If you can only read one skeptical book about Christian apologetics, read Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection. It is the best skeptical book about the resurrection ever written.
The author, Kris Komarnitsky, poses the following scenario for the origin of Christianity:
After Jesus died, he was given a common ground burial in a place unknown to his followers. In the wake of Jesus’ death, his followers had a great need to make sense of or rationalize what had happened. This need, combined with a few hallucinations of the risen Jesus that some of them had, spawned a belief that Jesus had been raised into heaven and that Jesus was put to death to atone for man’s sin. As these beliefs were passed on, the process of legendary embellishment worked its magic on Christian beliefs, and from this came the gospel story that Jesus’ tomb had been discovered empty.
Komarnitsky adduces much evidence for each element of his theory, and for all the support he draws for his ideas he claims only that he has found a plausible way of reading the evidence. His book is designed just to expound upon, defend, and present evidence for, the idea spelled out above. He does this superbly. However, even the best book on the subject can’t cover every angle of that subject.
There are many ways that the appearances of the risen Jesus could be explained: maybe the disciples saw someone who just looked like Jesus, maybe they had hallucinations (as Kris thinks), maybe they lied about the whole thing, etc. From where we stand two thousand years after the fact and with very little real evidence to go on, it is unwise to make any bold proclamations about what happened, as if we could settle the issue with certainty. We can be confident that one of the many natural explanations put forward is probably correct, even if we’re not sure exactly which one is right.
The proposition “Some natural explanation is superior to the traditional supernatural explanation” is one of two issues where Komarnitsky’s book should be supplemented with other reading material. To see why this is the case, you only have to look at the large literature on belief in miracles from David Hume to the present day. I’ve written a blog post explaining my position on the subject.
There are empirical reasons for believing that Christianity did not begin supernaturally, too. Example: there is abundant evidence that Christianity began as an end-of-the-world cult, and that Jesus was a failed end times prophet. The evidence for this is so overwhelming that it doesn’t take an expert or any pain-staking research to see it: it’s all over the new testament. I’d recommend this blog post, as well as Bart Ehrman’s book Jesus: Apocalyptic prophet of the New Millenium (or Ehrman’s latest, Did Jesus Exist?). It is all but impossible to reconcile the acknowledgement that Jesus and the rest of the early Christian church were wrong about the end of the world with a belief that the church was supernaturally created or inspired by an all-knowing God, and this leads to the conclusion that the rest of the church’s beliefs have a psychological origin, not a theological one.
The only other base that Komarnitsky did not cover is the reliability of the gospels, which he sees as not being settled one way or the other by the evidence we have. I beg to differ: I think the gospel contradictions and disagreement with external historical/archaeological sources make a strong case that the gospels are very unreliable documents, and this secures the case for a natural explanation of Christianity even more. I’ve given a brief overview of what I mean in my book Extraordinary Claims, Extraordinary Evidence. Historian Matthew Ferguson has given a great example of this involving Mt. Vesuvius and the gospel stories. I’ll stop there, because reading mainstream biblical scholarship (or even doing a google search) reveals plenty more.
Those are my thoughts on the book. What are yours?