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Can an atheist please explain these three facts?

July 10, 2014

The RZIM Summer school continues and this morning I heard some excellent presentations. One by Simon Edwards focused on the ‘historical’ questions surrounding Jesus and notably his resurrection. I’ve spent much time on this blog already exploring some of these questions. Yet Edwards’ presentation had some fruitful areas of potential dialogue.

Edwards’ presentation was built on the ‘minimal facts’ approach to the death and resurrection of Jesus. This approach considers only the facts that virtually all critical scholars agree occurred (Christian and skeptical). I’m not completely convinced by validity of the ‘minimal facts’ approach as it does tend towards ‘truth by democracy’ and prophetic and minority voices who may be right are ignored. Yet this approach still does give a helpful place to begin analysis of historical questions. With reference to the resurrection of Jesus there are three ‘minimal’ facts:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion
  2. Disciples genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them on a number of occasions.
  3. Th early church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus death.

These facts require explanation.

The figure of Jesus and his resurrection is at the heart of the Christian message. To comprehensively demonstrate that Christianity is false a naturalistic explanation must be given to most satisfactorily explain these three facts.

Edwards’ said quite provocatively (and correctly) that if one plausible naturalistic explanation can be given then the resurrection is unlikely. So this is a challenge to atheists – I’m keen to hear naturalistic explanations for these three facts. 

Edwards’ analysis

Edwards then suggested that there were three alternative hypotheses to explain these (most particularly fact 2 – that the disciples genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead).

  1. The disciples were deceivers
  2. The disciples were deceived
  3. The disciples were deluded.

(are there any more potential options?)

Edwards rejected these because

1. The disciples were not deceivers because they did genuinely believe this, they didn’t yield under torture.

2. The disciples were not deceived because who did the deceiving? The Romans – unlikely, they weren’t going to develop a rival god; The Jews – they killed Jesus; or Jesus didn’t really die – again unlikely – the Romans were expert murderers.

3. They were all deluded and suffered a mass hallucination. Yet unlikely as hallucinations were a group phenomenon (and also the tomb was still empty – no body has ever been produced).

Hence through a process of abduction, it seems that the resurrection is the most satisfactory explanation. It’s remarkable, but unless a better explanation can be produced, it appears that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

  1. Here’s a little reductio ad absurdum of Edwards’ position– a counter-challenge for him. Can he explain these three facts?

    1. Joseph Smith published the Book of Mormon.
    2. Smith and his followers genuinely believed that he had translated these documents by the revelation of the Holy Spirit.
    3. The Mormon faith exploded in numbers soon after Smith published the Book of Mormon.

    And, adapting his deceiver/deceived/deluded trilemma:

    1. Smith and his followers were not deceivers because they genuinely did believe this; they did not yield under persecution.
    2. Smith and his followers were not deceived, because who did the deceiving? Certainly not the state governments that persecuted them, nor the orthodox Christians that opposed them!
    3. Smith and his followers were not deluded, since mass hallucinations are unlikely and they all believed the same delusion. Also, it has never been proven that the Book of Mormon WASN’T written at the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, I’m assuming that Edwards is not a Mormon, and that he does not accept the veracity of the Book of Mormon. However, on the off chance that he does, we can adapt this same argument to Islam or Scientology or Raelianism or pretty much any other religion which can be named.

    If you oversimplify the exemplary evidence, and dismiss out-of-hand all the evidence to the contrary, of course it is going to seem to support your position.

    • eyeontheuniverse permalink

      Actually, the early ones who saw the book did yield, but yeah, the later ones didn’t. But the same non-yielding goes for followers of almost every faith.

  2. 1) It’s not even sure that a person called Jesus EXISTED. Ok, personally I think it is likely that there’s a person on which the myths are based, but we know next to nothing about that person. We know only contradicting stuff about a fictional person called “Jesus”.

    2) Sect members also believe today that their guru is the son of god and many other nonsense stuff. Look up what members of scientology believe. The belief of religious fanatics isn’t really surprising – and this all assumes that no one simply lied. And yes, there were more than one believer, so some could lie, others could be deceived, etc.

    3) Good marketing and an appealing religious concept. So what? If a sect gains many members, does that make it somehow true? If it loses members, does it stop making it true? Did the catholic church become less true with each schism?

    • This comment only regards point one. We actually do know Jesus existed as historians agree, and historians agree on an overwhelming number of things about him, quite similar to if not more than what we know regarding other major figures of the time.

  3. eyeontheuniverse permalink

    1. Jesus died by crucifixion

    Actually, the bible doesn’t say. That. He was likely hung on a post. Not that it matters much.

    2. Disciples genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them on a number of occasions.

    We have no idea what they believed and not enough historical evidence to draw a conclusion.

    3. The early church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus death.

    Same for a lot of beliefs, from Islam to Mormonism, Buddhism and Marxism.

    • 1. Actually, the Bible does say that Jesus was crucified, numerous times. The Greek root word for “crucify” is “staurou,” and that is the word which is utilized to describe Jesus’ execution. This is unambiguous. It is true that we have no idea what shape or form the actual cross took, and that it was unlikely to be the Latin cross which is now utilized almost universally by Christians, but that does not change the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was reportedly executed by crucifixion.

      2. We have an idea of what they believed, but cannot know that this idea correlates to reality with exact certitude. This is an incredibly important distinction. Discerning history is a process of reconstructing probable past events based on the evidence which we have. In this case, the evidence we have points to the idea that at least some of Jesus’ closest followers came to believe that they had seen him risen from the dead. The claim that they believed Jesus had “appeared to them on a number of occasions” might be going beyond the reasonable, but it seems historically likely that at least some of Jesus’ earthly followers believed that they had seen his resurrected body.

      3. Here, I completely agree with you. The number of people who believe a claim is irrelevant to the veracity of that claim.

    • eyeontheuniverse permalink

      1. The meaning of stauroun at the time is controversial, but I am not interested in arguing it, as the method of death seems irrelevant.

      2. What counts as evidence is highly subjective based on other premises. I take this only as evidence of their claims much as I take claims of alien abduction made to the National Enquirer only as evidence of claims.

      • In history, more often than not, the only evidence that we have is the evidence of claims made. For example, we have absolutely no archaeological evidence that Socrates ever even existed. Almost our entire picture of the historical Socrates’ beliefs– whether or not those beliefs may have reflected reality– comes from the claims made by Plato and Xenophon.

        Similarly, the idea that Peter, James, and John all believed that they had witnessed the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth comes to us secondhand from Paul, who knew these men. Mind you, I am not claiming that these men ACTUALLY witnessed the risen Jesus, only that they BELIEVED that they had. This is certainly historically plausible and it fits precisely with our extant evidence.

        As an analogy, I have personally known hundreds of people who sincerely believe that they have had supernatural experiences. I, myself, have had religious experiences which I sincerely believed were supernatural, before I lost my faith. If a friend of mine tells me that he believes he saw the Virgin Mary appear to him, last night, I do not doubt that he actually believes this. I may doubt that his reported experience actually occurred as he described, but I would not doubt that he believes it did so.

        Paul reports that Peter, James, and John all believed they had witnessed the resurrected Jesus. We can doubt that they did without doubting that they believed it.

      • eyeontheuniverse permalink

        I’m sure some believed it, but for those who had a stake in it being true there was good reason to lie. People made a life out of this; it was not a trivial issue. Additionally, we are unlikely to have a representative sampling of the evidence from the time with elements selectively maintained. Just as todays scientific journals fail to publish negative results, no one will have had an interest in maintaining the conflicting views, so the evidence as representative is highly suspect. But no, certainly not all at the time were lying, most likely only a few key figures.

  4. Boxing Pythagoras’s comparison with Mormonism above is a good one, and one that I used in this forum a year ago (

    Rob, I never saw a satisfactory answer to this. Have you got one now? 🙂

  5. Steven Carr permalink

    ‘The disciples were not deceivers because they did genuinely believe this, they didn’t yield under torture.’
    What torture?
    Produce evidence that Thomas even existed…..

  6. scoobie permalink

    Abduction, my word..! I had to look it up.
    1. Jesus died by crucifixion
    *Everybody* died, and *thousands* died by crucifixion. So what? Oh, you’re just saying he died? OK, I just thought that was implied by step 2. Just seems a bit redundant to say it twice…
    2. Disciples genuinely believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them on a number of occasions.
    Many people came back from the dead in those times. It’s just one of the things that god-men did. I gather one of them even did it on the battlefield. Such god-men turned water into wine and performed miraculous healings all over the place. Just read any ancient history book and you’ll soon find that there’s nothing special about Jesus.
    3. The early church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus death.
    No it didn’t. It limped along like any other tiny splinter sect, gradually gathering a following amongst the gullible lower classes who were easily taken in by ‘miraculous’ healings and splintering off into a bunch of smaller sects. Not until the second century does it start to show up amongst a few of the more educated, and hence appear in the historical record. It only started to gain any momentum at all when it began to usurp pagan religions and adopt their ideas and traditions (e.g. resurrections, for a start ;-)).
    So all you have of any notional interest is one assertion – No.2. That’s hardly a list of ‘facts’. You’ll find all the ‘plausible natralistic explanations’ you need by reading a little ancient history about the early Christian sects and not just listening to apologists spouting the same old tired half-truths.

    • Steven Carr permalink

      ‘The early church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus death.’

      I guess people were more willing to follow Jesus if they couldn’t see him to know what he was really like.

  7. maggieatkinson permalink

    As I go for the ‘deluded’ line of explanation, your response is significant: “They were all deluded and suffered a mass hallucination. Yet unlikely as hallucinations were a group phenomenon (and also the tomb was still empty – no body has ever been produced).”

    This smuggles in a new and highly contested ‘minimal fact’ – the empty tomb. I’d love to see your evidence for the empty tomb. It also assumes that delusion equals hallucination, when there are heaps of alternative ways a group can get into a delusion.

    • Thanks for the comment. Although can you provide evidence for a mass hallucination? The evidence for the empty tomb includes the earliest alternative thesis (the disciples stole the body) assumes an empty tomb. Also, there was opposition to the Christian message from the start. A tomb of bones would scupper the movement completely.

      • maggieatkinson permalink

        Here is the evidence for a mass hallucination. I’d never heard of this event, but found it after just 2 mins of Google work:

        I am sure there are many others.

        Note that I was keen to point out in my first post that people don’t need a hallucination to get a delusion. I guess that I am deluded about any number of issues but I have never had a hallucination type experience.

        Your empty tomb evidence is Matt 28v15 which is a claim made by Matthew to help it sound convincing. We have good evidence that Matthew makes stuff up to further his argument, in particular over fulfilling prophesy.

        Even if I agree with you that there was opposition to the Christian message from the start, we don’t know what the Christian message was. The creeds hidden in places like Phil 2 suggest the exultation of Jesus.

        There probably was no tomb of bones, surely we would expect a crucified man to be buried in a communal grave. Whether this could be dug up 6+ weeks later (after Pentecost) and Jesus’ body or bones verified would seem unlikely. I’d guess it would be taboo anyway.

        The first evidence we have, I Cor 15, has no tomb. In fact a word search for ‘tomb’ in NT gives no results in any letter.

        Great to interact with you. I am in fact Ed Atkinson and I seem to be coming up as my wonderful wife Maggie. I’ll try to correct next time.

      • No worries. I’m happy to interact. 1 Cor 15 is earliest evidence of an empty tomb. True there is no mention of ‘tomb’, but it is certainly implied is it not? Ie with a resurrection?

      • Steven Carr permalink

        I see. So a tomb is implied. (It isn’t actually)

        So the circle is complete…. Paul ‘implies’ an empty tomb and an empty tomb implies a resurrection.

        If I talk about a second gunman who shot JFK, that obviously implies there was a second gun.

        How do you explain the fact that there was a second gun?

        And if there was a second gun, doesn’t that imply there was a second gunman?

        Such utterly circular logic is recycled by Christians to ‘prove’ there was an empty tomb.

        Paul says there was a resurrection.

        That implies there was an empty tomb.

        How do you explain the fact that there was an empty tomb?

        And if there was an empty tomb, doesn’t that imply there was a second gunman, sorry, a resurrection?

      • Erm no, a resurrection implies an empty tomb. Ie. Not buried

      • Steven Carr permalink

        No, a resurrection does not imply an empty tomb. Paul claimed Jesusn ‘became a life-giving spirit’, and says flat-out that what goes into the ground dies. Paul knew corpses were dead, and called people ‘fools’ for discussing how corpses could rise.

        Paul goes out of his way to diss the very idea that resurrected beings are made out of the dust that corpses become :-

        1 Corinthians 15

        The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. 47 The first man was of the dust of the earth; the second man is of heaven. 48 As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the heavenly man, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man.

        if you told Paul that dust would become resurrected beings, he would have called you a fool (as he does in 1 Corinthians 15)

        The stupid Corinthians were too dumb to realise that there are two bodies – the natural body which comes first, and which dies, and the spiritual body which comes next.

        these are as different as the Sun and a fish, in Paul’s view.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        Mass hallucination?

        Millions of people claim Jesus has appeared to them on a piece of toast.

        Name one person in history who wrote a document naming himself as ever having seen an empty tomb.

        Yes, there was opposition to the idea of Jesus being resurrected.

        Christian converts in Corinth must have been scoffing at the very idea of their god choosing to raise corpses, so they doubted the idea of a resurrection.

        Paul tells them they are foolish and implies that discussing how their god turns corpses into resurrected beings would be like discussing how a fish could be turned into the moon, or how a bird could be turned into the Sun,

        Paul reminds them that they will be resurrected in the way Jesus was, who (I quote) ‘became a life-giving spirit.’

      • Really? Can you quote where ‘millions’ of people have seen Jesus on toast?

      • Steven Carr permalink

        There are millions of views on You Tube of Jesus appearing on toast.

        Now these are not hallucinations. The toast really does exist.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Hi Rob, let’s keep going here. You have claimed that “a resurrection implies an empty tomb” and Steven suggests this is circular, giving reasons. You claim not and the rest of us can make our own judgements. A separate question is whether a resurrection implies an empty tomb or an empty communal grave. What is the evidence that it was a tomb? I’ve heard Bart Ehman (I think) discussing 1Cor15 and he suggests that the naming of Joseph of A after ‘buried’ in v4 would make the structure of the creed snippet there flow properly. This is evidence that Paul did not know of the tomb tradition.

        So I’m saying there is no good evidence for a tomb as opposed to a communal grave, and some good evidence against. If it is only a grave, then the power of it being thought to be empty is lost.

        Cheers, Ed

      • Good thoughtful points there. My question is why be so hyper skeptical about the tomb tradition? The evidence for the tomb primary comes fron the Gospels as far as I can tell. To dismiss thiss easily would be unwise and an explanation for why the tradition developed from ‘communal grave’ (1 Cor15) to ‘tomb’ in Mark. Thoughts?

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. The tomb tradition is so important because everything else is happening in the disciples’ heads. They think they see Jesus. If there really is an empty tomb that needs explaining then the evidence for the resurrection becomes something to consider seriously.

        The default position would be that if Jesus was crucified then the Romans would not release the body and a communal grave (or left to be eaten by wild animals and vultures) is the expected outcome. Apparently there are no known cases of crucified bodies being released to family or friends. (My memory is a bit flaky here, I think there is a near case that scholars argue over. You may know more on this one.) So evidence is needed to override the communal grave default. As you say, we only have the gospels and there is also the early preaching in Acts.

        My explanation for how the tomb tradition arose is twofold. Firstly, the church community instinctively knew that stories of an empty tomb add gravitas to the resurrection and so if rumours or hints of it began to circulate, then they would be retold. It is in the re-telling that the tradition arises. The second place to look is the fulfilment of prophesy, we see this a lot, eg the convoluted stories to get Jesus born in Bethlehem and then back to Nazareth. The prophesy verse to go for is Is 53v9 “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, …”. The first half gives us (perhaps) the criminals crucified beside Jesus and the 2nd Joseph of A and a tomb – the preserve of the rich.

      • Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll give that some more thought. The key question you would have to explain is, ‘why would the disciples go to such lengths to fabricate such a story?’ ie. why are they trying to add gravitas to a resurrection story (which was already contrary to their expectation?)

      • Steven Carr permalink

        We have not one word from any ‘disciple’ claiming he saw an empty tomb. The unknown authors of the Gospels were not disciples.

        Paul, even when trying to explain what a resurrected body is to Christian converts who were scoffing at the idea of their god raising corpses, has absolutely zero first-hand experience to draw on. He works entirely from theological principles, and concludes that Jesus ‘became a life-giving spirit’

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Thanks Rob. I look forward to your thoughts on this. It is something I’ve thought about and it is great to have someone challenge my thinking directly. …. which is why I’m posting on your excellent forum.

        Regarding ‘why would the disciples go to such lengths to fabricate such a story?’ (1) with Steven I say the tradition does not come from the disciples:- as late as about AD50 Paul writing 1Cor15 does not know of the tradition. And (2) the tradition was probably not consciously fabricated, instead embellishments to the core resurrection story arose in the community. The idea was inferred from prophesy and then, in the telling, gradually became a reported event.

      • I’m about to head off to bed now. Bur will seek to respond tomorrow. I do appreciate your comments, but also the attitude you bring. It’s precisely the type of robust but respectful forum I’d like to create. Thanks and talk soon

      • I’ve thought about this and I think the tomb is implied in 1 Cor 15 (which is very early – much earlier than 50AD). When it says ‘He was buried’. I don’t think the natural reading of this is ‘buried in a common unknown grave’. It implies a conscious and known ‘burial’. Thoughts?

        The other difficulty is I think that the issue over embellishments is more about resurrection than burial. If we acknowledge an early date for the resurrection, then we need to ask, ‘what convinced the disciples, against prevailing expectation (both personal and cultural) to believe they had seen Jesus alive – particularly as no other failed Jewish leader in history had ever led to a belief in the resurrection’?

        Thanks and I’m glad you like my forum. It’s precisely for people like yourself (intelligent enquirers) that I write for. Thanks.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        Great, Thanks Rob.

        On dating ICor15, do you mean the tradition in that creed quoted in the first few verses is earlier than AD50? If so I agree. The letter itself is thought to be about AD50.

        When it says ‘He was buried’ it can mean a tomb, it can mean a communal grave. The point is that there is nothing there to indicate a tomb and you need it to be an identifiable & visitable tomb for the resurrection evidence to have any punch.

        Rob: “The other difficulty is I think that the issue over embellishments is more about resurrection than burial. ” Ed: The embellishments are over the whole narriative. When you have evidence of resurrection embellishments how can you say there are no burial ones?

        Rob: “… then we need to ask, ‘what convinced the disciples, against prevailing expectation (both personal and cultural) to believe they had seen Jesus alive …” Ed: my answer is in the post by me which will be just below this one (until I get replies), basically visions and other religious experiences as people still get today.

        Rob: “particularly as no other failed Jewish leader in history had ever led to a belief in the resurrection’?” Ed: I don’t agree. How about John the Baptist for starters.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        What convinced Paul he had seen a real man from Macedonia when he ‘appeared’ (ophthe) to him in a vision, just as Paul says Jesus ‘appeared’ (ophthe) to him?

        And what convinced Paul that Jesus had ‘become a life-giving spirit’?

        And what convinced Stephen that he had seen Jesus appear to him, when nobody else present could see this alleged Jesus?

  8. Ed Atkinson permalink

    While the 3 minimal facts can and have been contested severely here, how about I try to explain them anyway? There could be numerous explanations, but you only requested one plausible explanation. Here’s a go:

    Jesus was crucified and buried in a communal grave. Peter was heartbroken, feeling guilty and thoroughly mixed up. He had a vision of Jesus as is quite normal for that kind of grief. He was convinced and began to speak of it. Gradually other disciples had experiences and dreams and they were interpreted as ‘appearances’ as well. The legends grew in the community. Even a highly charged parayer meeting could be interpreted as a visitation by Jesus.

    As Jesus was such a charismatic person and well known in his community, people were happy to believe the stories (in the same manner as the gospels say John the Baptist was believed to be risen by many) and the church grew.

    • Possibly, but how did these ‘visions’ turn into ‘appearances”, which turned into ‘resurrection’? These were first century Jews who couldn’t conceive of a resurrection except for the end of the world.

      • Steven Carr permalink


        So these Jews allegedly say Moses return from the grave to speak to Jesus and could not conceive of Moses being resurrected?

        And the New Testament claims some Jews thought Jesus was Jeremiah returned from the grave, but they could not conceive of Jeremiah being resurrected?

        And how did Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia in Acts where the man ‘appeared’ (ophthe) to him turn into an ‘appearance;, such as 1 Corinthians 15 where the same word ‘ophthe’ is used to describe how Jesus ‘appeared’

        Yes, the NT uses the identical word ‘ophthe’ to describe how Jesus ‘appeared’ as it uses for things even Christians claim are just visions.

      • Ed Atkinson permalink

        “Possibly” is all I need as you say in the set up to the discussion: “Edwards’ said quite provocatively (and correctly) that if one plausible naturalistic explanation can be given then the resurrection is unlikely. ”

        To me if you consider my explanation as possible, then I can reject the miracle. By definition a miracle has to be implausible and only accepted if all alternative explanations are ruled out. My explanation is possible, and so the miracle is gone.

        In the light of Steven’s input on the only objections you could provide, the explanation appears to exceed the ‘plausible’ required by Edwards.

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