Many things could be said which cast doubt on the story of the Resurrection of Jesus by God, but there are three above all which are most decisive in leading me to reject the story as unworthy of belief. And since I cannot rationally bring myself to believe this story, I cannot rationally bring myself to be a Christian. There are other reasons why I consider Christianity to be an ill-chosen creed, of course, such as the morals actually taught in the Bible, many of which are abhorrent to a compassionate and just man, or other details of its theology which run counter to observable facts. Even though other aspects of the creed are agreeable, the falsehood of its most important claims, and the imperfection of its teachings, are sufficient grounds to abandon it -- just as these are sufficient reasons for Christians to abandon every other religous faith in the world. Here I will only discuss the falsehood of the central Christian claim, that of the Resurrection.
1. The Event is not Proportionate to the Theory
According to the Christian theory, God is god of All Mankind, and more than that, He is god of All the Universe. This is inconsistent with the proof offered for such a deity, that of the Resurrection of Jesus. This event is said to defy nature and thus prove God's supremacy over death and to assure us that, by believing in this deed, God will perform the same deed for us. An inconsistency exists here in two respects:
(1) A miracle whose purpose is to prove something to all mankind must logically be an event that can be observed by all mankind.
(2) An event which is to demonstrate the power and existence of a 'god of the universe' must logically demonstrate divine powers of such a magnitude, and not of a vastly lesser magnitude.
Why are these problems? To begin with, a 'god of mankind' could have carved "Jesus Lives" on the face of the moon, where all mankind could witness the miracle, and observe it for all time without relying on hearsay. Indeed, a 'god of the universe' could have rearranged the stars to spell "Jesus Lives" -- the sort of feat that can never be replicated by technology and which would demonstrate a truly universal power over all of nature. Without miracles of such magnitude, a god fails to show the extent of his power, fails to advertise to all his subjects, and fails to prove himself thereby. He fails to exhibit his means and message in a manner proportionate to what we are supposed to believe about him.
A resurrection of one man observed by a handful of others in one tiny spot on one tiny planet in one tiny corner of the cosmos is more consistent with a very minor deity or even a natural event. There is an easy naturalistic explanation in religious zealotry or scientific ignorance, and there is no good reason to believe in, or even care about, a petty Palestinian deity. Yet the Resurrection demonstrates no more than one of these things, at best. That is one reason why the "God of the Universe is Proven by the Resurrection" argument fails to be rationally convincing. Such a god would not use a mere Resurrection as proof of his existence, and even if he did, we cannot accept it as such, for we cannot rule out the equally probable actions of a lesser deity, nor even natural causes (i.e. of the event itself, or the account of it).
But the point goes even deeper still. An event only observed by a few men can only be a proof, as Thomas Paine wrote, for those men. It can never be a proof for all mankind, who did not observe it. No amount of argument can convince me to trust a 2000 year-old second-hand report, over what I see, myself, directly, here and now, with my own eyes. If I observe facts which entail that I will cease to exist when I die, then the Jesus story can never override that observation, being infinitely weaker as a proof. And yet all the evidence before my senses confirms my mortality. My identity is inexorably connected with my ability to see, hear, think, feel, and remember -- it is built necessarily upon my memories, derived from all these things. Yet we know for a fact that by removing certain portions of one's brain, or removing the materials needed for the brain to function, such as oxygen, we cause each of these elements of human identity to be lost or altered. The memory of words has its place in the brain, the ability to imagine images has its place, and we know them.
Yet if you can remove my memories by removing sections of my brain, if you can remove my will or my reason or my emotional control by damaging other sections of my brain, if you can cause my whole consciousness to grind to a halt and fail to notice a whole minute of time by merely draining me of blood, then it follows necessarily that if you remove all the parts of the brain, if you remove all of its blood and put none back in, then there will not be anything left to call 'me'. A 2000 year-old second-hand tale from the backwaters of an illiterate and ignorant land can never overpower these facts. I see no one returning to life after their brain has completely died from lack of oxygen. I have had no conversations with spirits of the dead. What I see is quite the opposite of everything this hick tale claims. How can it command more respect than my own two eyes? It cannot. Even the author of the gospel of John depicts Thomas the Doubter as rational and wise for refusing to believe without direct observation, and this shows that we have no more grounds to believe than Thomas did, and until granted the same evidence as he, we are as right as he is to call it bunk.
So much for the miracle being inadequate to the task of convincing all mankind, and so a failure as far as divine plans go. What about that second problem? The colloquialism of a tiny event happening only in Palestine makes no sense if god wanted all mankind, including the Chinese, to witness the event and be saved. It makes more sense if it was a local idiosyncracy and not a divine event at all. That is to say, The Resurrection, as told, is more consistent with a mere natural occurrence which inspired a few local yokels, than with an act of a cosmic god aimed at saving all mankind. It is too small, too puny, too long ago. A god ought to know better. But men, we know, are prone to think of their little tiny place as the whole of creation, and of their little tiny slice of history as the whole of time. Men, we know, are more than capable of making this story up, or of believing it without really checking the details. The story is all too sensible as a yarn, whether sincere or devious. But as the centerpiece of a divine, cosmic plan, it makes no sense at all.
A Resurrection, after all, is not all that impressive a feat. It is localized, not cosmic in scale, and it is not that technically difficult. Carving the moon or rearranging the stars is more consistent with the Christian's description of God, as well as more consistent with that god's purported objectives. We already expect that we, mere humans, will be capable of accomplishing resurrection in fifty to a hundred years. Not only does the cryogenics industry show this, but certain logical inductions about the progress of science and technology will suffice. A resurrection can only prove a god of meager, within-the-realm-of-humanly-possible powers. It cannot prove a god of cosmic, supernatural might. And a god of cosmic might would want to prove he was the latter, not the former. Thus, the Resurrection is not consistent with what a cosmic god would do, but it is consistent with what ignorant men would dream up and believe with all credulity. The falsehood of the Resurrection is thus more reasonable, more likely, than its truth, even within the theory of Christianity itself.
2. The Evidence Casts Suspicion on the Event being a True Resurrection
I am inclined, myself, to think that Jesus simply died, and the rest was invented, consciously or not, by his disciples, as a means to carry on his teaching and gain divine authority for it -- precisely the same thing preachers use the story for today. But even if we posit that there is some truth to the appearances of Jesus after his death, even if we grant half of the argument, as I am willing to do, the argument fails to convince. Why? Because there are too many reasons to doubt that a miracle occurred at all.
For the event to be a miracle, the Resurrection must defy the course of nature, and for that to happen, Jesus had to have died. His heart had to have lain still and quiet for days, his brain had to have starved from lack of oxygen. The whole network of neurons had to have largely disintegrated, dissolved from massive cell death and the pooling of blood acids. Gases and fluids had to pool in his extremities and body cavities. Rigormortis had to set in, and come and go as it does. His body had to rot. Anything less than this cannot be considered death. If his heart kept beating, perhaps one can argue it was only in defiance of nature that it did so, and perhaps one can extend this argument to the brain, to the decay of the corpse, or to every aspect of death. Perhaps Jesus lay in a magical, miraculous stasis. This would entail that he was not Resurrected from death, but that he survived by a miracle instead. But this would still be the claim that he did so by miraculous intervention, and that his survival was in spite of nature, and not an exhibition of the natural, if extraordinary, course of physics, chemistry, and biology. I claim that we have no reason to believe that either miracle occurred. For we have no reliable evidence that Jesus died, and we certainly have none whatsoever that he survived by some magical kind of stasis -- no one observed the corpse of Jesus while it lay in the tomb, and no doctors examined him, on the cross or off it.
Ineed, not only do we have no way of really knowing that Jesus died on the cross (we can't travel back in time with the medical machinery and team of doctors necessary to certify it), there is an abundance of evidence which throws suspicion on the claim that he did. This suspicion, even though it does not produce a certainty that he survived, is nevertheless sufficient for any rational person to remain unconvinced that anything miraculous happened -- even if it actually did. That is, even if a god wanted this to be proof of something, he failed to make it so. The evidence leaves enough room for survival to be possible -- and not just possible, but likely. Even if the survival of Jesus could be proven unlikely, it still cannot be excluded with enough certainty to justify categorically denying it -- and so it cannot be excluded with enough force for one to believe that divine intervention is the most sensible explanation.
It is easy to test the Christian's honesty in claiming that the evidence warrants rational belief. Simply posit essentially the same evidence and essentially the same account, but given of a modern Bob, whose central message was that Christianity was a lie, and that his was the true word of God, and his resurrection was proof of that. Would the Christian convert? Logically, he must, for the evidence is exactly equal in merit but for these details: the new message is more recent and has not had the opportunity of being doctored or mishandled in transmission, and it has occurred in an age where almost everyone is literate and in possession of more scientific literacy than even the most educated scholar of two millenia ago. These two advantages are enough to give the evidence for the new messiah far more weight than that for the old. But would the Christian convert, and renounce Christ? I think, then, the Christian would see all that is really wrong with his own evidence. It is far too weak to warrant conversion to Bob. But this entails that it is even weaker still in the case of Christ.
And a cumulative case can be made that Jesus did not really die. Jesus was taken down the same day he was put up, without breaking his legs, unlike the others crucified with him (John 19.32). Death by crucifixion typically took days, and breaking the legs was portrayed as the standard means of hastening death, by cutting off the airway under the weight of the crucified's own body. Thus, the possibility of his survival cannot be refuted on this score -- being removed before the typical time of death, and being treated uniquely among all others in the same place and time, in such a way as to increase greatly his chances of survival, casts great doubt on his death. If we imagine that even as few as 75% of all victims survived on the cross more than a day (at least such odds are necessary for Pilate to express amazement at Jesus' early demise in Mark 15.44), then already we have a 75% chance that Jesus did not die on the cross [for what I mean by interjecting such statistics, see addendum 4 below -- these are not scientific conclusions, but my own estimations of probability which, if you disagree with them, you should replace with your own].
Three of the gospel accounts of the crucifixion depict a sponge soaked in some liquid being pressed into Jesus' face, with Jesus expiring immediately thereafter (Matthew 27.48-50, Mark 15.36-37, John 19.29-30). We are told it was sour wine (oxos), which was often used to revive the swooning, yet Jesus expires immediately afterward, a suspicious reaction indeed. So the possibility of his being drugged cannot be refuted. It is a distinct possibility. We cannot check what was really placed on the sponge, and we have no neutral account of the sponge-offering. Certainly, I will not bet my life that it was not a drug that was supplied, and his immediate and otherwise inexplicable death after receiving the sponge makes the chances of a drug greater still. What are the odds that Jesus was drugged into the mere appearance of death? I will say that it must be at least 50%. For who can bring forward any evidence against the possibility?
Above all, what evidence do we have that he was dead? We are not told of doctors. Only soldiers give their assessment. But they have no training, indeed they are among the least knowledgeable in anatomy and medicine, and they never seem to even touch him to examine him, except, by one account, at spear's length. Ancient accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist. Pliny the Elder, writing in the 60's and 70's AD, collects several of them in his Natural History (7.176-179): people who were deemed dead, observed as dead all through their funeral, and on the pyre, ready to be set aflame -- but who walked away nonetheless. One account includes a wound that would seem almost certainly fatal (a cut throat, 7.176). Alexander the Great himself was impaled by a spear, which punctured one of his lungs, yet he recovered. Even modern accounts of misdiagnosed deaths exist -- as recently as 1989 in Springfield, Ohio (cf. St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 17, pg. 2A) and 1994 in San Leandro, California (Orlando Sentinel, Jan. 29, pg. A20). What are the odds that Jesus was misdiagnosed as dead? As it is, we must grant at least a 10% chance that the soldiers mistook him for dead, and that is granting them an amazing diagnostic skill. If Jesus was drugged, this chance would certainly have to rise to at least a 90% chance, for how would common soldiers know anything of the possible effects of drugs, much less that they had been administered? As far as they knew, the sponge was soaked in vinegar. Since we give the odds of being drugged at 50%, we can assess the total chance of misdiagnosis at (0.5 x 0.90) + (0.5 x 0.10) = 50%. With a chance of survival of 75%, this makes a chance of survival, misdiagnosed as death, of 37.5%.
We also have accounts of survival despite incredible injuries. The Coast Guard WWII hero Douglas Munro was impaled at least 40 times by Japanese rifle bullets, yet continued to drive his landing boat, dying only after completing his mission (receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously). So even when very unlikely, survival is demonstrably possible. And complete recovery need not be assumed. Jesus had no known ministry after his death, wrote nothing, and commissioned no inscriptions (despite having wealthy benefactors who could have arranged it), thus he certainly must have died after his ordeal. Some early manuscripts of Luke lack the reference to Jesus being carried up to heaven (24.51), simply saying that he 'left them' in the middle of a blessing (diestê ap' autôn), which may mean that he simply died.
It is typical of surviving such ordeals that a sudden but temporary upswing in health should precede eventual downturn and death. In the National Library of Medicine MEDLINE database, record (acc.) 68403724, such an account is recorded: a terrorist bomb threw so many fragments into the brain of Assaf Ben-Or that surgery was ruled out as impossible without killing him. His brain was bleeding heavily internally and the doctors could do nothing about it. A week later, he was listed in good condition and was talking and walking. He then died shortly thereafter. Certainly, passion and drugs can improve chances of such a temporary upswing -- it is not impossible, and not even remarkably unlikely. The possibility of such a thing cannot be refuted in the case of Jesus, who was far less injured than Assaf Ben-Or, and who had no cut throat, no impaled lung as far as we know, no two-score rifle wounds. So survival is even far more likely in the case of Jesus than that of Assaf or any of these other survivors.
Though he must have had at least a 75% chance of not having died on the cross, John records a spear wound. It has been said that the description of the wound pouring out blood and water suggests a mortal wound, being a blow near the heart. But in fact the only place in the body where a noticeable amount of water or any clear liquid would be visible, along with blood, to a medically ignorant soldier a spear's length away, is the large intestine, suggesting a wound that is unlikely to be fatal until many days later. Munro and Assaf and these other amazing survivals probably occur, let's say, 1% of the time, but a spear wound to the large intestine, though likely to kill in time, is nothing compared to the wounds these people temporarily survived. I, myself, must say the odds of surviving such a wound for up to a week must be better than 50% -- I would say at least 60%. Throw in the chances of surviving a partial day of crucifixion (75%), and we get a chance of survival, with the spear wound, of 0.75 x 0.60 = 45%. With misdiagnosis as well, we get a final chance of 0.45 x 0.50 = 22.5%.
But the account of his being speared is illogical and late. It appears only in John, the last of the gospels to be written (after 90 AD). There, soldiers decide not to break his legs because he is dead, and then spear him to make sure he is dead. This is contradictory and inexplicable behavior. The spear wound later comes up in the context of the doubting Thomas story, which only appears in John. As a late insertion in the story, it is obviously a rhetorical 'vicarious conversion' aimed at answering arguments of skeptics, and being late this is to be expected -- such doubts had no doubt been voiced by then, and John would have had to answer them. Thus John has as much a motive to invent the spear wound as he has to invent the entire Thomas story, found in no other account, not even in the writings of Paul. All three facts create great doubt that Jesus was stabbed with a spear. This makes survival even more likely. The odds that the spear story is false, based on the fact that three earlier accounts fail to mention it, that John has a rhetorical reason to invent it, and the account of it does not make sense, must be at least 75%. This gives us a 75% chance that the odds of survival and misdiagnosis are 37.5% and a 25% chance that they are 22.5%, for a combined chance of (0.75 x 0.375) + (0.25 x 0.225) = 0.28 + 0.056 = 33%.
One might argue that the 'not breaking his legs' account must be dropped if we drop the spearing account. But this is not so. John has no rhetorical reason to make that up. It serves no rhetorical purpose. And there is no particular reason to mention it in any earlier accounts, since it is depicted by John as a routine part of the early removal of the crucified. Although it is slightly less likely to be true than other features of the event, like the sponge, it also follows that if we assume it is not true, then we also have no record of Jesus having his legs broken. Indeed, we have no other record that this was indeed a standard practice.
But what about the guards? Doesn't that make escape unlikely, even if Jesus survived? Although the gospels accuse the Jews of making up the theft story (and see addendum 5), it is only the gospels, after all, which mention a guard on the tomb. The gospel authors have the same motive to make that up as the Jews would have had to make up the theft story, for by inventing guards on the tomb the authors create a rhetorical means of putting the theft story into question, especially for the majority of converts, who did not live in Palestine. Thus, neither story is more likely to be true than the other. Even if we assume a guard, the gospels depict the guards as accepting a bribe to lie about theft, and thus it follows that the guards would be just as likely to accept a bribe to allow Jesus to escape, and they would also have no qualms about accepting both bribes, being twice the richer for it. And since Jesus was buried in the tomb of his rich and influential supporter, Joseph of Arimathea, there is an irrefutable possibility of bribery.
Even without these possibilities, we do not know the configuration of the tomb site -- and we know it belonged to a wealthy supporter, and that the body was placed in the tomb by that supporter, and that the disappearance occurred on a high holy day, when, due to religious laws and observances, the fewest potential witnesses are about. The possibility of covert escape, given these facts, is also great (and it is even greater, see addendum 5). Thus, there is no convincing evidence that Jesus could not have survived and escaped. I'll give it odds. That the story of the guards is invented I'll take as being about 20% likely. That the story is true, but the guards were bribed, another 20%. That the story is true, but Jesus, having survived, escaped detection by some device, I'll give 20% again. This means that the odds that Jesus could have escaped detection if he had survived would be 1 - 0.80 x 0.80 x 0.80 (one minus the product of the chances of each method of escape not being used or not succeeding) = 49%.
The combined odds of survival, misdiagnosis, and escape are thus, in my opinion, 0.33 x 0.49 = 16%. That means that given what we know about this event, I must believe there is a 16% chance that nothing miraculous occurred. Am I being too liberal? Cut the odds in half, quarter them, even cut them to a tenth that figure, and we still have odds that are too great to rule out. If there was only a 1% chance of nothing miraculous occurring, that would still be good enough a chance to discount any miraculous explanation. For who needs to resort to 'miracles' to account for what can occurr 1 in 100 times under the same conditions? You might as well use a royal flush in a local poker game as proof of God¹s divine might.
3. The New Testament Casts Suspicion on Jesus Actually Appearing After Death.
I am not personally certain whether Jesus survived, but the fact that we can cast so much doubt on it proves that the Resurrection is not unusual enough to demand a miraculous explanation. But even if we accept that he died, there is an even greater suspicion cast on his actually appearing afterward. The first recorded appearance (in terms of when it was written, not when it was supposed to have happened) is to Paul, and it is clearly a vision. He does not see Jesus, only a flash of light (9.3-5), and those with him do not see Jesus, but only hear him (Acts 9.7, but see addendum number 3 below). Paul could have been speaking in another voice, which the others took as Jesus (or which the author of Acts portrays them as taking to be Jesus -- we don't have their account of it, after all). But the fact that no one, not even Paul, saw Jesus in the flesh makes the point well enough. Most importantly, Paul never says in his letters that he ever saw Jesus in the flesh (see the addenda below for more on this point). Moreover, this particular encounter in Acts has all the earmarks of a seizure-induced hallucination: Paul alone sees a flash of light, and he hears voices and goes blind for a short period. An embalism is sufficient to cause or explain all of this. We can add to this the fact that the earliest manuscripts of the earliest gospel, Mark, do not mention any appearances of Jesus: all the appearances in that gospel occur only in post-4th century manuscripts (cf. The Greek New Testament, Fourth Revised Edition, p. 189, apparatus footnote 3). Combined, these two details make the claim that Jesus physically appeared after death increasingly dubious.
Likewise, in all the gospel accounts, no one sees Jesus rise from the dead -- they only observe a missing body, and later are visited. William Lane Craig wisely sidesteps the issues I am bringing up by focusing on this empty tomb, as if that were such a proof of anything -- as if no one even in modern times has ever lost track of a body, as if there were no grave robbers, as if thievery by design were so improbable for a group who had a desperate need for some story to keep their movement alive. Indeed, it is not so hard to doubt the account of the empty tomb in the first place. Jerusalem was totally sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, so any white lies about whether Jesus was in his tomb, or which tomb he was supposed to be in, could never be checked against the facts, and we have no account in the letters of Paul or Peter that anyone cared to check them (nor in the letters of James, Jude, or John, even though their authenticity has been questioned). These are the only New Testament authors who lived before that time, and they never once tell us that they checked the tomb themselves. But even such a report would have been futile -- ever hear of the old switcheroo? By all accounts, only Joseph of Arimathea and a few loyal women are certain to have known his burial place. When it came time to point to his empty tomb later on as proof, any empty tomb would do.
But what about the appearances? In all the gospel accounts of the appearances, there are features of those accounts which cast some doubt on those appearances actually being of Jesus. For example, Matthew 28.17 reports that only 'some' people who actually saw Jesus worshipped him, while 'others' doubted it was him (hoi...idontes auton prosekynêsan hoi de edistasan, the verb distazô means 'to doubt, to be doubtful' and the hoi...hoi construction translates as 'some...others...'). Why would some who saw Jesus doubt it was him? The other gospels provide some clues that might explain this, and which also make the appearances of Jesus doubtful in their own right.
Mark 16.12 records that Jesus "appeared in a different form" -- the verb is phaneroô, and in a passive voice, which means 'he was made known, he was revealed' or 'he became known, became famous'. The choice of verb suggests, and certainly allows, that it is a vision being described. The phrase en heterai morphêi means 'with another appearance' or 'in another shape' and this means that, in some way, what appeared to them did not look like Jesus, or else it fell into a different category than the physical, and in conjunction with the particular verb above, this suggests a vision of some kind. This certainly places the event in doubt.
Luke 24.16 records that when Jesus appeared to two men, Kleopas and Peter (based on 24.13, 18, and 34), they did not recognize him (mê epignônai auton), even after conversing with him, inviting him home, and eating dinner with him. They only conclude that he is Jesus based on his words and behavior (24.31-32). Many translations say that they 'recognize' him and then he 'vanishes', as if something magical happened. The Greek is more mundane, saying only autôn de diênoichthêsan hoi ophthalmoi kai epegnôsan auton kai autos aphantos egeneto ap' autôn, or, literally, "their eyes were opened and they recognized him and he became hidden from them." In other words, they 'see Jesus' in the stranger but then quickly lose sight of this 'vision'. It does not say the man left or disappeared exactly (he probably left of his own accord), only that they thought he was Jesus for a moment, and this led them to think that he was in fact Jesus. This also suggests that it was not him, but a stranger whom they thought was Jesus. Certainly, there is enough that is odd about this account to place in doubt the belief that Jesus actually appeared to them.
Luke 24.36-50, which portrays a more concrete appearance, looks a lot like the ending added later to the earlier gospel of Mark (and has the same apparent rhetorical usefulness as John's account of Thomas), and it is possible that this ending did not exist in earlier versions of Luke. It is worth noting that when the accounts are arranged in order of being written, the accounts of Jesus' appearances become increasingly elaborate -- from none at all in the original Mark, to the vague account in Matthew (with the equally vague note that some doubted), to Luke with this proto-Thomas story, then to John with his elaborate Thomas story. Even if we accept the record as genuine (though there is no truly compelling reason to do so), the fact that this appearance occurs only among the disciples, and when the above story is being related, makes possible a group vision arising from religious hysteria, or even more likely, the invention of the story by the eleven in order to give their continuation of Jesus' ministry more authority.
John 20.14 records that Mary "sees Jesus but does not know it is him" (theôrei ton Iêsoun hestôta kai ouk êidei hoti Iêsous estin). The verb theôreô means to 'perceive' in a very general sense, including mentally, for it can mean 'experience', 'observe', 'look at', 'watch' (a theôros is a spectator, a member of an audience), or 'contemplate', 'theorize'. The verb oida means 'to know' (by having seen or understood). Mary assumes at first that it is the gardener, then she falls into his arms weeping (20.13-17) and takes him to be Jesus, reporting some religious message of his to her later listeners. All of this suggests a vision, or at least that what she saw was not Jesus but some bystander, like the gardener, that she took to be Jesus, and she then imagined the rest or made it up so as to encourage the other mourners with the possibility that their leader was spiritually triumphant. Certainly, it is very odd that she did not know who it was until he spoke. Above all, why didn't he accompany her when she went to the others? Why does she only relate the experience to them when she could have taken Jesus with her? And when doubters rush to the tomb to check her story, all they find is an empty tomb -- no Jesus. An empty tomb, let me remind you, that the disciples did not know the location of, apart from whatever directions Mary gave them. All of the details of this account are suspicious and add to the swelling doubt.
John 20.19 records that when Jesus appeared to the others, it is after Mary's impassioned story, while all are mourning and have locked themselves indoors "in fear of the Jews" (tôn thurôn kekleismenôn...dia ton phobon tôn Ioudaiôn). This is a situation ripe for hallucination (dark place, hopes stirred, fear raging, strong desire for reassurance), or invention (what goes on behind locked doors to a priveleged few, who need to cook up something to save their ass, is easily suspect). But above all, the purpose for this appearance, and another, also behind locked doors (to Thomas, 20.26 -- one wonders if is this actually some kind of an initiation ceremony into an early Christian mystery religion, where "I saw Jesus" becomes a metaphor for something deeper), is to impart belief to the readers in the truth of the disciple's teaching (exlicitly stated, 20.27-29, 31) and in their authority to teach it (also explicitly stated, 20.21-23). This raises great suspicion in the truth of the account, for the disciples have both the motive (something to teach, the need for spiritual authority to teach it, and the need to gain support to help them escape hostile Jews) and the means (goings-on behind locked doors that are only privy to the disciples) to fabricate it. Means, motive, and opportunity. That makes the basis for a solid case. It is certainly a strong enough case for reasonable doubt.
John 21.4 then records that Jesus appeared outside, yet then his own disciples do not know it is him (ou mentoi êideisan hoi mathêtai hoti Iêsous estin). One disciple, "the one Jesus loved" (êgapa), who was resting on Jesus' chest during the last supper (13.23 and 21.20), merely says it is Jesus, and Peter swims ashore, presumably to see for sure. But when they all come to eat with this stranger, 21.12 says that "none of them dared to ask him, 'Who are you?', knowing that he was the lord" (oudeis de etolma tôn mathêtôn exetasai auton su tis ei eidotes hoti ho kyrios estin). Why would they feel the need to ask him who he is, unless it was not obvious to them? The verb tolmaô means 'be brave enough to, dare to' and thus entails that they were afraid to ask, in other words afraid to gainsay their leader Peter, or Jesus' unnamed favorite. Perhaps they went along out of compassion for this distraught man, or perhaps they were persuaded by his conviction -- for they certainly did not see Jesus, or else the account would say so. The verb oida, again, means to know (by having seen or understood), and so they may have understood the stranger to be Jesus even though it did not appear to be him. The way the passage is written is odd enough to cast great doubt on other interpretations.
Of course, this 'beloved' disciple is reputedly the source for John's account (cf. 21.24), though it is highly unusual that John would not mention his name. It has been said that authors often omitted their names from what they wrote, but this is not true for any other ancient work that I know of -- it is only true for the gospels, casting even greater suspicion on them. Indeed, there are many other details in the gospels which impugn their reliability -- the fact that Matthew dates the birth of Jesus to before 4 BC (the year Herod the Great died), whereas Luke dates it to 6 AD (the year of the first census under Quirinius), the fact that Matthew records a hoarde of zombies descending on Jerusalem after the death of Jesus, the blatant and repetitive account of demon possession as an explanation for insanity, the fact that none of the miracles of healing defy natural causes (no missing limbs are ever regrown, no one is resurrected from ashes), and so on. But I have concentrated on three aspects of only one detail, and yet I have shown by more than enough evidence that the Resurrection as Miracle From God is unbelievable, even improbable, and that is sufficient grounds to reject the Christian faith. All the other reasons one could add to this merely add to the crushing weight of conviction that Christianity is an old superstition, dusty with time, outdated, outmoded, and better replaced by dozens of other world views.
Many devout believers will take issue with what I have said. So far, they have yet to give any good reason to actually come to a different conclusion. But those attempts that have enough merit to deserve a response will be met here. The list may grow over time.
1. The witnesses of Jesus' resurrection were willing to die for that belief. That makes invention unlikely.
In actual fact, we have no reliable record of any eye witness dying for their belief. All martyrdom accounts are of converts after the fact, except for that of Peter -- but the account of his death is first found in the Gnostic Acts of Peter, a tale which includes, among other things, a talking dog, a flying wizard, and the resurrection of a tunafish. Moreover, the account is Gnostic and assumes, as in Peter's dying words in it, that the Resurrection was spiritual, not physical. Certainly, nowhere in the account is it said that Peter believed Jesus appeared in the flesh after death -- nor would he have escaped death if he had recanted, for he was killed by a magistrate, as the story relates, whom he had angered with his political meddling, and not because he was a Christian. Likewise, the two epistles of Peter placed in some versions of the New Testament also make no mention of a physical resurrection, nor even of an empty tomb for that matter. Indeed, when Peter argues that he was an eyewitness (epoptê, literally an initiate in the highest rank of a mystery religion, but also meaning spectator) and that his teachings are not "cleverly devised tales" (sesophismenois mythois) he does not mention after-death appearances or the empty tomb, but only the transfiguration, and a voice from heaven heard at that time (2 Peter 1.16-19), which appeared in private to only a few (Peter, James, and John) before Jesus was killed. One might also add that, even if we accept the authenticity of the letters of James, Jude, and John, none of them mention an empty tomb or a physical resurrection.
Let us also not forget that Paul himself, the one without whom there would have been no Christianity as we know it, was not an eye witness. And the first actual account of a martyr is that of Stephen (Acts 7.54-60). But Stephen was not recorded anywhere as being among the original disciples or among the witnesses of any appearance of Jesus (he is listed as being a very devout member of the later converts, Acts 6.5). One might say that as he is being set upon by a mob, he has a vision of Jesus sitting next to God in the sky, but this is clearly not a physical appearance: none of the mob or onlookers saw this, and the details are far from being that of a physical appearance. Moreover, if Jesus was alive and walking about at this time, surely he would be mentioned in Acts as still participating in the movement (but instead, he had already been taken up: Acts 1.9-11), and surely he would have stepped in front of Stephen and intervened. But there is more to this. Stephen gives a speech, professing the belief for which he is killed and is willing to die, yet he does not mention the appearances of Jesus after death, nor the empty tomb, or anything like that. He merely professes that Jesus was the messiah, fulfilling Jewish anticipations, and that Jesus was unjustly killed. Indeed, he does not even claim that Jesus was God or the son of God. Stephen seems to be treating Jesus like all the other famous prophets who were killed, and whose deaths were regarded as a rebuke upon the wickedness of Jewish authorities who reject god's message -- Stephen, and others in the early church, may thus see their victory in the belief and salvation of the believer, not in Jesus' resurrection. At any rate, Stephen was willing to die for a lot less than the claims of Jesus' appearances or even divinity.
2. Paul claims there are hundreds of eye witnesses, many alive at the very time of his writing (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). That makes invention as well as delusion unlikely.
Paul includes himslelf among the witnesses (15:8). Yet we know that Paul was not an eye-witness. He only saw a light and heard a voice, well after Jesus had already been taken up. Thus, this passage cannot mean anything more than that hundreds have seen Jesus in visions, not in person. The verb 'appeared' used several times in this passage is ôphthê, which is as vague in Greek as in English. Used in the passive voice, as it is here, it means only 'was seen' or 'appeared' and frequently means 'appeared in a vision' (as in the case of Paul's vision, cf. Acts 9.17).
This is compounded by the fact that Paul fervently portrays the Resurrection as spiritual, not physical: "a natural body is sown, a spiritual body is raised" (1 Corinthians 15.44, speiretai sôma psychikon, egeiretai sôma pneumatikon, see also 15.50), and he ardently insists (Galatians 1.11-24) that he was not taught the gospel by anyone in the flesh ("I did not consult with flesh and blood," ou prosanethemên sarki kai haimati, 1.16), but by revelation from god ("I did not receive it from a man nor was I taught it, but through a revelation of Jesus Messiah," oude gar egô para anthrôpou parelabon auto oute edidachthên alla di¹ apokalypseôs Iêsou Christou). The word for 'revelation' is apokalypsis, the same word used for the title of the New Testament book of Revelations, and as there and elsewhere it means 'manifestation' in a spiritual sense, i.e. a vision. Peter also argues this quite explicitly: 1 Peter 3.18 declares that Jesus was "put to death in flesh but made alive in spirit" (thanatôtheis men sarki zôopoiêtheis de pneumati), and in 1 Peter 5.1 he curiously omits any mention of an empty tomb or a resurrection in the flesh, even though the context would lead us to expect him to.
Note also that Paul does not name any one of these witnesses, except Peter and James [literally, 'Jakob'] (though he does mention "the twelve" -- although there were only eleven disciples when Jesus supposedly appeared). But there is nothing here that I have not already cast doubt upon in the main essay above. These are not new witnesses being reported, but the same ones. For all we know, Paul could have been including men like Stephen in his list of witnesses (a martyr whose death he watched), even though we have no reason to believe Stephen was an eyewitness to any appearance of Jesus in the flesh.
3. Paul gives other accounts of his vision which claim that others saw it, too. This suggests a genuine vision from God.
First of all, there is never any mention of Jesus appearing in the flesh. Rather, all that appears is a light from heaven (phôs ek tou ouranou, 9.3; ek tou ouranou...phôs, 22.6; ouranothen...phôs, 26.13). So even if several saw the light, it can still have a natural explanation, from lightning to a reflection from a distant object, or even a simple ray of sunlight peaking through a cloud, any of which could also have induced a seizure or affected Paul emotionally, causing an hallucination (or inspiration). And since we don't have the story from any of these other observers, the story could be embellished or fabricated at leisure, for whatever reason. In my opinion, Paul may have seen in Christianity a way to save the Jews from destruction at the hands of the Romans by displacing their messianic motives to rebel, and creating a new Judaism more agreeable to the gentiles, open to all and thus uniting rather than dividing, and more submissive to outside authority by internalizing and spiritualizing religious faith, and postponing material and social complaints by referring them to an afterlife. This could have been a deliberate or a subconscious motivator for Paul and others leading the movement. In Paul's case, guilt and admiration may have also played an emotional role. But it is most likely that the original experience was a real, seizure-induced vision.
I am inclined toward the latter interpretation because the author of Acts gives the first account as narrative, but the other two are Paul's speeches and thus affected by their need to persuade a particular audience. Thus, the second two accounts contradict the first by claiming his attendants saw the light but did not hear the voice (cf. Acts 22.9, the exact opposite of 9.3-8), and the third account is suspiciously elaborated (26.13-19), with important details omitted from the other two accounts: e.g. he claims that his attendants fell to the ground in reaction to the light, yet the first account said that they stood (9.7), and did not see anything, and in both previous accounts he also says that he, not 'they', fell, and that the light flashed around him, not 'them'; he also claims that god gave full instructions in the last speech, yet in the other two accounts god says Paul will get these instructions later, from Ananias -- but Ananias is not even mentioned in the third account. Is Paul elaborating his story for a different audience? Has the story grown over time? Which account are we to believe?
Note that Paul claims in the second account that he was blinded because of the brightness of the light (22.11), yet was led by his attendants, who could obviously still see. This casts suspicion on his claim that the others saw the light. Since all three accounts are presumably from Paul, he may certainly have altered his memory, or embellished the story to make it more persuasive. Surely he would assume or want to believe that the others also saw the light, and since we don't have their account we cannot know what they actually saw or heard. It is likely that they neither saw nor heard, but respected Paul's experience as genuine.
It is also rather likely that the author of Acts is taking liberties with what Paul actually reported. This suspicion rises in force if we notice that when Paul gives us his own account in his own writings, we get an incompatible story -- in particular, no mention of attendants, or Ananias. Indeed, he flatly states that he did not receive the gospel from man, and that excludes Ananias or anyone else (Galatians 1.12); he says that he 'returned' to Damascus right away, but again does not mention Ananias -- in fact, he would be contradicting himself if he did, since his point is that he did not speak to any Christians after his vision until three years later, and then only to Peter and James (Galatians 1.17-20), and did not return to Jerusalem with Barnabas to reveal his conversion and missionary activities to the church until fourteen years after that (Galatians 2.1-2). Nowhere in this account does he mention people being with him during his conversion -- no one else is reported to have seen or heard or even been present when Paul had his vision. Since Paul's own writings are earlier and more authoritative concerning his own life than Acts, which was written by another man almost certainly after Paul had been dead for some years, all the accounts given in Acts are highly suspect, especially any claims that others saw the same light as Paul.
4. None of the statistics that are used in section 2 are scientific. How can any conclusion drawn from them be valid?
Decision theory is the science of making our decisions more accurate, and more capable of being analysed. The statistics that I employ are given to quantify my estimations of the relative weight of options, so that you, and I, can see more clearly what I mean by "this is unlikely" or "this is very likely" or "this is more likely than that." In other words, I am doing the same thing everyone does when they evaluate evidence and make a decision concerning what to believe, only I am doing it more openly and with greater precision. That is, I am committing to more concrete guesses, and not hiding behind vague allusions. This allows other readers to insert their own values for each probability (based on their own beliefs and familiarity with reality) and, using exactly the same evidence that I present, come to their own conclusion. That is the merit of applying decision theory to something like this -- especially an issue as complicated as this.
I had wrongly assumed that this would be understood, but some have criticized the use of decision theory in this essay. I introduced my statistics with a carefully worded subjunctive: the sentence "If we imagine that even as few as..." logically entails, and openly admits, that my conclusion is only true if you allow the same odds. The same applies to every statistic that I introduce. Even though I am not as explicit about their subjunctive nature later on, I used semi-subjunctive constructions like "I will say that..." and "these other amazing survivals probably occur, let's say..." for a reason. That is why I conclude section two by questioning my own estimates: "Am I being too liberal?" I consider at that point the possibility that my estimates are greatly in error, and then show that even if they are ten times off the mark, then my conclusion is still valid (they could be a hundred times off the mark, and I think my conclusion would still be valid -- a royal flush is a very unlikely event, after all).
It is important to emphasize that my use of statistical numbers is not science. I do not claim scientific accuracy. I only claim to be making decisions about probability, which everyone does, with less care, every time they decide what to believe. Thus, this is not a trick or a pseudo-argument, but an attempt to make my reasoning more transparent and thus more easily tested against the reader's own subjective understanding of the same facts. I thus encourage, and expect, every reader to consider each fact on their own, and determine in each case their own estimations of probability, and then do the math again, based on their own estimations. Decision theory is designed for this very purpose.
5. The Jews guarded the tomb closely, and bribed the guards to make up a story of theft. This makes covert escape more unlikely than I make it out to be.
First of all, the only account we have that the Jews made up a story of theft, and bribed guards to agree with that account, is in a Christian source, and in only one source at that, Matthew. Mark, the first gospel writer, makes no mention of the theft story, nor does he mention guards on the tomb. Neither does John, nor Luke -- not even in Acts, where a lot of hostile Jewish attacks on the church are recorded, yet somehow this attack fails to be mentioned. Most importantly, neither Peter nor Paul mention either fact, even though their letters predate the gospels by decades. Worse, Matthew's account involves reporting privileged conversations between priests and Pilate, and then secret ones between priests and guards that no Christian could have known about (27.62-65, 28.11-15). This is very suspicious. Such a story could very easily be a Christian invention -- they had the motive to make it up, to answer the objections of later skeptics (i.e. just like the Thomas story in John) -- and the story looks like an invention, because it narrates events that could not be known by the author.
If a doubter had claimed that the Christians could have stolen the body, and someone overheard this charge and later said that they heard the body was stolen, the Christians could have responded that "the evil Jews said that, to fill your head with lies" (just as Matthew says, "and this story is spread around among Jews to the present day," 28.15)-- and this would be plausible, since the story does portray the Jews as having a motive to torpedo the cause. One can easily imagine the skeptics answering back that if the Jews really feared theft, they would have guarded the tomb. This skeptical charge would then inspire the addition of guards, which would also require a story of bribery to explain why there are no guards around who could vouch for the resurrection, as well as an earthquake and angelic intervention to explain why the guards would not interfere with Mary (since, now that he has placed guards on the scene, Matthew has to invent some bizarre reason for this, a strange story appearing in no other accounts of Mary's visit to the tomb, cf. 28.1-7).
Perhaps a lie is getting larger and more implausible, in a desperate attempt to make it more plausible, a fate that has befallen many a tall story. And Matthew is the most prone to recording implausibilities: cf. the earthquake, recorded nowhere else, even though it split rocks, cf. 27.51; the zombies, 27.52-53; not to forget the fable concerning Herod and the killing of the babies, cf. 2.16, a story told of kings and great men for centuries before and after Jesus, and yet not mentioned by anyone else, not even other New Testament authors, and not even Josephus, who mentions all the other atrocities of Herod.
But even if we accept both parts of the story as given, I have already mentioned the possibility of a switcheroo. And there is no account given of why the Jews would know where the tomb was. If they had been told which tomb he was buried in, a different tomb could have been deliberately pointed out, or the body already removed. We have no record of Jews or guards looking in the tomb to make sure a body was there before closing it up -- Matthew only says that they put a seal on a tomb which had already been closed (27.66). The actual body could have been taken anywhere from the start, especially since it was 'taken' by a wealthy supporter, who could buy anyone's silence or complicity. Indeed, the mere fact that Pilate allowed him to take the body shows that Joseph had an awesome degree of influence (that he was a rich and influential member of the elite, and a Christian convert, cf. Matt. 27.57, Mk. 15.43, Luke 23.50-51, John 19.38).
But worst of all, no guards or suspicions of mischief were raised until a day later (27.62-63). This means that Joseph had carte blanche with the body. Matthew 27.57-61 records that Joseph was given the body directly, and sealed the tomb himself. The only ones recorded as being with him are the two women, also supporters of the movement. So even if the accusation of theft, even if the guards, are genuine events, as Matthew himself writes the guards were only asked for a day later (27.62). This means that the body could already have been stolen, Jesus could already have escaped, or never even been in the supposed tomb when guards were finally posted on watch.
As one can see, these factors make the chance of Jesus escaping detection immensely greater than I make them out to be in the essay above. What do I think the odds are that Jesus escaped detection, given the fact that he had a full day with no one guarding him? At least 50%. The chance that he did in fact have a full day to himself and his supporters? Based on the account as given by the Christians themselves, at least 80%, which means that I think he had a chance of escape of 40% rather than 20%. But what are the odds that the guard story is an invention? I already estimated that at 20%, but after considering the evidence more closely, I would raise that to at least 30%. Thus, when you make your own calculations of these odds, add the points that I have made here to those in the essay itself.