Christians who don’t believe in the Resurrection?


Hemant Mehta and Ian Paul both blogged about the statistic (which the BBC also reported on) indicating the percentage of Christians who do not believe Jesus rose from the dead. The former thinks these individuals are confused, while the latter thinks they are non-active Christians. This is probably true of at least some of them. It is indeed possible for people to hold beliefs on one level and yet deny them in practice on another level – as a recent New York Times article about Christians in the American South illustrated. The non-religious who believe that Jesus rose from the dead show that confused atheists also exist – or are they “non-active atheists”?

But I suspect that within the statistic are also those liberal Christians who have thought long and hard about the evidence for Jesus having rose from the dead, and have either concluded that the evidence does not allow them to make a historical judgment, or that historical methods cannot answer the question, or who think that Jesus was justified beyond death in a manner that does not require a physical resurrection of the flesh. Far from being confused, such individuals are often able to articulate precisely what their view is, and why they hold it.

And so I hope that individuals like Hemant Mehta will not simply ask a rhetorical “Who are you people…?” such as he added to the bar graph. Instead, ask who they are, and then listen to what they think. You may not end up holding the same viewpoint that they do, but the unnecessary sarcasm and dismissiveness might diminish.

And what better day to do what I am suggesting above, than Easter?

On this topic, see also the videos recently shared on the blog of the Center for the Study of Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh, as well as Jonathan Bernier’s blog post talking about historical methods and the resurrection. Of related interest, Simon Gathercole wrote for The Guardian about the historical evidence for Jesus having lived amd died, Tim O’Neill has commented on David Fitzgerald’s latest claims regarding the purported non-historicity of Jesus, and Matthew Ferguson commented a while back on Richard Carrier’s version.

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  • Ian Paul

    Thanks for linking. I don’t ‘think they are non-active Christians’; the blog post demonstrates from the poll data that the ‘Christians’ they cite are a mix of active and non-active, and that amongst the ‘active’ belief is around 95%.

    The issue here is the misreporting of the poll…

    • James F. McGrath

      Happy Easter! Thanks for clarifying! My aim here was mainly to encourage people to talk to those 5% who are active Christians who do not believe in resurrection, to find the answer to Hemant’s rhetorical “Who are you people?”

      • Iain Lovejoy

        I think the trouble with these kind of polls, especially once you get down to relatively small percentage, is you get a lot of people who didn’t understand the question or ticked the wrong box, think “believe” means “be absolutely certain” or “be sure as
        to exactly what happened” or who flounder because there isn’t a “that depends what you mean” box.

      • Erp

        This is also a survey in the United Kingdom where a fair number may believe in the Church as a useful institution even if they think the resurrection and other miracles are like the tooth fairy. Note also that getting your kids into the ‘right’ schools can require you to be an active Christian (or so many believe). The there are the Sea of Faith people.

  • Teresa G. White

    Umm, I’m a bit confused. How can someone be a Christian if they don’t believe that Jesus was resurrected? In order to claim any kind of affiliation with Christianity, you must confess with your mouth, and BELIEVE that Jesus was born from a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on the cross, and was resurrected from death.

    • James F. McGrath

      Can Luke be a Christian, when he says that Jesus had flesh and bones, whereas Paul says that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God? How did you decide to allow a particular formulation by Paul to define Christian identity for you, and on what basis did you then add in things that Paul not only did not include, but did not himself hold to, such as the virginal conception? Or did you miss that Paul thought Jesus was of the seed of David according to the flesh?

      • Realist1234

        It is clear that Paul believed in the physical resurrection of Jesus. He simply emphasized the ‘resurrection body’, which was clearly both physical and ‘spiritual’. So no contradiction there. In the new earth we will have similar bodies to Jesus’ resurrection body. You assume that Paul does not believe in Jesus’ virgin birth. But that is an argument from silence. Paul wrote his letters to particular churches for particular reasons. I see no reason why he would have written about the virgin birth if it was not an issue in a given church. But I accept it is not crucial to the Christian faith, though to me it makes sense. The ‘seed of David’ may have come from Mary, hence the difference in the geneaologies. But even if not literally from Joseph, He could still be viewed as from that lineage, given that Joseph would have been viewed as His earthly father.

        • James F. McGrath

          It is not an argument from silence, it is about what Paul says. The seed was what the man provided, then as now. We get our word “sperm” from the Greek word Paul uses. And the lineage of royalty was traced via patrilineal descent.

          • Realist1234

            Simply because our modern word for ‘sperm’ has its root in the same Greek word Paul uses for ‘seed’ does not mean we must view ‘seed’ as literal sperm. I maintain that Jesus’ ‘seed of David’ more than likely comes from Mary’s heritage rather than Joseph’s.

            From another commentator ‘While God created Adam, Adam is not God’s seed. On the other hand, David is the seed (or progeny) of Adam, and from David came Mary, and from Mary came Jesus. Hence, Jesus is of the seed of David through his mother Mary, who herself was descended from David. To be certain, not only men are described as having “seed” in scripture, as the prophecy relates how “her seed” (i.e., Eve’s; Gen. 3:15) would crush the serpent’s head. This came to fruition by the virgin birth when Mary bore Jesus.

            Also, we should realize that every paternal ancestor of Mary may be reckoned as Jesus’ father. Thus, Mary’s father, who is Jesus’ maternal grandfather, is reckoned as Jesus’ father, and so on, all the way until Adam, who may also be reckoned as Jesus’ father. The Jews had a saying, “The sons of sons (i.e., grandchildren) are as sons” (בני בנים כבנים).1 Thus, commencing with Luke 3:23, Heli is Jesus’ father (although he is literally Mary’s father), and proceeding to Luke 3:38, where Enos, Seth, and Adam are all Jesus’ fathers (also, it is Jesus, not Adam, who is “the son of God” in Luke 3:38 cp. Luke 1:32, 1:35, 3:22).’

          • James F. McGrath

            There was no suggestion that modern English words are determinative, I was just trying to help you understand aince you clearly did not grasp the connotations of the Greek word. And apparently you reject what the Gospel of Luke says and instead consider it Mary’s genealogy?

    • Neko

      Shelby Spong doesn’t believe Jesus was resurrected, and he was an Episcopalian bishop.

      • Realist1234

        Being a bishop does not equal Christian.

        • Neko

          Spong considers himself a Christian.

          I was wondering who gets to decide who “equals” a Christian. I guess it’s you.

          • Realist1234

            I was negating the assumption.

  • Nick G

    The non-religious who believe that Jesus rose from the dead show that
    confused atheists also exist – or are they “non-active atheists”?

    Maybe they think super-advanced but non-supernatural aliens resurrected him? Arguably, that would be a religious belief, but they might not see it that way. More likely, they ticked the wrong box by mistake, as a “joke”, or for some completely unaccountable reason. I’ve read somewhere that any poll or survey will throw up a significant proportion of responses that simply don’t make any sense.

  • Erp

    A lot may depend on the question wording and a small percentage on error.(people mishearing the question and saying the opposite of what they mean or sometimes, depending on the protocol, the survey taker wrongly marking the answer).

    I note the actual questions were

    The Bible tells the story of Jesus rising from the the dead. Which, if any, of the following statements best reflects your views on this?

    1. I believe the resurrection of Jesus from the dead happened word-for-word as described in the Bible

    (personally I would love to see how each who chose this reconcile the different accounts).

    2. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but the story in the Bible contains content that should not be taken literally.

    3. I do not believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

    4. Don’t know.

    I’ll also note that ‘non-religious’ is not the same as atheists. Some claim that their following of Jesus is not a religion (hence may put down none for religion even though most other people would classify them as Christians). The survey did not ask a question about belief in a god or whether the person considered themself an atheist so it is not possible to separate atheist responses (admittedly the Pew Religious landscape survey found a percentage of people who said they were atheists but also said they believe in god so there are some confused atheists).

    • arcseconds

      I was just about to make a similar point about the non-religious.

      Even if we knew who identified as atheist, being an atheist does not necessarily mean you’re a Modern Scientific Worldview atheist.

      Lots of people identify as “non-religious” and hold “spooky” beliefs, like ghosts, an afterlife, “some sort of intelligence behind the universe” and that sort of thing. Someone who believes the later but doesn’t think of it as a god (whatever that means) could honestly say they were an atheist, so the minimum distance between an atheist and a theist is quite small.

      As you say, there are people who are no different from devout Christians — they attend church, have traditional religious beliefs, etc. — who claim this isn’t a religion, although I think this is more of an American phenomenon.

      (There are also people who don’t engage in any religious practice and do not hold ‘spooky’ beliefs (or very pared-back spooky beliefs) but nevertheless have opted to follow Jesus as their guru or poster-boy or something, they, I think, can reasonably claim to be a non-religious follower of Jesus)

      There are also people who broadly speaking hold Christian or quasi-Christian beliefs, but have given up on Christianity as an organised religion. They might believe in the resurrection in some form or other, but don’t think it necesary or even advisable to attend church or perform any other religious practice, and perhaps are even somewhat antipathetic to organised Christianity. Some of them are probably syncretists, and might also believe in Hindu gods or something like that. My suspicion is that they are a large proportion of the non-religious resurrection believers, and this suggests there are more of them than I thought.

      (I have had the impression that quite a few people believe in things like God and the resurrection in a kind of a mostly distinterested and offhand kind of way, out of something like inertia: they were told this as a child and they believed it a bit like one believes Tokyo is the capital of Japan, and they never really think about it and simply never revise this belief. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything much more than “tend to answer ‘yes’ to ‘do you believe Jesus rose from the dead”.)

  • John MacDonald

    Since historians are concerned with what can be determined to have “probably” happened, and “miracles” such as the resurrection are “the most improbable things that could happen” (by definition), I would certainly hope Christian historians would not think they can establish the resurrection as a fact in history by historical methods. This doesn’t exclude an historian from being a Christian, of course. His/her faith is just an “understanding” of a different sort than “historical inquiry.”

    • John MacDonald

      I think it’s also important to distinguish “improbable for you” with “objectively improbable.” (a) It’s “highly improbable” that you will win the Power Ball lottery, but it’s “not highly improbable” that “someone” will win it. (b) It’s “highly improbable” that you will defy the odds and “seemingly miraculously” recover from your death bed illness, baffling doctors. But it is not “highly improbable” that this will happen to some people in our world of billions from time to time.

      It is the attribution of the category “religious miracle” to (a) and (b) above which is the paralogism. It is possible to say the All-Powerful/Present/Benevolent invisible leprechaun brought about your lottery win, while ignoring far more needy players than you, but why would you want to think this? Similarly, you may think that the immaterial power unicorn saved you from your deathbed illness while leaving countless others with the same affliction to suffer and pass away, but why would you think this?

      The same thing goes on when we think God has blessed our team to win the world championship (a highly improbable event, but necessary, since some team had to win it), and caused the opposing team to lose. Why would anyone want to think in this way? Similarly, it may be improbable that a particular person would hallucinate visions of the Virgin Mary, but perfectly reasonable that some people in our world of Billions from time to time would do so (the mind is capable of powerful altered states of experience – My best friend’s mom swears to this day that she hears her dead husband’s ghost talking to her).

      Now, the resurrection appearance stories about Jesus may have been the result of hallucinations, or Cephas and the 12 may have invented the resurrection appearance stories to continue on, and lend divine clout to, Jesus’ ethical philosophy of loving your neighbor and enemy (a cause the disciples may have been willing to die for, like Socrates), but claiming like William Lane Craig does the actual miraculous historicity of the resurrection is the same as a miracle claim that a known amputee has magically regrown a limb without medical intervention. These are such ridiculously improbable claims that you would need powerful, overwhelming evidence to make the judgement that they were historically “probable,” which we simply don’t have. This is why the historicity of the resurrection is not demonstratable by historical inquiry.

    • summers-lad

      Although I agree with the important distinction you have made below, between “improbable for you” and “objectively improbable”, there is another equally important distinction, and that is between the likelihood of an event happening and the likelihood of a particular explanation of an event which has happened. For example, I believe (and hope) it is extremely unlikely that I will be murdered tomorrow. But if I am, I hope that the police will investigate the murder seriously and not dismiss it as an improbable event and therefore inappropriate to investigate forensically.
      Sadly, it is not improbable that someone will be murdered tomorrow, so a better example would be that I go missing for a week and then return claiming to have been abducted by aliens. This I think is objectively improbable, but if I claim that it has happened to me, that deserves rational investigation (whether that be from eye-witness reports, psychological examination or whatever).
      So it is with the resurrection. Prediction would say it is improbable. But if we have an observed event of a man being publicly executed, and his followers claiming a few days later that he has come back to life, and a a few weeks later a group based on this claim growing rapidly, despite persecution, then we require an explanation. Various alternative explanations have of course been proposed, but the hypothesis that the resurrection actually happened is, in this case, a valid topic for historical analysis.

      • John MacDonald

        If it happened tomorrow that prominent Evangelical pastor died, and during extreme emotional grief some members of his congregation started reporting having visions of him, and a little while later claiming these visions meant the pastor had been resurrected, would knowing this information “help us” make the judgement that the pastor “probably” in fact had been resurrected?

        We are often duped into thinking the complete lack of evidence we have for Jesus’ resurrection is in fact something more substantial because we are so used to hearing the evidence.

    • Realist1234

      If God exists then logically miracles can happen. Probability theory is meaningless in that context.

      • James F. McGrath

        But should that lead to the abandonment of history and other deductive work based on probability? Should detectives not investigate crimes simply because they cannot rule out the possibility that God wanted the individual dead and made it look like a murder committed by a human being?

        • Realist1234

          No, I was negating the idea that one can use probability theory to decide whether or not a miracle happened.

          • James F. McGrath

            The discussion was not about using probability theory to decide whether or not a miracle happened, but the fact that you cannot used the probabilistic tools of historical inquiry to argue that a miracle occurred.

          • Realist1234

            I was specifically responding to John MacDonald who said ‘”miracles” such as the resurrection are “the most improbable things that could happen” ‘.

          • John MacDonald

            If we posit a continuum of historical inquiry starting with “highly probable” at one pole and ending with “highly improbable” at the other pole, where would you place the statement: “a herd of cows magically flew across the sky the day JFK got shot?”

          • Realist1234

            Why would I spend time arguing with someone who believes miracles are impossible because the source of miracles does not exist?

          • John MacDonald

            Don’t pay attention to me. Pay attention to the analogy: If we had reports from five or six people claiming “a herd of cows magically flew across the sky the day JFK died,” would this be a rational basis for a an historical judgement that the cow-miracle “probably” occurred?

            It’s on the same grounds you are claiming that Jesus was “probably” resurrected.

      • John MacDonald

        There is no evidence that would tip the scales to support the claim that it is “probable” that God exists. We simply don’t know if there is a God or not, so the pragmatic thing is to go with the closed system of naturalistic causes and effects that we are aware of and not make the unjustified leap of faith that there is an immaterial, omniscient/omnipotent/omnibenevolent magic unicorn causing miracles.

        • Realist1234

          You choose to believe that if you wish. Ill believe Jesus thanks.

          • John MacDonald

            Do you consider yourself a conservative or a liberal Christian?

          • Realist1234

            I dont like such labels. No doubt others will have their opinions.

          • John MacDonald

            Then what does it mean for you to say “I’ll believe Jesus?” What is the core of what you believe about Jesus that defines your faith?

  • Mark Moore

    Now James, , , , where are you on this chart?

    We have three colors to chose from and three groupings (‘Don’t know’ has been grayed out). Que: Jeopardy Music

  • SP Laurie

    Surveys have been showing similar results for a long time. Take this example from the 50s AD:

    But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? (1 Cor. 15:12)

  • alekdavis

    It’s interesting that people have such strong opinions about the resurrection, but there seems to be no definition of the resurrection itself. What do we assume the resurrection to be? Did Jesus got his human body back and continued his human life in the body similar to what the Gospels say about other resurrected people (the son of the widow, Lazarus, other saints that joined the resurrection party). Presumably, all these people eventually died, right? So this must have been some sort of different resurrection, in which Jesus sort of got his human body back, but it was not 100% human anymore, although it could act like human since he shared the meal (I’m wondering what has happened with the meal once he finished eating, and why would he need food to begin with, since this old/new body seemed to have been exempt from the laws of physics). So, since we believe that the body is temporal but the soul/spirit is eternal, why even bother with resurrection, especially since this is not 100% the same body? I’m just wondering how true believers reconcile these intricacies of the resurrection concept.

    • Realist1234

      It was a ‘resurrection body’, both physical and ‘spiritual’, hence materially different from Lazarus’ as he ultimately physically died again, but Jesus will never die again.

      • alekdavis

        So you are saying that the “resurrection body” is based on the original physical body and requires the latter to be present? Does this make any sense to you?

        • Realist1234

          It makes perfect sense. God’s creation is still good but corrupted. Ultimately our bodies will be reconstituted and made incorruptible. Just like Jesus’. He does not ‘create’ us again out of nothing.

          • alekdavis

            And yet, there is not an ounce of cognitive dissonance in your response. :-) I so envy you. :-)