The historical case for the Christian faith begins with several relatively uncontroversial facts which include:
- Jesus was crucified
- Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea
- Two days later the tomb was reportedly found empty by some female followers
- The disciples subsequently believed they experienced literal appearances of the risen Jesus
- The disciples held these beliefs to martyrdom
- The church was born and grew out of this event
So naturally the question is: which theory best fits these facts? Or simply put, what happened? Usually several theories are listed, including:
- Wrong Tomb
- Disciples stole body
- Authorities hid body
- Jesus' bodily resurrection
Christian apologists then state why each naturalistic theory conflicts with one or more of the historical facts, and conclude that the best theory is that Jesus really did rise from the dead. It is my contention that this case for Christian faith ignores what we know about psychology today, and that proper consideration of psychology reveals a different scenario, and a more promising question than "what happened?".
To have any shot at figuring out what happened, we must understand to our best abilities what we're dealing with. The setting is a battered people, the Jews, with a long history of slavery, desert wandering, exile, governmental chaos, now ruled and oppressed by the world power of Rome, ridden with disease, malnutrition, short life expectancy, and high childhood mortality. This people holds sacred a collection of writings which depict their history in conjunction with a monotheistic god who has made great promises, promises which have yet to be fulfilled after many centuries. Several key lines of these writings, notably of the most recently written book of Daniel, suggest a mysterious human-duality with this monotheistic god, leading many Jews to anticipate fulfillment of their god's promises through a human saviour. This saviour would physically overthrow the kingdoms oppressing the Jews and establish the reign of the kingdom of god in Judea. These expectations pertained to real kingdoms, not symbolic ones.
Now zoom in further to a handful of lower-class Jews who have left their menial jobs to follow around an unpopular religious teacher whose unique claim is rather bizarre but supposedly of the most gargantuan importance the world has ever known. The term we use to describe such a group today, and the term used by Pliny to describe Christianity in 112 AD, is "cult". In order to understand what was going through the disciples minds, we have to understand the psychology of cults.
Take the famous 1950's study by Leon Festinger, who infiltrated a Chicago cult led by one Dorothy Martin. Martin predicted the world would end in a great flood on Dec 21, 1954, and claimed to have received the information from aliens. The aliens promised to save the faithful believers by picking them up in their spaceship at midnight on Dec 20. Many of Martin's followers had taken drastic steps of devotion, including quitting school and jobs, dispersing savings and possessions, and leaving spouses. The believers sat awaiting their alien saviours that night, but midnight came and went. Now confronted by this devastating, disconfirming event, the believers had two options: stop believing and face their embarrassing stupidity, or find a way to continue believing. Fascinatingly, the latter occurred (as Festinger had predicted). A new story emerged that their faithfulness had inspired god to save the planet from doom. The cult began an aggressive campaign to convert as many people as possible, calling newspapers and taking to the streets to proclaim the miracle their faith had brought about.
So this is something we know today, that cult believers, especially those who have sacrificed much for their beliefs, can become even more fervent and aggressive after experiencing disconfirming events such as failed prophecy. A much larger example of this is the Jehovah Witness church. But lets return to our ancient Judean cult. Having left most everything behind, the followers had been following this religious teacher for a couple years now, a man who claimed to be the saviour that the Jews (some of them) expected. Their expectation was that their leader would overthrow the Roman kingdom, establish god's kingdom, and finally fulfill god's promises to Israel. Instead, their leader is executed by the Romans and their own Jewish people, as an ignominious criminal. Confronted by this devastating, disconfirming event, the Jesus followers were faced with the same two options the Martin followers faced: stop believing and face their embarrassing stupidity, or find a way to continue believing. And like the Martin followers, they too continued believing, a miraculous story emerged, and they began an aggressive campaign to convert people.
Christian apologists will say, "If they knew Jesus was really dead, why would they die for a lie? They were motivated by the truth of what they'd seen!" But modern psychology exposes a different motive, to defend beliefs that one has sacrificed greatly for. Because of this, a believer's mind is capable of developing new, even more bizarre beliefs and stories to defend prior beliefs that have been disconfirmed. And they do so with sincerity.
The Jesus cult and the Martin cult both reacted to their disconfirming event by developing a new miraculous story and aggressively proselytizing. It is my opinion that these similarities are not coincidental, but attributable to a common psychological pressure, and the stories are fictitious reactions to preserve a disconfirmed belief.
So then, what happened in the historical events which gave birth to Christian belief, if Jesus didn't really resurrect from the dead? This question, posed by apologists, is as promising as trying to determine what Socrates did for a living. The events are simply not reconstructable, buried in time. What happened to Linda Napolitano and the eye-witnesses if she wasn't really abducted by aliens? Who knows. The more promising question is: Is the outcome of the story predictable? In the case of Jesus' followers, the answer is yes. Their bizarre miraculous story is predicted by the psychological pressures they faced, exactly as the Martin cult.