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Give Me a Reason

For the first time ever last week, I saw the movie E. T.  I’m probably the last person on the planet to see it.  I remember when it first came out.  People raved about how good it was.  But for whatever reason, I never bothered to go see it.  And in all the intervening years, even with all the acclaim and awards the movie was garnering, I never bothered to rent it.  But last week I finally saw it.  And if you asked me for my review, it would be: More E. T., less of everything else!

I have to say that after all the ways people over the years have raved about how good the movie is, it was a bit of a disappointment.  Everything about it, that is, except E. T.!  The depiction of E. T. was brilliant.  Especially given the time.  Back in the Eighties, aliens were always depicted as threatening.  Intent on destroying humans.  But E. T. is a fun-loving, warm-hearted, hysterically funny character.  I see why the movie made such a huge splash.  I see why so many people fell in love with E. T.  How could you not fall in love with him?  I know I did.

But as lovable as E. T. is, as much as the movie challenged us to rethink what aliens might be like, if you ever dared suggest that there were real aliens like E. T., that aliens as relatable and wonderful and fun-loving as E. T. were real, most people would give you the old “role of the eyes.”  As much as most might wish it were true, as much as they’d love to have such an alien encounter, as much as we’d all want aliens like E. T. to exist, the suggestion that that a figure like E. T. might actually exist is usually met with complete and utter skepticism. 

Whenever I share my faith in Jesus’ Resurrection with unbelievers, it is usually met with the same skeptical role of the eyes.  That skeptical, how-can-there-be-any-evidence-for-a-historical-event-that-took-place-two-thousand-years-ago, roll of the eyes.  After all, we often can’t determine what happened two days ago—even when we have videotape of the event!  Despite the fact that many unbelievers would be happy to believe Jesus’ Resurrection were true—although, for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, there certainly are a good number who don’t wish it were true—they think that, just like believing in E. T., something so wonderfully far-fetched, so unbelievably spectacular, could only be the result of creative imagination.   

I totally get their skepticism.  This was my initial reaction when I first looked at the Resurrection: How can there be any good evidence for an event of ancient history, especially one that is so far-fetched?  Even if such a spectacularly unbelievable event actually took place, I reasoned, there would be no way to show it did.    

So, if you are skeptical, is there any way to show that the Resurrection, an event of ancient history, actually happened?  Is there any reason to consider that it did, to even give it a second thought?  Yes, absolutely there is.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing this blog!  Otherwise, more seriously, I would never have believed in it myself.   

As I found when first examining Jesus’ Resurrection, there are a number of fruitful avenues of evidence that can establish, with high probability, even virtual certainty, whether or not such an event took place two thousand years ago.  In this blog, let me take you down one such avenue that, while only scratching the surface of all the good evidence that does exist, will, at the very least, give you a reason to reconsider your skepticism that there can be any good evidence for this event of ancient history. 

There are three steps to this, starting with what scholars refer to as “The Bedrock Facts.”  For scholars who study the Resurrection, there are a number of historical facts that the vast majority, whether believer or skeptic or somewhere in between, all agree upon.  First, there is an overwhelming consensus that Jesus was a real historical person.  No serious scholar doubts that.  In fact, the most popular skeptical scholar, Bart Ehrman, wrote an entire book making this very point. 

Second, virtually all agree that Jesus really died by crucifixion.  The old theory that, when removed from the Cross, Jesus only appeared dead and somehow remained barely alive in the tomb for three days before emerging “risen from the dead” has been decisively rejected on multiple grounds.  No serious scholar accepts this argument anymore either.

Third, the vast majority of scholars agree that, shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, a number of His disciples genuinely believed He had appeared to them risen from the dead.  This doesn’t mean that all these scholars think Jesus really did rise; just that His disciples sincerely believed He had. 

Moreover, the majority of these same scholars are convinced that Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed He had appeared to them not only individually, but also in groups, anywhere from a couple at a time to a dozen or so all at once—only a minority of scholars maintain that Jesus only appeared to a few key disciples, and then, only individually, one at time.  In fact, a good number of scholars take what Paul says in I Corinthians 15:6 at face value, namely that Jesus appeared to five hundred disciples at once.  Even if many think that five hundred is meant to be taken as a round number—it isn’t precisely accurate—these scholars think that a much larger group very close to this size, and not just a handful or so of disciples, sincerely claimed to have experienced an appearance of the Risen Jesus, all together at the same time. 

Finally, in what is fast becoming another bedrock fact—there used to be major disagreement about this last point, but over the last thirty years or so, a relatively short time period for Biblical scholarship, it continues to garner widespread support, having now clearly emerged as the consensus view—is that, as far back as our sources can trace, to the period almost immediately after Jesus’ death, His disciples began to confess Him as Lord.  And furthermore, that the impetus—the necessary catalyst, if you will—for this confession of faith was what those disciples sincerely believed they had seen in these appearances. 

In other words, what has fast become one of the most certain pieces of historical datum Resurrection scholars think we have—certain even for an event of ancient history—is that, shortly after Jesus’ death on a cross, His disciples began to believe, with all their hearts, that Jesus had appeared to them in such a way that, beyond the furthest expanses of their imaginations, against what every bone in their bodies screamed was possible, what no synapse firing off in their brains could ever fathom prior, they felt compelled—by God—to confess Jesus as Lord.  God in the flesh.  Reigning over all, right beside the One true God of Israel they knew as Yahweh.  The One Who, they believed above all else, shares His glory with no other. 

Thus, whatever it was they experienced when they claimed Jesus had appeared to them whether it was real or all in their heads, it clearly caused them to worship Jesus as Lord, Yahweh in Person, God in the flesh—and again, this is something we can know as a bedrock fact of ancient history.     

The second step has to do with something I’ve mentioned before when making a different argument about the resurrected body.  It’s called “Cognitive Dissonance.”  Cognitive Dissonance is a well-known psychological phenomenon where the mind holds two disconnected, contradictory realities in tension.  Holding this tension creates a mental stress that can eventually become unbearable.  Consequently, the mind works to relieve this stress by finding a way to resolve the tension, the dissonance.  There are a number of ways it does this, including “confirmation bias” and “converting others” to your or your group’s position or mindset.  Another way, theoretically, the mind can do this, especially when under acute stress is through hallucinations, visionary experiences, and the like.

In fact, this is one of the major arguments skeptical scholars have used to explain the bedrock historical facts surrounding Jesus’ Resurrection, facts none of them can nor will attempt to deny.  They claim that, in the wake of the Crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples were suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance.  Durning His public ministry, Jesus’ disciples had come to adore Him.  They also came to believe He was their long-awaited Messiah, and consequently, gave everything up to devote their lives to Him.  His death not only created a crisis of grief, losing the one they adored so.  It also created a crisis of faith.  Even in the face of such devastatingly contravening evidence as the Cross, many of them would have been in denial, unwilling to accept that Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah they had given everything up to follow. 

But this would have created a crushing level of cognitive dissonance, believing in a “messiah” who had suffered the utter humiliation—the total defeat—of crucifixion.  For any first century Jew, a crucified messiah would be an intolerable contradiction.  The very definition of the Messiah was that of a conquering king.  A crucified messiah—i.e., one who had been utterly defeated, humiliated in the worst known way—obviously doesn’t fit the bill.  In fact, a crucified messiah is no messiah at all.  The mental stress of holding these two self-contradictory realities in tension would have been unbearable. 

However, if the appearances had revealed that Jesus had been vindicated beyond death as the Jewish Messiah—albeit in a shockingly unexpected way—this would have easily resolved the cognitive dissonance His disciples were experiencing.  They could easily have confessed Him as their Messiah.

And Walla: This explains the appearances.  Not actual appearances of Jesus, but merely fabricated by the disciples’ subconscious minds; all in their imaginations; merely a by-product of their powerful psychological need to resolve the unbearable cognitive dissonance they were experiencing.  As these skeptics argue, we should expect that deep in their subconscious, the disciples’ minds would have been working overtime to resolve their acute cognitive dissonance in just this way. 

While the different scholars who hold this view, such as Bart Ehrman or Michael Goulder, maintain different theories about the type of visionary experience the disciples underwent—whether they be hallucinations, visions, and/or some other kind of encounter—they all agree that the “appearances” of Jesus to His disciples were no more than the kind of subconscious projections or visionary delusions the mind can produce when faced with such a daunting case of cognitive dissonance.  These visionary kinds of experiences are simply one way the mind naturally seeks to resolve such dissonance.  And in the case of the disciples, what their subconscious minds made seem utterly real to them—but wasn’t—enabled them to sincerely believe that Jesus had conquered death and had thus been vindicated by God as the Messiah, albeit in a shockingly unexpected way no one saw coming.  It enabled them to resolve the acute dissonance they were experiencing and believe that Jesus was their crucified—and now risen—Messiah. 

In fact, these scholars go on to argue, since a crucified messiah is such a non-starter, such an unbearable contradiction, we should only expect that the disciples’ unwavering devotion to Jesus as the Messiah would naturally lead to such visionary experiences.  We should only expect powerful, overwhelming, subconscious, psychological forces to be at work producing this very outcome.  The disciples, no doubt, were sincere in their belief—that is a fact no one can deny; a fact that the vast majority of even the most skeptical Resurrection scholars of our day are on board with; a fact that even they accept as solid ancient history.  It’s just that the disciples were sincerely mistaken in believing Jesus had overcome the devastating defeat of His death through the spectacular miracle of resurrection.  They so strongly wanted, even needed, it to be true that their subconscious imaginations created it.       

So, this is it, one of the strongest skeptical arguments offered to date to account for the bedrock facts and explain away the Resurrection: The crushing cognitive dissonance of a crucified messiah created the ideal conditions that lead Jesus’ disciples to have subjective visions/hallucinations which they sincerely believed were Jesus appearing to them risen from the dead.  

There’s just one tiny fly in the ointment of this seemingly air-tight explanation: As the scholars who rely on it insist, with the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, the mind works to relieve the unbearable stress this dissonance creates.  It never adds more stress.  It never creates more dissonance.  With cognitive dissonance, the whole point is that there is a powerful, often subconscious, psychological need—perhaps drive is a better word—to relieve this stress.  When suffering from an acute case of cognitive dissonance, the one thing we know the mind doesn’t do is create more cognitive dissonance.  The one thing the mind doesn’t do is add more stress to a situation that has already become acutely and intensely unbearable.    

Indeed, this is the whole point the skeptical argument hinges on: Appearances of a visionary or hallucinatory nature were the one and only thing that could resolve the unbearable dissonance the disciples were experiencing; they were the natural, to-be-expected result of powerful subconscious forces specifically exerted to relieve this stress.      

And this leads to the third and final step: From what we know about the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, if Jesus’ disciples had visionary experiences, hallucinations, or any other kind of encounter in which they believed He was appearing to them from the dead, and if these experiences were indeed the natural, psychological result of the extreme cognitive dissonance they found so unbearable, then these “appearances” would have resolved their dissonance. 

But that’s not what happened.  Just the opposite.  In the case of the disciples, it is abundantly clear that whatever it was that they experienced when they thought Jesus was appearing them only created more dissonance—a far, far greater cognitive dissonance then they were already experiencing.  In fact, it created the greatest dissonance of all: a crucified Lord.   

If cognitive dissonance led to the disciples merely having visionary or hallucinatory experiences, these delusions didn’t do a very good job.  Indeed, they had the exact opposite effect. 

If, as a result of supposed appearances of a risen Jesus, these disciples merely confessed Him to be the Messiah—a human being—then cognitive dissonance could explain the bedrock facts.  It may even be the most compelling explanation for them.  If the disciples came to believe that Jesus had defeated death, then they could maintain their belief in Him, now as their crucified Messiah.  There would be no contradiction, no dissonance, in this—a risen Jesus reigning in Heaven as Messiah, awaiting His triumphant return to establish His Kingdom on earth, to be fully vindicated by God, resolves any contradiction they would have found in a crucified messiah.

But this isn’t what they say.  Instead, they confess their faith in Him as Lord—a crucified Lord.  For a first century Jew, a crucified Lord is the most preposterous, unthinkable, unbearable thing they could ever imagine.  Indeed, it is the one very thing they’d be least capable of imagining.  It would have been the most unbearable contradiction conceivable: The Living God dying the most debased death they knew.  The Author of Life writhing in excruciating pain.  The Eternal One suffering the most demonically devised torture of that day.        

For these disciples, belief in a crucified Lord would have created the greatest cognitive dissonance they could ever experience.  With no relief in sight.  Whereas appearances of a risen Jesus could very well resolve the cognitive dissonance involved in believing in a crucified messiah, appearances that led the disciples to confess Him as the crucified Lord never could.  Such appearances would only create a greater and perpetually enduring dissonance that would never go away—even for us.

At the very heart of Christian faith is a crucified Lord.  The cognitive dissonance created by this belief is overwhelming: The Transcendent Lord enduring the excruciating death of the Cross.  How can it be?  How can the immortal God die?  How can the Lord of the Universe be tortured to death?  It’s mindboggling, the most extreme and unbearable of contradictions, as anyone who has ever wrestled with the mystery of the Incarnation knows so well!  How is it that the Infinite Creator suffers the most cruel and pitiable of deaths in the full creaturely reality of finite flesh?  If we weren’t so familiar with it, it would take our breath away.

For Jesus’ first disciples, fully immersed in first-century Jewish monotheism, the paradox was far more overwhelming; the cognitive dissonance it created far more unbearable; the reality of it all far more breathtaking.  Given what they were claiming, the dissonance couldn’t ever relent, hasn’t ever relented. 

In light of a resurrection, a thoroughly human, crucified messiah could begin to make sense; a thoroughly divine, crucified Lord never would.  And yet, there it is.  An undeniable part of the bedrock, historical record. 

So, if the appearances of the risen Jesus were merely the product of visionary experiences resulting from cognitive dissonance, which from the world of social psychology we know would only serve to resolve the far lesser dissonance the disciples faced by believing in a crucified messiah, how did they end up creating what would have been for those disciples the greatest cognitive dissonance of all?   

In attempting to resolve this dissonance, their subconscious minds could hardly have tricked them into conjuring up visions that led them to confess Jesus as Lord.  Their subconscious minds could hardly have generated hallucinations, visionary experiences, or any other kind of imagined encounters with Jesus that compelled them to accept, and even ecstatically affirm, the one possibility their minds were least likely to ever entertain, namely that this human being Jesus who had been hung on a cross to die was God in the flesh.  If theoretically, according to all the skeptical proposals involving cognitive dissonance, these visionary experiences were generated to resolve the disciples’ dissonance, how did they end up generating the greatest possible cognitive dissonance a first century Jew could ever experience? 

 

As ancient history, we can be extremely confident in the bedrock facts I’ve outlined above, nearly to the point of virtual certainty—in the present state of Resurrection scholarship, practically everyone, including the most skeptical, acknowledges these bedrock facts.  As a psychological phenomenon, we can be equally confident that cognitive dissonance doesn’t work this way.  It would never produce visions, hallucinations, altered states of consciousness, and/or anything else that would create an even greater dissonance than the disciples were already experiencing with their belief in a crucified messiah. 

And this means that whatever the disciples saw when they claim Jesus appeared to them can’t be explained as a visionary or hallucinatory experience arising from the intense cognitive dissonance they experienced in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Cognitive dissonance is one of the major alternative explanations skeptical scholars have proposed to explain the bedrock facts surrounding the Resurrection.  But it can be definitively rejected, because we know cognitive dissonance would never lead to appearances that created faith in a crucified Lord.  And even though the Resurrection is an event of ancient history, this conclusion is as solid as they come—given the quality of the evidence, the bedrock facts everyone agrees upon, it can be maintained as a virtual certainty.  Since this is one of the best explanations anyone has come up with to explain the nearly universally accepted evidence we do have and explain the Resurrection as something other than the true miracle the disciples claimed it to be, cognitive dissonance can be eliminated as a viable explanation.

A similar vetting process can be applied to the other major proposals.  Because the vast majority of resurrection scholars acknowledge that the disciples genuinely believed they were seeing Jesus risen from the dead, they further acknowledge that the only real alternative to them having actually seen Jesus risen from the dead in some kind of real, glorified body that led them to confess His Lordship, is some kind of subconsciously generated visionary/hallucinatory experience, where the disciples, though totally sincere in their belief, were also totally mistaken in believing Jesus had really appeared. 

Consequently, the best remaining alternative explanations skeptical scholars have been able to produce to explain the bedrock evidence all involve one kind or another of a hallucinatory experience or visionary delusion.  The only viable alternative explanations to the Resurrection rely on explaining the appearances as some kind of psychologically induced hallucinatory experience or visionary delusion, which, it is sometimes argued, led to a contagion of belief, grounded a wider, collective sense of the risen Lord’s felt presence.  As such, all admit, tacitly at least, that if the appearances weren’t some kind of mental delusion, then the best explanation is that they were real. 

In other words, and this is a huge point, practically everyone who studies these matters of ancient history in depth acknowledges that if Jesus’ Resurrection appearances can’t be explained as some kind of cognitive dissonance, hallucination, or altered state of consciousness, the only other way to explain it is as something that actually happened.  That’s why the latest and greatest attempts at explaining the evidence follow these routes.  Those who are best versed in the evidence, those who know the historical data inside and out, admit that if the bedrock facts can’t be explained as visionary/hallucinatory experiences, the only other viable explanation is real appearances of a resurrected Jesus. 

Moreover, those who are in the best position to know think the evidence surrounding this ancient historical event is good enough to warrant consideration.  If they didn’t think it was, they could simply dismiss the Resurrection as a pious fantasy and not have to try and offer alternative explanations to explain it.  The fact that they do engage with the bedrock facts shows that, even though the evidence is about an event that took place two thousand years ago, it is good enough to warrant explanation. 

When you apply the psychology of cognitive dissonance to the bedrock facts, it only ends up yielding a stronger reason to think the Resurrection really happened: The best explanation for appearances that generate a far greater cognitive dissonance that, theoretically, these appearances main purpose is to relieve, is if the appearances weren’t a natural psychological response to extreme stress, but rather, something the disciples, even subconsciously, could never have imagined themselves—making an actual appearance of a shockingly glorified Jesus the most viable explanation. 

What other than Jesus actually appearing in a way they could never have imagined can explain the disciples adopting a belief that only intensified, to the most unbearable degree, the severe dissonance they were already experiencing in the face of a crucified messiah? 

In the wake of the Crucifixion, in the midst of the unbearable crisis of faith created by the crushing death of the man they so totally adored and so totally devoted their lives to as Messiah, how else did they ever arrive at and then bear—joyfully, ecstatically—so much greater of a cognitive dissonance?

Whatever those disciples “saw”, it was well beyond their subconscious minds to imagine, way beyond the wildest fantasy their most creative imaginations could envision—the vile, unrelenting, crushing scandal of a crucified God.    

I know all of this can be terribly abstract and complex.  But even if the argument is hard to wrap your head around, at the very least, consider the fact that so many of these experts who study the Resurrection have concluded that the evidence, even for this event of ancient history, is, at the very least, good enough to consider, with a majority of them concluding that it is good enough to believe.

And that is a good reason to consider it.

Have you ever heard of cognitive dissonance as an explanation for Jesus’ Resurrection?  Were you aware that Resurrection scholars agree for the most part on these bedrock facts, that the evidence surrounding an event that happened two thousand years ago could be so certain?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.  You can go to the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus website and leave your comments there.  I look forward to hearing from you.

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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