5 / 06
Image of birds flying. Image of birds flying.

#737 Russian Collusion

June 20, 2021

Dear Dr. Craig,

I am an atheist but with great interest in philosophical and existential questions, and I find your work incomparable in this regard among present-day writers and thinkers, on either side of the isle (or multiple isles). One challenge you like to pose to atheists is to explain the Gospel events, in particular the events surrounding the supposed resurrection of Jesus, and you like to say that there is simply no rational account (e.g. you mentioned one skeptic ridiculously proposing that Jesus had a twin that did so-and-so). However, there is a book (which was reviewed in the journal Nature) by the Russian paleontologist, author, and popularizer of science Kirill Yes'kov, devoted to this very matter, in which he constructs an atheistic interpretation of these events, assuming complete sincerity and accuracy of the gospel writers and disciples (and Jesus). In a nutshell, it is that the Roman equivalent of KGB/Secret Service saw this sect as politically useful and organized "miracles" to support its popularity. (So that the only really surprising event is the vision of Paul - which is however just like the mutually incompatible vision of Muhammad and thus doesn't prove anything.) What do you think of this interpretation? (I would like to add that pointing to this work is essentially THE default response among Russian-speaking atheists when the topic of historicity of resurrection of Jesus comes up!)



Flag of Ukraine. Ukraine

Photo of Dr. Craig.

Dr. craig’s response


Bogdan, your letter reveals how depressingly little has changed in Russia since the days when I used to travel and speak in the old Soviet Union. It was then an intellectual backwater when it came to theological and philosophical matters. The professors I met in the philosophy departments were basically Marxist hacks appointed to feed the students party propaganda. The critique of religion was basically no different from the old Free Thought of the nineteenth century, uninformed and hopelessly out of date. I was told that while the university students didn’t buy the party’s positive line, they bought in to its negative critique of religion. I had hoped that things had changed since the old days. But your informing us that Yes’kov’s conspiracy theory “is essentially THE default response among Russian-speaking atheists when the topic of historicity of resurrection of Jesus comes up!” tells me that things have little changed.

Please understand that these sorts of conspiracy theories of history are in general disdained by professional historians. There will always be a simpler, less ad hoc explanation of the facts than any hypothesis requiring us to believe in a hidden conspiracy. In the West, conspiracy theories, typically featuring the disciples themselves rather than the Romans, were somewhat popular in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century. But they came to a very abrupt end once sceptics themselves realized that there was a more plausible explanation of the miraculous events of the Gospels than the conspiracy hypothesis, namely, the hypothesis that the Gospel accounts are the result of a long period of development during which the historical memory of the original events was lost and the figure of Jesus became overlaid with myth and legend. This hypothesis still remains the main naturalistic alternative to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection today. It is far more credible than ad hoc conspiracy theories, so much so that no professional historian or biblical scholar would agree with Yes’kov’s theory. Were Yes’kov to present his theory at a meeting of professional scholars in the West, eyes would be rolling, and he would be laughed out of the room--if people didn’t just get up and leave first! A palaeontologist like Yes’kov, who studies fossil remains of prehistoric animals, is not qualified to be writing history and is trading on his scientific reputation to give him credibility outside his field. The fact that a Russian scientist should develop a theory involving a KGB-like organization to explain the events of the Gospels is just too funny and ought to tell us something!

More specifically, any conspiracy theory will succumb to the sorts of objections that I discuss in my Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Carol Stream: Crossway, 2008), pp. 360-400. Of course, Yes’kov’s particular variant of the theory will require you to adapt the critique from a conspiracy involving the disciples to one involving the Roman authorities, but I think the task will be fairly easy. Indeed, a conspiracy of secular Roman authorities to fake the resurrection is even more preposterous than a conspiracy amongst the disciples, who had an incomparably greater vested interest in the Jesus movement.

For example, one of the most crushing criticisms of conspiracy theories is that they are hopelessly anachronistic. Of the disciples’ conspiring to fake Jesus’ resurrection I wrote,

the overriding problem is the anachronism of first century Jews’ intending to hoax Jesus’ resurrection.  The Conspiracy Hypothesis views the disciples’ situation through the rearview mirror of Christian history rather than through the eyes of a first century Jew.  There was no expectation of a Messiah who, instead of establishing David’s throne and subduing Israel’s enemies, would be shamefully executed by the Gentiles as a criminal.  Moreover, the idea of eschatological resurrection was unconnected with the idea of Messiah and even incompatible with it.  As Wright nicely puts it, if your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you either went home or else you got yourself a new Messiah.  But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God had raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples. 

Do you see how the same criticism can be adapted to Yes’kov’s theory?  Just substitute “Romans” for “Jews” and “disciples” throughout, and you’ll get the point. There was no expectation in first century Judaism of a Messiah who would be humiliated and executed by Israel’s enemies and no connection between the Messiah and resurrection from the dead and therefore no basis for Roman authorities to come up with such an idea. In dispatching with Jesus, as they had so often done with others, Rome had put an emphatic end to the whole affair.

- William Lane Craig