The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins: A Cordial Reply to Dr. William Craig
To many people, the gospels are reliable sources of information about Christian beginnings. However, anyone who looks into this topic will find that in scholarly circles there is some controversy about this. Those who investigate the matter further often find that the controversy over gospel reliability leads to controversies over the historicity (i.e., historical reality) of specific events reported in the gospels. For example, when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus, there is intense interest in the historicity of Jesus' discovered empty tomb and his postmortem appearances to his followers. The historian, or the interested lay person, can ask, did these two key events reported in the gospels really happen, or are they legendary embellishments on a resurrection belief that was arrived at by other means?
Although there are several lines of argument with respect to the historicity of the discovered empty tomb and Jesus' postmortem appearances, one approach taken by some in traditional scholarship is to argue that these two key gospel events cannot be legends because early Christian belief in Jesus' resurrection could never have come about in the first place without a discovered empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus. For example, one of the world's leading scholars and defenders of Jesus' resurrection, Dr. N.T. Wright, says:
The empty tomb and the 'meetings' with Jesus, when combined, present us with not only a sufficient condition for the rise of early Christian belief, but also, it seems, a necessary one. Nothing else historians have been able to come up with has the power to explain the phenomena before us. [emphasis is original]
But is it really true that nothing else can explain the rise of early Christian belief except for a discovered empty tomb and postmortem appearances of Jesus? It is an interesting question because it goes to the core of Christian origins—what happened in the first few weeks and months after Jesus' death to give rise to a major world religion if it was not the events reported in the gospels?
As a layman intrigued by this question many years ago, I decided to look into the various scholarly opinions on this topic. I took as my starting point a passage that is widely recognized amongst scholars on both sides of the aisle to contain by far the earliest known Christian beliefs and traditions, in existence well before any of the gospels were written and dated to within 2-5 years of Jesus' crucifixion. This passage is from the Apostle Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
The Birth of the Resurrection Belief
As I looked into the different scholarly opinions for what may have given rise to these earliest of Christian beliefs and traditions, there seemed to me to be plausible alternatives to the gospel accounts. For example, one idea that has been around for several decades which accounts for the rise of the resurrection belief is the psychological phenomenon of "cognitive dissonance reduction." Cognitive dissonance reduction refers to the human tendency to rationalize a discontinuity between reality and one's current beliefs in such a way that current beliefs are modified or added to instead of being rejected. This can result in extremely radical rationalizations when unexpected things happen, especially in a religious context. For example, in the seventeenth century, a man named Sabbatai Zevi was widely thought to be the long-awaited Jewish messiah. His followers reached a fevered pitch thinking their highest hopes had been realized. Then came the bombshell—Zevi converted to Islam. Incredibly, and against all common sense, instead of killing the movement, some of his followers rationalized that his conversion was part of an intentional strategy to assume evil's form and then kill it from within. The movement continued through Zevi's death a decade later and continues to have followers even today. The late Gershom Scholem, an expert on Sabbatai Zevi and President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities observes, "When discussing the Sabbatian paradox by means of which cruel disappointment was turned into a positive affirmation of faith, the analogy with early Christianity almost obtrudes itself." In a similar way, the beliefs that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead may have been a way for Jesus' followers to reconcile in their minds his death with their previous hope that he was the messiah.
In my book— Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?—I try to lay out in detail and in layman's terms explanations like those above that I found to plausibly explain the rise of early Christian belief. Recently, Dr. William Craig, widely regarded as the world's leading defender of Jesus' resurrection, critiqued my book in one of his Reasonable Faith podcasts. As a layman, it was both a privilege and a bit unnerving to have such an accomplished scholar and spokesperson for the traditional view of Christian origins critique my book. However, I was somewhat surprised at how well my book made it through Dr. Craig's critique, which increases my confidence that it is on the right track.
For example, Dr. Craig says in his podcast that the cognitive dissonance view of Christian origins is "implausible" (podcast timestamp 9:45-10:05). He gives four main reasons for this conclusion.
The first reason Dr. Craig gives for the cognitive dissonance view of Christian origins being implausible is that no other Jewish messianic movement ever claimed a dead messiah was still the messiah, let alone that he was resurrected from the dead (podcast timestamp 6:20-7:10). However, unlike Jesus, all other Jewish messiahs in the first and second centuries (about a dozen of them) were military messiahs leading military revolts. As biblical scholar James Crossley notes about the two largest of these movements, "Simon bar Giora and bar Kochbah were military figures expecting military victories. Of course their deaths would be deemed as a failure." In other words, it makes sense that followers of these movements would not rationalize their man was still the messiah after he had just been killed by the same enemies he said he was going to kill. Even if there were large numbers of nonmilitary messiah movements, it would still not be surprising if only one in many produced a radical rationalization in response to the supposed messiah's death. This is because radical rationalizations in response to cognitive dissonance are not an everyday occurrence. There are probably thousands of cult groups that died at the first big disconfirmation of their beliefs. But we know that cognitive dissonance can sometimes lead to the emergence of new beliefs, and sometimes with spectacular results.
The second reason Dr. Craig gives for the cognitive dissonance view of Christian origins being implausible is, "They had no concept in Judaism of a messiah who, instead of establishing David's throne in Jerusalem, would be humiliatingly executed by his enemies and defeated" (podcast timestamp 7:20-7:45). However, Jesus' followers would not have thought of Jesus as "defeated" if their initial rationalization included the belief that Jesus would return very soon in victory. This is exactly the belief we find in the earliest Christian literature (Romans 13:11; 1 Corinthians 7:29-30; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 ). The idea is that Jesus was executed, with the rationalized reason that he died for our sins (which is also found in the earliest Christian literature: 1 Corinthians 15:3), but he was not defeated—he was raised up to heaven to be with God and will be back very soon. This three part rationalization—Jesus died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and will be back very soon—has all of the logic one would expect of a human rationalization.
The third reason Dr. Craig gives for the cognitive dissonance view of Christian origins being implausible is that Jesus' followers could more easily have rationalized that Jesus' brother James was the new messiah (podcast timestamp 7:45-8:10). However, this would be unlikely if James was not even a follower of Jesus' movement before Jesus died (which is the traditional view). It is also unlikely that anyone else in Jesus' movement would have been chosen to be the new messiah if no one else in Jesus' movement inspired others enough to think they might be a new messiah.
The fourth reason Dr. Craig gives for the cognitive dissonance view of Christian origins being implausible is that Jesus' followers could more easily have rationalized that Jesus became a spiritual king in heaven and that they would be reunited with him at the future general resurrection when Jesus and everyone else who was righteous was reunited with their bodies (podcast timestamp 8:05-9:05). However, many Jews believed that a person's body was required for any kind of consciousness or living presence anywhere. For these Jews, the "soul" was at most in a comatose like sleep state while awaiting the future bodily resurrection (see for example Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2). If Jesus' followers believed this, then Jesus' soul being raised to heaven to be a spiritual king would not even be a possibility. To be alive again in any sense would have required a body. Even if Jesus' followers believed the soul was capable of more than an unconscious sleep state (another popular position amongst Jews about the afterlife), what they rationalized for Jesus may have been influenced by what kind of existence they believed Enoch and Elijah enjoyed after their live bodily assumptions into heaven (Genesis 5:24 and 2 Kings 2:11). If Jesus' followers believed that Enoch and Elijah had already attained the "final state of blessedness" that others would not realize until reunited with their bodies at the general resurrection, it seems doubtful that Jesus' followers would have rationalized something less for the messiah.
Possible, Plausible, and Most Plausible
If cognitive dissonance reduction was the cause of the beliefs that Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead, the other beliefs and traditions in Paul's early passage above are fairly easily accounted for as part of an emerging human movement in a highly charged religious atmosphere. Dr. Craig did not talk about the other parts of my book that covered these beliefs and traditions, but he did spend some time talking about how explanations for Christian origins can be possible, plausible, and most plausible (podcast timestamp 15:00-23:15). These are important distinctions.
In my view, an explanation is "possible" if it can explain all of the evidence for something without an unequivocal self-contradiction or an unequivocal misstatement of the evidence. I view this as an objective judgment and there are often lots of explanations for a given problem that meet this criterion. From this set of possible explanations, an explanation becomes "plausible" when one can imagine without too much of a stretch that it could have happened that way. I view this as a subjective judgment. From this set of plausible explanations, one chooses the "most plausible" explanation. This too is a subjective judgment, and the historian's categories of explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, degree of ad hoc, and disconfirmation do not lessen its subjectivity, they only focus it.
With that said, I think plausible explanations are the only thing anyone can constructively argue for with respect to the Christian origins evidence. As soon as people try to argue that theirs is the most plausible explanation, personal biases and experiences exponentially complicate the picture. For example, consider these statements by Dr. Craig, which I am sure reflect the opinion of many Christians:
We can know that Jesus rose from the dead wholly apart from a consideration of the historical evidence. The simplest Christian, who has neither the opportunity nor wherewithal to conduct a historical investigation of Jesus' resurrection, can know with assurance that Jesus is risen because God's Spirit bears unmistakable witness to him that it is so.
My knowledge of Christianity's truth, while supported by strong arguments, is not ultimately based on those arguments but on the witness of God Himself. If, therefore, I find myself confronted with a well-prepared and articulate Mormon who blows away my arguments and presents a case for Mormonism that I can't answer, I should not apostatize, since I have the witness of the Holy Spirit to Christianity's truth and so realize that although I've lost the argument, Christianity is nonetheless the truth.
I would like to echo Dr. Craig's honest statements about his biases and personal experiences with my own. In my opinion, nonbelief in Jesus' resurrection is for most people, including myself, based on a bias against the idea that God intervenes within the bookends of human history in a physically direct way. Note that this bias is not that God cannot intervene in a physically direct way (I am an agnostic on the existence of God); it is just that in many people's life experiences God never does intervene in a physically direct way. What would it take to change my mind about Jesus' resurrection? The same as Thomas Paine:
[Jesus' disciple] Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say [in the gospels], would not believe, without having occular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me and for every other person, as for Thomas. (Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part One.)
With these kinds of biases and personal experiences, one can easily see how a discussion about even a single piece of Christian origins evidence (e.g., the rise of early Christian belief) can immediately explode as soon as one side declares theirs is the most plausible explanation. I try my best to avoid this by just sticking to the term "plausible." In doing so, my hope is that it will be easier for people to ask a narrowly targeted, and if need be hypothetical, question: If the gospels are historically unreliable and Jesus did not resurrect from the dead, is there any plausible alternative explanation for the rise of early Christian belief? For those who answer this question in the affirmative, such an explanation comes full circle and impacts on the historical reliability of the gospels. Why? Because early Christian belief is often used by traditional scholarship to support the historical reliability of the gospels. It is a circular argument. In fact, Dr. Craig makes exactly this kind of circular argument in his podcast about my book when speaking about the discovered empty tomb.
The Discovered Empty Tomb
In contrast to scholars who think the gospel story of Jesus' discovered empty tomb is a legend, Dr. Craig equates its historical probability with "the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 or the death of Augustus in A.D. 14" (podcast timestamp 20:20-20:50). Dr. Craig makes three main points on this topic in response to my book, with the second and third illustrating the circular reasoning I referred to above.
The first concerns my suggestion that the Apostle Paul was trying to defend Jesus' resurrection in the first part of 1 Corinthians 15. From this, I note that it is odd that Paul never mentions a discovered empty tomb, suggesting it could be a late legend. Dr. Craig responds, "Paul is not writing to the Corinthians to convince them of Jesus' resurrection" (podcast timestamp 24:05-24:15). Paul's intent in 1 Corinthians 15 is famously difficult to determine. Some at Corinth were saying, "There is no resurrection of the dead.... How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" (1 Corinthians 15:12, 35). The question is, was Jesus' resurrection included in these doubts about resurrection, or were the Corinthians just doubting the future resurrection of believers? In answering this question, the linchpin for me is the background beliefs of the Corinthians. Immersed in Greek religions, they would have had great difficulty with the idea of a raised corpse. If Jesus' resurrection was properly conveyed to them, this difficulty would have included Jesus' resurrection. Even if the Corinthians somehow thought of Jesus' resurrection as an exception, some would start doubting Jesus' resurrection as soon as Paul points out in his response to them that Jesus' resurrection was not an exception: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised" (1 Corinthians 15:13). Having a first-class education with a strong emphasis in apologetics, it seems unlikely, even in the case of the Corinthians viewing Jesus as an exception, that Paul would not have recognized the need to defend Jesus' resurrection. While Paul's intent in 1 Corinthians 15 will probably never be settled, it is worth noting the conclusion of the highly respected evangelical Expositor's Bible Commentary, a source solidly in Dr. Craig's own camp: "[Paul] gave an extended discourse in ch. 15 to prove the resurrection of Christ and to set a timetable for the final return of Jesus and the resurrection of the dead."
Dr. Craig goes on to say that the beliefs in Paul's early passage—Jesus died, was buried, was raised, and appeared (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)—have corresponding events in the later gospels—Jesus' crucifixion, his burial in a rock-hewn tomb, the discovered empty tomb, and the corporeal postmortem appearances. He then argues from this that the words in the early passage "he was buried and he was raised" are "a summary of the [gospel] empty tomb tradition" (podcast timestamp 27:00-27:55). However, this is circular. The gospels could still parallel the early passage of beliefs and contain legends built on those earlier beliefs. The words "he was buried and he was raised" in the early passage do not say anything about either a discovered empty tomb or even a rock-hewn tomb. The words "he was buried and he was raised" only imply a belief that Jesus' body was gone from its burial place. This is an important distinction because this belief could have come about due to cognitive dissonance instead of from a discovered empty tomb. Furthermore, if one is going to seriously consider the legend option, not only is the discovered empty tomb story in the gospels suspect, but so too is the burial account. A curious person might ask, what normally would have happened to the body of a crucified criminal from the lower classes whose body was allowed by the Romans to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial sensitivities? The answer seems to be an obscure ground burial. According to archaeologist Jodi Magness, "Had Joseph of Arimathea not offered Jesus a spot in his family tomb [as the gospels claim], Jesus likely would have been disposed of in the manner of the poorer classes: in an individual trench grave dug into the ground." Because rites of mourning were not normally allowed at a criminal's burial, and because Roman and Jewish authorities were probably looking for other members of the Jesus movement who might cause trouble, it is plausible that the only people attending Jesus' burial were a disinterested burial crew who only cared to mark his grave with whiting or a pile of loose rocks to warn of uncleanness. In this case, the resurrection belief could have emerged without Jesus' followers even knowing where Jesus was buried. Even if the authorities thought of unearthing Jesus' body weeks or months later when they noticed that the Jesus movement was still alive, it would have been unrecognizable by then and only drawn attention to the group the authorities wanted everyone to ignore.
Dr. Craig makes the same circular argument as above when he says, "[We have] in the sermons in Acts extremely early traditions of the empty tomb that suggest that this is part of the pre-Markan passion tradition" (podcast timestamp 26:05-26:25). Actually, what we find in the sermons in Acts is the same thing we found in Paul's early passage above—the belief that Jesus' body was gone from its burial place. We do not find anywhere in the sermons in Acts a discovered empty tomb or a rock-hewn tomb. Dr. Craig is simply assuming these things into the text under the pretense that there is no other explanation for the birth of the resurrection belief.
In summary, it looks to me like the cognitive dissonance theory is a solid alternative explanation for the rise of early Christian belief.*
*There was a minor omission made at the beginning of Dr. Craig's podcast that is worth correcting. Dr. Craig's co-host, Kevin Harris, read a definition of cognitive dissonance that included this assertion: "It can be shown that Christian apologetics is based on a response to cognitive dissonance" (podcast timestamp 1:00-1:40). The way Mr. Harris read this statement gave the impression that it came from my book. What the listener should have been told was that Mr. Harris was reading a definition of cognitive dissonance from a review of my book, not from anything I ever wrote. Why Mr. Harris would read a definition of cognitive dissonance from a review of my book instead of from my book itself (pg. 49) I do not know. In any case, I would say that biases and dissonances steer people on both sides of this issue toward explanations which seem the most reasonable to them, so there is not much point in one side saying that the other is influenced by their biases and dissonances.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003), pg. 706.
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