Here is just one of many alternative, natural explanations for the early Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and appeared to some of them. I challenge Christians to demonstrate that this explanation is not plausible (reasonable). You may believe that your supernatural explanation is more probable, but I do not believe that you can demonstrate that my alternative explanation is implausible. And before proceeding any further, I must point out one very important point: I am not obligated to provide evidence that this is what actually happened in circa 33 AD as this is NOT my objective. I am only attempting to demonstrate that plausible, alternative, naturalistic explanations for the early Christian resurrection belief do exist.
As an example: If you wake up tomorrow morning and find your car keys missing, I am not obligated to present evidence prior to suggesting possible explanations for why your car keys are missing. If I were attempting to tell you exactly why your keys are missing, then I would need to provide evidence. But I am not attempting to tell you why your car keys are missing because I do not know why they are missing. I am simply suggesting plausible possibilities as to why they are missing. My possible explanations for your missing keys are plausible if they are reasonable to most people and if they conform to any non-disputed evidence related to the event (if any such evidence exists).
And the same should be true with alternative explanations for the early Christian resurrection belief. They should be plausible (reasonable to most people) and they should conform to any non-disputed evidence related to this alleged event. (For the sake of this argument, I am going to include the Empty Tomb as a non-disputed piece of evidence related to the Resurrection, even though this is not actually the case. According to Habermas, 25% of scholars do not believe in the historicity of the Empty Tomb.)
So here is one possible, plausible, naturalistic explanation for the early Christian resurrection belief:
Jesus is crucified. His dead body is placed in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb on Friday before sunset. On Saturday night, after sunset, the Sanhedrin comes to the tomb, with Pilate’s permission, and moves the body of Jesus to another unmarked grave, leaving Arimathea’s tomb empty. They had only placed Jesus’ body in Joseph’s tomb temporarily so as not to defile the Sabbath. They never intended to leave it there.
Sunday morning, the women come to the tomb, find it empty, and run to the disciples telling them that Jesus has risen just as he had promised. Emotional hysteria grips the disciples. Simon Peter is emotionally exhausted and hasn’t slept for days. Due to a combination of factors, he experiences an hallucination. In this hallucination, Jesus appears to him in the flesh and tells him that he has risen from the dead and that he will soon ascend to the Father; the general resurrection will soon follow. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Peter shares his appearance story with the other disciples. They are ecstatic. They believe him just as the Jews in Asia Minor will believe Paul’s appearance story a few years later. Soon other disciples are “seeing” Jesus. Some are experiencing vivid dreams of Jesus. Some are experiencing illusions of Jesus. Groups of disciples see bright lights that they perceive to be Jesus. It is these illusions/misperceptions of reality (not group sightings of a resurrected body) that lead to the claims of appearances of Jesus to groups which we find in the Early Creed quoted by Paul in First Corinthians 15.
Then beginning in circa 70 AD, non-eyewitnesses, writing in far away lands, write the Gospels based on oral legends that have been circulating for forty years. The authors of the Gospels add their own literary embellishments to the story, embellishments which were perfectly acceptable in that genre of literature—Greco-Roman biographies. The authors did not add these fictional details to lie or deceive anyone; they never intended all of the pericopes to be understood literally. Their first century readers understood that.
So people in the first century knew that dead saints were not shaken out of their graves the moment of Jesus’ death to then walk the streets of Jerusalem. They knew this was literary/theological symbolism. And they knew the same about the story of Doubting Thomas sticking his fingers into Jesus’ wounds, and the story of the resurrected Jesus cooking a fish breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Tiberius. The authors never meant people to believe these stories as historical events. The Gospels were never meant to be history books in which every detail was to be understood as historical fact. They were written as documents of religious evangelization (propaganda): “these things are written that you might believe.” No, they are not works of pure fiction as some skeptics might suggest, but neither are they literal history books as some conservative Christians believe. It is the job of the good historian and scholar to tease out the historical facts from the literary fiction. In many cases, however, we must simply be honest and admit, we don’t know. Was there a real man named “Joseph of Arimathea”, for instance? We will probably never know.
So what about James, the brother of Jesus: We have no idea why and when James converted. Christians assume he converted due to an appearance by Jesus, making his appearance “an appearance to a skeptic”. However, it is possible that James had converted prior to Jesus’ death. The Gospels do not say when James believed, therefore the alleged appearance to James cannot be used as evidence of an appearance to a non-believer.
What about Paul: For all we know, Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was episodes of mental illness which included delusions and hallucinations. Anyone who is unsure if he has or has not taken a space trip to a “third heaven” is most likely not of sound mind. Therefore, Paul’s “heavenly vision” may have been an hallucination or just a vivid dream. Skeptics admit that Paul’s conversion is very odd. But odd conversions do not confirm the veracity of the convert’s new belief system. Human beings make very odd life decisions all the time.
I therefore believe that the above explanation is much more probable to be the explanation for the early Christian resurrection belief than the Christian supernatural claim that an invisible middle-eastern deity breathed life back into a three-day-brain-dead corpse which then somehow exited its sealed tomb to later fly off into outer space.
The more theories you have to appeal to to explain all of the evidence, the more ad-hoc your explanation is, the more contrived it is. Honestly, the more explanations you have to appeal to, the more desperate you come across as trying to appeal to anything to ignore it. You have combined the displaced body theory with the hallucination theory (both of which I have already addressed) with other theories.
Your first explanation ignores the facts. It wasn’t the Sanhedrin itself that buried Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, it was Joseph himself that buried him in a private tomb. Even if the Sanhedrin came and moved the body, all they had to do to stop the movement was produce the body. But no, they accused the disciples of stealing the body, and tried to stop the movement by beatings and killings. The appeal to the hallucination theory simply ignores the facts of hallucinations. They are never shared. That would be like me waking up from a dream, waking my wife up, and telling her that I had this awesome dream, and that we should both go back to sleep and that she should join me in that dream. Even then, hallucinations are generally visual or audio. But on several occasions, they ate fish with the post-mortem Jesus (in fact, once he cooked it for them.).
And then we come to the often claimed “it was written by non witnesses”. Except the evidence is against that. All of the early church fathers claimed that the gospels were written by the four writers, including the very disciples of the apostles. It wasn’t until centuries later that it was even suggested that they weren’t written by the writers that tradition says they were written by. Also, this is ignoring the several lines of evidence that they come across as actual eye witness accounts. Also also with: it’s also ignoring the numerous archeological evidence that indirectly supports them, plus they get all the common names correct (go a century before or after and the commonality of names changes, or even leave Jerusalem to Antioch or Egypt, and the commonality of names changes), plus they get as many locations correct as Josephus does. PLUS you are ignoring the fact that even Atheist scholars date some of the gospels much earlier than AD70. James Dominic Crossan dates Mark to the 40s!
I really can seriously go on with this one, so here’s a few more: you are ignoring all of Paul’s writings (written before he was martyred in the early 60s), and the early creeds that predate all of New Testament documents (of which 1 Cor 15:3-8 is included but there are many more.)
AND to go off of what it seems like you are implying: essentially no writing can be trusted if it was written later than 40 years. Which puts our modern times as about the time of the Vietnam War. But since it’s been so long, we can’t trust anything anyone says about that. That’s what that accusation says. And we get to the often claimed “the gospels were not history books”. See, you haven’t said anything original or that hasn’t been addressed before. The Gospels themselves actually line up with 1st Century biographies, and is what they are considered as.
Now the topic of James. His family thought he was crazy before he was crucified, including James. 1 Cor 15 (within 2-3 even by atheist standards) is where the record of Jesus appearance to James is included. And finally Paul. Which you has to resort to non evidential psycho analyzing to try and fit him into the hallucination theory.
Your “explanation” as you call it, is really more like at minimum 7 different unrelated explanations. And all have been addressed by scholars.
Every extraordinary tale begins in some fashion. Do you believe them all to be true just because you do not have any evidence to prove otherwise? Can you prove that the Buddha did not cause a water buffalo to speak in a human language? Millions of Hindus believe he did. Can you prove that Mohammad did not receive a message from an angel? Can you prove that he did not fly on a winged horse to heaven? Millions of Muslims believe he did. Can you prove that three children in Fatima, Portugal did not see and speak to the Virgin Mary? Can you prove that tens of thousands of people did not watch the sun spin and do other unnatural movements due to an appearance of the Virgin Mary in Fatima? No you cannot. No one can. So we ask ourselves: “What are the possible naturalistic explanations for why these human beings came to believe these very extra-ordinary events happened to them? We don’t need evidence to do that. We are not trying to prove what happened. We are trying to prove what might have PLAUSIBLY happened to cause these people to believe that a supernatural event has occurred. And the same with the Resurrection tale. I am not saying I can prove that my theory happened. I am simply suggesting that this theory is possible and plausible. It is much more possible and plausible, to me at least (and I would bet to the overwhelming majority of educated non-Christians), than that an ancient middle-eastern deity breathed life into a three-day-brain-dead corpse.
You said: “The more theories you have to appeal to explain all of the evidence, the more ad-hoc your explanation is…”
Is it ad hoc to suggest that the explanation for your missing keys is that you possibly misplaced them even if I have no evidence that you have misplaced them? Is it ad hoc to suggest that the reason why your neighbor was absent from his bed for five hours last night was possibly because he snuck out to have an affair with another women; he was drinking; he was doing drugs; he was gambling; and not because he was abducted by space aliens as he claims? No. It is only ad hoc if you insist that this IS what happened based on zero evidence. I am not saying that my theory regarding the early Christian resurrection belief is what happened, only that it is POSSIBLY what happened. My theory is plausible. You may believe that a supernatural resurrection is MORE plausible, but you cannot prove that my theory is not plausible. To do that you would need to show that most educated people in our society would find my theory implausible/unreasonable, and I will bet that most educated people in our society (excluding Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals/ and other ultra-conservative Protestants) will agree that my theory is very plausible. If you don’t believe me, ask them. Ask someone who is not a member of one of the above religious groups and see what they say.
You said: “Your first explanation ignores the facts. It wasn’t the Sanhedrin itself that buried Jesus in the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea, it was Joseph himself that buried him in a private tomb. Even if the Sanhedrin came and moved the body, all they had to do to stop the movement was produce the body. But no, they accused the disciples of stealing the body, and tried to stop the movement by beatings and killings.”
(Evangelical Christian scholar) Gary Habermas may include the Empty Tomb in his list of minimal facts but he does not include the biblical claim that Joseph alone buried Jesus in his list of facts. So I am not ignoring a “fact”, I am ignoring an alleged claim in the biblical story. You may believe it is a historical fact but I would like you to demonstrate that any scholar, including Habermas, is willing to state that it is a historical fact that Joseph buried Jesus.
You said: “Why didn’t they stop the movement by producing the body?”
Christians assume that the Gospels are correct that Jesus caused a great controversy in Jerusalem that Passover weekend. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe there were no throngs waving palm fronds at his entrance to the city. Maybe there were no mobs demanding his crucifixion. Maybe his trial and crucifixion were just routine business: another Jewish trouble-maker dealt with in the usual efficient, quick, Roman manner. Maybe all that mattered to the Sanhedrin was that the trouble-maker was dead. Maybe they could have cared less if a few dozen Galilean peasants claimed he had risen from the dead. Many scholars believe that the author of Matthew’s story about guards at the tomb and their deal with the Sanhedrin to accuse the disciples of stealing the body is literary fiction. Mike Licona believes that other stories in Matthew’s resurrection story are fiction (dead saints being shaken out of their graves by an earthquake). I believe that you are assuming much more to be “fact” than even Gary Habermas has suggested is fact. You are certainly welcome to your opinions, but you can’t claim that they are “facts” and that I am ignoring them.
You said: “The appeal to the hallucination theory simply ignores the facts of hallucinations. They are never shared.”
I never said that anyone “shared” an hallucination. I am fully aware that no two persons can have the same, exact hallucination. In my theory, I am suggesting that one of the Eleven had an hallucination and that he then convinced the other disciples that his hallucination was a real event. Just as the Jews in Asia Minor did not need to see the resurrected Jesus to believe in his resurrection, the other ten disciples did not need to see a resurrected body to believe in a resurrection, they only had to believe the one disciple who believed (mistakenly) he had seen the resurrected Jesus. People who have visual/auditory hallucinations remember them as very real experiences. (I am a physician.)
You said: “And then we come to the often claimed “it was written by non witnesses”. Except the evidence is against that.”
You are certainly welcome to your opinion, but the issue at hand is whether or not my theory is plausible. We are not debating the facts of the authorship of the Gospels. If the consensus position of New Testament scholars is that the Gospels were NOT written by eyewitnesses, then my theory meets the threshold of plausibility on that issue very easily. (I assume when we are discussing plausibility we are using the definition of what is plausible to the average educated person, not just what is plausible to you or to me.)
You said: “Now the topic of James. His family thought he was crazy before he was crucified, including James. 1 Cor 15 (within 2-3 even by atheist standards) is where the record of Jesus appearance to James is included.”
I do not disagree that at one point in time Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. This is of course very odd if their mother and father had told them of all the miraculous events of Jesus’ birth, but nevertheless, this has nothing to do with WHEN James converted. We have no proof that James converted due to his alleged appearance experience. For all we know James converted prior to Jesus’ death and his appearance experience occurred as a believer. Thousands of Christians have believed that Jesus has appeared to them over the last two thousand years so this claim is nothing extraordinary. Bottom line: We have no statement from James himself. For all we know, James woke up in the middle of the night, saw a bright light on the ceiling, and thought it was Jesus.
You said: “Your “explanation” as you call it, is really more like at minimum 7 different unrelated explanations. And all have been addressed by scholars.”
When it comes to explaining the appearances of the Virgin Mary at Fatima, is there only one explanation for the experience of the children and the experience of each person in the massive crowds? No. Multiple people were involved in this alleged supernatural experience so there are multiple POSSIBLE explanations for why these people came to believe what they came to believe.