Explaining The Resurrection

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.

Why did no one contradict the resurrection?

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.

Possible Explanations

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.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Exrelayman

    Nicely written Libby Anne. I came over to check out your writing after reading the excellent testimony you gave at ex-christians. You do not disappoint.A few little tidbits I might toss in, should your correspondent be able to stomach reading through your post and check out the comments: 1) there does not seem to have been a place called Aramithea for any Joseph of Aramithea to have come from, 2) Barrabas, who was supposedly given freedom instead of Jesus: Barrabas means 'son of God' – gee, how likely is that in a non-contrived report, 3) all the women involved in the crucifixion story are Marys – same point as about Barrabas, 4) the resurrected saints – there were no saints in Judaism – this smacks of later accretion, and NO ONE ELSE noticed this small detail but Matthew. OK , I will stop, not that it is not possible to pile on more ridiculous aspects of the story.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15654013636892916062 Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    As a Christian, these are points I'd never thought of. Thanks for bringing them up. I have a curious question. As an atheist, I know that you don't believe in an existence of God, but do you believe that Jesus lived at one time and just don't believe that he was a supernatural being?I've often wondered about that when it comes to atheists. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Good question, Erika. :)I believe that there was an actual Jesus who was an apocalyptic preacher and gained a small following. He then somehow fell afoul of the authorities and was executed. I think that is all we can really know for completely sure. There are however some atheists who don't think there every was an actual Jesus. Look up Earl Doherty if you're curious. It's an interesting argument. However, scholars who make this argument are on the fringe, and the mainstream of academic scholarship (including Bart Ehrman) holds that that there was an actual Jesus who really lived and died. I hope that answers the question!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Also, one more thing: We do know from historical sources that there were a plethora of apocalyptic preachers wondering about Judea gaining followings during the first century. John the Baptist and Jesus were two among many.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15654013636892916062 Erika Martin – Stampin’ Mama

    Thanks for taking the time to answer that. :)

  • http://openid.aol.com/finam87 Fina

    There are plenty of historical figures that are surrouned by claims of supernatural events. This includes Eygptian pharaos, Roman and Chinese Emperors and many others.We are pretty sure that those people existed because we have good, independent historical records of them. But that doesn't mean that reports of supernatural events surrounding them are true.Likewiese, we have some independent historical records that indicate that Jesus actually lived. But that's all that these records indicate: That there was a man preaching about religion in Judea. They say nothing about him being supernatural in any way, and even if they did – why should we take that at face-value, if we do not do the same for the Chinese Emperors?

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com/ Christine

    Hi Libby, I've lurked on your blog for a while; tried to comment before, hopefully this time my profile will be accepted. This entry is one of the reasons I admire your blog – it's passionate, well reasoned and not condescending.One aspect of this documentation I always find interesting is the nature of that documentation – the New Testament. The New Testament, as we have it today, is a collection of four books of Gospels and a number of letters of instruction, and a biography of the (I-really-am-an-)Apostle Paul. Now, fundamentalists, and a lot of not-so fundamentalist, Christians view this book as Truth. This book was compiled a few hundred years after the time of Christ, and has undergone revisions, additions and subtractions (not to mention several re-translations).We know there are Gospels that were suppressed by the fathers of the Roman church because these Gospels didn't agree with these Church fathers… how do we know the suppressed Gospels aren't the truth Jesus wanted us to have? (And cue a few centuries of heretical fun as groups of other Christians didn't want their Gospels suppressed.) And then there's the work of Paul. I call him the "I really am an Apostle!" Paul because in his work, he spends a great deal of time defending his right to call himself an Apostle – implying there were others around (perhaps people who'd actually met Jesus) who were questioning this right. For all we know, Paul was considered the equivalent of a David Koresh or a Bill Gothard by his contemporaries.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15528465833214550644 Katy-Anne

    Libby, I believe in the resurrection of Christ, and have always heard the argument about "who would die for a lie" and that never made any sense to me. I know heaps of people that lie so bad they'd rather die telling their lies than admit the truth. So I think a lot of your arguments have merit, but particularly that one. Why can't people just admit that they choose to believe the Bible and that because the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead, they believe he did. Those of us who are Christians should not feel "threatened" by those who aren't and threatened by their questioning at all.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    Excellent article. Keep up the good writing. In the end, I believe logic and reason trump "faith", the same way it did when I was experiencing honest doubt as a believer. Cheers!

  • Anonymous

    Long time reader, first time poster. Libby Anne–I am curious why you use BC/AD instead of BCE/CE?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    "Long time reader, first time poster. Libby Anne–I am curious why you use BC/AD instead of BCE/CE?"Ha. Funny question. Mostly it's just habit, I think – my parents thought "BCE" and "CE" were "politically correct," and in those circles "politically correct" generally means "of the devil." So that means they drilled BC and AD into me like nothing else! For my PhD I am studying modern history, so I don't have to mess with that and that's probably part of why "BC" and "AD" is still reflexive. I have to be honest, though. I don't really understand the rationale for changing it to BCE and CE. Plenty of symbols we have today are influenced by either Christianity or the Roman Empire, and we don't feel the need to change them all. For example, "July" was named for Julius Caesar when he was declared a god. Same with August (Augustus Caesar) and March (Mars) and January (Janus). We don't feel like we have to change those, so why change BC and AD? But they've decided to change it, so I'm on board and not going to buck the flow. I'm just pointing out why this isn't really a super passionate issue for me.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "Why can't people just admit that they choose to believe the Bible and that because the Bible says Jesus rose from the dead, they believe he did." ~ Katy-AnneExactly. IOW, why can't believers just admit that they hold their beliefs on "faith"..i.e..the bible is true because it says so and I believe it? Of course, from the outside looking in, this reasoning seems circular, but what people on the outside think should not matter. So many times, Christians say they have evidence for their beliefs in conjunction with "faith", but IMO, this only undermines their position and that of what it means to believe on "faith"."Those of us who are Christians should not feel 'threatened' by those who aren't and threatened by their questioning at all."Right, and when/if they do feel threatened, to Atheists such as myself, this only looks like they aren't confident in what they believe.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. I always thought it was odd when people try to prove the existance of God using the Bible. Growing up I would listen to friends and family trying to "win over" atheists and agnostics by heavily arguing from the bible. It never made any since to me. And now that I no longer take the bible at face value (though I am still a Christian) it makes even less sense. Your thoughts are very logical and well laid out. Kateri @ Dandelion Haven

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10374620768794536239 Sheena

    Great post, lots to think about.I've been working through a lot of these concepts lately, too. I hear the stories about people who think they are standing up for/being persecuted for their faith, when they are not (i.e., refusing to dispense certain prescriptions or teach certain concepts and, very occasionally, getting fired as a result). So far, I've determined that I do *not* see the Bible as inerrant, literal, infallible, or God-breathed…It's a book, with sections that were written at different times and from different perspectives, with a common overall theme (kind of like a literature anthology). Some of it is legend, some could be historical (since I don't have a time machine, I don't know if Joshua and his army really brought down the walls of Jericho by making noise, but I can believe the overall pattern of Jewish conquest, prosperity, being overthrown, struggle and bickering, gaining unity, and starting the cycle over again — most cultures and civilizations follow that pattern). Otherwise, it's like any other collection of literature; some of it is "cautionary", some is encouraging, some is just there because someone said it was Important (Like the pages and pages and PAGES of laws…I'd compare those to Paradise Lost: there's value, sure, but I wouldn't say they are nearly as vital as the religious/literary authorities claim).But, since I'd consider compassion and respect (not following the rules or "being righteous") the primary purpose of how I follow Christianity, I don't see this as a crisis. I don't have to believe every word of the Bible is literally true to consider the aforementioned values important. After all, I can read and appreciate legends, myths, and "my grandaddy's grandaddy once…" stories without having to believe every word of it, you know what I mean?

  • http://markkoop.blogspot.ca Mark

    Don’t know if you read comments for posts this old, but I just read this for the first time and thought it was brilliant.
    One thing for if you ever re-publish this; I would take out the last paragraph before the conclusion when you talk about your experience with the near-cult and seeing demons. I’m fairly sure that if I shared this post with my believing friends and family they would fixate on that particularly saying things like, “Well they probably WERE demons,” while conveniently ignoring the rest. Just my two cents.