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Doubting the Resurrection

February 21, 2011     Time: 00:28:04
Doubting the Resurrection


William Lane Craig discusses the charge that the origin of the disciples' belief in the resurrection was cognitive dissonance.

Transcript Doubting the Resurrection


Kevin Harris: Welcome to the Reasonable Faith podcast. It's Kevin Harris with Dr. William Lane Craig. More information at And, Bill, we have so much at on the resurrection of Jesus. When I look at a book here called Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box, there's not a lot that we can discuss on this that we haven't thoroughly discussed and that you haven't covered in your work. But this is a book that I've noticed from Kris Komarnitsky that some people at various websites have talked about. But, really, there are only three things that interest me that are contained in this book. And one of them would be the issue of cognitive dissonance. Followers of Christ are often accused of having cognitive dissonance. Religious people are accused of engaging in cognitive dissonance. And I bet a lot of people are raising their hands right now because they've heard the term thrown at them. And it's basically like this. Here is the definition: thinking people always seem to be troubled by conflicting points of view that they try to hold together in their minds—the mental discomfort from this is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is an initiator for some people to move from strongly held beliefs to new insight, but it could also be a motivation for ingenious, if incorrect, explanations that reduce the dissonance pressures. It can be shown that Christian apologetics is based on a response to cognitive dissonance. This guy goes on to say in his book that this could be an explanation of Jesus' resurrection – cognitive dissonance – that this religious sect that was defeated nevertheless turned that around into zeal to save face, as Robert Price says, and therefore came up with these ingenious ways to salvage the movement.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: And that would be a case of cognitive dissonance.

Dr. Craig: Right, so it would be similar to some of these sects that have looked forward to the second coming of Christ in their lifetime, like the Millerites or even Jehovah's Witnesses. And when the second coming didn't materialize they found ways of maintaining the faith, rationalizing this away, for example, that it was a spiritual coming, and therefore invisible and not really physical.

Kevin Harris: So rather than face the facts and say, “Look, we were wrong, this is wrong, I'm extremely disappointed.” Refusing to do that and then coming up with some explanation instead, stretching, whatever, is intellectual dishonesty and maybe cognitive dissonance, and so on.

Dr. Craig: I think in dealing with this interesting question it's important to understand what aspect of the evidence for the resurrection this would be directed at. As I've laid it out, the evidence for the historicity of Jesus' resurrection can be summarized under three broad headings. First, the fact of the discovery of the empty tomb; secondly, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus; and thirdly, the origin of the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection. Now the theory of cognitive dissonance would be an attempt to explain the third of those facts. Clearly cognitive dissonance doesn't explain the empty tomb. If there really was an empty tomb of Jesus that has nothing to do with the state of mind of the first disciples. So that is an independent fact, or not, of history that this point is irrelevant to. Similarly with the post-mortem appearances. The question there would be whether or not these appearances could be explained away as hallucinatory experiences, or something of that sort. But it wouldn't be just a matter of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance would be applied to the third factor, namely that the reason the disciples came to believe that Jesus was risen from the dead is that they had cognitive dissonance. During their lifetimes Jesus had made so deep an impression on them, that he was actually the promised Messiah, he was the Holy One of God, that they just couldn't believe now after his crucifixion that he wasn't in fact Messiah, he must have been who he said he was. And so in order to overcome this cognitive dissonance they came to believe he was risen from the dead. So it's important to understand exactly the target of this cognitive dissonance objection. It really doesn’t do anything to undermine those first two points of evidence for the resurrection [1]—those will stand independently of the third.

So the question is: does it do anything to provide a naturalistic, plausible explanation of the origin of the disciples' belief in Jesus' resurrection. And here, I think, it succumbs to the old fallacy of anachronism. It looks at the situation of the disciples not from the standpoint of a first century Palestinian Jew, but it looks at it through the rear-view mirror of two-thousand years of church history. And that's anachronistic, that's fallacious. You have to put yourself in the position of a follower of a first century messianic movement who's messianic figure has got himself crucified, and ask, what is probably going to happen with a group like that? And here, I think, N.T. Wright in his book The Resurrection of the Son of God has done a very good job of dealing with the cognitive dissonance theory. He says that this blessed twentieth century disease of cognitive dissonance would have characterized all of these failed messianic movement followers in the first century before Jesus and the first century after Jesus. These messianic pretenders were a dime a dozen and the Romans got rid of them all in the same way—they crucified them or executed them. And yet, Wright says, when you look at these failed messianic movements right across the first century prior to Jesus and the century following Jesus, none of them ever claimed that their would-be Messiah who had been dispatched by the Romans really was the Messiah after all, and really was who he said he was. Nobody believed such a thing. If you were a first century Jew following a failed messianic movement, he says you basically had two choices: either you got yourself a new Messiah or you went home. But in no case do we find them saying that he's risen from the dead and he is the Messiah after all.

So apply this to the first century Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth. They were expecting a Messiah who would come and restore the throne of David in Jerusalem and establish his reign over Israel’s enemies and would rule forever. They had no concept in Judaism of a Messiah who instead of establishing David's throne in Jerusalem would be humiliatingly executed by his enemies and defeated—there just is no such concept of a Messiah like that in Judaism.

So the disciples, confronted with this fate of Jesus, have to ask themselves, well, what do they do? Now, they could have gotten themselves a new Messiah, and Wright points out the most obvious candidate would have been James – who's Jesus' younger brother – and yet there's no attempt to make James substitute as the Messiah for Jesus, or any other figure.

They could have spiritualized the Messiah. Maybe they could have said, well, Jesus is a spiritual king and his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom despite his death, and that therefore we can still believe in him as the Messiah in some spiritual sense. But notice that there's no connection at all between the idea of resurrection from the dead and being the Messiah in Judaism—these are two independent ideas; there's no connection between them. So at most what the disciples would have done with respect to the resurrection, given Jewish thought-forms, is to simply look forward to that day in history when God would judge the world and all of the righteous dead of Israel would be raised from the dead, and they would be reunited with Jesus in the Kingdom of God someday. But there would be no reason to think that he was already risen in advance from the dead, apart from the general resurrection of the dead and as an isolated individual. That is to reinterpret their situation in light of Christian history rather than, as I say, the mentality of a first century Jew.

So there are ways that they could alleviate their cognitive dissonance easily without adopting these non-Jewish thought forms, which in fact they did come firmly to believe. Contrary to their Jewish upbringing and frame of thinking, they came to believe that God had actually raised Jesus from the dead, and you've got to provide a sufficient cause for that. So I think that the cognitive dissonance view is implausible when contrasted with the resurrection view, [2] which, as I say, enjoys the independent support as well of the facts of the empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and cognitive dissonance, that sword cuts both ways. If you're to ask me about my cognitive dissonance I might ask you about yours. If a non-believer accuses me of it I'll say, “Well, wait a minute, what about your cognitive dissonance?”

Dr. Craig: Oh, I think the claim here that Christian apologetics can be shown to be based on a response to cognitive dissonance is just silly. I would love to see that. I don't see any such demonstration. On the contrary, I would say that Christian apologetics is more likely to be based upon a deep conviction of Christianity's truth, and that therefore people are biased who are Christians in favor of the evidence and arguments that support Christianity. It's not at all a matter of trying to alleviate cognitive dissonance. It's that they're so convinced that Christianity is true that they go out and look for arguments to support it. That's not cognitive dissonance. So the theory is only applicable as a theory for explaining the transformation in these first disciples. Why did they, contrary to the pattern of other failed messianic movements in the first century before and after Christ, and contrary to Jewish thought-forms and beliefs, come unexpectedly to suddenly believe, and sincerely believe, that Jesus of Nazareth was physically risen from the dead? That's the question.

Kevin Harris: When confronted with what they think is good evidence, nevertheless they would say, “Well, that crazy preacher I grew up with cannot be right.” “My crazy Aunt Edna, who was a Christian, can't be right, so this can't be true.” And so you would engage in your own cognitive dissonance of the discomfort of there being God.

Dr. Craig: Here's a great example, I think, of atheistic cognitive dissonance: it would be that up until the twentieth century everybody believed that something cannot come out of nothing; that anything that begins to exist or comes into being must have a cause which explains it. But confronted with the evidence for the beginning of the universe some atheists, in order to alleviate that cognitive dissonance, come to believe, “Well, I guess things can come into being out of nothing after all.” And so they deny that whatever begins to exist has a cause. That would be a good example of cognitive dissonance at work.

Kevin Harris: Is it something that we need to try to avoid in our own lives? I mean, nobody wants to have dissonance.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, basically cognitive dissonance is rationalization—it's rationalizing a situation that you ought to come to realize has been invalidated in some way.

Kevin Harris: We're privileged when we can get him - the president of Reasonable Faith, Dr. John Haring. John, thank you so much for joining us and I understand we have a little road trip planned.

Dr. John Haring: Looking forward to it, Kevin. It's going to be a lot of fun, formative, and a great time of fellowship with Reasonable Faith in Israel.

Kevin Harris: Well, that's a road trip that might involve a plane at some point.

Dr. John Haring: It definitely will. We're looking so forward to our time together with our friends from Reasonable Faith. It's the first time Reasonable Faith has done this type of tour. We couldn't be any more excited about the place – the Holy Land – to experience all the sites, the sounds, the smells, just the atmosphere. It is tremendous, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: May 21st through May 30th.

Dr. John Haring: Yes, it will be. We have the opportunity for people to join us from all over the United States and, Kevin, so far we've got folks – an international crowd, as well. We've got people coming, really, from all over the world to join us on this tour.

Kevin Harris: What are some of the highlights of the tour?

Dr. John Haring: It is an amazing place. It is truly a remarkable place to be where, for the Christian, the Bible comes alive. Everywhere you go across this country – which is really quite small in U.S. standards – to see the history, the biblical history come alive, New Testament history, Old Testament history—it's all around you. It is truly remarkable. We'll start off in Tel Aviv. We'll land there at the international airport, a modern airport, a modern city – Tel Aviv – and we'll get to experience that for one night as we gather our group from, really, all over the U.S. We have three gateway airports – Los Angeles, New York City, and Atlanta – and so we'll all gather at a hotel there in Tel Aviv for our first night together and a meal. And then we'll prepare to begin our tour the next day as we travel up the coast to visit the Mediterranean shores of Israel. We'll visit some wonderful sites as we head on in to the Galilee.

Kevin Harris: Are there still some seats?

Dr. John Haring: We do have some seats available. We alternate between the tour being open and a wait list based on the numbers. But right now we are accepting people to come on the tour. We were on a wait list, but we're open again. And we just encourage people to go to the website, you'll see a place where you can click 'Israel Tour 2011' and you can register for the tour. If we're on a wait list it will let you know, and you'll just make a deposit. If we can't accommodate the person, [3] if they're on the wait list, they'll get a 100% refund if they're still on the wait list. We hope to accommodate everybody—we're very, very excited about this tour.

Kevin Harris: Dr. Haring, thank you for all that you do for Reasonable Faith.

Dr. John Haring: Thank you, Kevin.

Kevin Harris: Second thing that comes up that I noticed in this book is that is: 'most plausible' verses 'only plausible' when it comes to explanations. This reviewer says, “What the author does is show a very plausible alternative explanation for the empty tomb that doesn't involve an actual resurrection. He does this while granting certain basic assumptions of the Christian believer. But plausible amounts, at best, to a draw in the debate over the historical Jesus. To show something might have happened is not the same thing as showing how it did happen,” and so on. And so, Bill, you've said that people get the mistaken notion that just because there might be another explanation doesn't mean that the explanation that you hold to is false. Clarify that.

Dr. Craig: Right. Well, we have to differentiate between possible hypotheses, plausible hypotheses, and then the most plausible hypothesis. And certainly there are many possible hypotheses to explain the facts concerning the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus' resurrection. There are many possible hypotheses in the pool of live explanatory options. But possibilities come cheap. In history we're not interested just in possibilities—we're interested in which one is the most likely explanation of the evidence. And so it's not enough to disqualify a competing hypothesis to simply list other possibilities. You would have to show that those other possibilities are at least as plausible, that is to say, they meet the criteria for being a best explanation as well as your proposed hypothesis. And these would include things like explanatory power, explanatory scope, degree of being ad hoc, being in consistency with the known facts about the case, and if someone could show that some explanatory hypothesis meets those criteria as effectively as your favorite hypothesis then you would be in a draw. You would come to a draw and say either of these are candidates for the best explanation. And depending on what you're out to do the Christian could feel very comfortable in such a position. He would say, “That makes my position as a believing Christian just as rational as any naturalistic explanation, and I'm fine with that.” On the other hand, if you want to convince the naturalist that he ought to believe in the resurrection then you might want something more. In that case you might want to show that the resurrection hypothesis is more plausible than the alternatives. And as this reviewer apparently says, it's not enough simply to show that there's a plausible hypothesis that is an alternative. You would need to show that it's the most plausible alternative, if that one is to be preferred. And that will be then a matter, again, of assessing those criteria – of explanatory power, explanatory scope, and so forth – and seeing which theory best meets those criteria. And then you go with the one that passes those criteria the best.

Kevin Harris: We often pick up on, and I pick up on this as well, a person will say that unless you can compel me, I don't necessarily have to believe, or I refuse to believe. Unless you have a knock-down, irrefutable, indisputable argument or fact, I don't have to believe you. It's unduly putting more burden on a hypothesis than we would any other hypothesis.

Dr. Craig: Well, I think that's a good point, Kevin. When one does historical apologetics for events of the New Testament the goal is not to demonstrate these to be scientifically proven, or even to have as much historical credibility as, say, events in the American Civil War. Rather the goal would be to show that these events have as much historical credibility as other events that are commonly accepted in ancient history. And if you can do that you've discharged your responsibilities as a defender of the Christian faith. So what we would want to do is try to show that events like the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples' belief are as well-established factually as other events in ancient history, and then to show that the explanation of those facts that best meets the criteria of explanatory power, [4] explanatory scope and so forth, is the resurrection hypothesis. And I think we can do a pretty good job of that. Those three facts that I've mentioned are widely recognized by the majority of New Testament scholars as indeed being facts of the matter, that they belong to the portrait of the historical Jesus. In fact, N.T. Wright, whom I mentioned before, at the conclusion of his book The Resurrection of the Son of God says that the fact of Jesus' empty tomb and the post-mortem appearances have a probability that is so high, historically speaking, that they are comparable in credibility to events in ancient history like the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or the death of Augustus in A.D. 14—that is really quite amazing. And then the question will be, well, what is the best explanation of these facts? And I'm not aware of any other explanation, I think, that meets the criteria as well as the resurrection hypothesis.

Kevin Harris: Often when I'm in dialogue with someone I will say, “why are you penalizing the New Testament documents.” And they'll say, I'm going to discount those, give me something else, and so on. And I sometimes get this response, Bill, and that is because they say, because the claims of the New Testament, the ramifications of the resurrection, are enormous. And so I've got to put more burden on something that has such a profound consequence.

Dr. Craig: I've heard that, too, Kevin, and I think that's just a bizarre way of thinking. It seems to me that the more existential significance an issue has, the more open one ought to be toward accepting the evidence for it, not less. Suppose you had a fatal disease, like AIDS, and there was some experimental evidence that a certain vaccine might cure you. Wouldn't you be desperate to find out if that in fact was going to save your life? Wouldn't you try it even if it were still in an experimental stage, rather than saying, well, this is such a life-changing situation that I'm going to be as skeptical as I can and only take this medicine as a last resort when it's been demonstrated absolutely to be the cure for the disease that I'm dying of.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, or if the doctor says, “Look, there's sufficient grounds for holding that this is going to cure you.” And you go, “Oh no, I need more than sufficient grounds; I need some kind of . . . I need an angel to show up right here.”

Dr. Craig: Well, that would be even more absurd, obviously.

Kevin Harris: Well, yeah, obviously.

Dr. Craig: I was trying to make the situation more realistic, and even then the deep existential significance of the truth of Christianity ought to make one more open to the evidence. I remember when as a non-Christian I first heard this message I thought, if this is really the truth, that there is a God who loves me, who died for me on the cross to give me eternal life and eternal happiness with him, if there is even a one in a million chance that this is true, it's worth believing. So I think this sort of consideration ought to make one less skeptical, rather than more.

Kevin Harris: One more thing in this book that comes up, and that is Paul's silence. The author of the book says, “Is Paul writing to some who doubt Jesus' resurrection, and more importantly, is Paul trying to defend Jesus' resurrection in the first part of 1 Corinthians 15? It is an important question because if Paul is trying to defend Jesus' resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 it is odd that he never mentions a discovered empty tomb. As many scholars have pointed out, Paul's silence suggests that the discovered empty tomb tradition did not yet exist when he was writing two decades after Jesus' death, or that Paul knew it was an emerging legend.”

Dr. Craig: This point of view, I think, represents a very tiny minority of New Testament scholarship today. There's a number of mistakes in this paragraph. In the first place Paul is not writing to the Corinthians to convince them of Jesus' resurrection. There's no suggestion that the Corinthian church doubted that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather what they were doubting was the resurrection of the body at the end of time. They were questioning whether or not we would be physically raised from the dead. And so what Paul is arguing is, “Look, you Corinthians, if there is no resurrection of the dead at the end of the world, any eschatological resurrection, then it would follow from that that Jesus hasn't been raised from the dead. But of course Jesus has been raised from the dead—that's the message I preached to you when I came.” And then he rehearses in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, the message that he proclaimed to the Corinthians when he preached there. [5]  So there's a nice modus tollens argument going on here: if there is no general resurrection of the dead then Christ has not been raised; but Christ has been raised; therefore there is a general resurrection of the dead. So that's the point that Paul is trying to prove.

And when it comes to that second premise, that Jesus had been raised from the dead, Paul is content to list the witnesses to the resurrection appearances, which are part of that early formula or oral tradition that he's passing on to the Corinthians there. He's not writing freely in his own hand. He's repeating a piece of oral tradition that is not from two decades after Jesus' death, as it suggests here, but goes back to within the first five years after the crucifixion. And the empty tomb isn't mentioned in there because the empty tomb was not part of an apologetic for the truth of the resurrection—the empty tomb was ambiguous, it could have been emptied by grave robbery or something of that sort. It was the appearances that over and over again the apostolic preaching appealed to to show that Jesus was risen from the dead.

Nevertheless we have in the Gospels, as well as in the sermons in Acts, extremely early traditions of the empty tomb that suggests that this is part of the pre-Markan passion tradition that the Gospel writers received, and is also an extremely early tradition, just as this tradition is that Paul is quoting here in 1 Corinthians 15.

So it seems to me that there is no reason to expect Paul in reciting this ancient formula to mention the empty tomb of Jesus. It's implicit in saying 'he was buried, and he was raised.' No first century Jew would have thought to ask, 'but, was his body still in the grave?' In saying he was buried and he was raised the Jew meant that the grave was evacuated of the body. And in fact it's very interesting, Kevin, when you look at this four-lined formula in 1 Corinthians 15 – he died, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared – these four lines correspond to the events in the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion, the burial narrative, the empty tomb, and the appearance stories, so that the third line 'and he was raised' is a summary of the empty tomb tradition. So I think that it's implicit in the formula that Paul sites and I think there's absolutely no doubt that Paul both believed in and knew of the early empty tomb tradition, which existed prior to the time of his writing. [6]