Here I outline, as briefly as I feasibly can, my proposed naturalistic explanation (which I call the ‘HBS Model’) for the resurrection appearances of Jesus. My account relies on known, documented psychological and sociological processes, and does not incorporate any deliberate deception on behalf of the witnesses. I first present a quick overview of my model, and then outline each component in more depth as a series of propositions, most of which I attempt to demonstrate with reference to a few of the most relevant citations from the literature. I include a list of some miracle claims from other religious at the end.
I am not attempting to argue that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Rather, I am attempting to argue that the fact that many of his followers reported seeing him after he died is insufficient evidence to establish that he did rise. My argument for this is based on the fact that the HBS model I provide is a superior explanation for these reports than the resurrection hypothesis. It is superior because it has greater explanatory power, being applicable in broad terms to a wide range of miracles from many religions, and also because it is more plausible, as it relies only on psychological and sociological processes that can be demonstrated to exist, rather than on the existence of an interventionist God, which is controversial.
I hope this article will be of value to all who read it. Those interested in more detail are invited to consult the full version of my account here: goo.gl/LYg1ol.
The Model in Brief
- Individual Hallucinations: Certain followers of Jesus (most likely Peter and Mary) experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus following his crucifixion. These hallucinations may have been exacerbated by grief, emotional excitement, and/or the personality traits of those in question.
- Group Religious Experiences: These followers then discussed their experiences with other followers of Jesus, generating an expectancy that they might experience something similar. Partly as a result of this expectancy, and also mediated by social reinforcement, strong emotions, and environmental influences, the early disciples had several collective religious experiences of the risen Jesus, the precise nature of which we cannot know for certain, but which may originally have been different to the final accounts as they appear in the gospels.
- Memory and Cognitive Biases: In the process of discussing these experiences among themselves afterwards, the disciples’ memories of what they experienced were reshaped through processes of biased and reconstructive recall and social memory contagion, in the direction of increased coherence between individual accounts, and also greater impressiveness of the experiences. In the process, a ‘standard version’ of these experiences began to develop and spread throughout early Christian communities. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, selective perception, the illusory truth effect, and other similar biases, all interacting in the context of a close-knit communal setting with strong social pressures for conformity, led to any possible inconsistencies, disconfirming evidences, or doubters to be ignored, marginalised, or explained away.
- Socialization and Marginalisation of Doubt: Public expressions of doubt, disagreement, and skepticism were further muted as a result of the following factors: 1) few disbelievers cared enough about Christianity to engage much with early Christians or disprove their claims, 2) most of those exposed to these claims had neither the ability nor the opportunity to check details for themselves, and 3) few were motivated to test the veracity of the claims as a result of general psychological processes described above.
- Identity Consolidation and Martyrdom: As the early Christian movement grew, the self-identify of many of the apostles became inextricably bound up with their religious experiences and beliefs, to such a degree that they became willing to die for these convictions.
Claim 1.1: Hallucinations are not necessarily a mark of psychopathology, and are relatively common in the general population, especially for individuals suffering from grief or loss.
- ‘Hallucinations are perceptual phenomena involved in many fields of pathology… This issue was investigated using representative samples of the non-institutionalized general population of the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy aged 15 years or over (N=13 057)… Overall, 38.7% of the sample reported hallucinatory experiences (19.6% less than once in a month; 6.4% monthly; 2.7% once a week; and 2.4% more than once a week)‘, “Prevalence of hallucinations and their pathological associations in the general population”, Psychiatry Research, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178100002274
- ‘In the current experiment, 44 undergraduate students were asked to listen to white noise and instructed to press a button when they believed hearing a recording of Bing Crosby’s White Christmas without this record actually being presented. Fourteen participants (32%) pressed the button at least once. These participants had higher scores on fantasy proneness’, “Another White Christmas: fantasy proneness and reports of ‘hallucinatory experiences’ in undergraduate students”, Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005791601000295
Claim 1.2: Individuals involved in new religious movements are more prone to hallucinations and ‘magical thinking’ than the average population.
- ‘Individuals from the New Religious Movements scored significantly higher than the control groups on all the delusional measures apart from levels of distress. They did not show as much florid symptomatology as the psychotic patients, but could not be differentiated from the deluded group on the number of delusional items endorsed on the Peters et al. delusions Inventory, or on levels of conviction’, “Delusional ideation in religious and psychotic populations”, British Journal of Clinical Psychology, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10212739
Claim 1.3: Given 1.1 and 1.2, it is plausible that some followers of Jesus, like Peter and Mary, experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus following his death.
Group Religious Experiences
Claim 2.1: Expectations can shape our perception of events to a significant degree, altering how we perceive an experience.
- ‘Recent work on visual integration and change direction reveals that we are surprisingly unaware of the details of our environment from one view to the next: we often do not detect large changes to objects and scenes (‘change blindness’). Furthermore, without attention, we may not even perceive objects (‘inattentional blindness’). Taken together, these findings suggest that we perceive and remember only those objects and details that receive focused attention’, “Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events”, Perception, http://www.drjoebio.com/uploads/1/8/1/3/1813500/gorrila_in_our_midst.pdf
- ‘This study assessed the degree to which the contents of religious experiences agree with the expectations and rated desirability of various experiential contents… In sum, the data suggest that those who have religious experiences get what they anticipate, and their expectations emphasize highly desirable components in such experience’, “The Content of Religious Experience: The Roles of Expectancy and Desirability”, International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327582ijpr0602_3
Claim 2.2: Humans are subject to a wide range of perceptual failings and biases, which can often lead people to report false or inaccurate perceptions which do not correspond to objective external events.
- ‘Here I report a perceptual illusion where healthy individuals experience having two right arms, with both sensing touches applied to them. This effect reveals how visual and tactile signals from the body are integrated in a probabilistic fashion, resulting in a single limb being represented at two locations at the same time, giving rise to a perceptual duplication of this limb’, “How many arms make a pair? Perceptual illusion of having an additional limb”, Perception, http://www.perceptionweb.com/perception/editorials/p6304.pdf
Claim 2.3: Group experiences of very unusual and inexplicable events (including purported paranormal or supernatural events) can be elicited in the certain social environments through mechanisms such as suggestibility, collective reinforcement, high emotional saliency, and social expectation and conformity.
- ‘Pentecostal miracles and healings have often been described and interpreted, but rarely explained in their sociological workings… In Pentecostal healing services, however, very impressive miracles and healings are routinely produced: paralytics arise from wheelchairs, cancerous ulcers disappear, legs grow, cavities are mysteriously ﬁlled, and the deaf suddenly hear. Drawing on a case study and qualitative interviews, this paper offers a sociological, mechanism-based, explanatory scheme for the observed phenomena. It is argued that a number of “social techniques” (e.g., suggestion, rhythm, music), context factors (e.g., audience size and beliefs), and causal mechanisms (e.g., probability, latency, selection, and editing effects) are combined in an ingenious way in order to produce miracles and healings’, “All Things Are Possible: Towards a Sociological Explanation of Pentecostal Miracles and Healings”, Sociology of Religion, http://www.unil.ch/webdav/site/issrc/shared/Healing_Final1.pdf
- ‘Evidence suggests that the subjective and objective effects reported by percipients are the function of independent, nonparanoraml etiologies whose constitutions have been previously established and described. According to this multivariate model, the labeling of ambiguous events as “abnormal” or “paranormal” initiates the reactive process which is subsequently sustained by perceptual contagion, i.e., flurries of paranormal observations due self-reinforcing attentional processes’, “Hauntings and poltergeist-like episodes as a confluence of conventional phenomena: a general hypothesis”, Perceptual and Motor Skills, http://www.amsciepub.com/doi/abs/10.2466/pms.1996.83.3f.1307
Claim 2.4: Numerous supernatural and paranormal experiences have been reported by groups of people in circumstances matching those described in 2.3.
- See ‘top miracle claims’ section below.
Claim 2.5: Given 1.3 and 2.1-2.4, it is plausible that the disciples and other groups of followers of Jesus had collective experiences of Jesus appearing or speaking to them (probably not in precisely the way reported in the gospels).
Memory and Cognitive Biases
Claim 3.1: False memories are common and relatively easy to form, despite the subject feeling highly confident about the accuracy and reliability of the memory.
- Participants alter memory of stimuli after exposure to misleading information about the responses of others, even when told these responses were false, “Shared Realities: Social Influence and Stimulus Memory”, Social Cognition, http://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/soco.1918.104.22.168
- ‘Overall, 36% of respondents reported false memories of the alleged footage of the Bali bombing….Participants reporting false memories were found to score significantly higher on various subscales of the Anomalous Experiences Inventory’, “The relationship between susceptibility to false memories, dissociativity, and paranormal belief and experience”, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0191886906002224
Claim 3.2: Discussion of an event between people often leads to alteration of the memories such that they are in greater conformity, with subjects unable to distinguish between their own original memories and the memories of those with whom they interacted. Memory is a reconstructive rather than a recollective process, with memories changing each time they are recalled.
- ‘Granhag, Stromwall, and Billings (2003) found that 76% of participants came to remember seeing non-existent film footage of the sinking of the passenger liner the Estonia… Similarly, Ost, Hogbin, and Granhag,(2005) found that 40% of participants recalled seeing non-existent CCTV footage of an explosion in a Bali nightclub, and that the number of false reports increased or decreased in line with confirmatory or disconfirmatory social influence exerted by the confederate. Hence, memory conformity effects can occur for significant and emotional autobiographical events’, “Collaborative recall and collective memory: What happens when we remember together?”, Memory, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09658210701811862
- ‘Sixty first-year University students described two important autobiographical events twice. In between the two recall sessions, participants from the experimental group viewed two films. The first was a short televised account of the two events; the second was a corresponding videotaped description of the personal experiences of a young woman… Most of the participants from the experimental group incorporated elements of the woman’s description into their own subsequent accounts. In spite of this, they rated the vividness and the accuracy of their post-test memories as very high’, “Distortion of autobiographical memories”, Applied Cognitive Psychology, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/acp.847/abstract
Claim 3.3: In many cases eyewitness testimony is not particularly reliable, being susceptible to many biases and confounding factors.
- ‘Sixty-four psychologists were asked about their courtroom experiences and opinions on 30 eyewitness phenomena. By an agreement rate of at least 80%, there was a strong consensus that the following phenomena are sufficiently reliable to present in court: the wording of questions, lineup instructions, confidence malleability, mug-shot-induced bias, postevent information, child witness suggestibility, attitudes and expectations, hypnotic suggestibility, alcoholic intoxication, the cross-race bias, weapon focus, the accuracy–confidence correlation, the forgetting curve, exposure time, presentation format, and unconscious transference’, “On the “general acceptance” of eyewitness testimony research: A new survey of the experts”, American Psychologist, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/56/5/405/
- ‘Numerous studies have shown that eyewitness testimony for pseudo-psychic demonstrations, such as fake séances and fork bending, may be inaccurate and vulnerable to memory distortion. Wiseman and Morris (1995), for example, have presented evidence suggesting that believers in the paranormal had poorer memories for pseudo-psychic demonstrations (i.e., conjuring tricks) than non-believers, “Memory Conformity and Paranormal Belief”, http://archived.parapsych.org/papers/56.pdf
Claim 3.4: People are in general very bad at evaluating evidence and arguments carefully, as they are subject to a wide range of cognitive biases.
- ‘When people are motivated to cling to a belief, they do not feel comfortable with blithely ignoring adverse evidence or simply shutting their ears to anyone who opposes their views. Instead, they engage in more subtle forms of ad hoc reasoning, rationalization, and special pleading to arrive at their desired conclusions and to justify their beliefs to others, e.g., reinterpreting the facts, weighing them against background knowledge, finding some reason to discredit the source, etc. This practice allows them to uphold an ‘illusion of objectivity concerning the manner in which… inferences were derived’’, “How convenient! The epistemic rationale of self-validating belief systems”, Philosophical Psychology, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09515089.2011.579420
- Belief bias: the tendency to judge the strength of arguments based on the plausibility of their conclusion rather than how strongly they support that conclusion, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belief_bias
- Overconfidence effect: someone’s subjective confidence in their judgments is reliably greater than their objective accuracy, especially when confidence is relatively high. For example, in some quizzes, people rate their answers as “99% certain” but are wrong 40% of the time, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overconfidence_effect
- Subjective validation: a person will consider a statement or another piece of information to be correct if it has any personal meaning or significance to them, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjective_validation
Claim 3.5: Given 3.1-3.5, it is plausible that the participants in these early group experiences of Jesus gradually had their memories change over time, and as a result the accounts of the experiences became both more consistent and more impressive, even without any deliberate deception. These memories of the experiences were considered persuasive and not subject to rigorous critical evaluation.
Socialization and Marginalisation of Doubt
Claim 4.1: Many people, especially in new religious movements, are easily capable of continuing to tenaciously hold to beliefs in spite of the presence of overwhelming contradictory evidence.
- ‘Almost everyone in the sociology of religion is familiar with the classic 1956 study by Festinger et al. of how religious groups respond to the failure of their prophetic pronouncements. Far fewer are aware of the many other studies of a similar nature completed over the last thirty years on an array of other new religious movements… An analysis is provided of the adaptive strategies of groups faced with a failure of prophecy and the conditions affecting the nature and relative success of these strategies’, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.1922.214.171.124
- ‘An accomplice presented three common magician’s tricks, which resembled “psychic” performances, to six introductory psychology classes… proportion of occult belief (about the performances) was above 50% and far exceeding magic beliefs in each experimental condition, even though, as indicated by a manipulation check, subjects in the Magic conditions heard and understood the instructors’ assertions that the accomplice was a magician who would be faking a psychic performance’, “Occult Belief: Seeing Is Believing”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1386128
Claim 4.2: We have very few records of early anti-Christian writers of any sort, likely because either very few existed, and/or their writings did not survive. The earliest I have been able to find are:
- Rabbi Tarfon: Apparently anti-Christian Rabbi who lived in the late 1st to early 2nd centuries, though I don’t think we have any of his writings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbi_Tarfon#Ruling_on_christian_texts
- Celsus: Second century Greek philosopher who wrote The True Word, the first known substantial attack on Christianity, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Celsus
- Porphyry: Third century anti-Christian philosopher: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porphyry_%28philosopher
Claim 4.3: It would have been immensely expensive and impractical for nearly all of those hearing Paul’s teachings in Greece and Asia Minor to have visited Jerusalem to check the veracity of any of the facts Paul was asserting.
- The First Epistle to the Corinthians, the 15th chapter of which contains Paul’s famous creed concerning the resurrection appearances, was written to the church in Corinth (a city in Greece), around twenty years after the death of Jesus, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Epistle_to_the_Corinthians
- Travel time: By my calculations using the ORBIS tool, the quickest trip from Corinth to Jerusalem would take 10 days (in summer), and cost about 300 denarii, which is something like ten months wages for an average labourer (based on 1 denarii per day wage, see http://home.sprynet.com/~shpion/anprices.htm).
Claim 4.4: Given 4.1-4.3, it is not reasonable to assert that early Christianity could have only survived if the evidence supported its claims. Skeptics either lacked the interest to engage with Christian assertions, or if they did their records have not survived. Most believers would have lacked the means to verify any of the claims themselves, and even if strong counterevidence was presented, many would have continued to believe anyway.
Identity Consolidation and Martyrdom
Claim 5.1: Religious beliefs can become inextricably bound up in someone’s personal identity such that issues of truth and evidence cease to be solely factual matters and instead become matters of utmost life-defining importance for them.
- ‘The members of the group become so enmeshed that in a sense they become the organization. Moreover, they experience this enmeshment as a type of personal freedom and self-fulfillment, which, however, is predicated on a decrease in personal autonomy, manifested in ever-increasing self-renunciation. The duality of devotees’ liberating subjective sense of freedom set off against the objective reality of domination and non-autonomy pervades Janja Lalich’s book, and in her view characterizes close-knit, charismatically led cults’, “Bounded Choice: True Believers And Charismatic Cults Review by: Janja Lalich”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.2006.9.4.117
Claim 5.2: Martyrdom is found across many religions and ideological movements, and can be explained in part with reference to psychological processes.
- ‘At least 90 Tibetan monks, nuns, and non-monastic Tibetans have committed self immolation since 2009’, “Inferno in the Land of Snows: A Holistic Investigation of Tibetan Self-Immolation Through a Tibetan Perspective, http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/isp_collection/1448/
- ‘What political, economic, religious, and emotional factors are involved in a person’s decision to kill civilians and military personnel through the sacrifice of his or her own life?… Cultural-psychological explanations for Islamic martyrdom leads to a model explaining a person’s decision to carry out the mission as resulting from a combination of four factors: the historical-cultural context, group processes, immediate and anticipated rewards, and mechanisms to eradicate possible doubts and guilt regarding this decision’, “A Cultural-Psychological Theory of Contemporary Islamic Martyrdom”, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/
Claim 5.3: Given 5.1 and 5.2, the fact that some early Christians may have been willing to die for their belief in the resurrection does not constitute much evidence in favour of the truth of this belief; it is evidence only that they firmly believed it to be true.
Summary and Conclusions
Claim 6.1: The plausibility of the HBS model is significantly strengthened by the numerous other documented cases of groups reporting to have experienced paranormal events, which can be explained with reference to the same underlying psychological and social processes outlined here (examples omitted).
Claim 6.2: Given the foregoing, it is plausible that the disciples and other early followers of Jesus came to honestly belief that they had seen the risen Jesus and told this story to others, regardless of whether or not Jesus actually did rise from the dead.
Claim 6.3: As the HBS model is able to account, in broad terms, for a wide variety of miraculous and paranormal claims, while the resurrection hypothesis can only account for a single claim, the HBS model has broader explanatory scope than the resurrection hypothesis.
Claim 6.4: The HBS model relies upon psychological and sociological processes which are documented and whose existence is relatively uncontroversial, while the resurrection hypothesis depends upon the existence of God and his desire to intervene in human affairs, both of which propositions are highly controversial. Since the HBS model depends upon fewer new and controversial assumptions, it is correspondingly more plausible than the resurrection hypothesis.
Claim 6.5: From 6.3 and 6.4, the HBS model is a better explanation for the resurrection appearances of Jesus than the resurrection hypothesis. As such, the resurrection appearances do not constitute sufficient evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
Top Miracle Claims
- Our Lady of Zeitoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeitoun_apparitions): Marian apparition reported in Cairo for several years in the late 1960s. Tens of thousands of people reported seeing the apparitions, including many Muslims and non-Christians. There is plenty of documentation on this, see for example this video.
- Splitting of the moon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Splitting_of_the_moon): witnessed and reported in Hadith by at least three of the prophet’s companions. See more on sources here.
- Apollonius of Tyana (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollonius_of_Tyana): credited with many miracles. An excellent outline of the evidence can be found here. Our main source of information is Apollonius’ biographer Philostratus who wrote Life of Apollonius of Tyana between 217 and 238 (about 100-150 years after the event).
- Guru Nanak (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guru_Nanak): the 15th century founder of Sikhism who is credited with a large number of miracles. We have quite a number of sources for the Guru, some of them dating to the 16th century, comparable to the timespan of the gospels (see here and here). See also Guru Nanak’s Life and Legacy: An Appraisal by Gurinder Singh Mann for more on early sources.
- Bruce T. Grindal (http://scholar.google.com.au/scholar): A respected academic anthropologist who wrote a scholarly account of his experience ‘seeing’ a person raised from the dead in an African ritual. Note that he doesn’t believe the event really happened this way, but that is what he claims to have seen. His paper on the topic is called ‘Into the Heart of Sisala Experience: Witnessing Death Divination’. See also some interesting material on transpersonal anthropology.
- Simon Kimbangu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simon_Kimbangu): 20th century African religious leader who claimed to be a special envoy of Christ, and attributed many miracles, including healings and raising the dead. See for example here, here, and here. Unfortunately most of the oldest source material is in French.
- Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_witnesses): said that an angel appeared to them and showed them the Gold Plates that Joseph Smith translated. Written down in the 1st edition of the Book of Mormon within a year or so of the event.
- Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaitanya_Mahaprabhu): 15th century Indian saint with many miracles attributed to them (some described here). There are multiple biographies of him written within a few decades of his death (two main ones are by Chaitanya Bhagavata and Chaitanya Charitamrita); see more on sources here. Example: “At Puri a miracle happened. During the car festival, the car of Jagannath did not move. All the pilgrims tried their combined strength. It proved futile. The gigantic elephants of the Raja of Puri also failed to move the car. All were in a stage of suspense and dilemma. Gauranga came just then. He pushed the car by his head and the car moved at once.”
- Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirza_Ghulam_Ahmad): made many prophecies, which believers consider to be evidence of his prophethood (see here). There is also a claim in his book Haqiqat ul Wahi that he raised his son from the dead (discussed here), but almost all the relevant info is in urdu). Relevant quote: “His son Mubarak Ahmad pronounced dead and a woman informed Mirza Ghulam Ahmad who was busy nearby in prayer. The woman told him to stop praying for his son as he had died. MGA said, ‘Then I went to the boy and placed my hand on his body and concentrate towards Allah. The boy started breathing again only after two or three minutes later and I could start feeling his pulse as well and that boy became alive.'”
- Xuanzang (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xuanzang): not a miracle worker himself, but as a 7th century Buddhist monk he wrote a classic text called ‘Great Tang Records on the Western Regions’, part of which contains his extensive descriptions of the miraculous powers of various religious images. See Images, Miracles and Authority in Asian Religious Traditions, chapter 2.
- Sabbatai Zevi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabbatai_Zevi): A 17th century Rabii said to have performed many miracles, including predicting the future. He was proclaimed by his followers as the Messiah, and many miracles seemed to have been attributed to him during his lifetime (see Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676, by Gershom Gerhard Scholem, page 390).