Cristobal (Christopher) Samuel Cruz self-describes as a naturalist with an inclination towards atheism. He is 24 years old and currently a graduate student working towards a PhD at The University of Southern Mississippi (United States) where he teaches and studies memory. Christopher also works as a clinical assistant at a local addiction center. Christopher will be arguing against the resurrection of Jesus.
James Bishop, 24, is a graduate from Vega School of Brand Leadership specialising in Multimedia Design and Brand Communications. He is currently enrolled at Cornerstone Institute (South Africa) studying Theology and majoring in Psychology. His theological interests encompass comparative religion and the links between science and religion. James will be arguing in favour of the resurrection.
See here for James’s opening remarks.
1st Rebuttals forthcoming on 1/2/2017.
WAS JESUS CHRIST RAISED FROM THE DEAD?
Arguably one of the most important questions that Christians must grapple with is whether there is good evidence to believe that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:14) that “if Christ was not raised from the dead, then our preaching and our faith is useless.” This establishes the resurrection of Christ as one of the most important tenets of Christianity. In Paul’s message, he explicitly states that despite all the faith in God you may have, if Jesus was not raised from the dead then that faith is for nothing. Christian readers of the Bible (and non-Christian’s as well) should be motivated by Paul’s claim to critically analyze the evidence for Christ’s resurrection. As Paul implies, it is not enough to simply have faith that the resurrection occurred, because faith in God is what we are trying to justify in the first place. The aim of this debate is to go beyond faith and look for the evidence. The door to justified faith is only opened if we can show there is substantial evidence for Christ’s resurrection that is also independent of the assumption God already exists (i.e. faith).
However, to look only for confirming evidence that Christ rose from the dead is to give ourselves over to confirmation bias. It is a well-established phenomenon of human psychology that people tend to assign more credibility to evidence that confirms their beliefs and assign less credibility to evidence that disconfirms their beliefs (for a review of the science regarding confirmation bias see Nickerson, 1998). Confirmation bias affects not only human belief, but also human memory. People tend to remember information that supports their already established beliefs better than information that opposes their already established belief (for scientific examples see Frost and colleagues, 2015).
How do we get around this problem of confirmation bias when attempting to provide evidence of Christ’s resurrection? I am going to assume that my opponent will address the confirming evidence of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore, I will address my opponent’s specific claims in our rebuttal. For now, I will examine the evidence that could potentially be disconfirming to the idea that Christ rose from the dead. This potentially disconfirming evidence stems from two assumptions that one must make if they are to be justified in believing Christ rose from the dead. These assumption regard what kind of information historians can give us about events of the past and how the human memory system operates. The goal of this essay is to determine if the evidence privy to these assumptions do, in fact, disconfirm justified belief that Christ rose from the dead.
What Can History Tell Us About Christ’s Resurrection?
What must we assume about history so that belief in Christ’s resurrection is justified? We have to make an assumption regarding the reliability of what historians tell us. But first, what can historians tell us about Christ’s resurrection? They can tell us about independent documents that describe the resurrection and about the history of the documents themselves. Furthermore, many historians look at the evidence presented in these documents and rule out certain possibilities in order to arrive at the only possibility they have not been able to rule out—and in this case, we are trying to determine if Christ’s resurrection is one of these possibilities. This is analogous to what scientists do when testing hypotheses; they rule out all of the hypotheses that would falsify their idea (or what they think is true) so the only option left is the hypothesis that has not been falsified (their idea/what they think is true). This is an appealing method because it doesn’t require you to prove a positive statement; instead, it requires that you disprove a negative statement (another way to circumvent confirmation bias). The logic and methodology is similar to this analogy: if you want to find the needle in the haystack, don’t search for the needle, instead simply remove all the hay and you will be left with your needle.
This method is similar to making the “best game in town” argument whereby we assume that our only option left must be the truth. However, scientists and historians differ in the degree to which they use this method. When scientists rule out hypotheses they are doing it in real time by conducting experiments. This allows them to replicate their findings by being able to rule out the same hypotheses again. Historians, however, do not have the luxury of replication. If science did not have this luxury, their findings would be more subject to scrutiny. After all, their findings could be due to random error and without replication we could never tell. So how do historians stand by their claims about the past in absence of any kind of real time replication of events? They stand by their claims because they can study the evidence and tell us the probability of an event happening. Obviously, this type of reasoning does not apply to events that happened, say, 50 years ago. But as time progresses, the trail of bread crumbs left by historical events begins to dwindle. The further historians go back in time, the more they have to rely on probability.
Assuming that Christ died around 30 AD, we know that historians are analyzing an event that happened almost 2,000 years ago. Note that 2,000 years ago the enterprise of history keeping was radically different than it is today. There was no such thing as peer review. There was no Google to fact check yourself before putting the news out there. There was no knowledge of social science that could inform writers about biases that affect witness testimony. However, we now know what the necessary tools are to create more or less impenetrably reliable accounts of history. Furthermore, we know that whoever documented the accounts of Christ’s resurrection did not have these tools. Because of this, historians must remain skeptical and settle with what probably happened.
This is not a charge against historians. When historians, or any researchers for that matter, seek to discover things, they are always at risk for two types of errors: false positives and false negatives. For a historian, finding a false positive would mean assuming that something is true when it is actually false. Likewise, a false negative would be assuming something is untrue when in reality it is true. If the historian can influence the degree to which they are susceptible to these errors, they will generally want to be less susceptible to false positives than to false negatives. Ideally, we would not want to be susceptible to either type of error, but humans are imperfect creatures and therefore must be held accountable for the reasoning errors they are susceptible to. Historians aren’t the only professionals susceptible to these types of errors. When medical researchers develop drugs that could potentially save lives, for example, they want the likelihood that their drug was a false positive to be quite low (less all the people who take the drug don’t get any better). Thus, when designing the drug, the researchers want to ensure that they are especially controlling for misleading results that don’t actually do what the researchers think they do—or worse, make the problem they are trying to treat even more debilitating.
Historians attempt to circumvent these false positive errors by being extremely skeptical of extraordinary claims regarding the past. This is why historians can only say what probably happened. They don’t want to say something such as “Christ certainly rose from the dead” and subject themselves to the increased possibility of a false positive error. If we want to believe that Christ rose from the dead as a matter of fact, then we cannot look to historians to tell us this information. It seems that we are not granted the luxury of assuming historians can tell us 100% accurate facts about events that happened 2,000 years ago—and this goes for any event, not just Christ’s resurrection. Moreover, the argument regarding the validity of Christ’s resurrection is still debated among professional researchers—making definitive statements even that much more difficult to establish.
Can historians tell us anything useful about Christ’s resurrection? Let us remind ourselves of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. We know that if Christ did not rise from the dead then the doctrine of Christianity is false. Because the entire doctrine of Christianity hinges upon the absolute truth of Christ’s resurrection, it is not enough to say that it was probably true. We need to be able to say that Christ’s resurrection happened with the same confidence that we can say Barack Obama won the 2012 election. Because historians do not provide us the tools necessary for this type of confidence, we have to look elsewhere to establish the validity of Christ’s resurrection.
How Reliable Are Our Sources?
If we cannot look to historians to tell us if Christ rose from the dead, perhaps we can look to the documents ourselves. If we can assume that sources were telling the truth about Christ’s resurrection, then we have good reason to believe that Christ rose from the dead. But can we assume they were telling the truth? After all, there are no first-hand peer reviewed sources of Christ’s resurrection available today. But for sake of argument let us assume that there were such sources available that the authors of the Bible got their information from. Now it becomes important to question whether or not the authors of the Bible had good reason to believe these sources. If we can show that there was good reason for the authors to believe these sources, then we also have good reason to believe that Christ actually rose from the dead.
The first thing we should note is that we know a lot more about eyewitness testimony and memory than we did 2,000 years ago. Indeed, we know more than we did a mere 50 years ago. But how does knowledge of current science inform us about the past? Assuming that the laws of nature remain the same over time, science (especially psychological and cognitive science) can help us interpret how people might have perceived the world in the past based on their actions. The science of memory distortion is especially illuminating to this topic. Before modern technology and record keeping, much information was passed down verbally. Essentially, men (and perhaps women) were tasked with remembering very long texts. This is relevant to the question of Christ’s resurrection because we know that the resurrection story was passed along verbally for about 30 years before it was first written down—requiring a strong and unbiased memory capacity.
Were the memories of these sources so accurate that we are justified in believing Christ’s resurrection? Let us look to the science. It is a well-established scientific phenomenon that when people are exposed to misleading information about an event after it has occurred they can be led to believe this “misleading information” (for summaries of the scientific evidence see Loftus & Hoffman, 1989, Clark & Loftus, 1996). For instance, it has been shown that the simple wording of a question can lead one to “misremember” an event. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus exemplified this in a simple experiment where she showed people a video of a car wreck that resulted from a run stop sign and subsequently asked how fast the car was going when it ran the stop sign or how fast the car was going when it turned right. When asked about whether there was a stop sign in the video, people who were previously asked how fast the car was going when it ran the stop sign, were more likely to say that there was a stop sign compared to the group who was asked how fast the car was going when it turned right. In the next experiment of her study, all participants were shown a video of 8 demonstrators who interrupted a classroom and half were asked whether the leader of the twelve demonstrators was a male and the other half were asked whether the leader of the four demonstrators male. In line with the results from the first experiment, people who were asked a week later about the leader with twelve demonstrators reported, on average, seeing more demonstrators than the participants who were asked about the leader with four demonstrators (Loftus, 1975).
Do Loftus’s experiments (and others like hers) show that we should never trust our memory? Of course not. But, the take away point from the research is that the most subtle of influence (such as the phrasing of a question) can affect how people remember events. This should not make one skeptical of all memory, but it should motivate one to be skeptical about interviews where the interviewer could potentially ask questions in a fashion that allows people to “misremember.” Furthermore, we know that most people alive during the time of Christ were uneducated. It is likely that without an education, one’s working memory was not functioning optimally. This has implications because research has shown that low working memory capacity allows people to be more susceptible to the previously mentioned misleading information and thus false memories (for an example see Jaschisnski & Wentura, 2002).
However, misleading information is not the only thing we have to worry about when it comes to memory distortion. False recognition is also a phenomenon addressed in the scientific literature. Specifically, it has been experimentally shown that people reliably recognize (falsely) features about some event that actually never had the recognized feature. This happens when the falsely recognized feature is in some way related to the actual features of the environment. Experimental examples that establish this as a real phenomenon include methods whereby scientists expose people to some stimuli such as a list of words. After telling the people to remember the words they were presented, the experimenter reads back to the participant the words that were on the original list, but the experimenter craftily smuggles in words that were never on the list—leading people to report that they had seen these smuggled in words before (for experimental examples see Roediger & McDermott, 1959). However, this false recognition phenomenon isn’t limited to lists of words. It has been established that false recognition can be produced for patterns and shapes (Slotnick & Schacter, 2004) and categories (Koutstaal & Schacter, 1997).
What can these types of memory errors tell us about Christ’s resurrection? They make us aware of the fallibility of our memory. We tend to think of our memory system as a library where we store and retrieve information. But this is far from the truth. Memory is stored as mere trace of the original memory. When a memory is recalled this trace explodes into the activation of many brain cells that made up the original memory. But while the memory is being reconstructed from its trace, it is susceptible to change before it gets to its original state. Imagine a tight rope walker attempting to get to the safe ledge. Just as the tight rope walker isn’t safe until he gets to the other side, our memories are not safe until they fully recalled—and even then they might be susceptible to distortion. We know that the people who wrote the Bible and who purported to witness Christ’s resurrection were susceptible to these memory errors because memories errors are actually a symptom a naturally functioning memory system (see Schacter, Guerin, and Jacques, 2012 to hear this explanation spelled out). Therefore, if we want to assume that the writers of the Bible had naturally functioning memory systems, we also have to assume they were susceptible to memory errors.
Emotion and Memory
The final memory error I wish to mention is emotion and its influence on memory. This is arguably the most important aspect of memory to consider due to the emotional connection many of Christ’s followers had with him. For instance, what emotions were Christ’s followers experiencing when he died on the cross? The exact influence of emotion on memory seems to depend on what type of emotion is being experienced. For example, it has been shown that emotionally arousing events can enhance memory for central details, but inhibit memory for peripheral details. Psychologists Loftus, Loftus, and Messo (1987) created two slide shows of an interaction between a customer and a teller and showed them to participants. In one version of the slides, the customer pointed a gun at the teller and in the other version the customer handed the teller a check. Eye movement recordings for the participants who saw the gun version showed longer and more frequent eye fixations than the participants who saw the check version—where attending longer to an event ensures you will remember it better.
This seems to be good news if we want to establish the reliability of resurrection witnesses because surely they were emotionally aroused due to Christ’s death. According to the science, it seems that we should trust them more. But note that experiments like Loftus’s gun experiment show that recall is enhanced, but they say nothing about the accuracy of this recall. Appraisal theories of emotion, however, can tell us more about the accuracy. According to appraisal theories of emotion, particular emotions are evoked depending on how we are currently evaluating (or appraising) our environment (for an analysis of this theory see Lazarus, 1991 and Stein & Levine, 1989). Appraisal theory experiments show us that although all emotions increase recall, what you recall is influenced by your specific emotion. Psychologist Linda Levine (1996) conducted an experiment whereby she manipulated people’s emotion and subsequently measured what features of a story they remembered. There were many results from this study, but one result of interest is the effects of sadness and anger on attention and memory. This is especially important because most likely, Christ’s followers were either angry or sad (or both) when he died. Levine’s experiment showed that people attend to and remember features of their environment that are relevant to fixing the problem that initiated the negative emotion in the first place. The implication of this is that you do not attend to information in the environment that does not help you fix your problem. This might sound reminiscent of the term introduced earlier—confirmation bias. Indeed, confirmation bias is a symptom of our emotions’ biology. Therefore, negative emotions tend to give rise to confirmation bias by funneling our attention to aspects of the environment that we have already established as problematic—leaving room to skip over features of the environment that might disconfirm what we already believe to be the problem.
The results of these scientific findings should make us highly skeptical of the sources used to manufacture the accounts of Christ’s resurrection. But one might think that this relies on the conjecture that these sources were prone to these types of memory errors. As mentioned before, although most of these people were uneducated and probably did not have good working memory—making them more susceptible to memory errors—we don’t have to assume this in order to be skeptical of their testimony. Science has shown us that even people with highly superior autobiographical memory (photographic memory) are just as susceptible to these memory errors as are people with normal functioning memory (Patihis & colleagues, 2013).
Was Jesus raised from the dead? In an attempt to answer this question, we put faith to the side and looked at the evidence from history and science. We established that history can, at best, tell us what most probably happened. But with the story of Christ’s resurrection being such a hotly debated topic among professional historians and the event in question happening before modern science and technology, historians’ probabilistic explanations cannot help us. By looking at science, we established that, although we may not realize it, everyone is prone to memory error. Because of this, we should be skeptical of all reports—not just the report of Christ’s resurrection. Furthermore, the stories of Christ’s resurrection seem to fit easily onto the picture of memory errors science has painted for us. If we want to be confident that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, it is not enough to appeal to historians and we must be able to confidently show that memory errors could not have contributed to the story we now know as Christ’s resurrection. Based on the science I have laid out, I do not believe we are at a point where we can confidently say Jesus rose from the dead. Until someone can provide convincing evidence that these memory errors in no way contributed to Biblical accounts of Christ’s resurrection, we must remain skeptical of the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.