew it would happen and counterfeit it in advance?

There are many more mythical gods that were often transformed into historical figures although they may not predate Christianity, perhaps because the evidence simply did not survive or was destroyed by their competitor religion.  I’m using myth as in factually untrue stories that are historically improbable but symbolically meaningful [Richard Carrier].  Note, also, that I’m not insinuating that Christianity copied some of these themes out of whole cloth.  What I am saying, however, is that these ideas came from the same creative cognitive faculties that also produced the mythical motifs of Jesus Christ.  There’s no difference here.  And so why should we reject all the other mythological gods but accept this one?  In a similar vein, Gregory Boyd, a Christian apologist, proposes the following argument:

We know the Jesus story is about God visiting us and/or about a God who does something along the lines of dying and rising is not altogether unique. The history of religion and mythology is full of “incarnation-like” stories and “resurrection-like” stories. So, one could argue, if we assume that all these analogous “incarnations” and “resurrections” are mythological, we should similarly concede that the Christian version of these stories is mythological, its unique features notwithstanding.

The following list of mythological gods, some from the mystery religions, share some characteristics with Jesus.  For comparison, Jesus was born of a virgin, was a son of a god, was a divine judge, had a communal meal of bread and wine, was a savior, performed miracles, was crucified, resurrected, and ascended into heaven.  Now, for these, there is by no means a one-to-one parallel here, but they share some similar features nevertheless.  On the other hand, if you emphasize the differences, then you’d rightly conclude that these are quite different from Jesus.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that the human imagination and intellect are capable of creating etiologies – things that attempt to explain common mysteries – for example, what happens after death.  Mythology is nothing more than etiology expressed in dramatic ways, and may be used to comfort and satisfy human curiosity, while often being used as a tool for propaganda.  For instance, developing the virgin birth and performing miracles to show the greatness of the protagonist (e.g., Jesus Christ) is potentially propaganda.  All of the following gods were fabricated (adapted from Mike Licona), so why not Jesus Christ’s divine attributes as well?

  • Adonis (Syria) – ascended to heaven before death, resurrected on the 3rd day (later Christian interpretation)
  • Attis (Asia Minor) – virgin born
  • Baal – son of El a God, descends to the underworld, could have resurrected
  • Dionysus (Greece) – son of a God Zeus, a savior, descends to underworld, communal wine, rival of Christianity, could have resurrected
  • Hercules (Greece) – performed miracles, ascended to Mt Olympus and became a god
  • Hermes (Greece) – guides souls to underworld, son of Zeus, created miracles as an infant
  • Horus (Egypt) – son of Osiris and later son of Re, performed healing magic as a child
  • Krishna (India) – born of a virgin, performed miracles as a child, resurrected, ascended to heaven
  • Mithra (Persia) – a savior, divinity of light and salvation, communal bread and wine but was not considered the flesh and blood of God, ascends to heaven
  • Orpheus (Greece) – descends to underworld
  • Tammuz (Sumeria) – resurrection debated, descends to underworld
  • Zalmoxis () – death assured an afterlife (immortality of the soul), resurrection debated

In addition to mythological gods transformed into history, there were also people transformed into mythology or legend.  Once the mythology – dramatic stories and beliefs – have been created, then it can be set into historical reality, becoming legendary.  These characters all share common attributes or fit common themes known as the mythical hero archetype.  Jesus, as expressed in the Gospels, represents a lengthy mythical hero archetype quite well (not shown here).  The following is adapted from Robert Price and note that some gods are apt for this archetype as well, not just miracle workers.  There are many more attributes if curious, so please see the work of Alan Dundes for further details.

  • Persecuted as a child by a tyrant: Caesar Augustus, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Jesus Christ
  • Postmortem appearances: Romulus, Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Performed miracles:  Appolonius, Onus, Hanina Ben Dosa, Honi the Circle Drawer, Pythagoras, Empedocles, Asclepius, Mohammed, Jesus Christ
  • Passion narratives: Appolonius, Jesus Christ
  • Empty tomb stories: popular contemporary novels, Jesus Christ

Now that we’ve identified the fallacy of special pleading that some commit in which they are unwilling to apply the same set of standards when evaluating their own god as they would to the other gods, it’s time to create some arguments.  The argument I’m making is an inductive, analogical argument, so the more features the comparing god has in common with Jesus, then, obviously, the more likely Jesus is similar to the comparing god.  And the more similar Jesus is to the comparing god, then the stronger the inference drawn will be.  For example, some gods are sons of gods that are mythical, Jesus is a son of a god, and therefore the inference can be drawn that Jesus is mythical too.  [When I use mythical, I mean at the very least having mythical attributes but not necessarily the entire being.]  But this, like all inductive reasoning, is only in probabilistic terms, and the conclusion is not guaranteed.  Moreover, the argument is only as good as how strong the comparison is.  So just because we have one attribute in common – both sons of gods – that doesn’t necessarily justify us in saying that Jesus was also similar in a further respect.

But I think we can do better than this because any one god and Jesus has other features in common, namely that some of their features are divine or that they have the capacity to perform miracles, i.e., they have the ability to do something that goes beyond what nature can accomplish.  Knowledge that is accumulated over time is known as background knowledge, which comes from our scientific testing of claims, our observations and experiences.  And miracles and divine features contradict our present day background knowledge – that is, these features, such as miracles and divine qualities, don’t coincide with how we know the world operates.  So they have a low prior probability of occurring, and are therefore likely to be mythology.  So we have other features in common – performance of miracles and divine attributes – that strengthens our inference that Jesus’ supernatural attributes are probably mythological like the other gods and miracle workers from above.

The last argument I’m making is a causal one.  This essentially says that there had to be a cause for the development of what we’ve established as mythology.  One possible explanation: evolutionary psychologists believe that people are born with “meaning-making” faculty and resort to myth making as a consequence of wanting to explain why things are the way they are and also for reasons of propaganda.  So myth making is a human enterprise.  To be clear, I am not allowing a metaphysical bias, namely that of naturalism, to skew my conclusion; these supernatural features are clearly byproducts of the human mind.  Moreover, we don’t know how god functions, and, therefore, it won’t do us much good to speculate that he’s the cause.  It’s much more likely that the same creative forces that created the other gods also created Jesus.  And there’s no reason to believe that the minds that developed the aforementioned mythological gods were any different from the minds that developed the mythology surrounding Jesus. Jesus is engulfed by, plain and simple, mythology like the rest of them.


I used a mixture of sources, namely from the Christian apologist Mike Licona, the historian Richard Carrier and the agnostic-theologian Robert Price.  The information was collected from their very well researched and articulated, but often dichotomous, views on Christ’s analogies from other saviors and religions.  I apologize for not being more precise and thorough in documenting this.  But the ideas and arguments, as most of my writings, are original to me.