• On the Skepticism of the Resurrection (part 4) – naturalistic explanations

    As mentioned in my previous posts, someone in Malawi is about to have a debate on national TV with a Christian about the Resurrection accounts and I have been asked to help provide some ideas for the debate, so here goes.

    There are three aspects to the debunking of the Resurrection:

    1) The Gospels are not reliable sources of information; they are poor quality evidence

    2) The claims of the Resurrection are incredible claims which require very good quality evidence

    3) If the Christian claims of the Resurrection are not true, then what, if anything, actually took place, and what hypothesis can better explain the data?

    Having looked at points 1) and 2) in some details, it is time to see if there is a more plausible explanation for the data from a naturalistic perspective than the Christian claims.

    Before I do this, it should be apparent from the previous posts in this series that almost any naturalistic explanation is, by analysis of probability, more probable than a supernaturalistic one.

    Here is an explanation from Bart Ehrman:

    Why was the tomb supposedly empty? I say supposedly because, frankly, I don’t know that it was. Our very first reference to Jesus’ tomb being empty is in the Gospel of Mark, written forty years later by someone living in a different country who had heard it was empty. How would he know?…Suppose…that Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea…and then a couple of Jesus’ followers, not among the twelve, decided that night to move the body somewhere more appropriate…But a couple of Roman legionnaires are passing by, and catch these followers carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets. They suspect foul play and confront the followers, who pull their swords as the disciples did in Gethsemane. The soldiers, expert in swordplay, kill them on the spot. They now have three bodies, and no idea where the first one came from. Not knowing what to do with them, they commandeer a cart and take the corpses out to Gehenna, outside town, and dump them. Within three or four days the bodies have deteriorated beyond recognition. Jesus’ original tomb is empty, and no one seems to know why.

    Is this scenario likely? Not at all. Am I proposing this is what really happened? Absolutely not. Is it more probable that something like this happened than that a miracle happened and Jesus left the tomb to ascend to heaven? Absolutely! From a purely historical point of view, a highly unlikely event is far more probable than a virtually impossible one…” [Jesus Interrupted, pp. 171-179]

    In other words all sorts of fairly improbable scenarios are inevitably going to be more likely than an extremely improbable one.

    What do I think happened? Well, I can only roughly hypothesise. I do think someone called Jesus was crucified. I think this does the best job of explaining the cult of Jesus which went on. I think he was an apocalyptic figure whose followers were expecting him to be some kind of Messiah. He was an itinerant preacher who went about charismatically attracting followers, spreading a socialistic and revolutionary message.

    But he was killed, and his followers were not expecting this. As a result, they went though classic cognitive dissonance experiences. Some would have left, but most would have stayed on and post hoc rationalised such a problematic piece of evidence against their case. Leon Festinger first noted this phenomena in psychological terms when a UFO cult had a failed rapture day, and the world continued. fringe members left but committed members rationalised the disappointment to continue with stronger commitment.

    If we double this up with what I have talked about in the previous post:

    • Jesus was a disgraced blasphemer of sorts
    • He was crucified and his body eaten by wild animals as was the norm
    • He would have had a criminal’s burial in a shallow, unknown grave
    • His followers would not know where he was buried
    • This supports the fact that his tomb was not venerated as he did not have one, or it was unknown
    • Stories developed out of this, and committed members had experiences which were later expanded or mythologised

    A variation could be

    • Jesus was left on the cross, but had to be removed before Passover sundown, and was hastily given a temporary tomb (there is precedence for this)
    • Jesus was then later moved from the tomb, lent by someone (perhaps Joseph of Arimathea, perhaps someone else forgotten in time, with J of A mythologised over), and put in a shallow grave as per protocol
    • The people or person who moved the body were unknown to the disciples
    • The disciples came to the tomb where they thought Jesus was buried, only to find it empty
    • Tales of angels were mythologised onto this account, or it even involved hallucinations (some 13% of people who have experienced the death of somone close orally or visually hallucinate)

    I am not overly swayed by hallucinations, but only because I have not been around death and people who have lost others too much. One of my frinds used to hallucinate smells of her dead grandmother.

    Here is a list of other potential theories:

    • The authorities removed the body, for one reason or another, from the cross or tomb
    • The women went to the wrong tomb
    • The disciples stole the body to contrive a resurrection
    • The tomb was never visited, and the whole set of events were mythologised
    • Sometimes called the “swoon theory”, the idea that Jesus never actually died on the cross and was taken down alive

    In order to save me doing the writing myself, here is a list compiled by the Iron Chariots Wiki to explain the data from a naturalistic perspective:

    The evidence for the resurrection is open to a number of naturalistic explanations

    Swoon theory

    “Swoon theory” refers to the hypothesis that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but rather was taken down alive and recovered in the tomb. It was made famous in the 19th century by Heinrich Paulus, as well as by fictional works that postulated an Essene conspiracy that assisted in the ruse. Today it has few advocates, though Richard Carrier recently published a partial defense of it. [3] Carrier argued that it was actually the least likely naturalistic explanation, but it still had a chance of occurring of 1 in 6,800. This is sufficient to rule out a miracle, because if every 1 in 6,800 event were declared miraculous, we would have to believe that royal flushes are miraculous.

    A related but arguably distict theory is the “Autoresuscitation Theory”, invoking an unusual phenomenon of spontaneous, natural return from a state of clinical death accepted as a naturalistic occurrence in the medical literature, including a set of 32 cases compiled here: [4]

    Assimilation of hearsay

    Psychological research by Loftus and Palmer in 1974 demonstrates that testimony assimilates external information and cues without the person even realizing it. Psychological research carried out by Festinger and Carlsmith in 1959 shows that people can change their understanding when there is otherwise insufficient evidence to justify a conclusion that the subjects wish to come to. Both of these can lead to exaggerated or inaccurate narratives being given.

    The effect studied by Festinger and Carlsmith also poses a fatal problem for David Strauss’s argument that the swoon theory fails to account for the amazement of the disciples.

    Political correctness

    Wars and fights don’t generally end suddenly for political reasons, as it would amount to an admission that it wasn’t right in the first place. Paul wanted something to say along with his ceasing to persecute Christians, giving him motivation to invent or modify a story as to what happened. Paul’s visions (even if they existed) are obvious embellishments, as he would have no way of knowing it was Jesus, as he didn’t even know what Jesus ‘s face looked like. We can see him saying many things that he clearly did not do any fact-checking on, and this must include the purported appearance of Jesus to a group of 500 people claimed by Paul. (Source: New Testament historian Bart Ehrman) This was combined with the above effects to result in exaggerated claims made later by others.

    Yerkes-Dodson Law

    1908 psychological research by Yerkes and Dodson shows that high anxiety can impair judgement in non-trivial situations. Claims apologists make that a centurion pronouncing death or later recollection by early church members would be accurate under death threats can be turned on their head: Anxiety impairs, not enhances judgment, in such cases.

    Twin and moved body

    Jesus had an identical twin and the body was moved by someone (several possibilities here)

    Twin and wrong tomb

    Jesus had an identical twin and Mary Magdalene made a mistake while locating the tomb. Others may have been induced to make a mistake by the effect documented in the psychological research “Asch Conformity Experiments” (1950’s) although the Gospels are inconsistent on who exactly was and wasn’t there.

    Scribal alteration

    Minor details may have been corrupted. Even those who subscribe to the “minimal facts” approach must admit that some of the minor details are unreliable and inconsistent among the Gospels. This poses problems for those apologists trying to debunk some of the naturalistic explanations, as they often need to assume the truth of a minor detail. Example: claiming that the inability of Jesus to push away the stone according to “swoon theory” depends on an unreliable detail – namely, the weight of the stone.


    Keith Parsons has recently argued that recent experience with people who believe themselves to have been abducted by aliens makes the hallucination hypothesis more plausible, and that many standard apologetic objections to the hypothesis would also require us to believe in alien abduction.

    Biblical scholar Dale Allison has made a similar argument based on reports of apparitions of the dead. In particular, he notes “examples of collective hallucinations in which people claimed to see the same thing but, when closely interviewed, disagreed on the details, proving they were not, after all, seeing the same thing.”

    Primary and Composite naturalistic explanations

    The swoon and hallucination theories are “primary”, only invoking one part. By contrast, the “twin plus moved body” and “political correctness plus hearsay assimilation” are composite, requiring a “synthesis” of more than one part. Apologists essentially never mention these, or even the possibility of composite theories, because it would show that their case can have holes poked in it.


    The standard objection to the fraud theory is that the disciples would not have died for a lie. However, documentation of their martyrdoms is weak. The earliest comes at the end of the 2nd century and is only for Peter and Paul. Also, it has been suggested that the disciples may have lied for what they believed was a higher cause.

    The resurrection and Jesus mythicism

    To some extent, the debate over the resurrection would be moot if it were demonstrated that Jesus never existed. However, some mythicists, notably Richard Carrier[5], accept that early Christians reported visions of Jesus, and these are explained as hallucinations.

    Even assuming that a person named Jesus existed, there is no reason to believe that the Bible provides an accurate account of events in his life. The resurrection and the accompanying details may have been invented at a later date.

    Generalized Littlewood’s Law

    If we generalize Littlewood’s Law of Miracles to an approximately 1,000-month-long human lifespan, and to a total population of humans who have ever existed of 100,000,000,000 then to reject the null (no supernatural intervention in the natural world) hypothesis with 95% confidence we need, to avoid the so-called multiple testing fallacy , the probablity of all naturalistic explanations to be below

    P = 5 * 10-22 or 1 in 2,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. The apologist has no case unless every single potential naturalistic explanation is truly astronomically improbable, not just seemingly unlikely.


    Now, you can claim that some of these interpretations or theories or claims are inherently improbable. They may even be utterly wildly improbable. But that still puts them in the category of being far more probable, and with higher prior probability through precedence, than a dying and rising incarnate god-figure, who prays to himself and sacrifices himself to sit on his own right hand which somehow pays for the sins of humankind, which he created and had ultimate control over, for all of time. See my previous posts for more on these probabilities.

    I know what I think is more probable.


    Category: AtheismFeaturedJesusMiraclesNaturalism


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

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    • Peter

      I personally favour the hallucinations hypothesis as the origin for the belief in Jesus’s resurrection. The “facts” in the Gospels are all uncertain, and so don’t disprove it.

      Group hallucinations also don’t prove they’re veridical. There are SO many examples of group hallucinations (or isolated visions being embellished to become group hallucinations). There’s Josephus’s spectral army marching through the sky. There’s the vision of the cross ahead of Constantine’s battle at Milvian bridge (Lactanctius has Constantine alone having dream that Chi should be put on his soldiers shields ahead of the battle, but in Eusebius, in a version supposedly deriving from the Emperor himself, the episode is embellished so that a spectacular vision is seen by the whole army). In Dan Everett’s book “Don’t Sleep There are Snakes” he relates how an entire village of the Pirahas from the amazon saw a spirit warning them not to go into jungle on pain of death (he himself and his daughter saw nothing). There’s the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima in Portugal. 1st Corinthians gives us essentially no details about the nature of the appearance before the 500 (at which Paul himself was of course not present), so we are not in a position to properly investigate it and see whether it was different to these other events. Did everyone agree on the details? Did anyone recant? Was it only seen by a few people – or one person – in front of a large congregation? Who knows?

      • D Rizdek

        I probably wouldn’t go with “mass hallucinations” in that I don’t think it would be received well and I don’t think it’s necessary. We don’t have masses of anyone saying they saw this and saw that. AFAIK, Paul is the only one who tells of his experiences in the first person. All the other stories are hearsay. IOW, there is no reason to think that “500 witnesses” saw anything…all that is needed is a story about a mass of people seeing something. And as to the “witnesses” appellation OF COURSE they are going to call them witnesses in the report…because what else could they call them?
        But hallucinations or dreams of one or two individuals could easily be the source of every single story surrounding the resurrection from the tomb visits to dreaming that Jesus appeared to a mass of people. That eliminates the need to invoke mass hallucination.

        • Peter

          I still think a hallucination was probably involved (led by one charismatic figure – such as Peter? due to suggestion or peer pressure? I don’t know…the lack of details mean many pathways are possible). Paul probably spoke to someone who’d been there (hence his “most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” which suggests he knew someone there – or at least spoke to someone who knew them) and he includes the experience in the same class as his own (probably hallucinated) “vision”, and I think Paul is largely sincere when communicating what he believed to be true. Also “visions” of this kind seem to have been an important part of early Christianity. The first appearance was to a lone individual – Peter. Paul also talks about his friend who went to third heaven 2 Corinthians 12:2 but wasn’t sure if he’d literally been there or had just been given a vision. In Acts Peter isn’t sure if his angel-assisted prison escape is real or a vision and so on (suggesting to me that the author thought these things happened occasionally). That several of the early leaders of the church might have been prone to this sort of thing is not unnaturally improbable I don’t think, because as Richard Carrier says in various places, schizotypal members can congregate in such movements.

          • D Rizdek

            No, I actually agree with you personally, but whether we two might agree wasn’t my point.

            I was posting with the intent of giving advice that might be considered and communicated to someone debating the issue. While I could easily be convinced that multiple relatively similar hallucinations might have occurred in sequence or even simulatneously, I think someone more inclined to (not necessarily firmly affixed to) believe in the resurrection might not be so accepting of the “mass hallucination” explanation.

            And that was one of my points…i.e. that while it is a possibility, it might be a possibility less easily used to influence those who are undecided or “on the fence.” And that would seem to me to be a point of a debate.

            And my further point was that I feel like it isn’t all that necessary when considering hallucinations as an explanation. Because one person having a hallucination or a dream (and passing it on either as a real event…like the apostle Paul, or actually passing it on AS a dream but in retelling year after year, group after group, it came to be understood as a real event) is a very plausible explanation.

            I guess multiple hallucinations might be relatively plausible if they were sequential rather than concurrent. By that I mean that IF someone had vivid vision, like Paul and began telling it, it could lead others to start thinking about it and eventually through the power of suggestion and intense desire, THEY started having dreams and visions and started to believe those visions were signs that a real event. Maybe that is what you were talking about rather than the one mass of people having hallucinations simultaneously. IF so, it should be emphasized that the multiple hallucinations are seen to have occurred sequentially and not necessarily close together. I think the one thing most apologists are convinced of, for not good reason, is that all these events and the reporting of them were tight little sequences happening in a few weeks or months, rather than being stories that were bouncing around for decades before actually being recorded in manuscript. It is during that time of flux that stories become embellished and visions and hallucinations can filter in, and in ways that cannot be discerned from real events on which the earliest stories could have been based.

            I often hear…ie that there really were 500 (or a big crowd) that all experienced a hallucination of seeing Jesus at the same time. That is what I thought need not be emphasized because there is no personal account FROM those “witnesses” AND there isn’t even any personal account where someone even said THEY saw any witnesses see anything. There is just a report that Paul heard…that somewhere a group of more than 500 (a good round number easily from a dream) saw Jesus and it got passed on as a true story and ended up in one of Paul’s letters as at least a 3rd hand report.

            As to the real point of a debate, it might be for different reasons. One might be to convince an audience and that was the one I was thinking of. The other might just be to point out that those who don’t believe (or do believe) something aren’t being irrational because there are plausible explanations that suggest their viewpoint.

            • I would tend to agree. I do not favour mass hallucinations because they have very low probability. Think of the last two decades when such is claimed to have properly happened. Most mass hallucinations seem to be hard to properly establish.

              This is a different phenomenon to mass hysteria which is fairly well documented.

              wiki seems to lump them together: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_hysteria

              Though hallucinations are different, I would argue, to symptoms of hysteria.

            • Harpia Empírica

              I think all it takes to a mass hallucination to occur is to have an extremely superstitious folk who would interpret anything in their daily lives as a sign of something supernatural, and a fact weird and well told enough which who would appeal to the common sense of these people and the skepticism they lack. We can consider the “Illuminati” conspiracy theory to be some sort of mass hallucination, no? What about E.T. experiences and urban legends?

              Although I don’t think the probability is very low, sure there are better explanations for this.

            • Peter

              Ah I see, yes I agree. I have in mind what you described in the paragraph “I guess multiple hallucinations might be relatively plausible…” for the appearances before the 500. As for that appearance, you’re right that the evidence is not at all well-established! There are a variety of ways that claim could have originated…

      • The story of Dan Everett is very cool – was speaking to a mate on the train about it only 2 days ago!

        • Peter

          I really love that book!

    • Guy Walker

      It’s characteristic that you concentrate on the literal and mundane aspects of this event rather than on the symbolic resonances. In other words a low rather than high form of truth. See http://roseatetern.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/truth-and-tower-of-babel.html

      • im-skeptical

        So Jesus himself is merely a symbolic figure, rather than a historical one. Yes. that makes sense.

        • Guy Walker

          Did I detect a hint of irony in your comment? Just a soupçon? Why not both with the symbolic being of far greater interest?

          • im-skeptical

            So how do you separate the symbolic from the literal? Perhaps anything that is not likely to be literally true should be seen as symbolic? Like the resurrection.

            • Guy Walker

              Why do you have to separate the literal from the symbolic? The human condition is complex and can operate at many levels at the same time. That’s how poetry works for example and that’s a good metaphor for the human condition in itself. There doesn’t need to be this clinical obsession with clearing up truth. The human condition and human history isn’t just a messy laboratory that needs tidying. Do read my post


              on this very subject.

            • im-skeptical

              The life of Jesus in general, and the story of the resurrection in particular, are regarded by most Christians to be literally true. It is the cornerstone of the faith. Certainly many Christians will tell you that if the resurrection is not true, then Christianity is unfounded. You introduced the distinction between literal truth and symbolism in this thread. For what it’s worth, I think it is likely that Paul regarded the resurrection as symbolic, but that was early in the evolution of the story. Modern Christians tend to take it as literal truth.

            • Guy Walker

              Only in the Southern States of the USA.

              Jesus is, I believe, a figure who has historicity and, so, literally existed.

    • Ed

      Good work Johno, as ever. It seems there is little in OT prophesy to provide a Festinger-type means to explain the disonance felt by the disciples. So there must have been a ‘spark’ that got resurrection belief started. That would be a hallucination by Peter or some other central figure. Even apologist websites agree that it is plausible:

      “About 15 percent of the population experience one or more
      hallucinations during their lifetime. Research has shown that some personality
      types are more prone to experiencing them. Women are more likely to experience
      them than men. And the older we get, the more likely we are to experience a
      hallucination. So, it should come as no surprise to discover that senior adults
      who are in the midst of bereaving the loss of a loved one belong to a group
      that experiences one of the highest percentage of hallucinations; a whopping 50
      percent! (See Aleman and Larøi, Hallucinations: The Science of
      Idiosyncratic Perception, American Psychological Association,

      Once the expectation is raised, the fevour cranks up, the charged gatherings begin, then any number of individual or group religious experiences will occur. That is the origin of the appearances as described in 1Cor15 (remember its early origins) and the tomb stuff comes in much later as they needed to have a coherent story. None of this is sinister, just self-deception and chinese whispers generating facts from rumours from speculations. Just people being people.

      • Interesting quote, there, Ed.

        • Ed

          Thanks. Here is another quote from a well respected scholar who strongly believes in the resurrection:
          As N.T Wright says:

          Everyone in the ancient world took it for granted that
          people had strange experiences of encountering dead people. They knew at
          least as much as we do about visions, ghosts, dreams, and the fact that
          when somebody is grieving over a person who has just died, they
          sometimes see, briefly, a figure that seems to be like that person
          appearing to them. This is not a modern invention or discovery; ancient
          literature is full of it. They had language for that sort of phenomena,
          and that language was not ‘resurrection.’ They described these
          situations as a kind of angelic experience.

          I have no problem that Peter, or whoever, had an experience and later reflection converted it to ‘resurrection.’

          Quote from apologist website:

    • Marcus Ashes

      With regards to the fraud hypothesis on the disciples dying for a higher cause we know from modern history that large groups, heavens gate for example will die for a cause we know is not true. They may or may not fully believe in it but they still died for it.
      With regards to the whole thing the ancient astronaut theory carries more weight for crying out loud.
      Also on the topic of supernatural explanations they don’t really tell us anything. Fortunately for rational and irrational people alike if the supernatural is inexplicable and cannot be made sense of or understood then by that logic not even god himself would be able to make heads or tails of it. An interesting position to hold philosophically and even more interestingly god’s omniscience would be called into question because not only would god not know how to explain the supernatural he wouldn’t know that he knew it was supernatural by virtue of the fact that he cannot explain it.

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