Another blogger that I have been corresponding with asked me the other day how I, as an atheist, account for the resurrection. When I was a fundamentalist, I was told that the resurrection was incontrovertible proof of the truth of Christianity, the kind of proof that cannot be ignored even by an atheist. This argument made so much sense to me at the time that I couldn’t understand how an atheist could possibly explain it away. Those of you who are also from fundamentalist backgrounds may have been taught the same. So my goal here is not to upset anyone or start any debates, but simply to explain why atheists do not actually see the resurrection as proof of Christianity.
I will start with my friend’s question, and then offer my (somewhat lengthy) response:
How do you, personally, account for the story of Christ’s resurrection? It is fairly well documented. Do you think it was a hoax, a collective hallucination, or what? How do you account for the fact that so many of the apostles were willing to die horrible deaths for the sake of a belief in something that never happened? I’m sure you have an answer of some sort, I’m just curious as to what it is.
How do you account for Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden plates? It’s quite well documented. Do you think it was a hoax, a hallucination, or what? How do you account for the fact that Joseph Smith was willing to face persecution and ultimately death for his belief in the gospel he read in the golden plates he found, and that his followers like him faced persecution and even death for the sake of a belief in something that never happened?
How do you account for David Koresh’s belief that he was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ? It’s quite well documented. Do you think it was a hoax, a hallucination, or what? How do you account for the fact that David Koresh was willing to face persecution and a horrible death for the sake of a belief in something that was not true, and that his followers were willing to join him in both and died a fiery death for the sake of a belief in something that was not true?
How do you account for Mohammed’s visions of the angel Gabriel? It’s quite well documented. Do you think it was a hoax, a hallucination, or what? How do you account for the fact that Mohammad was willing to face persecution, and even be driven from his home, for the sake of a belief in something that never happened, and that his followers were willing to join him in persecution and even risk their lives for their belief in something that never happened?
Dying for a lie?
You see, it’s not just Christianity. Every religion claims its beginning in a miraculous occurrence or revelation, and in each case the religious leader and his followers are willing to face persecution or even death rather than deny their newly held religious beliefs. Joseph Smith and his followers were chased across the country, and he himself was eventually murdered, as were David Koresh and his followers. Mohammad and his followers were run out of town because of their new beliefs. Jim Jones and nine hundred of his followers committed suicide by drinking poisoned punch. Thirty-nine members of the Heaven’s Gate group committed suicide in anticipation of the arrival of UFOs to take them to a celestial kingdom. And in all of these cases, it wasn’t just the followers who were willing to face persecution or death; it was the founders as well. So the fact that the disciples were willing to face death for their belief in the resurrection actually says nothing about whether or not their belief was true, that is, unless you are willing to assume that all the beliefs listed above were also true.
In fact, we don’t know for sure that the disciples actually did face the horrible deaths tradition says they did, because the only evidence of it is just that – tradition. There is no actual historical evidence for the disciples’ demises, just stories passed down through the years from Christian to Christian. In addition, early Christians were not actually persecuted to the extent that I was led to believe growing up. Rather than continuously having to hide or risk being thrown to the lions, as I had somehow thought, early persecution of the Christians was extremely local, and generally related either to people being upset about their relatives joining a strange new religion they viewed as an illegitimate cult or to the need to find a scapegoat for a local disaster. Other times Christians faced mob violence from other religious groups upset about losing members.
The first official persecution of Christians came in 64 AD, thirty years or so after Jesus’ death, when the Christians in Rome were used as a scapegoat for a great fire that engulfed much of the city, but this sort of official persecution was both local and temporary. For the first two hundred years of Christian history, this was how Christian persecution took place – it was local and it flared up at specific moments rather than being continuous. Then, during the third century, over two hundred years after Jesus’ death, official empire wide persecutions of Christians took place. The Roman Empire faced grave threats from barbarians on its borders, and the Roman leaders attributed their weakness to the fact that Christians, by now a growing percentage of the population, were refusing to honor the old Roman gods. They therefore enforced worship of the Roman gods, and those who refused to participate were killed. Official persecution of the Christians ended in 312 A.D. when Constantine called for religious freedom for the Christians in an effort to unify the empire. Then, in 395 A.D., Christianity was made the official religion of the empire, and persecution was turned on the pagans and Jews.
Documentation of the resurrection
Now, you say that the resurrection of Jesus is well documented. Actually, it is not. The only – I repeat, only – documentation of the resurrection comes from the New Testament. I think anyone can agree that a document written by the early followers of a religion is likely to be biased. Taking what the New Testament says about the resurrection at face value would be like taking the writings of Joseph Smith’s closest followers at face value, or taking the writings of David Koresh’s followers at face value, or the writings of Mohammed’s followers (the Koran) at face value. This is why I say that Joseph Smith’s discovery of the golden plates and David Koresh’s role as the reincarnated Jesus and Mohammed’s visions of the angel Gabriel are all well documented – because they are, by their followers.
Furthermore, the gospels were not written down until after 70 A.D., and not by eye witnesses. The stories recorded in the gospels had traveled as oral traditions for four decades and more, with ample time for shaping and reshaping. We really have no idea what actually happened to Jesus and his followers in Palestine in 30 A.D. All we have is oral traditions that were eventually written down forty years and more after the fact. In other words, we don’t know that there were Roman guards at the tomb, or that there was a huge stone that was rolled away, or that the authorities were concerned that the disciples might steal his body, or that one of Jesus followers encountered him outside the tomb, or that two of his followers encountered him on the road to Emmeus, or that he appeared to the eleven disciples or five hundred others. Any of that could easily have grown up over the years, as stories became embellished as stories do. We really can’t know for sure what happened.
One argument I have heard for the resurrection is that these stories spread while people were still alive to contradict them. Well yes. They did. But I would make four points:
1. The ancient world didn’t have twitter or facebook or the blogosphere. They didn’t even have newspapers. It took months for news to travel, and indeed, months for people themselves to travel. If Paul was preaching the resurrection in Greece and Asia Minor, say, who was there to contradict him? His converts couldn’t google what he was telling them to see if it checked out.
2. Christianity started small, and without fanfare. It was people hiding out in basements and back alleys, not people converting all of Jerusalem overnight. What need was there to contradict that? People were worried about living, not about stopping some crazy belief their neighbor’s slave happened to hold. Plus, given the variety of crazy religious beliefs at the time, what are the odds that they would really even care?
3. Furthermore, how do we know that people didn’t contradict the stories about Jesus’ resurrection? All we have is Jesus’ followers’ side of the story, or rather, their story as shaped by four decades and more of oral tradition. We have no source of information outside of that written down by early Christians. I think it likely that early Christianity did have some nay-sayers. But guess what? Those nay-sayers have never stopped any religion. Joseph Smith had plenty of people calling him a hoax, but it didn’t stop people from following him. It was the same with Mohammed and David Koresh and essentially every other religion throughout history.
4. In addition, after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D., the Jews were scattered across the Roman Empire. The places Jesus spent his life were destroyed or changed forever, and any possibility of Jewish witnesses countering Christian claims was silenced. This was convenient, for it was not until after this point that Christianity really began to grow by leaps and bounds.
And indeed, as Christianity became more popular, voices of opposition did arise. Many of the early Christian writings we have today outside of the New Testament are those of Christian apologists seeking to counter the arguments of prominent pagan critics. These pagans did argue against the resurrection, and against basically every point of Christian doctrine. When the emperor Constantine adopted Christianity, these voices were silenced. Regardless, you have to remember that Christianity did not become popular enough to warrant any sort of major opposition until the middle of the second century, over a hundred years after Jesus’ death. By this time, however, any witnesses who might have contradicted it were long gone, and Palestine as Jesus knew it had been destroyed. It was too late to go fact checking there – the evidence was gone.
Argument from ignorance
In essence, the argument that the resurrection is the only way to explain the origins of Christianity is an argument from ignorance. It essentially says “we don’t know how early Christianity could have developed without the resurrection, therefore God.” This is the same argument that is used any time we as humans encounter something we can’t explain. Our ancestors wondered what lightening was, and concluded that it must be God. And then we figured out what it actually is. Our ancestors wondered where the seasons came from, and concluded that it must be God. And then we figured out why we actually have seasons.
Just because I don’t know every detail of how Christianity, or any other religion, was founded and gained adherents does not mean that I should conclude “therefore, God.” It just means I don’t know. The fact that we don’t know exactly how Christianity started doesn’t bother me. Similarly, the fact that we don’t know how belief in the Greek and Roman Gods started doesn’t bother me, nor does the fact that we don’t know exactly how Hinduism started, or that we don’t know how exactly Mohammad came up with his new teachings, and on and on.
Now while it does not bother me that I don’t know exactly how the story of the resurrection originated, I can at the same time think of plenty of possibilities for how it could have happened. One possibility is that after Jesus was buried the Romans dug up his body and destroyed it hoping to keep his grave from becoming a tomb, and then the disciples found an empty tomb and concluded that he must have risen from the dead. The Romans might have tried to counter it at that point, but the disciples could have accused them of lying, especially if they had already disposed of the body. Another possibility is that there was a mixup about where Jesus was to be buried and the disciples went to the wrong place, and found an empty tomb. Or perhaps the Romans decided at the last minute to dispose of the body themselves. It’s quite possible that the Romans didn’t think anything of the issue once Jesus, whom they had likely feared was contributing to unrest or plotting subversion, was dead, and therefore didn’t feel the need to counter rumors that he had risen from the dead, or maybe they didn’t hear of the rumors until much later. It’s possible that the Romans’ custom was to dispose of the bodies of the crucified themselves, and that the disciples, or perhaps even just one of them, hallucinated a vision of Jesus, and concluded that he had raised from the dead, and that the empty tomb story itself simply grew up later. There is an endless list of possibilities.
And really, new religious movements are not that hard to start. While in college, I actually became involved in a group that was on its way to becoming a cult. We had a leader, we had visions and revelations from God, we even saw demons and worked to cast them out. We believed that we were about to bring about a Christian awakening that would spread first to our college campus and then to the rest of the nation. But it wasn’t real. In the end, it turned out that our leader had mental problems and had to be medicated. Caught up in religious fervor, we imagined the whole thing, and were positive that what was happening was real. But it wasn’t. This sort of thing has happened again and again and again throughout history. Joseph Smith, Jim Jones, Heaven’s Gate, David Koresh, Mohammed, and, yes, I would argue, even early Christianity.
I find it interesting that so many Christians seem to think that the resurrection is some sort of infallible proof of the truth of Christianity. To atheists, the entire idea that the resurrection might be an argument for the existence of God seems strange. I think the difference centers on the fact that the Christian believes that the New Testament is infallible and inerrant while the atheist does not. You can’t prove the truth of your religion using only documents written by followers of your religion. It doesn’t work that way. It’s circular. The Bible is inspired because Christianity is true, Christianity is true because the Bible says so. No. You have to prove it using something outside of the Bible. And when it comes to the resurrection, there simply is no documentation outside of the New Testament. Furthermore, in making this argument the Christian also forgets that every religion starts with some sort of revelation or miraculous happening, and that members of essentially every new religious movement across time have faced persecution and even death for their beliefs. If I must accept that Christianity is true because the disciples would not have died for a lie, then I must accept that every religion is true. And I don’t think it works that way.