Book Review: Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection

(Author’s Note: The following review was solicited and is written in accordance with this site’s policy for such reviews.)

Summary: Hampered by its own extraordinarily modest ambitions.

Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?, by Kris D. Komarnitsky, is a narrowly focused, skeptical explanation of what could have inspired Christian belief in the resurrection other than a miraculous revival of Jesus from the dead. Although the author isn’t an atheist (he says “I personally am agnostic” [p.182] as to the existence of God or an afterlife), he writes that there’s value in promoting evidence-based doubt of the central claim of Christianity.

The author starts out by examining what historical records we do have. He rightfully points out that Paul clearly didn’t know of a discovered empty tomb legend [p.11] – although Christian scholars have strained to find some verse in the epistles that can be read as “implying” it. He also points out that the Gospel of Mark originally ends with no post-resurrection appearances, just the women fleeing from the empty tomb in terror. Christian apologists say this would be an unlikely choice if the gospel author was writing fiction, since women’s testimony was undervalued in the ancient world and it would look bad for them to be the first people to discover the empty tomb. Komarnitsky responds with an excellent argument, which is that if Mark is a much later document, this may well be an attempt to explain why this story was new to its audience. “[T]he use of women in a legend which is trying to explain why the discovered empty tomb story remained unknown for so long actually makes perfect sense” [p.15].

Treating the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion as historically accurate, Komarnitsky suggests that Jesus’ body, like the bodies of other crucified criminals, would most likely have been buried in a simple shallow pit grave whose location none of his followers would have known [p.25]. He suggests that the story of the rock-hewn tomb was a later legend.

He then theorizes that Christian resurrection belief arose as a case of “cognitive dissonance reduction” [p.44], in which a believer’s commitment to the group leads them to come up with creative rationalizations to avert the stress of empirical disconfirmation. He cites Leon Festinger’s classic When Prophecy Fails, an examination of a UFO cult that predicted the end of the world in 1954, and how the failure of this prediction led to a period of intense rationalization in which cult members concluded that their faith had averted the cataclysm. As secondary examples, he discusses three other strange and curious sects I’ve written about: the Millerites, the cult of Sabbetai Zevi, and especially the messianic Lubavitchers.

Komarnitsky’s discussion of the Lubavitchers, I thought, was especially good, showing how rationalization adapts to overcome theological crisis. Near the end of his life, the frail and elderly grand rabbi Menachem Schneerson, believed by many followers to be the messiah, had several strokes. The first left him unable to speak and partially paralyzed, which his followers interpreted as him fulfilling the sign of the messiah being “a man of sorrows” from Isaiah 53. A second stroke left him comatose, which they interpreted as a trance state showing that his soul had journeyed to hell to rescue sinners. Finally, when he died, they responded not with sorrow but with outbursts of rejoicing, believing that his resurrection and the messianic age were imminent. He quotes an observer who says it very well:

“The stunning speed with which this belief has spread in the absence of a scintilla of evidence should capture the attention of all historians who have struggled to explain and reconstruct the development of the early Christian belief in the resurrection…” [p.56]

All this material is well-researched and good as far as it goes. I also liked his section on how common it is to see hallucinations of a recently deceased person, especially when a person holds religious beliefs that would lead them to expect such an appearance. To support this, he uses an example I hadn’t heard about: how, in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, many survivors thought they saw the ghosts of the drowned wandering the beaches, due to local beliefs that the spirit of a dead person will appear if their body isn’t disposed of with proper funeral customs [p.86].

Nevertheless, I think this book is hampered by its own modest ambitions. It bends over backwards so far to be noncommittal, presenting its own explanation as merely one plausible hypothesis among many, that it weakens its own case. The author says that his own explanation is “too ad hoc (speculative) due to the paucity of historically reliable information” [p.174] to treat it as anything more than a hypothesis. He also uses the terms “traditional” and “non-traditional”, respectively, to refer to Christian and skeptical beliefs, which he says is an attempt to “avoid the baggage that usually comes with terms like critical/uncritical, liberal/conservative, skeptic/believer” [p.2].

Something else that irked me is that he treats Jesus’ historicity, as well as the basic outline of the Gospel story, as a settled question; he doesn’t even consider whether some of the aspects of his theory might not work equally well in the context of a mythical-Jesus explanation. Since he cites the work of Earl Doherty [p.15], he’s clearly aware that alternate explanations exist which don’t concede much of the Christian story at the outset, but this book doesn’t address or even acknowledge any of them. A fuller comparison of its hypothesis to all the alternatives, even if only to explain why it rejects them, would have made its main argument more convincing.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.