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History, Culture, and the Brain

Thursday, April 07, 2011 at 07:27 AM EDT

I recently watched the debate between apologist William Lane Craig and historian Bart Ehrman on the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. As a historian in training, I naturally take special interest in this particular issue. My overall impression after watching the debate is that Craig lacks an understanding (willful or not) of the quality of his sources, the complexity of human psychology, and the power of culture, particularly when it comes to theological impulses. Finally, the reasoning with which he argues that the gospels are reliable sources, and could not have been produced if the story of resurrection is untrue, falls apart completely when one considers that using his same criteria, he ought to have passionate belief in other theological systems which are just as well attested to -- and more recently -- than the resurrection of Jesus.

First, let me give a quick outline of Craig and Ehrman's arguments. There were many point-counterpoints in the debate, and if you want a more detailed account I will direct you to either the transcript of the debate or the video of the debate. Here, I want to focus mostly on broader differences I notice between theological views of human nature and society and the skeptical and/or atheist view.

But first, a brief summary. Basically, Craig leans heavily on scholars who all agree that four events were likely to have happened based on the gospels: one, Jesus was buried by Joseph of Arimathea, two, Jesus' empty tomb was found empty by a group of women followers, three, different people on different occasions experienced (or reported experiencing) Jesus after his death, and four, the disciplines became absolutely convinced that Jesus had rose again despite "their having every predisposition to the contrary." Craig cannot think of any other explanation other than resurrection that accounts for these historical "facts" -- and the scare quotes are present because, obviously, agreement on these ‘facts' is more contentious than Craig presents it to be. Craig also offers an elaborate mathematical equation -- yes, an equation -- with which he tries to show that given the background information of the circumstances of the resurrection story, the miraculous explanation actually comes out looking highly probable. This equation is, of course, nothing but smoke and mirrors and I highly doubt could convince anyone and probably even embarrassed some Christians in the audience.

Ehrman counters by exhaustively explaining that while he does not categorically reject a miracle as an explanation, its acute unlikelihood means that many other explanations are far more likely, even when they themselves are not highly probable. He also makes clear that the explanation of Jesus' Resurrection itself depends on a preformed theological belief -- that Jesus was the son of God and, that God exists in the first place -- which must be assumed in order for the resurrection explanation to hold any water. But historians of course are not in the business of pronouncing upon whether or not God exists, as it is not a question that can be supported by historical evidence. Most importantly, he disputes the understanding that Craig has of the "four facts," explaining how such claims could come to be made without the narrative unfolding in the literal way Craig wants to interpret the gospels. Ehrman offers several possibilities for how the story of the resurrection came to be, and he also offers the explanation he actually embraces. They are:

1) Jesus' family was resentful that he was buried by strangers (not family) and, I would add, perhaps were jealous about how Jesus had abandoned his family in general to devote his loyalty to his apostles instead, and broke into the tomb to steal the body and rebury it somewhere else in a family plot/location. The body is discovered missing, and the stories ensue.

2) Ehrman mentions that there is a tradition from Syriac Christianity where Jesus had an identical brother, and people actually mistook this brother for Jesus himself. This would certainly go rather far in sparking stories about the resurrection of Jesus. Again, Ehrman does not think this likely -- but he rightly points out that it is far more likely than a supernatural miracle.

3) Finally, Ehrman presents his historically sophisticated personal view of how the Resurrection stories were produced. I will quote this in full as he puts it perfectly:

"The one thing we know about the Christians after the death of Jesus is that they turned to their scriptures to try and make sense of it. They had believed Jesus was the Messiah, but then he got crucified, and so he couldn't be the Messiah. No Jew, prior to Christianity, thought that the Messiah was to be crucified. The Messiah was to be a great warrior or a great king or a great judge. He was to be a figure of grandeur and power, not somebody who's squashed by the enemy like a mosquito. How could Jesus, the Messiah, have been killed as a common criminal? Christians turned to their scriptures to try and understand it, and they found passages that refer to the Righteous One of God's suffering death. But in these passages, such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22 and Psalm 61, the one who is punished or who is killed is also vindicated by God. Christians came to believe their scriptures that Jesus was the Righteous One and that God must have vindicated him.

And so Christians came to think of Jesus as one who, even though he had been crucified, came to be exalted to heaven, much as Elijah and Enoch had in the Hebrew scriptures. How can he be Jesus the Messiah though, if he's been exalted to heaven? Well, Jesus must be coming back soon to establish the kingdom. He wasn't an earthly Messiah; he's a spiritual Messiah. That's why the early Christians thought the end was coming right away in their own lifetime. That's why Paul taught that Christ was the first fruit of the resurrection. But if Jesus is exalted, he is no longer dead, and so Christians started circulating the story of his resurrection. It wasn't three days later they started circulating the story; it might have been a year later, maybe two years. Five years later they didn't know when the stories had started. Nobody could go to the tomb to check; the body had decomposed.

Believers who knew he had been raised from the dead started having visions of him. Others told stories about these visions of him, including Paul. Stories of these visions circulated. Some of them were actual visions like Paul, others of them were stories of visions like the five hundred group of people who saw him. On the basis of these stories, narratives were constructed and circulated and eventually we got the Gospels of the New Testament written 30, 40, 50, 60 years later."

In this single passage, Ehrman demonstrates that he understands a couple of things that seem to completely escape Craig. Firstly, Craig does not seem to grasp the fact that people make shit up. It really is that simple. And this is not that difficult to demonstrate -- even in our full-fledged modernity, with video cameras, the internet, and every conceivable mode of documenting What Actually Happened, there are still false stories and claims generated every year, nearly every day. Most of these can be disposed of through fact checking, but there is no fact checking something that supposedly happened over 2,000 years ago. Yet even today, false claims about reality still survive -- some Southerners like to claim that the Civil War was not fought over the expansion of slavery. This is obviously and completely untrue, and can be documented endlessly by a million primary sources. And yet, people believe it is true, and write entire books attempting to document the reliability of their account of this merely 150 year old event. Do these people know they are lying? Sometimes, but usually not.

Which brings us to the second thing that Craig does not understand. Especially when it comes to matters of religion, we are usually not dealing simply with good people who tell the truth and bad people who lie. People come to sincerely believe things that are not true. People do this all the time. People have visions; people are gullible; people will embellish a story they heard from someone else who heard it from someone else, and before you know it the three people who thought they saw Jesus becomes several hundred people who were absolutely sure they saw Jesus. Culture and religion bring human beings meaning, and especially in a time where most people did not have the knowledge to distinguish, for example, between a dream or a vision and something that was occurring in reality, there is every temptation to accept a resurrection story as gospel truth. The human brain has quite the tendency to believe things that are not true -- and this is particularly so in regard to theological issues, because questions of heaven and hell, God and the soul, spark in us a most primitive need for explanation, for belief. Furthermore, they are not routinely subjected to the usual course of common sense.

I have noticed this is a distinct difference between atheists and theists: while atheists understand the complexity and deception of the human brain, theists seem to have completely missed out on the last several decades of neuroscience, not to mention historical scholarship. They seem to still believe that our brains are reliable recorders, absorbing facts as they exist in the real world and then forming perfect, accurate memories of events. They do not seem to believe in the subconscious, nor do they contemplate the reality and significance of various mental illnesses, nor do they think our brains ever deceive us, ever make us experience a sensation or a thought that isn't accurately understood by our consciousness. Culture, apparently, has no influence over us, and had no influence over the people who lived in the time of Jesus. We do not search for meaning through symbols and shared assumptions, subject to change but incredibly powerful in the influence they exert on our brain's attempts to interpret events -- no, human beings -- especially those who lived in the time of Jesus -- see everything for what it is, and are never deceived. Perhaps most importantly, we always have complete control over our brains; we are completely in the driving seat.

Of course, all of Craig's logic is shown for what it is -- a predisposition to belief based on emotional needs rather than intellectual evaluation -- when simply applied to other religions. Because Craig so liked to talk about the "four facts" and how many people supposedly experienced and witnessed the resurrected Jesus, my favorite example to point out the problem with this is the golden plates of Mormonism. Mormonism, might we remind Craig, started a measly 180 years ago, the personal witnesses to the plates were all living when these first hand accounts were written down (this is something we lack entirely with the gospels) and all together we have twelve people (including Smith) who claim to have seen these magical golden plates with their own eyes. Based on Craig's own logic, why would these people ever say they saw these plates if they did not? Surely no one would make something like that up. Well, Craig might retort, they saw something, some forgery Joseph Smith had produced, and they mistook it for something real. But certainly this could never happen with the resurrection of Jesus -- no one could have ever thought they saw Jesus, either through a vision, a dream or someone who looked like him, and be mistaken. The inconsistencies are glaring. Either Craig should accept the reality of the golden plates and convert to Mormonism, or he should question his own cheery assumptions about how so impressively reliable the gospels are.

A dozen other examples to this extent could be found. Matt McCormick has given the ingenious example of the Salem Witch Trials, where claims about witchcraft were just as well documented as the resurrection, and yet no one believes the women hanged were actually witches. (Or one might believe some of them were trying to practice witchcraft, but just as believing that Jesus' followers thought something had happened does not mean Christianity is true and God exists, believing that some of the women in Salem were up to something does not mean Satan is real and was in cahoots with them.) At one point, Craig put forward the absurd argument that since early Christian believers were willing to die for their faith in the resurrection, it is unlikely they could have been so devoted to something that never happened. Well I suppose that means the cult Heaven's Gate has just as solid a claim to our salvation as Christianity, as do Islamic suicide bombers. Indeed, to argue that a wiliness to die is somehow an indicator of the truth of the belief one dies for is a dangerous argument to make in this day and age.

At the end of the day, the historical understanding of apologists seems to be rooted very deeply, it seems to me, in two things -- a lack of understanding about how molded by cultural assumptions and needs human beings are, and a near total disregard for how powerful and ultimately, outside of our control our own brains are. The denial of these two things, an understanding of which is central to mankind's navigation of life in modernity, ultimately rests, I believe, in fear -- the fear of uncertainty, the fear of ambiguity, the fear of lacking control over one's self and one's fate. And these are precisely the fears that religion is designed to assuage. We all share these fears and insecurities, and to struggle with them is deeply human. So too, I am afraid, is the strategy of coping with them by refusing to face them.