Denying the Resurrection: An Atheist’s deconstruction Historical Arguments for Jesus

If you’re an Atheist, you may have recently been tagged by a someone sharing the video below. Perry Jay Stewart’s Facebook version of this video racked up nearly 9 million views within the first week, and was shared with encouragement to tag Atheists. A higher resolution of the discussion between an Apologist and an Atheist can be found on YouTube:

High-res YouTube upload of Impact 360’s “Explore the Resurrection” advertisement.

By framing this video as a challenge to Atheists, Perry Jay Stewart has opened the door to Atheists like me to respond to the video’s straw-man portrayal of Atheist positions. This video was originally commissioned by the Impact 360 institute as an advertisement for a larger set of courses designed to educate Christians about the historical case for Jesus, and possibly convince non-Christians of the same. Impact 360 does not appear to have encouraged watchers to “Tag an Atheist.” It was Facebook evangelist Perry Jay Stewart’s addition to this old video which turned it from an obscure YouTube and web post with fewer than 500 views in a year into a viral sensation.

In this critique, I will make up for the Straw Atheist’s shortcomings, and later discuss the negative portrayal of atheists within the video, and offer my take on how this video should being perceived.

Counterarguments against Historical rooted Rationality of belief in the Resurrection

The Apologist describes five points as facts supporting the Apologists’ claim:

My belief in the resurrection of Jesus is Rational. It’s based on historical facts:
  1. Jesus died by Crucifixion.
  2. Jesus’ Disciples were convinced that Jesus rose from the dead.
  3. Saul of Tarsus, sworn enemy of early Christians, converted after witnessing Jesus.
  4. Jesus’s brother James also became a Christian
  5. The tomb where Jesus was buried was discovered empty.

After being presented with the first point, the straw-atheist claims that Jesus’ existence is unfounded, but offers no argument for this claim. In order to overcome this objection, the Apologist claims that these five facts are backed “by so much historical evidence that most professional critical scholars who study the subject accept [the five points] as true. That includes skeptical atheist scholars.” A panel of 16 such scholars, including at least two in Christian cleric garb, are displayed with the footnote:

Scholars pictured represent a general sample of experts who affirm some or all of these points. The peer reviewed literature taken as a whole strongly supports these 5 facts. For example, see Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 3.2 (2005) pp 135–153.

Importantly, the article referenced does not actually present any polling data regarding their expert opinion on the historicity Jesus, leaving skeptical viewers wondering where the evidence for this claim actually lies. But for the time being, let’s give Impact 360’s writing staff the benefit of the doubt and assume that the claim is true: “Among those who study the subject [of Jesus’ historicity], a majority affirm some or all of these five points.”

Consider the way the apologist words this un-proven statistic: “Among those who study…” This definition could be employed to skew the panel of experts exclusively to those who probe the matter with some minimum level of depth, and could artificially exclude qualified experts who consider the matter to be bereft of plausibility. This phrasing could also include any priest or pastor, yet exclude historians like Philip Jenkins or John M. Allegro who argue against Jesus’ historicity. For this reason, polling methods substantiating any claim regarding the opinion of experts must be examined for their methods, and I have yet to see a poll of relevant experts weigh in on the historicity of Jesus.
If we instead consider history professors within the US, however, we do find a high degree of religiosity: Some 58.5% of US History professors polled in 2006 said they believe in God at least some of the time. But this general belief may not be Christianity. It may not include a literalist view of Jesus existence. This statistic may be a matter of selection bias, as college major has been shown to impact religious views.

Polling data like those from this 2009 Pew Poll would be highly informative to this discussion if it assessed opinions of Historians on the historcity of Jesus. Without such evidence, the claim that a majority of experts on the subject support the 5 points made in the video is unproven.

The claim that experts agree on the historicity of Jesus may therefore be true, but that doesn’t necessarily illustrate professional opinion completely accurately. The ‘skeptical atheist’ scholars are also remarkable as being formerly religious individuals, suggesting they may be approaching the academic question from an already biased position.

Even if the phrasing employed by Impact 360’s video is accurate, methodological approaches could reveal it to be a clear example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy: Drawing a target around data favorable to the point you wish to make. But even if we assume that a majority of a set of agreed upon experts agree on the historicity of Jesus, accepting these “facts” without examining the evidence would be fallaciously accepting the Argument from Authority.

Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy Illustrated.

Moving from the epistemology of these five points to the facts of the matter themselves, the Apologist position relies exclusively on the Bible as evidence for most of the five points. Our Straw-Atheist doesn’t point out that the Bible is far from an ideal historical document, and not all of these specific claims are validated by external sources: the historian Josephus, writing some 60 years after Jesus’ supposed death, affirms that a man named Jesus performed surprising deeds and won over many Jews before being crucified and is said to have returned to life. Josephus also affirms that Jesus’ brother James was stoned to death: However it is worth noting that Josephus could not have personally witnessed these events, having been born at least a year or two after Jesus’ crucifixion and being in Rome at the time of James’ death. The validity of Josephus’ writings concerning Jesus is also questioned by some scholars as a hoax interpolated by early Christians, though apologists frequently contest this claim.

There are two other early accounts of Christians: that of Tacitus, writing in 116, and the New Testament itself: Which was passed as oral tradition for at least a generation before being committed to writing. The earliest surviving archaeological copy of any portion of the New Testament dates to 112 AD. Given the late nature of these entries, we should consider both less impactful than the writings of Josephus. Unfortunately for the Apologist, Josephus only supports vague interpretations of two out of five points.

For contrast: let’s consider another recorded event occurring around this time. Mt. Vesuvius erupted and destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. The exploits of a man named Pliny are recorded by his nephew, also named Pliny. The younger Pliny described how his uncle saw a large cloud blotting out the sun, which appeared to be a mountain climbing to the sky. The elder Pliny set sail with a fleet of warships, and began evacuating the city of Herculaneum. The elder Pliny would ultimately succumb to gas exposure, and the younger Pliny’s account would be disbelieved by modern historians until the discovery of Pompeii in 1748. Modern science has since validated much of the younger Pliny’s accounts of the volcanic eruption, and this single account of Vesuvius is considered highly reputable now thanks to a combination of archaeological and historical verification. Records by Pliny the Younger were recorded within a few years, and are extensively thorough. By and large, historians did not believe Pliny the Younger’s accounts until the ruins of Pompeii were rediscovered in 1748, which ultimately validated his historical writings long after the fact. His descriptions of what the eruptions were later revealed to be so accurate that the field of Volcanology named them Plinian Eruptions after him.

The contrast between Vesuvius eruption and Jesus’s supposed existence is stark: there is no archaeological verification of Jesus existence or crucifixion, and it took decades for written accounts of him to be recorded anywhere. There seems to be less evidence for Jesus’s existence than there is for Hercules, Achilles, a number of Persian emperors, or even a few commoners from thousands of years earlier. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence to be universally accepted, and there simply isn’t enough evidence corroborating the literal truth of these five points outside of the Bible. The earliest historical records we have recovered suggesting Jesus’ existence were recorded at least a generation after his alleged resurrection, and could therefore have been altered through oral tradition before being committed to writing. So while Jesus’ existence, crucifixion and alleged or rumored resurrection appears to be somewhat historical, the remaining three points fail to meet any reasonable burden or historical proof. The best statement we can agree on with any historical certainty is that it seems rumors of Jesus resurrection circulated at the time.

The Apostolic Conspiracy Theory

Rather than contesting the “historical facts” offered by the Apologist with any of the arguments made above, the Straw-atheist seems content to accept the five points as facts and instead presents arguments which allow these points to stand uncontested. He attempts to offer alternative explanations within them.

The first example is the “conspiracy theory” around the 2 minute mark: That the disciples lied about Jesus’ resurrection. The Apologist paints this as unlikely because the apostles were “spineless fishermen” who would have had to overthrow armed Roman soldiers and roll away a 2-tonne stone. Setting aside objections to the historicity of these claims, I will admit the proposition of spineless fishermen defeating a contingent of Roman soldiers seems unlikely. But such claims must be weighed against all alternative explanations. There are more likely “lying” scenarios, less likely “lying” scenarios, other natural scenarios, and supernatural scenarios. Just because the presented “conspiracy theory” fails does not mean that the only other presented argument is valid: That would be an example of the fallacy of exclusive premises. That is, consider possibilities A, B, C, and D. Assume that at least one of these possibilities is true. A and B are mutually exclusive: If one is true, the other can not be. Considering some evidence against A, A must be false. The fallacious conclusion would be that B must be correct. In this fallacy, C and D are cast aside without consideration because A and B have been depicted as the sole possibilities. Both A and B may be false.

An alternatively viable explanation is that after the death of Jesus, a story including the resurrection was fabricated. Or perhaps a roman soldier was bribed to assist the Christians to let them access the tomb while the others were on break. Or perhaps some contingent of these Romans were secretly converted by the Apostles. Maybe the rumors of Romans guarding the tomb was a lie, and the rock’s weight exaggerated.

While even the strongest versions of these Apostolic Conspiracy theories may appear unlikely to those convinced of the Resurrection, it is important to note that accepting the Biblical explanation requires assigning greater belief to supernatural events than non-supernatural alternatives. For point of comparison: if I misplace my car keys, I am more likely to believe that they are somewhere in my house, somewhere else I have been recently, were borrowed by my fiance, or any number of other corporeal explanations before I would assume that they had risen themselves from a non-living condition and ascended to heaven. The realms of quantum mechanics offer physical explanations for how the atoms within my car keys could have spontaneously rearranged themselves into a configuration which allowed them to phase through matter and reach the center of the earth. This possibility would be astronomically improbable, yes still seems more plausible than the proposition that something supernatural had transpired. If we are to accept an appeal to probability, the least probable explanation is not the best candidate: The most probable explanation is.

Another claim the Apologist offers is that the Apostles had no motive to lie: They had nothing to gain from stealing the body of Christ and claiming he was resurrected. But if they were intent to rebel against oppressive Roman Rule, they had every motive to expand their cause through deception.

Finally, the Apologist contention that subsequent persecution dispels this theory also fails to make logical sense on its’ face. But despite this argument’s lack of logic, the Straw-Atheist seems to accept it and moves on to an alternative explanation: The Hallucination Theory.

The Hallucination Theory

Straw Atheist: Alright, another theory. The disciples thought they saw Jesus alive, but it was just wishful thinking. They were stressed and just kind of hallucinating.
Apologist: The Hallucination Theory also lacks explanatory power. 500 Witnesses saw Jesus at the same time, and the Apostles touched him. Psychologists have shown that hallucinations don’t work like that.

Setting aside that the only historical source for a mass-Jesus citing is a New Testament passage written at least 20 years after Jesus’ death, with the oldest surviving copy dated to at least 130 years after Jesus’ death, let’s consider the nature of hallucination. The video offers no citation that psychologists support the claim that hallucinations can’t happen to large groups of people, or can’t include tactile-sensation, but a cursory review of such suggests both of these claims are false: Tactile and mass hallucinations do happen. The most obvious mechanism for mass hallucination, possibly resulting in a mass Jesus citing, would be some form of chemical agent temporarily present in the water supply due to some unknown natural phenomenon. Drug-induced tactile hallucinations are plausible, although not fully understood, thus the proposed hallucination is not beyond the realm of chemical possibility. It’s a far-fetch, but maintains explanatory power.

Does Science disprove miracles?

The next argument the Straw-atheist makes is that Science disproves miracles, which is a gross overstatement of what Science has done or can do. This is one point the Apologist gets correct: Science cannot disprove supernatural events, but science has allowed us to understand supernatural events to actually be natural ones. Supernatural events are outside the realms of science because Science hasn’t gotten that far yet. But Science is a discrete method of inquiry, and has distinct relationships with everything outside it.

Impact 360 Video, shortly after the 3:14 mark.

1. relies on logic through the Scientific Method, and often informs logical considerations.

2. adheres to Ethics in the Scientific Method, and often enables greater action to be taken under ethical efforts through discoveries the fields of engineering, agriculture and medicine.

3. is predicted by Mathematics, and occasionally inspires Mathematicians to explore new avenues within Mathematical Theory.

4. understands and explains our view of Aesthetics, as the fields of Biology develops explanations for why we find something Aesthetically pleasing. Science also inspires and enables new aesthetic developments regularly.

So what is Sciences’ relationship with Miracles? Well, Lightning was once thought of as a Miracle until Science offered an explanation for it. Thus, we no longer worship Zeus. The same is true for Earthquakes and Poseidon, the Sun and Apollo, and all manner of natural events once regarded as supernatural and the ancient gods said to have caused them. If this were a two-way relationship, we might expect that Science would occasionally give way to Miracles as the explanation for scientific inquiry: Yet instead, it seems to be a one-way proposition. Yes, Scientific explanations are frequently disproved, but the flaws removed from our understanding are always replaced with new natural explanations and theories. They have never been replaced with supernatural ones.

Science explains that which is previously unexplained, and one day will answer questions we don’t have an answer to. Hell was once thought to be directly below our feet, and Heaven just beyond the clouds: But now that we’ve developed the tools to look in and visit those places, Heaven and Hell have moved beyond the edges of current Scientific understanding. This constant retreat of the Supernatural continues generation after generation, and the only way I foresee it changing direction is if Humanity suffers some cataclysmic setback. Alternatively, we might encounter new supernatural events. But should supernatural events become common, and should they be testable, scientists might declare them “natural” upon learning how they work. Supernatural in this context seems to mean beyond our natural understanding, and shrinks before the growing knowledge the scientific method generates. This begs the question: Suppose we could recreate the Crucifixion and Resurrection as described in the Bible using modern technology. If we brutally tortured and crucified a person until their heart stopped, waiting until the blood had settled to then pierce their chest and pericardium such that settled blood exits the wound followed by a clear liquid, and then placed the body in a cool and dry cave for three days: If science-based medicine could then revive this unfortunate person, How should we then view what is described by Christians as the greatest miracle of all time? Secular scientists and historians might wonder if some technologically advanced entity had performed such miracles to make Jesus rise: Perhaps a group of time-traveling humans, or extraterrestrials achieved this end.

A few more thoughts

In my opinion and belief, the most plausible explanation for Jesus’s supposed resurrection is that he simply never existed.

Slightly less probable would be some version of conspiracy theory at the hands of early Christians anytime before the Canonization in 367, followed by some version of the hallucination theory during the time of Christ.

Far less likely than any of those: A time-traveling or technologically advanced extra-terrestrial enacting a resurrection.

To most Atheists, this seems more likely than an all-powerful being who cares whether or not I eat meat on a Friday.

Even less likely still would be a quantum-state near-infinitely improbable event where Jesus’ corpse disappeared from the cave by way of quantum tunneling, or some other poorly understood special case of physics.

This special case of physics would be less likely than me winning the Powerball every week if I bought one ticket per week before dying in 40 years. With regards to Christianity, you could consider me a defacto atheist because I estimate the the resurrection of Jesus at the hands of an omnipotent being as described in the Bible, is even less probable than this quantum tunneling scenario. It seems so beyond cosmically unlikely that any minuscule cost associated with such belief would be unthinkably high. It would be impossible for me to accept this proposition as true given these probabilities.

I find the topic fascinating regardless, as many of my peers must estimate this probability as much higher. As such, I am happy to see many Christians posting this video and inviting conversations with Atheists. Still, I take issue with the Straw-atheist depicted for two reasons: He doesn’t make any of the arguments I present here, and he’s quite simply portrayed as an intolerant asshole. I have little doubt that a large number of good people who identify as Christian (or other form of Theist) have encountered an Atheist who would not respect their view. I myself have probably been that Atheist before, and I now view some such attacks, including the one in this video, to be immature and disrespectful. When I was young I encountered many Theists, mainly Christians, who actually treated me with similar disrespect and immaturity: But now it is far more common for me to encounter Christians and Atheists who act more like the Apologist in this video. The video’s Apologist has a cartoonishly high level of patience and tolerance to questions about the nature of his own belief: He embodies virtues of patience and tolerance all humans should all strive for when discussing the subject of theology. And though this character produces and argument I and other non-Christians find thoroughly unconvincing, I cannot help but praise how he responded to the Straw-Atheist. The writers of this piece, on the other hand, could use a lesson on the Steel Man argument.