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Can Cognitive Dissonance Explain the Resurrection?

We’re all familiar with cults founded by some charismatic leader that predict the world is going to end on a certain date and then radically reorder their lives to prepare for it.  And then, when “the end” doesn’t happen the way they predicted, many of these enthusiasts continue to believe in their failed leader despite the massive disconnect between what they prophesied and what actually happened—often, they rationalize it by saying that they simply miscalculated the date and then go on to set a new one! 

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, some people continue to believe.  This is known as “cognitive dissonance”, and it’s one very powerful way skeptical scholars explain away Jesus’ Resurrection.      

The Crucifixion crushed the disciples’ hopes and created a profound “dissonance” between their belief that Jesus was God’s anointed and His public defeat as one cursed by God.  Confronted with these facts, many of His followers lost all faith in Him. 

However, social psychology, especially in its investigations into end-time cults, suggests that—at the subconscious level—some of Jesus’ disciples wouldn’t have been able to accept His defeat.  Their subconscious minds would have done their best to find a way to resolve this dissonance between what they believed Him to be and the facts on the ground.  Desperate to keep their hopes alive, their subconscious minds might even project hallucinatory visions of Him appearing to them from the dead! 

Thus, the appearances are nothing more than a classic example of cognitive dissonance.  Case closed. 

Except, one small thing—no such dissonance ever existed!

One of the things scholars of every stripe agree upon most is that Jesus presented Himself as the “eschatological” (i.e., end time) prophet or agent of God.  In other words, He taught His disciples that, through His life and ministry, the “age to come” was about to take place.  Moreover, many scholars think that Jesus predicted He would have to suffer and even die before all this took place. 

So, despite the devastating blow the Crucifixion delivered, with a little effort, any one of Jesus’ disciples could have adapted their belief in Him by viewing it as one of the key events that signaled the “age to come” was about to dawn.  Without much problem, they could have transferred all their hopes to Jesus’ imminent return when He, along with everyone else, would be resurrected.  They didn’t need to believe Jesus had already been resurrected in order to maintain their faith in Him.

In other words, there is no reason to think the Crucifixion would have caused the disciples to experience cognitive dissonance. 

In fact, believing He had been resurrected created a far greater dissonance—for Jews in Jesus day, resurrection was only possible at the end of the age for all people at once.  An individual resurrected prior to the end time was about as intelligible as a square circle.  Resolving this dissonance would be much more difficult.    

For one of Jesus’ disciples still clinging to faith in Him in the wake of His crucifixion, the Resurrection is completely superfluous: it adds nothing and complicates everything!

And here’s why all this matters: since resurrection meant the body returning to life, only a verifiably empty tomb along with overwhelmingly physical appearances would ever compel the disciples to inject such an unnecessary and unintelligible belief into the mix. 

This—witnessing an individual having been resurrected prior to the end time—is the only cognitive dissonance the disciples experienced.

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About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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