The Resurrection of Jesus: Explaining the Historical Facts Debate Notes


The following is a lightly edited version of the notes that I compiled in preparation for a debate about the Resurrection of Jesus that was held in April 2016 against Robert Martin. They contain much of the crucial material and arguments in outlining my views on competing explanations for the resurrection, and so I thought I would provide them here for reference. A more detailed and scholarly version of this material, with additional notes, case studies, and references, is contained in my book critiquing the arguments of William Lane Craig, which I hope will be published sometime next year. In the meantime, I hope these will provide a useful reference for those interested in engaging with this important topic.

Opening Remarks


My goal here is to outline and defend a naturalistic explanation for certain historical facts related to the death and subsequent appearances of Jesus of Nazareth. I will argue that my proposed explanation, the RHBS model, is superior to the Christian resurrection hypothesis. It is very important to understand that I am not arguing that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, or that it is irrational to believe that he did. Instead, I am attempting to refute a specific argument for that belief, one commonly raised by Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, Mike Licona, and Gary Habermas. Other reasons for believing that Jesus rose from the dead, perhaps theological or experiential, or a combination of these with some appeal to the historical evidence, are not addressed by this piece. Here I solely address the question as to whether the historical evidence (and associated arguments and inference derived therefrom) are sufficient to warrant a belief that Jesus rose from the dead. That is, I argue that this ‘resurrection argument’ is not a particularly strong apologetic argument for the Christian faith, irrespective of whether Jesus actually did rise from the dead.

Henceforth I shall accept as historical facts the following events pertaining to the death of Jesus:

  • Jesus was crucified
  • He was buried in a tomb
  • The tomb was found empty by women followers
  • Many of his followers subsequently reported seeing and speaking to Jesus (‘the appearances’)
  • His disciples came to believe that Jesus had been resurrected by God
  • Aspects of these stories and beliefs were passed down and recorded in the gospels (thought not necessarily with all details correct)

I do not believe that denying any of these facts, as so many atheist respondents to this argument do, is a satisfactory or defensible approach. Of these facts, only the empty tomb is subject to any real scholarly dispute, and even that is accepted by many sceptical scholars. Even if they are not all certain, they are at least plausibly true, and thus require an explanation. Nor do I think it is philosophically defensible to a priori reject miracles on the basis of (for instance) the arguments of David Hume. Thus I think it is incumbent upon the atheist to present a plausible (thought not fully comprehensive or perfect) account of these facts. My challenge here, therefore, is to explain how these facts could come to be without divine intervention, and furthermore to argue that in fact these facts can be better accounted for by such a non-miraculous (naturalistic) explanation. In order to do so, I first must discuss what I mean by an ‘explanation’.


An explanation consists of a set of propositions which, taken together, entail the facts to be explained. The facts don’t have to follow with deductive certainty, but they should follow with reasonable probability. In the words of philosopher Charles Pierce, given an explanation, the facts to be explained should follow ‘as a matter of course’.

Explanations are judged in accordance with three main criteria, which I will use to compare my naturalistic explanation to the resurrection hypothesis.

  • Explanatory scope: the larger the range of facts that an explanation can account for, the better is that explanation
  • Explanatory power: the more likely the facts are rendered by the explanation, the better and more clearly they are accounted for by it, the better is the explanation
  • Plausibility: the more likely are the propositions posited by the explanation given existing background knowledge (outside of the facts to be explained), the better is the explanation

The RHBS Model

The RHBS model consists of the following key elements:

  1. Reburial: Under one possible scenario, Jesus’ burial in Joseph’s tomb was only ever intended to be temporary, a decision made as a result of the fast approaching Sabbath, the nearness of Joseph’s tomb, and the desire to avoid another disruptive public spectacle. This temporary burial hypothesis is plausible in light of several known facts.
    • Jewish law required bodies to be taken down before evening: (Deuteronomy 21:22) “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death… and you hang him from a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day” (also mentioned in John 19:31 “so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath”)
    • The gospels indicate the burial was rushed: Mark 15:42 Joseph asked for Jesus’ body “When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath”, and John 19:42 “Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there”. That the women came on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus shows that the burial had not been completed on Friday night
    • Criminals were buried in a different location to ordinary Jews, likely some distance away
    • The Jewish and Roman authorities were concerned about keeping public order, and so wanted Jesus’ burial to be as private as possible
  2. Individual Hallucinations: Following the discovery of the empty tomb, and exacerbated by grief and emotional excitement, one or more of Jesus’ women followers experienced individual hallucinations of the risen Jesus.
    • Hallucinations are common among non-mentally ill: ‘studies of normal populations have found that between 10 and 37% of people report having experienced auditory hallucinations’, “Affective reactions to auditory hallucinations in psychotic, evangelical and control groups”, British Journal of Clinical Psychology
    • Especially common are bereavement hallucinations: ‘half of the subjects felt the presence of the deceased (illusions); about one third reported seeing, hearing and talking to the deceased’,”Bereavement among elderly people: grief reactions, post-bereavement hallucinations and quality of life”, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica
    • It is well known that hallucinations are extremely common in religious contexts and settings imbued with religious significance
  3. Group Religious Experiences: the women followers then discussed their experiences with the disciples, generating an expectation that they might experience something similar. Partly as a result of this expectancy, and also mediated by social reinforcement and strong emotions, the early disciples had several collective religious experiences of the risen Jesus, thereby accounting for the appearances.
    • This is psychologically known behaviour. Psychologist Donovan H. Rawcliffe wrote “The same factors which operate for a single individual in the induction of hallucinations… may become even more effective in an excited or expectant crowd, and on occasion may result in mass hallucinations. This is not to say that any two people are capable of having precisely the same hallucination identical in every respect. But similar preconceptions and expectations can undoubtedly result in hallucinatory visions so alike that subsequent comparisons would not disclose any major discrepancy… dissimilar hallucinatory experiences often attain a spurious similarity by a process of harmonisation in subsequent recollection and conversation.”
    • Numerous historical cases are known, including the Westall UFO encounter of 1966, when a flying saucer was seen over a school by a large group of hundreds of people, the many Maritain appearances to often thousands of people (such as Our Lady of Zeitoun in Cairo), reports of seeing angels in the trenches (the Angels of Mons), and mass hysteria such as genital shrinking epidemics in Africa and reports of German air raids in Canada during the First World War.
  4. 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 reconstructive recall and social memory contagion in the direction of increased coherence between individual accounts, and also greater impressiveness of the experiences. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and other similar biases combined to reduce any inconsistencies or discrepancies in the accounts or memories.
    • Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus studies the formation of false memories, with an emphasis on the legal system. In a TED talk she narrates the famous case of Steve Titus, whom was accused of rape, the victim declaring at the trial that “I’m absolutely positive that’s the man”. In fact, he was innocent. The real culprit was a serial rapist who later was found and confessed. The victim’s memory had been manipulated by repeated exposure and suggestion of the police officers
    • “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”, Collaborative recall and collective memory
    • Other studies have found that people incorporate misinformation from others into their own memories of an event (memory contagion), even if they are warned this might occur
  5. Socialization and Marginalisation of Doubt: Public expressions of doubt, disagreement, and skepticism were further muted by forces of socialisation and conformity in the early tightly-knit community. Most of those exposed to these claims had neither the inclination nor the ability to check them for themselves, or question the developing orthodoxy. This accounts for the origin of belief in the resurrection and the writing of the gospels.
    • One example of this would be how Jehovah’s Witness have used social reinforcement of their beliefs and motivated reasoning to survive multiple failed end of world predictions

This explanation has the explanatory scope and power to account for all of the facts. Thus I argue the RHBS model has sufficient explanatory scope to account for all the facts, and is plausible given background knowledge from history, psychology, and sociology. See below for more discussion and examples of some of this evidence.

The Resurrection Hypothesis

Compared to the RHBS model, we find that the resurrection hypothesis as typically stated (“God raised Jesus from the dead”) lacks the explanatory scope and power necessary to account for all of the facts. It does account for the empty tomb, but fails to account for the appearances. Perhaps if any of us were to rise from the dead we would rush to show ourselves to all our friends, but God raising Jesus from the dead is another matter entirely. Unless we have prior knowledge of God’s intentions, it doesn’t follow at all that the disciples (or anyone else) would see the risen Jesus:

  • Jesus could have appeared even if he wasn’t resurrected (as some Gnostics believe)
  • He might have been resurrected without appearing to anyone (per the old copies of Mark)
  • He might have appeared to anyone else, like the Mesoamericans as the Mormons believe

In order to have the explanatory scope to account for all the facts, therefore, the resurrection hypothesis requires three key assumptions:

  • God exists
  • God had a desire or reason to raise Jesus from the dead
  • Jesus had reason to appear to his disciples after being raised to vindicate his divine mission

But each of these assumptions is subject to significant dispute, and none of them are among our widely accepted set of background beliefs. Of course if one already believes that Jesus was divine then they will be very plausible indeed, but this is not among our generally accepted background facts. The fundamental trouble is these assumptions rely on knowledge of God’s intentions, which is something that we do not have access to without making prior theological assumptions. By contrast, the RHBS model relies only on assumptions which can be shown to be plausible given shared background knowledge from history, psychology, and sociology.

Thus, we find that the RHBS model relies on assumptions which are plausible given shared background knowledge from psychology, sociology, and historical scholarship. By contrast, the resurrection hypothesis relies on assumptions whose plausibility is impossible to adjudicate in a non-question begging way. As such, the RBHS model is a superior explanation of the historical facts. This does not necessarily mean that it describes what actually happened, but with respect to identifying an explanatory framework for interpreting the historical facts, I believe it is superior to the resurrection hypothesis.

Rebuttals and Responses

Assumptions of the RBHS model

The RHBS Model requires four main assumptions:

  • Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb before its discovery by Jesus’ women followers
  • Some of Jesus’ followers experienced individual hallucinations of Jesus appearing to them
  • Reports of the empty tomb and these first appearances triggered a serious of collective experiences of the risen Jesus among the disciples
  • The memories and understanding of these experiences were reshaped over time by psychological and sociological forces towards being more consistent and impressive

The resurrection hypothesis is much simpler than the RHBS model

The resurrection hypothesis as typically stated is much simpler: ‘God (bodily) raised Jesus from the dead’. Since the RHBS model is so much more complicated, does not Occam’s Razor say we should prefer the resurrection hypothesis? In fact this is not the case, because Occam’s Razor does not, contrary to how it is often stated, say that ‘simpler explanations are more likely to be true’. Rather, it states that explanations which must make fewer new (previously unestablished) assumptions are to be preferred. Thus it is essentially equivalent to the criterion of plausibility – given our background information, how likely is the proposed explanation?

Joseph of Arimathea had no reason to rebury the body of Jesus

I see two broad possibilities here:

  • Intended temporary storage: Joseph always intended to rebury Jesus, having only placed Jesus’ body in his tomb temporarily, intending a reburial after the Sabbath was over. This may have been done because his tomb was very close to the site of execution, as implied by John 19:42, and as implied by Mark and John the Sabbath was approaching and it was against Jewish law to leave crucified victims out on the Sabbath. Another possibility was that the authorities wanted a quiet, private site to place Jesus’ body for a couple of days until the commotion surrounding his crucifixion had died down, or for both reasons.
  • Change of heart: Joseph may have originally intended to leave Jesus’ body in his family tomb (being perhaps a sympathiser or even secret supporter), however after spending time with family and/or friends over the Sabbath and telling them what he had done, he had second thoughts and was prevailed upon to move the body from his (expensive) family tomb. (I can just imagine Joseph going home and his wife yelling incredulously “you did what with our family tomb!?”) In Jewish burial custom criminals were buried in a separate location to those who received honourable burials, and having Jesus buried in one’s tomb (or even nearby to one’s tomb) would have been considered to be an insult.

If Joseph of Arimathea moved the body, he would have told the disciples about it to refute their claims that Jesus was raised

  1. Not enough information to know this: absolutely nothing is known about Joseph except that he was a member of the council who buried Jesus. We do not know his reasons for doing so (the gospels are not entirely consistent about this, and it is unclear if they can be trusted as many scholars have identified a tendency to progressively ‘christianise’ Joseph). We do now know how connected, if at all, he was to the Christian movement. We do not know if he knew any of the disciples of kept in contact with them (whom it must be remembered were in hiding from the Jewish establishment after the crucifixion). He may have died very shortly after these events, he may have moved away, or simply have not cared enough about figures he may have regarded as radical zealots to attempt to dissuade them of their views.
  2. Disciples would not have been convinced anyway: even if Joseph had made known the reburial to the disciples, I doubt that would have convinced them. In this case, the body would soon have become unrecognisable, and the disciples would likely have suspected a Jewish plot. Even aside from that problem, irrational belief persistence is well documented in new religious movements. As such, I think it possible (though less likely) that Joseph did make known the reburial to the disciples, but they did not believe him and so the incident was accorded no important, never recorded and subsequently forgotten.

Reinterment was against Jewish law

  1. Joseph had a plausible excuse: Joseph may have justified the reburial on the grounds that his tomb was publically known and therefore not safe from tomb robbers. Whether or not this was his actual reason, he could have used this as a plausible justification, as this is an acknowledged exception to the normal Jewish rule against reburying bodies
  2. Mary doesn’t agree: Mary Magdelene also doesn’t seem to think that a reburial is implausible, as in John 20:2 she says “they have taken away the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid Him”.
  3. Parallel cases: Temporary burial is attested in Jewish sources: Semakhot, 13:5 ‘Whosoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave’ and ‘Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says: Rabban Gamliel had a temporary (borrowed) tomb in Yabneh into which they bring the corpse and lock the door upon it’

If the body had been removed, the Jewish authorities would have produced it to disprove the disciples’ claims

This argument relies on five key premises, each of which I regard as dubious or highly unlikely.

  1. Jews were interested in debate: for this objection to hold, the Jewish authorities must have been sufficiently interested in debating or disproving specific factual claims made by the early Christians. I see no reson to believe that this was the case. The Jewish authorities did not like the Christians making claims they regarded as blasphemous, stirring up trouble among the people, or building up a rival religious power structure. Their activities as recorded in Acts are consistent with these focuses: they persecute, they arrest, they bring to trial, they criticise and forbid from teaching. They make no attempt to persuade or present counter evidence. The original (uninterpolated) Testimonium Flavianum, an early example of Jewish responses to Christianity, does not mention the resurrection: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” As Michael Martin says “This hardly suggests that Jewish leaders were actively engaged in attempting to refute the Resurrection story but failing in their efforts”.
  1. Jews knew where the body was: if the body of Jesus was reburied in a mass grave, or some other unmarked site, or possibly stolen by another third party or misplaced in some other way, there is no reason why the Jewish authorities would have known where it was. It is not at all clear why initially they would have cared what happened to the body or have made any effort to keep tabs on it. That the outcome of the body would be important only became clear weeks later when the disciples began to publically declare the resurrection. By that time the body may have long been lost.
  1. We would have a record of Jews displaying the body: this response assumes that if the Jewish authorities had presented the body of Jesus publically in some way, we would have a record of this fact. We have no records at all about the early Christian movement from first century Jewish authorities whom the Christians were dealing with. We have no critical reports, only a few accounts in Acts and elsewhere about what Christians said was being done to them. If the authorities had presented the body of Jesus, it seems very plausible that this is something Christians (believing it to be faked) would not have recorded. Even if they had, since we have virtually no records at all from this period, there is no reason to suppose that we would written records of this particular occurrence would have survived.
  1. The corpse of Jesus would have been recognisable: Corpses decay quite quickly, especially in the often hot and humid conditions of Palestine. Probably within a few days, or a week or two at most, Jesus’ corpse would not have been recognisable. Thus the Jewish authorities had a very short window in which a corpse could be presented with any chance that the disciples would accept it as Jesus. It seems eminently reasonable to me that, even had they wanted to produce the body and known where it could be found, by the time it could be done it was too late to bother, or too late to make any difference, as the corpse had decaying beyond clear recognition.
  1. Presentation of Jesus’ body would have stopped Christianity: this response assumes that if the disciples had recognised a corpse as that of Jesus, they would have given up their claims, or at least been unable to persuade anyone else of their claims. This assumption runs contrary to the ample evidence we have of the power of irrational belief persistence, particularly in the context of new religious movements. People are perfectly capable of believing things in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. As such, even if the followers of Jesus believed that they corpse they saw was that of Jesus, I believe it is not at all implausible that they would have found some way to rationalise this away, and the event was not recorded and eventually dropped from the Christian narrative. Consider for instance the claim of apologist William Lane Craig: “should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa”.

The appearance to the 500 cannot be explained naturalistically

  1. The claim is unverifiable: Paul is making a very safe claim. He knew that no one he was speaking to would have the means and inclination to check up his claims. Today misinformation that can be checked using a quick google search keeps on being propagated. To have checked Paul’s claims would have required a lengthy and expensive journey, and then hunting around for the early church and trying to find the, now elderly, remnants of this group. Very few people would have had the means or time to be able to do this.
  2. Witnesses were not in a position to identify Jesus: how did all 500 people know it was Jesus? Were they all close enough to get a good look? Did they all know him when he was alive? This seems unlikely.
  3. Similar cases known: Large appearances like this are documented, including many apparitions of the virgin mary, and moving and drinking statues of the Buddha (see some cases in ‘Additional Material’ section).

Jesus’ followers, or some of them, were sceptical and so did not expect his appearances

  1. Not explained well by resurrection hypothesis: that Jesus’ followers were sceptical is hard to understand given all of the many miracles they are said to have witnessed during Jesus’ life, including healings, exorcisms, raising of the dead, feeding thousands, walk on water, etc. This motif of scepticism in the gospels seems very hard to understand if these miracles had really occurred
  2. Avowel of prior scepticism is a common motif: the RHBS model better explains references to the disciples being sceptical at first since this is a known phenomenon in the psychological literature. Psychologist Anna Stone explains: “the avowal of prior scepticism is a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and the likelihood of attribution of the event to a paranormal cause. The technique works like this: a typical narrative account starts with the avowal of prior scepticism (“at first I was sceptical”), followed by a description of an anomalous occurrence (“but a psychic told me things she could not have known”), which in turn is followed by a conversion (“I realised that something out of the ordinary was occurring”). This technique highlights the strength of evidence that caused a change in the narrator’s attitude from initial scepticism to belief. By highlighting the narrator’s reliance on evidence the account also positions the narrator as a rational thinker”

The disciples would not have come to believe Jesus had been resurrected from mere hallucinations since Jews did not believe in the resurrection of a single person during history, but a general resurrection of all the righteous at the end of history

  1. The logic is the same in both explanations: the proponent of the resurrection hypothesis argues that the disciples came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus because of a combination of his empty tomb and his appearances to them. This is exactly is proposed in the RHBS model. The only difference is that I argue the empty tomb and the appearances in turn were caused by different factors than the resurrection proponent asserts were at work. But with respect to the belief of the disciples in the resurrection, the logic is essentially identical: empty tomb plus appearances leads to belief in the resurrection.
  2. This exaggerates the degree of change in beliefs: As scholars like Bart Eahrman have argued, the early Christian movement was at least in part an apocalyptic movement. Jesus made numerous statements about the imminent destruction of Jerusalem and the coming of God’s kingdom. Thus when his early followers believed that he had been resurrected, they would not have viewed this as an event in the ‘middle’ of history as we do today, but rather as a further sign of the beginning of the end times. Jesus was described as ‘the firstfruits of them that slept’, indicating that Jesus was but the first of a general resurrection that was to come very soon, when the final end will come. This perspective if further evidenced by the report of the ‘opening of the tombs’ in Matthew, and bodies being raised to life and appearing to many. The disciples thus did not give up their belief that the resurrection was something that would happen at the end of history to everyone. It was only altered a small degree such that Jesus was the ‘firstfruits’ of this general resurrection, with the remainder to follow very shortly at the end of the world. Christians today use similar language in the form of ‘inaugurated eschatology’. Furthermore, we know that the disciples were not ‘typical Jews’, as they followed a reforming figure as Jesus who was widely condemned by the Jewish authorities as a heretic and even a blasphemer. At the very least, we know the disciples were open to innovation and new understandings of their religion.
  3. Religious innovation can occur: A final point is that this argument can be taken to an extreme which would preclude the possibility of any sort of religious innovation. As New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado writes: ‘It is simplistic to regard religious experiences as only derivative from prior beliefs and to fail to see that religious experiences can modify beliefs and/or generate new ones, in some cases resulting in significant innovations… Several decades ago Rodney Stark made similar observations about the capacity of certain “revelational” experiences to generate religious innovations, even “to contradict and challenge prevailing theological ‘truths’,” noting that such innovations can produce “new theologies, eschatological prophecies, or commissions to launch social reforms.”’, L. W. Hurtado, “Revelatory Experiences and Religious Innovation in Earliest Christianity”, The Expository Times.
  4. Other examples of religious innovation: development of new ideas and reconceptualising and rethinking old ones, is common throughout history, and indeed I would argue forms a crucial part of the birth of most new religions. For example, Joseph Smith claimed to have seen a vision of God and Jesus even though he grew up in a Trinitarian environment, Muhammad claimed to receive revelation from the one true god in a polytheistic environment (and though there was some degree of Jewish and Christian presence, neither of these faiths had ‘room’ for a new prophet of God), while the Buddha broke substantially with most of the orthodox tradition of Indian religious thought by rejecting the authority of the Vedas. To say that the disciples of Jesus could not alter or innovate within their existing religious framework is to fly in the face of religious history.

The appearances were too diverse to be accounted for by hallucinations or collective delusory experiences

Exactly how diverse the appearances were depends upon which specific appearance narratives we regard as historical. Certainly I agree that Jesus is reported to have appeared on multiple occasions in group settings, not always in the same location. The same can be said, however, of the appearances to Joseph Smith and his different groups of followers, to Marian apparitions, the miracles of various modern Hindu gurus, and various UFO encounters. Given the psychological and sociological processes at work, there seems to be no reason why group experiences could not have occurred multiple times in varying settings. Absent some specific criteria as to what constitutes ‘too much’ diversity to be accounted for psychologically and why this degree of diversity but no more can be so explained, I see no reason to regard this objection as having any significant force.

Hallucinations don’t occur in groups

In psychology the term ‘hallucination’ is typically used to refer to a sensory perception in the absence of any actual stimulation of the relevant sensory organ. Since perceptions are, at the most fundamental level, private and subjective, hallucinations are generally regarded as being individual phenomena that are not shared between persons or among groups. This, however, is true only of the most rigorous and specific use of the term in psychology. More broadly, it is well documented that large groups of people can and do report experiencing phenomena which clearly did not occur. These aren’t true ‘mass hallucinations’, but they are collective illusory experiences which result in the formation of false beliefs on the basis of experiences shared in groups of people. Some of these I document in the ‘additional material’ below.

Hallucinations don’t eat or hold conversations as did Jesus

  1. Question-begging: this presumes that Jesus actually dead eat or hold conversations with his disciples, which has not been established. All that can be established is that such events are reported in (some) of the gospels. There is no reason why, even if these details are historical, they could not have been aspects of the hallucination and/or later embellishments of memory. Presumably hallucinated aliens don’t abduct people out of buildings, mutilate cattle, or insert anal probes, all of which are reported.
  2. Matthew reports unreliable events: We also know that the gospels contain unreliable details. Matthew’s story of the guard posted at the tomb includes private conversations between Roman officials and Jewish authorities that have no plausible historical source, as well as the Earthquake reported in Matthew 28:2-4.

The guard at the tomb would have prevented any tampering with the body

  1. The guard of the tomb is widely acknowledged to be an apologetic insertion by Matthew
  2. The guard was only set on the Sabbath after Friday night was over, as in Matthew 27:62-64 “Now on the next day, the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ “Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people”.
  3. If the guard was set by the Jewish authorities, they would have had the ability to remove the guard when moving the body

Appearance to Thomas the skeptic cannot be explained as a hallucination

This is only reported in John, the latest of the gospels, and seems to have clear apologetic intent. John 20:26-31: “Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.”  Then He said to Thomas, “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believing.” Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book;  but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

The appearance to James the brother of Jesus could not be a hallucination as he wasn’t a believer

This reasoning commits the fallacy of post-hoc ergo promptor-hoc, arguing that because one event follows another that therefore it must have been caused by the former. There is no biblical record that James was converted as a result of an appearance. What we have are indications that he wasn’t a believer during part of Jesus’ ministry, and that later on Jesus appeared to him and he became a disciple. We cannot simply infer from this that James became a believer because of this appearance. I think it more likely that be became a follower sometime before his experience, which confirmed and consolidated his faith.

The conversion of Paul cannot be explained naturalistically

  1. I believe that Paul experienced a hallucination which he interpreted as Jesus appearing to him, thereby triggering a gradual conversion transition
  2. This more gradual conversion would explain why he waited so long to visit the disciples in Jerusalem
  3. Paul gives no detailed account of his conversion story. The only detail account is found in Acts, which was written after Paul died (AD 67, Acts written in AD 80s). As such the details of the account must be treated with caution
  4. ‘Evidence is offered to suggest a neurological origin for Paul’s ecstatic visions. Paul’s physical state at the time of his conversion is discussed and related to these ecstatic experiences. It is postulated that both were manifestations of temporal lobe epilepsy’, “St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy”, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry ,
  5. “D. Landsborough published an article in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry, in which he stated that Paul’s conversion experience, with the bright light, loss of normal bodily posture, a message of strong religious content, and his subsequent blindness, suggested ‘an attack of [temporal lobe epilepsy], perhaps ending in a convulsion … The blindness which followed may have been post-ictal’”
  6. We do have other cases of very strange and unusual conversion stories, see list below, so this assumption that Paul had a vision and subsequent conversion is plausible
  7. By contrast, we have no way of adjudicating whether God would wish to appear to someone so disconnected from the historical Jesus as Paul; Paul’s conversion does not follow ‘as a matter of course’ from the other assumptions

Additional Material

Psychology of memory and biases

These various processes would have shaped the disciples’ original experiences of seeing Jesus, their memories of what they had experienced, and led them to understand their experiences in ways that supported existing beliefs and confirmed with the emerging consensus among their peers.

  1. ‘Pentecostal miracles and healings have often been described and interpreted, but rarely explained in their sociological workings. As former research implies, actual biomedical effects of Pentecostal healings are possible (the so-called placebo effect), but quite limited. 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,
  2. ‘Hauntings and poltergeist-like episodes are argued to be products of contagious reactions to ambiguous environmental or cognitive events. In particular, 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,
  3. Many people report unusual experiences merely from sitting in a room if they are told to expect them beforehand. ‘Participants were required to spend 50 min in a specially constructed chamber, within which they were exposed to infrasound, complex EMFs, both or neither… A considerable proportion of the participants reported a number of anomalous sensations in response to a fairly mild suggestion that in our white, round, featureless room they might feel some unusual sensations. Such an explanation is in line with the observations of Houran and Lange (1996). They asked two volunteers to keep a diary for 30 days of unusual events of the type that are traditionally associated with hauntings and poltergeists in a residence with no prior history of such activity. As expected, the instructions themselves were sufficient for the volunteers to note, with increasing frequency, anomalous or unusual events presumably simply because the volunteers were now primed to notice… Although many participants reported anomalous sensations of various kinds, the number reported was unrelated to experimental condition but was related to TLS scores. The most parsimonious explanation for our findings is in terms of suggestibility’, “The ‘‘Haunt’’ project: An attempt to build a ‘‘haunted’’ room by manipulating complex electromagnetic fields and infrasound”, Cortex,
  4. ‘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,
  5. ‘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. Furthermore, the memory differences between believers and non-believers were particularly marked for information that was crucial to explaining how a particular effect had been achieved. For example, the fact that a key disappeared from view during a metal-bending demonstration was critical because it was at this point that a straight key was switched for a bent key. Believers also tended to rate demonstrations of such pseudo-psychic feats as more paranormal than non-believers’, “Memory Conformity and Paranormal Belief”,
  6. ‘In contrast to laboratory free recall (which emphasizes detailed and accurate remembering), conversational retellings depend upon the speaker’s goals, the audience, and the social context more generally. Because memories are frequently retrieved in social contexts, retellings of events are often incomplete or distorted, with consequences for later memory. Selective rehearsal contributes to the memory effects, as does the schema activated during retelling. Retellings can be linked to memory errors observed in domains such as eyewitness testimony and flashbulb memories; in all of these situations, people retell events rather than engage in verbatim remembering’, “Retelling Is Not the Same as Recalling Implications for Memory”, Current Directions in Psychological Science,
  7. ‘Sixty first-year Jagiellonian 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. In addition, participants were asked to imagine what she had been talking about. 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,
  8. ‘Participants were shown a crime video and then asked to discuss the video in groups, with some receiving misinformation about the event from their discussion partners. After a one week delay some participants were warned about possible misinformation before all participants provided their own account of the event. Co-witness information was incorporated into participants testimonies, and this effect was not reduced by warnings or source monitoring instructions, suggesting memory change may have occurred’, “Can a witness report hearsay evidence unintentionally? The effects of discussion on eyewitness memory”,

Irrational belief persistence

Even if compelling evidence had been presented to the disciples that Jesus hadn’t been resurrected from the dead, I doubt this would have changed their minds. There is ample psychological and historical evidence about the tendency of people (especially in the context of new and charismatic religious movements) to deny very obvious counter-evidence to their beliefs. A review of religious groups which made falsified prophecies, “When Prophecy Fails and Faith Persists: A Theoretical Overview”, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions,, found that twelve of the thirteen groups they analysed survived the failure of specific prophecies. Jehovah’s Witness multiple failed end of world predictions are a well known example. Another famous example was the 1844 so-called “Great Disappointment”, following the failed prediction of the Millerites that Jesus would return in that year. There were many attempted justifications and some fell away, but the movement continued and gave rise to the contemporary Seventh Day Adventist church.

One form of rationalisation has been described by religious scholar J Gordon Melton as ‘spiritualisation’:

“The prophesied event is reinterpreted in such a way that what was supposed to have been a visible, verifiable occurrence is seen to have been in reality an invisible, spiritual occurrence. The event occurred as predicted, only on a spiritual level.”

According to Joseph Zygmunt, the response to each of the prophetic failures by Watch Tower Society adherents followed a general pattern:

  • The initial reaction by both rank and file and the movement’s leaders was usually a combination of disappointment and puzzlement.
  • Proselytism declined, but members maintained an attitude of watchful waiting for the predictions to materialize. The doctrinal bases for the prophecies were reexamined and conjectures offered as to why the expected events might have been “delayed”.
  • A fuller realization of the quandary was achieved. The group asserted that the prophecies had, in fact, been partially fulfilled, or that some event of prophetic significance—usually supernatural and hence not open to disconfirmation—had actually transpired on the nominated dates. Belief was sustained that God’s plan was continuing to unfold.
  • Unfulfilled portions of the failed prophecies were projected into the future by issuing re-dated predictions, in association with retrospective reinterpretation of earlier failures.
  • A selective interpretation of emerging historical events as confirmation of the signs of the approaching end. A pessimistic worldview sensitized the group to perceive almost every social disturbance and natural disaster as an indicator of the impending collapse of the earthly system.

Experimental studies also support this:

  1. ‘An accomplice presented three common magician’s tricks, which resembled “psychic” performances, to six introductory psychology classes. In the two classes comprising the Psychic condition, the instructors skeptically introduced the accomplice as an alleged psychic; in the Weak Magic condition, as an amateur magician; in the Strong Magic condition, as an amateur magician who would perform stunts which resembled psychic phenomena, but were really not. Belief was assessed through free-form written response, in the form of feedback to the performer. These instructional sets succeeded in manipulating proportion of occult belief. However, proportion of occult belief 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,
  2. ‘A study is reported in which 50 adolescent female high school students were given a chance to commit themselves publicly to a religious belief and were then faced with information which seemed to disconfirm that belief. Consistent with dissonance interpretations of earlier field studies, subjects who both expressed belief and accepted the veracity of the disconfirming information subsequently expressed a significant increase in intensity of belief. This reaction was not found among subjects who either had not expressed initial belief or had not accepted the veracity of the disconfirming information’, “Rational processing or rationalization? The effect of disconfirming information on a stated religious belief”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
  3. ‘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,

Examples of collective miracle/paranormal reports

  1. The Allagash Abductions ( ‘In August of 1976, four men, brothers Jack and Jim Weiner, and their friends Chuck Rak and Charlie Foltz, went on a camping trip for two weeks in the Allagash Wilderness in Maine. On the second night, Jim noticed a strange bright object in the sky that appeared for about thirty seconds and then vanished. Two days later on August 20, the men decided to go fishing when the bright object appeared again. This time, the object shot out a bright light, which began following the men. The men began paddling back to shore, and the next thing they remembered was being on shore, and the bright light vanishing. The men thought it was strange that the fire that they had set minutes before they went fishing had completely burnt out, suggesting that they had been gone for several hours. The four men spent six more days in the wilderness, but never again saw the bright object. The men told their families and friends about the strange sightings, but nobody believed them. Then, in 1988, Jack and Jim began having strange nightmares about the four men sitting on a bench naked, with great fears. Jim decided to contact UFO researcher Ray Fowler in order to help with the strange nightmares. The four men decided to go under hypnosis and described in frightening detail about how they were abducted and then probed by aliens back in 1976. They each took polygraph examinations and passed. However, skeptics are not certain that their stories are true, and that the strange nightmares and hypnosis were a result of watching movies and TV shows about aliens. However, the four men are certain that what happened to them is real’,
  2. Case at Melbourne Airport: “Mystery illness at Melbourne Airport: toxic poisoning or mass hysteria?”, Robert E Bartholomew,
  3. 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 , (Lebone Lumbu, 2005). See here ( for earliest sources – unfortunately most of the oldest stuff is in French. See also Britannica source for raising of the dead (
  4. 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 and More 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.”
  5. Our Lady of Zeitoun ( 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
  6. Bruce T. Grindal ( 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’. Also an interesting link (
  7. Apollonius of Tyana (  credited with many miracles. We have many written accounts. An excellent outline of the evidence can be found here Our main source of information is Apollonius’ biographer Philostratus who wrote his Life of Apollonius of Tyana (see ) between 217 and 238 (about 100-150 years after the event). After 180 AD Lucian wrote a pamphlet where he attacked Alexander of Abonoteichus, a student of one of Apollonius’ students, as a charlatan; and suggested that the whole school was based on fraud. From this we can infer that Apollonius really had students and that his school survived at least until Lucian’s time. More sources here Maria Dzielska casts doubt on the historicity of Philostratus’ accounts in her work ‘Apollonius of Tyana in Legend and History’; see

Examples of strange or unexpected conversions

These can serve as parallel cases in reference to which the conversion of Paul can be better understood.

  1. Michael Sudduth: Why did a Christian philosopher of religion convert to Hinduism?,
  2. Arnoud van Doorn: From anti-Islamic film-maker to hajj pilgrim,
  3. Lord George Gordon: Eighteenth Century British Politician who converted to Judaism,
  4. Ashoka the Great: Indian military conqueror of the second century BC converts to Buddhism,
  5. Yvonne Ridley: British journalist hold captive by the Taliban and later converted to Islam,
  6. Julian the Apostate: Christian-educated Roman Emperor who reverted to Paganism, One could argue there may have been political motivations, but it’s not clear that his anti-Christian efforts were really politically advantageous, and seem very unusual given his family background and the trend of all other emperors since Constantine.
  7. Emanuel Swedenborg: Not exactly a conversion, but a strange case of a Swedish philosopher who, in his fifties, began to experience dramatic religious visions and dreams, and thought he was called by God to reform Christianity,

Examples of apparitions of the dead

Reported in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:

  1. “s 25. In March 1846, the wife and two adult daughters of Dr R., in their home in West Philadelphia, Pa., all saw at the same time an apparition which they instantly and independently recognised as Dr R.’s mother, who had died ten years before. The apparition conformed with a promise made by the old lady before her death, and coincided with the purchase of a house by her son along lines which she had advised. That same evening the ladies related their experience to the Rev. Y. He later told the story to Robert Dale Owen. Mr Owen then secured an account of the story direct from the elder daughter, and afterwards secured confirmation from the mother. The direct accounts from the percipients tallied exactly with the story as it had been told by Mr Y. Both the mother and the daughter re- collected the precise dress of the apparition and their accounts agreed entirely that the apparition had crossed the room, approached a portrait of Dr R., fingered to look at it, recrossed to the door, and inexplicably vanished.”
  2. “s 29. Julia Murray died in Yonkers, N.Y., on 23 March 1901. At about 3 a.m. the next morning, seven relatives and friends (all Catholics) each saw and recognised an apparition of the deceased which came into view near a picture of the Virgin Mary, on the wall of a room next to the one where the body lay. Katie Cain, Rose Kearne and Mrs Corbalis, when interviewed separately, all agreed on the following facts: a wreath or crown (of ‘flowers’, ‘leaves and flowers’, or ‘evergreens’) was on the head; rosary beads hung from the hands, which were crossed on the breast or in a position of prayer, or both successively; the figure wore a robe which ended at the bottom in clouds. Points mentioned by two, but not all three of the percipients interviewed were as follows : The apparition was seen in profile ; the hair was hanging down the back ; the robe was white ; the figure appeared to be solid (or was seen as plainly as in life) ; it faded toward the ceiling, or disappeared slowly through the ceiling. The newspapers made a great sensation about these events. James H. Hyslop heard about it and interviewed Mrs Corbalis on 30 March, and Katie Cain and Rosie Kearns on 5 April 1901, but did not secure signed statements from them.”
  3. Sir George Grey was a British explorer who, in his journey to an aboriginal tribe living North of Perth in 1838, reported an experience whereby he was believed to be the son of one of the aboriginal families reborn as a white man. This belief has been documented by other white explorers who were believed by natives to be dead relatives reborn. Here I quote a passage from Grey’s diary: “After we had tethered the horses and made ourselves tolerably comfortable we heard loud voices from the hills above us… Our guides shouted in return and gradually the approaching cries came nearer and nearer. I was however wholly unprepared for the scene that was about to take place. A sort of procession came up headed by two women down whose cheeks tears were streaming. The eldest of these came up to me and looking for a moment at me said—‘Gwa gwa bundo bal’—‘Yes yes in truth it is him’; and then throwing her arms round me cried bitterly her head resting on my breast… the other younger one knelt at my feet also crying. At last the old lady emboldened by my submission deliberately kissed me on each cheek just in the manner a Frenchwoman would have done; she then cried a little more and at length relieving me assured me that I was the ghost of her son who had some time before been killed by a spear-wound in his breast. The younger female was my sister… My new mother expressed almost as much delight at my return to my family as my real mother would have done had I been unexpectedly restored to her. As soon as she left me my brothers and father (the old man who had previously been so frightened) came up and embraced me after their manner—that is they threw their arms round my waist placed their right knee against my right knee and their breast against my breast holding me in this way for several minutes… This belief that white people are the souls of departed blacks is by no means an uncommon superstition amongst them; they themselves never having an idea of quitting their own land cannot imagine others doing it;—and thus when they see white people suddenly appear in their country and settling themselves down in particular spots they imagine that they must have formed an attachment for this land in some other state of existence; and hence conclude the settlers were at one period black men and their own relations. Likenesses whether real or imagined complete the delusion; and from the manner of the old woman I have just alluded to from her many tears and from her warm caresses I feel firmly convinced that she really believed I was her son whose first thought upon his return to earth had been to re-visit his old mother and bring her a present.”

2 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Jesus: Explaining the Historical Facts Debate Notes

  1. I value the highly nuanced approach James offers, esp. his capacity to engage Christian belief without having to discredit it entirely before he begins.
    I have no argument at all to make against the logic of James’ article.
    I have a Christian heritage in which an historical miraculous Resurrection has been taken for granted as the sine qua non of Christian faith but as honestly as I can I affirm I personally have never felt my Christian faith depended on such a belief.
    For this reason the force of the article is lost on me, although it may serve to change the typical arguments of more conservative Christian apologists.
    Therefore in my space, the article serves to demonstrate that if Resurrection means something, it cannot depend on the traditional ‘historical’ kind of understanding.
    I take Resurrection as a metaphor for something existentially real in my own life and that of others, the opportunity for a new start.
    For me, the miraculous element of religions is a huge stumbling block, for which reason in mentality I am with James in his seeking naturalistic explanations.
    I have framed a conception of the divine inherent in the midst of human life that is deeply motivating and transformative.
    I would like James to devote his energies to an analysis and critique of the validity of this alternative, progressive existential Christian worldview, rather than perpetuate an essentially 19th century debate.


    • Thanks Paul, and I think I agree – I am increasingly interested in engaging more with progressive/liberal/non-fundamentalist approaches to Christianity.


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