The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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SASHA regularly sets up an “Ask an Atheist” table on Mizzou’s campus. One of the more-common questions I receive is a rewording of Pascal’s Wager, the classic: “Do you ever wonder to yourself, ‘What if I’m wrong?'” Seeing as I live in the Midwest USA, this question is usually from a Christian.
I think this is a good response:
All the time. That’s what it means to be a skeptic: I question everything, including my own beliefs. I’m only human, and as Augustine himself said, to err is human. To borrow from Spencer Greenberg, I’ve completely changed my mind on some very important and very foundational beliefs in the past, and what that tells me is that I can be very sure about something very important, and think I have good reasons for believing it, and then learn something new and find out that I was wrong. In fact, seeing as I’m only 27, it’s very likely that I’m not done learning new things that will change my mind drastically. So the real question is, how can I really have confidence in the beliefs I have now, if there’s a decent chance that they won’t be the same in 5 years or even tomorrow? Maybe I shouldn’t!
The real question here isn’t if I’m skeptical enough; it’s are you skeptical enough? When’s the last time you wondered to yourself, “What if Islam is right? What if I’m going to burn in hell because I didn’t pray 5 times a day in Arabic facing Mecca?” You and I both know Islam isn’t true, but the question is, how sure are we and why? Being skeptical is a good thing, and I think we both agree on that, since you asked me in the first place. So my question to you is, what if you’re wrong?
In this article, I will address the alleged resurrection of Jesus and what it means to be skeptical. Because if Christians are wrong about this, then by their holy book’s own admission, Christianity is worthless: In 1 Corinthians, Paul himself admits that if Jesus didn’t come alive after his execution, Christian preaching is useless and so is Christian faith. So I think we are safe in saying that whether the historical Jesus came back to life or not should be a question of vital importance for Christians – and sadly, one that few self-identifying Christians ever stop to think about, let alone research.
Upon studying the matter to my satisfaction, I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the character of Jesus in the New Testament describes a real, single man who lived historically. See my previous post here, where I review David Fitzgerald’s book “Nailed,” for my reasons for this. In summary, from my previous post:
In my opinion, the evidence for the existence of a historical Jesus is too unreliable, too contradictory, and too far removed chronologically to pass the “burden of proof” test. Consequently, I have removed Jesus from the “People I believe really existed, though I don’t believe the supernatural claims in his biography” category [and placed him in] the “People for whom I consider the evidence for his existence to be inconclusive, and if he existed, I also don’t believe the supernatural claims in his biography” category. Others in this category are, for example, Odysseus, Achilles, and Homer.
I think that the most likely explanation for the contents & claims of the New Testament is that there were lots of people named Jesus wandering around 1st-century Galilee, and over time, these stories grew into legends. “Jesus” is actually an English translation; the name is originally Yeshua in the original language, and it was a common name back then. In fact, the Bible mentions several other people with the same name. The modern Hebrew-based equivalent is “Joshua,” which is also the name of the 6th book of the Old Testament. The writer of the OT book Ecclesiastes was yet another guy named Jesus.
I think it’s likely that at least one of these 1st-century Jesuses was an itinerant preacher, even amassing a small number of fellow travelers as he wandered about. It was certainly not an uncommon occurrence back then. As far as what he taught, who his parents were, etc, the contemporary evidence is non-existent (the earliest mention we have of him whatsoever comes from about 20 years after he allegedly died, and from someone who explicitly admits he never met the guy), and later accounts [the gospel narratives] are contradictory and fantastic.
Assuming for the moment that these legends are, in fact, all based on a single historical figure (I doubt this and have good reasons for doing so), let’s look at what it means to be skeptical in terms of the claim, “Jesus came alive again after being dead.”
One important thing to note: Even if Jesus did somehow manage to come back to being alive after being dead, this does not have anything to do with whether or not the rest of the claims of Christianity are true or not. It does not mean he is God; it does not mean there is an afterlife or that by believing Jesus is God, you can live forever, etc. We still need good evidence for those claims, evidence that we do not have. Why should we believe that the only way Jesus could come back from being dead would be if he were God? In what way does Jesus coming back from being dead prove that heaven exists? All it would prove (if it were actually true) is that Jesus was able to come back from being dead after being executed.
Even if Jesus did come back from being dead, it doesn’t prove that he could do it again at will, or that any other claims attributed to him are true. That is an unwarranted extrapolation, if you ask me.
Let’s talk about what it means to say something is a “miracle.” A miracle is, by definition, the least likely explanation for something. I would even say it’s a non-explanation: It’s what religiously-inclined people conclude when they can’t explain something. A miracle is what you call something that cannot be explained, even in theory, by natural means. It is, by definition, what you call something once you’ve exhausted not just all natural explanations, but all possible natural explanations.
I’m going to lay out for you a possible (through intentionally, ridiculously improbable) natural explanation for how Jesus could have come back to life after being dead.
Say that the legendary accounts in the Gospel narratives are correct insofar as Jesus existed, was executed, and placed in a tomb. Now let’s assume that 2,000 years ago, technologically-advanced intelligent aliens from another planet built a spaceship and decided to visit Earth. Let’s assume that these beings evolved on a “Class M” planet so much like ours that they were indistinguishable to ancient humans with the technology we had at the time – maybe a medical examiner could tell, but passing one on the street, we’d never know. Or maybe they looked different, but using their advanced technology, they were able to disguise themselves with make-up and protheses in order to pass off as Earthlings.
Let’s assume that when these aliens got here, after a trip lasting thousands of years on a generational vessel, they decided to land on the surface and study human anatomy by secretly abducting a recently-deceased person who probably wouldn’t be missed. Say they witnessed Jesus being placed in his tomb, and decided that’s the body they were going to “borrow.” So they subdued the guards by injecting them with a drug like midazolam (aka Versed) that causes retrograde amnesia, and stole the body. Once they got Jesus’s body back to their lab and ran their scans (gathering the information they wanted about human anatomy), they realized that, with their advanced medical technology, that could easily fix everything wrong with him that had resulted in his death & subsequent decay: regrow dead brain tissue using therapeutic stem cell organ cloning, regenerate dermal tissue, transfuse him with a synthesized blood analog, etc. Say they had a crisis of conscience and decided they should “thank” him for his “help” by bringing him back to life and returning him to where they found him. So after some pretty intensive surgery and a few days of recovery in their lab, the aliens again subdued the guards and returned Jesus to his tomb, now alive, albeit with holes in his wrists and feet from the execution, and he thereafter appeared to his followers.
Although this explanation is entirely ad hoc, nothing I said is, in theory, unnatural or theoretically impossible. By using a generational ship in my explanation, I never claimed that the aliens traveled faster than light. If you’ve ever watched Star Trek or any other science-fiction show, you know that virtually nothing is impossible with stage make-up:
Current stem-cell research, though not quite to the point of therapeutic organ cloning, is getting closer every day, etc.
The point is, although this explanation of how Jesus came back from being dead is extremely far-fetched (and emphatically not what I believe happened historically), this insane conspiracy-theory tale is actually more likely to be historically true than what Christians claim – that Jesus came back from being dead without any technological help.
I have asked Christians on multiple occasions how they can believe such a claim – that Jesus came back from being dead, without technological aid. Most just don’t care and believe it because they’ve never questioned it. Of those who have, I generally get two types of answers:
1) It’s the only possible explanation for the evidence we have.
2) You just have to have faith.
Let’s take these one at a time. That Jesus is [a] god is clearly not the only possible explanation, seeing as I just came up with another possible explanation a few paragraphs ago. It’s not even the most probable explanation, despite the ad hoc reasoning I threw in for good measure. In fact, saying that it was a miracle is by definition a non-explanation. Answer #1 fails no matter how you slice it. (If you disagree, please leave me a comment below explaining why; I’d love to hear what you have to say).
As far as Answer #2 — you just have to have faith — I think Dan Barker puts it best:
“Faith is a cop-out. It is intellectual bankruptcy. If the only way you can accept an assertion is by faith, then you are conceding that it can’t be taken on its own merits.”
Faith is basically another way of saying, “I admit that I don’t have good-enough reasons to believe this. Normally, that would mean I don’t believe it, or at least not until I have better reasons. But in this case, I don’t care that I don’t have good reasons; I don’t care that the evidence is lacking. I want to believe, and if you’re impolite enough to call me out on the obvious mistake I’m making here, well, you are a poo-poo head.”
If faith is the best you’ve got, then ultimately all you are saying is that you believe Christianity is no more true than Islam or the ancient Greek religion, or any other religion, for that matter. You are saying that you admit the evidence and logical reasons are insufficient, but you care more about preserving your beliefs than you do about finding out what’s actually true.
While I personally think the evidence favors a simple legendary fabrication of the details – the same way ancient Greek mythology came about – I understand that Christians might seek a less-extraordinary claim than aliens. So, what’s an explanation for how we could have ended up with the Gospel narratives claiming that Jesus appeared to people after his death, and an explanation for his appearance that converted Paul? One that doesn’t involve miracles, and doesn’t involve something as far-fetches as aliens?
How about a simple case of mistaken identity? Remember, this was a time before DNA testing, before photographs or video, and a time before modern court procedure. None of the writers of the New Testament narratives were present during Jesus’s trial, sentencing, or execution, so at best we have hearsay as far as the historical evidence of what really happened there.
Even in modern times, we have hundreds of examples of “criminals” being tried, convicted, and sentenced, who were later (through DNA testing) shown to be innocent. In our court system, it’s relatively difficult to convict someone. This was intentional – in the past, more people were wrongly convicted, and any number of things can result in evidence being disallowed, people literally getting away with murder on a technicality, etc.
Despite this, The Innocence Project (“a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing”, according to their website) has helped release 281 people who were wrongfully-convinced in the last 30 years or so in the United States alone. Thirteen of these convicts had been sentenced to death at the time their DNA tests proved they had the wrong guy. DNA tests have also showed that the US court system has wrongfully executed at least 23 people. Even for the people who were lucky enough to be exonerated without being executed, the average prison time served — remember, these are innocent people, wrongfully convicted — is 13 years!
So, my question to Christians is, considering that even in modern times — with modern court rules of evidence, modern technology like video evidence, fingerprint dusting, a court system designed to favor the defense, etc — we’ve STILL managed to convict the wrong guy 281 times (that we know about), isn’t it possible that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead? Isn’t it possible that Paul, who admits he never met Jesus in person, only thought he saw Jesus after his death, but was wrong? How would he even know, if he had never met him in person? Remember, Paul, who was writing beginning in 51 CE, is our earliest source of any kind that Jesus even existed at all. There is zero mention of Jesus’s existence at all, in the archaeological record or any documents uncovered to date, predating Paul’s writings.
Do you, Christians, still want to say that the only possible explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead? In order to say that, that would mean that you have managed to rule out, with 100% certainty, the possibility that Paul was mistaken. So my question to you is, recalling what I wrote at the opening of this article, since Jesus coming back alive is not the only possible explanation, how sure are you it’s the best one, and why?
Looking forward to your thoughts.
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Dave Muscato is Vice President of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A junior at Mizzou majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com.
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!