Hundreds of millions of people in modern societies will gather to celebrate human sacrifice next week. And as bizarre as it may seem, acknowledging this is a bit of a taboo. I know it’s not a mystery to any of you, but the social institution of religion is how an absurdity like the celebration of a human sacrifice and punishment of those who don’t celebrate it gets smuggled into the 21st century. More on that later, but first we should talk about the details of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, since the Easter story is the central pillar of Christian theism.
If the apologetics that specifically support Christianity don’t hold water, the reasons you’re left with for believing are things like the cosmological argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, etc. The problem, if you accept those arguments, is that any god could just as easily have been the cause of the big bang, the fine-tuner of the universe, or the standard for objective morality. The traditional Jesus story based on the Gospels is the main thing that your specific god is based on. That’s why the weakness of Easter apologetics is so striking. The popularity of apologetics like the fine-tuning argument or the moral argument far exceeds anything related to Jesus. If you’re a Christian, defending the Easter story is really important, and every apologist tries to do it, but the amount of energy that goes into the Kalam cosmological argument seems to be much greater than the energy that goes into smoothing over the stark contradictions in the crucifixion and resurrection. I think it’s honestly just because it’s harder to argue for Christian theism than a less specific god.
That being said, let’s take a look at William Lane Craig’s three facts that he believes are best explained by the resurrection of Jesus.
(1) On the Sunday following his crucifixion, his tomb was found empty by a group of his followers.
That someone rose from the dead is the best explanation here? There are several other explanations that don’t invoke magic at all. For one, someone could’ve removed the body. I don’t see how a literal resurrection is more plausible than that. And as we’ll talk about later, it’s possible that Jesus was never buried in a tomb in the first place. It’s also possible that since our records of this event were written decades after the occurrence (and the specific copies we have were written centuries after the events) that not every detail was perfectly preserved when it was being passed around orally for decades before being written down.
(2) We have reports of disciples seeing Jesus after his death.
(3) The disciples believed in the resurrection of Jesus.
I’ll take (2) and (3) together, since I have essentially the same answer. We don’t actually know that the disciples saw Jesus after his death or that the disciples believed in his resurrection — we have reports that they saw him and believed in the resurrection, and these reports are deeply flawed.
The early stories about Jesus were disseminated orally, very likely making mistakes. Not everyone had access to the original story. Some people were repeating descriptions of the accounts from someone else, who may have heard the original. But most people heard the stories from people who had heard the stories from people who had heard the stories from people who told the original. And this went on for decades and decades before anyone wrote these accounts down. And we don’t have those accounts; we have copies of copies of those accounts. If this were any other story, we wouldn’t even think twice about taking it seriously.
The fact is we just don’t know what the eyewitnesses believed. But even if we did, it is possible for people to be mistaken. Even if they’re sincere, they can be sincerely wrong. And we’re not even talking about people with a modern understanding of the world. Even if we ignore everything I just said, and believe William Lane Craig that the disciples saw Jesus after his death, he is claiming that the best evidence for the claim that a dead body came back to life is that a handful of primitive, superstitious desert-dwellers from thousands of years ago probably sincerely thought it. Again, if this were any other subject, we wouldn’t take it seriously for a moment. That a small group of people, as Sam Harris has put it, “for whom a wheelbarrow would’ve been a breathtaking example of emerging technology” thought that a dead body came back to life is not good evidence that a dead body came back to life.
We should take a minute to address the claim that the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, or are based on eyewitness accounts. So according to the historical evidence, even though there may have been eyewitnesses alive a few decades after Jesus’ death, there is no reason to think that any of them were consulted by the authors of the Gospels when writing their accounts. The eyewitnesses would have been Aramaic speaking peasants almost entirely from rural Galilee. The author of Mark was a highly educated, Greek-speaking Christian living in a completely different area. The later Gospels were even less directly influenced by eyewitnesses. The author of Luke explicitly states at the beginning of his Gospel that eyewitnesses started passing along oral traditions that he had eventually heard, but he never says that he had ever talked to an eyewitness. The original copies of Matthew and Luke were written about 50 years or more after Jesus’ death, and the original Gospel of John was even later. The Gospels are based on oral traditions that had been in circulation in different countries, told in different languages, among non-eyewitnesses for decades before the Gospel writers had ever heard them.
Another interesting bit of information is that the Gospel authors are anonymous. They’re traditionally attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but that’s just a tradition. We actually have no idea who wrote those books. So the Gospel authors are anonymous non-eyewitnesses.
The Reliability of the Gospels
In his book, How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman writes of the Gospels,
“Even apart from the fact that they were written 40-65 years after the facts, by people who were not there to see these things happen, who were living in different parts of the world, at different times, and speaking different languages — apart from all this, they are filled with discrepancies, some of which cannot be reconciled. In fact, the Gospels disagree on nearly every detail in the resurrection narratives. Who was the first person to go to the tomb? Was it Mary Magdalene by herself, as it says in John? Or Mary along with another woman, as it says in Matthew? Or Mary along with multiple other women, as it says in Luke? Was the stone already rolled away when they arrived at the tomb or not? Who did they see there? An angel, as it says in Matthew? A man, as it says in Mark? Or two men, as it says in Luke? Did they immediately go and tell some of the disciples what they had seen, as it says in John, or not, as it says in the synoptic Gospels? Did the women then go tell the disciples what they were told to tell them, as in Matthew and Luke, or not, as it says in Mark? Did the disciples see Jesus as it says in Matthew and Luke, or not, as it says in Mark? Where did they see him? Only in Galilee, as it says in Matthew, or only in Jerusalem, as it says in Luke?”
In Mark’s Gospel, it explicitly states that Jesus died after the Passover meal. In John’s Gospel, it says that Jesus was crucified before the Passover. In Luke, the curtain in the temple tore before Jesus died, and in Matthew and Mark, it was torn after he died. The Gospels disagree on Jesus’ last words. In Matthew and Mark, he says “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In Luke, he says “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And in John, he says “It is finished.”
I’ve been referencing Bart Ehrman, and will again a couple more times — in case you don’t know who he is, he’s an agnostic historian and a New Testament scholar, he writes college textbooks, and he’s currently a professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’ll have a lot of his work in the show notes.
In response to the claim that the Gospels contradict each other on these points and others, Christians will often use an analogy. Imagine several people saw a car accident, and they had to report what they saw to the police. The reports would sound different — different parts would be emphasized, there may be details in one account but not another, and so on. Different witnesses will notice different things and are coming to the table with different points of view, so you’d expect the Gospels to not sound exactly the same. The problem with this is that while not every difference between the accounts are contradictions, some of them are. As you’ve probably noticed, some of the details in the different accounts are mutually incompatible — there is no way to square them.
The 500 Eyewitnesses
Another common apologetic is based on 1 Corinthians 15:6, where it’s claimed that there were five hundred eyewitnesses to the resurrection.
“After that, [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time…”
-1 Corinthians 15:6
We do not have five-hundred independent eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. What we have is one source, Paul, who claims that 500 people were eyewitnesses. In fact, we don’t even have that. We have copies of copies of copies of a manuscript where one man claims that 500 people saw the resurrection. We have copies of copies of copies of a manuscript that was originally written decades after the supposed events, where one man, who was not an eyewitness and doesn’t claim to be, says that 500 people witnessed a resurrection two thousand years ago. If you state the evidence in generic terms, it’s not exactly compelling.
But, if for some reason, you accept this evidence, you’ve set a really low bar, and to be consistent, you may have to bite the bullet on other miracle claims. If you accept the miracle of the resurrection based on the evidence that I just stated, you have to also accept other miracles that either meet or exceed that standard of evidence. Miracle claims from other religions get over the low bar you’ve set, but so do claims of alien abductions and Elvis sightings.
Let’s assume that Jesus was resurrected. The evidence for the resurrection is not compelling, especially when you remove the proper nouns, but let’s grant the whole resurrection for the sake of argument. What exactly does this prove? Even if a man was executed by the Roman government and came back to life, why does that mean that everything he ever said was true? Even if we grant that a dead body came back to life, the miracle doesn’t prove that a god exists, doesn’t prove theism, and doesn’t prove any of the Christian doctrine. If I ask you why an argument of yours is valid, and you say, “Because I was pronounced dead for a weekend,” you have not given me a reason. Your claims are as sound or unsound as they were before.
Women at the Tomb?
A popular apologetic in defense of the resurrection is to appeal to the sexism of the time. Believers argue that if one were to invent a story, you wouldn’t choose women to be the ones to discover Jesus’ empty tomb. At the time, women weren’t seen as reliable witnesses, so if you were just making it all up, why wouldn’t you have men be the ones to discover Jesus’ empty tomb? One possibility is that the story was made up by women. Early Christian women easily could’ve added that detail during the decades the stories were circulating orally before being written down.
The apologist’s assertion that the presence of women in the story is a stark feminist element in need of explanation is not entirely obvious. The earliest versions of the story in Mark, which is the earliest Gospel, is arguably consonant with the sexism of the time. The women run away terrified from the tomb after learning about the resurrection and don’t tell anyone what they saw. Running away screaming from the tomb is not exactly a story of female empowerment. Especially since they dropped the ball and didn’t tell anyone that Jesus was resurrected. Decades or centuries later, the ending of Mark was added, but the earliest versions end with the women telling no one what they saw.
More importantly, the Gospels contradict each other in crucial ways in their different tellings of the women discovering the empty tomb. We logically can’t take the story at its word like apologists want if the stories are making mutually incompatible claims.
In John’s Gospel, Mary went alone to the tomb. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Mary goes with other women. But even Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the synoptic gospels, contradict each other on which women went with Mary and how many other women there were. Was the stone rolled away before they arrived or not? Depends which Gospel you read. In Mark, the women didn’t tell anyone what they saw. In the other three Gospels, they did tell people what they saw.
There are too many discrepancies in the Gospels regarding the story of the women or woman at the tomb to take it seriously as historically inerrant, let alone the perfect word of god. Why would we have an argument about why women were the ones to discover the empty tomb if your own story about the women is internally contradictory in unreconcilable ways? These are another set of contradictions that can’t be explained away by the car crash analogy.
And as Bart Ehrman has pointed out in his book How Jesus Became God, crucifixion victims were not allowed to have a burial, almost without exception. Why was Jesus was buried in a tomb in the first place when our sources regarding crucifixion suggest that victims were denied burial as part of the punishment? Part of the punishment of crucifixion was the denial of a proper burial, since a good burial was deeply important to the superstitious inhabitants two thousand years ago. Part of the horror of crucifixion was the body left on display, on the cross for all to see, unburied. Christians have to answer the question, which I have never heard addressed — why was Jesus the exception to this rule? We have to consider the possibility, since the default position according to historical records appears to be the denial of any burial. Not only did Jesus never walk out of his tomb, but he was probably never even buried in the first place.
There’s one story I really like, the story of Doubting Thomas because I think it tips the hand of the NT authors a little more than believers seem to realize.
Thomas is skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection. When Jesus appears, he still isn’t quite convinced, so he asks for direct sensory evidence. Then the skeptic is totally convinced and Jesus says, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
So the moral of the story is “don’t be skeptical!” You’ll be more blessed if you’re not. “Don’t be skeptical” is another terrible idea from the NT that should’ve made it into last week’s episode. But isn’t it convenient that there’s a story shaming someone who had the temerity and bad taste to ask for evidence?
If you think of these stories as memes, memes being the cultural analog to genes, something like the story of Doubting Thomas will help the ideas propagate. Having a story where an initially skeptical person is convinced is good, but it’s even better if Jesus himself says that you’re more blessed if you’re not skeptical in the first place. Imagine how quickly a religion would die out if it actually encouraged its adherents to be skeptical. The religions that explicitly repudiate skepticism will fare much better than the ones that don’t. Properties like these can help a meme spread.
If you’re God, is this how you would put together your perfect book? Copies of copies of contradictory manuscripts written by non-eyewitnesses decades after the events in languages very few people would end up speaking? If you’re God, and you’re trying to make sure the most important event in human history is preserved, why wouldn’t you make sure a single original manuscript survived? Without even changing any major details to the story, you could’ve made sure there were thousands of independent, contemporaneous eyewitnesses and preserved all their original manuscripts. So God has this very important message that he wants to communicate to everyone, and this is how he chose to do it? Anything like a god would know that this is a terrible way to communicate your message. A god would be able to communicate his message in a way where there would be no room for debate. A man-made tradition, on the other hand, would look exactly like what we have.
Human F*cking Sacrifice
We shouldn’t lose sight of what we’re really talking about here, and what we’re talking about is human sacrifice. The idea that human sacrifice is a good way to solve problems is obviously a relic from our ancestors. We might as well be talking about throwing virgins into volcanoes. Somehow, in the 21st century, hundreds of millions of people will be gathering next week to celebrate and sing songs and nod along solemnly to a sermon, all in observance of a ritual human sacrifice — torturing a human being to death because that’s what had to happen to appease our god. The longer you stand on the outside of Christianity, the crazier and crazier it seems. Maybe there seem to be primitive and superstitious anachronisms within Christianity because it was made by primitive and superstitious people. The narrative Christians are trying to sell isn’t just morally absurd, it’s also just absurd. In the Christian mythology, God is omnipotent. He makes the rules. So why does God need to offer a human sacrifice to himself to stop himself from sending us to hell? Why did Jesus have to take on our sins for us to be saved? Is God bound by some laws that he’s subject to? This story sounds very much like it was imagined by our primitive, desert-wandering, animal-sacrificing ancestors, not the plan or the behavior of an omnipotent and omniscient god.
CA24 Easter — The Resurrection of Jesus [Available on iTunes]
Bart Ehrman on Gospel Eyewitnesses [EhrmanBlog]
Bart Ehrman on the Resurrection [YouTube]
How Jesus Became God — Bart Ehrman [Amazon]
TMM on the Resurrection [YouTube]
Sam Harris on Jesus’ Miracles [YouTube]
Dan Barker on the “Good News” [YouTube]