Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Doubting the Resurrection

One of the best parts of Kris Komarnitsky's book Doubting the Resurrection: What Happened Inside the Black Box? is his discussion of the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.  He provides several examples of religious movements that were faced with evidence that seemingly disconfirmed their belief irrefutably.  In each case, the believers found a way to reinterpret and reinvent their beliefs in order to keep the movement going.

One of his examples is the 19th century Millerites:
The Millerite movement began in 1818 with a man named William Miller and by the 1840s had membership in the thousands across many cities. Miller believed that the Bible predicted Jesus’ second coming would be sometime between March 21st 1843 and March 21st 1844. When the later date came and went without incident, the movement did not crumble. Instead, despite heavy ridicule, the group’s founder and his apostles rationalized that there must have been some minor error in calculating the exact time, but the end was nevertheless still near. A corrected date came from a follower within the movement by the name of Reverend Samuel Snow. Despite the objections of the group’s leaders that the exact date could not be known, Snow declared October 22nd 1844 as the new date for Jesus’ second coming.
Not surprisingly, Jesus failed to show again
This second disconfirmation almost killed the movement, but still, yet another and this time much more complex rationalization emerged – the date had been correct, but Jesus’ second coming had occurred in heaven not on earth, Jesus had begun an investigative judgment of the world, and when he is done he will return to earth, but no one knows exactly when.18 This rationalization was sustained and continues to this day with membership in the millions. It is known as the Church of Seventh-day Adventists.
Komarnitsky suggests a similar thinking process among the apostles.
Like the earlier examples of cognitive dissonance reduction, a sustaining rationalization for Jesus’ death would most likely have emerged very quickly and in the presence of others who could offer mutual encouragement. . . .The rationalization did not need to be perfect, but it did need to adequately answer what would to them have been the two most natural and pressing questions: Why did the Messiah have to die, and how can a dead person be the Messiah? I suggest that these two pressing questions resulted in the following initial two-part rationalization among some of Jesus’ followers: 1) Jesus died for our sins and 2) Jesus will be back soon to reign as the Messiah should.

According to Komarnitsky's hypothesis, the apostles rationalized the death of Jesus as a necessary atonement for the sins of Israel and comforted each other with the notion that God would restore him to life very shortly in order to finish the task of ushering in the kingdom of God.  It was only after they had reached these conclusions that the appearances began.  Some of the experiences might have been visual hallucinations while others may simply have been simply strong feelings of Jesus' presence.  Once the precedent had been set, every dream, hunch, and tingle would have been interpreted as Jesus' making his presence felt.  Paul never says that it was the appearances that led the apostles (nor himself for that matter) to believe that Jesus had been resurrected.   Komarnitsky suggests that the belief in the resurrection came first and that the gospel stories were later embellishments.  I think that his hypothesis is entirely plausible.

One quibble that I do have with Komarnitsky is his tendency overstate the strength of some apologetic arguments before offering his own hypothesis as the only convincing counter.  For example, he quotes N.T. Wright's argument that mere hallucinations couldn't have caused the apostles to believe that Jesus had been resurrected: "Precisely because such encounters [visions of a recently dead person] were reasonably well known, they could not possibly, by themselves, have given rise to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead…." Komarnitsky explains:
In other words, if a regular post-mortem hallucination of a recently deceased loved one gave birth to the belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead, then we should see beliefs in resurrected loved ones scattered throughout Jewish history. But we do not see that. The only explanation that seems to me to be capable of explaining the nearly instantaneous rise of such radical beliefs is the just as radical human phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.
While I agree that Komarnitsky's hypothesis makes a lot of sense, I don't quite buy the idea that the apostles' understanding of hallucinations was so sophisticated that they couldn't have misinterpreted one as a resurrection without first believing in the resurrection.  While they may have understood the idea of a hallucination of someone who wasn't really there, they also believed in genuine encounters with heavenly beings that might be phsyical such as the Transfiguration or non-physical such as the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream.  I don't find Wright persuasive at all.

Another point where I think he gives to much credit to the apologists is in answering William Lane Craig's assertion that "[i]t is unlikely that women would have been selected to find the empty tomb if it was a legend."  Writes Komarnitsky:
I would agree with this if it were not for the last sentence in the Gospel of Mark: “[The women] fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). As argued in Chapter One of this book (pg. 14-18), this ending makes perfect sense if, in this first version of the discovered empty tomb legend, the women’s fear-induced silence gave an answer to the question why the women’s story of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long. The use of women makes perfect sense in this case – all women could do was react in fear and terror; they were so scared that they never passed the message on.
While I agree that this is a valid reason for rejecting Craig's claim, I think there are plenty of other reasons to disagree as well, i,e., the women were not being called to testify in a Jewish court; Mark was writing to Christian converts living in communities where women enjoyed a higher status than they did under Jewish law, Mark's audience is hearing the story from Mark, not the women, and they will believe it because they believe him, not the women; a major theme in Mark's story is that the apostles don't understand who Jesus is.   Using the women to provide cover for Mark's invention is far from the only plausible explanation.

1 comment:

  1. ' "[i]t is unlikely that women would have been selected to find the empty tomb if it was a legend."'

    Presumably because it is historically anachronistic that women would be singled out as witnesses....

    But wait, if something is historically anachronistic, that must mean that it is historical!