Exploring the Limits of Christian Rationality

Ian Hayward Robinson

The Christian apologist Tertullian, in the year 208, was able to write: “the Son of God died; just because it is absurd, it is to be believed: and he was buried and rose again; it is certain, because it is impossible.”

In the age of science and reason, however, such claims are not acceptable. Today, adherents of even the wackiest beliefs try to conjure at least a veneer of rational justification and evidential support. We can’t believe in just anything that takes our fancy if we are to demand intellectual respectability.

This is confirmed by psychological research. In her seminal 1990 paper “The Case for Motivated Reasoning,” Ziva Kunda established that “People do not seem to be at liberty to conclude whatever they want to conclude merely because they want to. Rather . . . people motivated to arrive at a particular conclusion attempt to be rational and to construct a justification of their desired conclusion that would persuade a dispassionate observer. They draw the desired conclusion only if they can muster up the evidence necessary to support it. In other words, they maintain an ‘illusion of objectivity.’”

The main thesis of Kunda’s paper is that there are two distinct orientations toward examining and exploring evidence, depending on your motivation. If your motivation is to be accurate, then you are more likely to utilize those strategies that are most appropriate in the context, regardless of the possible outcome. Research on “accuracy-driven reasoning suggests that when people are motivated to be accurate, they expend more cognitive effort on issue-related reasoning, attend to relevant information more carefully, and process it more deeply, often using more complex rules.” This is the orientation of science.

On the other hand, if your motivation is to arrive at a particular conclusion. you are prone to take into account only those beliefs and investigative strategies that are considered most likely to yield that conclusion. You may mold your route to your desired conclusion in a number of ways: in how you frame the question for investigation; in the type of evidence you take into account; and in the amount of evidence you take into account.

Christians, especially Christian apologists and theologians, are by definition engaged in a process of arriving at a particular set of conclusions: that God exists, that Jesus is the son of God, and so on. They do not start investigating and reasoning about religion to see if religion is true or not but to demonstrate that it is. By and large, they do not seek to convince nonbelievers of this, only to prove to themselves that their beliefs are intellectually acceptable. Even Thomas Aquinas, in his famous “Five Ways” to establish the existence of God, did not set out to prove to his medieval followers that God existed—they already believed this—but to reassure them that their belief was not irrational and could be justified by the intellect.

Kunda’s analysis predicts that a committed Christian will likely frame the question for investigation as something like “How do we demonstrate the veracity of this?” or “How can we show this is true?” This in turn will lead the Christian to use limited reasoning strategies: searching for confirmatory evidence, interpreting ambivalent evidence in his or her favor, seeking out authorities who support the desired point of view, and following the evidence only so far as needed in order to establish the desired conclusion, then subjecting it to no further scrutiny.

To see how this works, let us take as an example an investigation into the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus conducted by William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, California, who runs a website called “Reasonable Faith”—which, by the way, is intended as a tautology, not an oxymoron.

Craig starts off by claiming to be on the side of accuracy and truth: “Suppose, then,” he writes, “that we approach the New Testament writings, not as inspired Scripture, but merely as a collection of Greek documents coming down to us out of the first century, without any assumption as to their reliability other than the way we normally regard other sources of ancient history,” because “it’s crucial that we be able to present objective evidence in support of our beliefs.”

However, he soon reveals that his underlying goal is less open-ended: “We may be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament critics investigating the gospels in this way accept the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus.” There is little doubt that this claim is true, simply because the overwhelming majority of scholars who are at all interested in studying the New Testament closely are committed Christians, mostly in theological colleges, and, like Craig, they will be doing so with the aim of confirming their beliefs rather than finding the truth. With one exception, which we will discuss below, of the “experts” Craig relies on and quotes concerning the substantive issues surrounding Jesus’s resurrection, two are Anglican bishops and the other three are professors of theology.

But if we consult those few Christian biblical scholars who do have the courage to seek the truth and follow the evidence wherever it leads, such as Bart D. Ehrman in America and Gerd Lüdemann in Germany, we find that they conclude that there is no compelling evidence for the resurrection and that this casts doubt on the divinity of Jesus.

Craig does in fact quote Lüdemann, though very misleadingly: “Even Gerd Lüdemann, the leading German critic of the resurrection, himself admits, ‘It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.’” But someone having an experience of a dead person is not the same as, and does not entail, that person actually being there. One of my best friends lost both his daughter and his father in separate tragic incidents; both of them subsequently appeared to him on a neighbor’s lawn and talked to him reassuringly. This is not an uncommon phenomenon. No one supposed they had risen from the dead. Predictably, Craig omits to mention that in his study, The Resurrection Of Christ, Lüdemann actually presented compelling evidence that the resurrection was not an historical event and further argued that this left little, if any, basis for Christian faith.

But rather than asking the objective question “Are the Gospel accounts demonstrably factual?” Craig sets out to confirm his beliefs by establishing as true what he calls four “central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus.” The purported facts are:

• After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

• On the Sunday following the crucifixion, Jesus’s tomb was found empty by a group of his women followers.

• On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus “alive from the dead” (sic).

• The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead, despite their having every predisposition to the contrary.

Now the only accounts of these events are in Christianity’s collection of sacred texts, the New Testament, and these texts are problematic as evidence because they were written many years after the events they describe, are based on hearsay stories by people with a religious message to push, and are rife with contradictions. In Ehrman&r
squo;s words: “They’re not contemporary, they’re not disinterested, and they’re not consistent.”

Despite this, the Christian apologists are content to take the New Testament accounts as historical. Craig declares that we have “four biographies of Jesus” that are “sources of ancient history” and leaves it at that.

But what happens if we are motivated by seeking the truth, hence not ready to leave it at that? Further investigation would show that the story of Jesus is by no means unique. There are many similar stories from many cultures around the world, which folklorists classify as “hero myths” or “hero legends.” Some of them have their origins lost in antiquity, whereas others, such as the legends of Moses or King Arthur, may have been tenuously based on historical figures. The English folklorist Lord Raglan in his book The Hero studied the narrative patterns of a large number of such myths and legends and made a list of twenty-two incidents common to most of the stories. Not all incidents are in every heroic myth or legend, but generally there are enough of them that a common pattern may be discerned. For example, the story of Oedipus has twenty-one of the twenty-two cited incidents: Theseus twenty, Dionysus nineteen, Moses twenty, King Arthur nineteen, and so on. (While many scholars have taken issue with the “myth-ritualist” conclusions that Raglan draws from his data, no one has questioned the accuracy of his initial description of the myths.)

In 1976, the American scholar Alan Dundes took Raglan’s hero-pattern analysis and applied it to the life of Jesus. He found that Jesus “scored” eighteen, which makes him conform to the mythical hero pattern as much as Perseus and more closely than Heracles (seventeen), Jason (fifteen), Apollo (fifteen), Zeus (fifteen), Robin Hood (thirteen) and Siegfried (eleven).

Raglan’s twenty-two incidents, with those applying to Jesus in italics, are as follows: (1) The hero’s mother is a royal virgin; (2) his father is a king and (3) often a near relative of his mother, but (4) the circumstances of his conception are unusual, and (5) he is also reputed to be the son of a god. (6) At birth an attempt is made to kill him (by Herod), but (7) he is spirited away (to Egypt) and (8) reared by foster parents (Joseph) in a far country. (9) We are told nothing of his childhood, but (10) on reaching manhood he returns or goes to his future kingdom. (11) After a victory over the king and/or a giant, dragon or wild beast, (12) he marries a princess (often daughter of predecessor), and (13) becomes king (cf. mock title of “King of the Jews”). (14) For a time he reigns uneventfully and (15) prescribes laws, but (16) later he loses favor with the gods and/or his subjects (Judas) and (17) is driven from throne and city, after which (18) he meets with a mysterious death, (19) often at the top of a hill. (20) His children, if any, do not succeed him. (21) His body is not buried, but nevertheless (22) he has one or more holy sepulchres.

Although some may want to quibble with the applicability of one or other individual incidents, the general outline seems valid, and one can see that the life of Jesus conforms fairly well to the heroic myth/legend pattern.

If a story has the form of a heroic legend, this does not in and of itself prove that it has no basis in reality, but it makes the hypothesis that the Gospels are examples of mythopoesis, the cultural creation of a myth, the most plausible explanation. Myths and legends are not the product of a single person but come out of a process of cultural interchange. Stories spread from person to person and are told and retold in many different versions by many different people. The dissemination of information by oral transmission is subject to a number of well-documented practices that change the original message. People seldom retell a story exactly as they heard it. They recast it in their own words to make it a “good story.” They leave out material they feel is irrelevant and give added emphasis to material they see as crucial.

Another common practice in oral storytelling is to make the events more relevant to the listener by increasing their immediacy. We have all been guilty of this. Instead of acknowledging something as being say third- or fourth-hand, we retell it as something that happened to us or to a close relative or friend who was there at the time. In cultural storytelling, everyone is an “eyewitness.” We find many such eyewitness claims in the New Testament, especially in the Epistles. Such “testimony” claims, valued so highly by believers, are in fact of dubious value in the context of the way the oral transmission of stories occurs.

It should be noted that the inventions, distortions, and omissions that permeate the oral transmission of stories are not deliberate attempts to deceive but the result of largely unconscious processes that characterize all good storytelling. Most of the time we are not aware that we are doing it, and we may firmly believe that we are passing on a factual account.

It is generally accepted that what happened in the case of the Jesus story closely mirrors this mythopoeic process: the stories persisted solely by word of mouth for many decades, and when some of them were finally committed to hard copy, we ended up with a large number of different versions that bear the unmistakable signs of this narrative transmission process in their many replications, inconsistencies, and contradictions. Bart Ehrman explains: “Before the Gospels came to be written, and before the sources that lie behind the Gospels were themselves produced, oral traditions about Jesus circulated, and as the stories about Jesus were told and retold, they changed their form and some stories came to be made up.”

Craig, of course, cannot accept this conclusion and searches for ways of interpreting the texts to make their historicity more plausible. In the first place, he treats the Gospels as four independent, and therefore mutually reinforcing, accounts: “Jesus’s burial is multiply attested in early independent sources. We have four biographies of Jesus by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, . . . not to mention the extra-biblical Gospel of Peter. Thus, we have the remarkable number of at least five independent sources for Jesus’s burial.” But the three synoptic Gospels are not three “independent sources”; they are but three retellings of the same source. John was written too long after Jesus’s death to be considered a “historical source”; the Gospel of Peter was not considered reliable enough by the early church to be included in the canon.

Second, Craig seeks to elevate the many stories about Jesus circulating in the middle of the first century to the status of “traditions,” creating the impression they are more significant than they really are. He refers to “the very old tradition quoted by Paul,” “an old tradition,” “the old tradition cited by Paul,” and “the appearance traditions in the Gospels.” The implicit claim is that the biblical stories must be authentic because they are not merely collations of mid–first-century gossip but both “old” and “traditions.”

The attempt to pass the New Testament sources off as traditions is at odds with the notion that they are eyewitness accounts. My dictionary defines a tradition as “the passing down of beliefs and customs from generation to generation.” In other words, traditions are at the very least second- or third-person accounts, not accounts of people who were actually there.

In his haste to claim traditional status fo
r the many Jesus stories in circulation, Craig uncovers what must be the world’s fastest development of a tradition: “This tradition probably goes back at least to Paul’s fact-finding visit to Jerusalem around A.D. 36, when he spent two weeks with Cephas and James (Gal. 1.18). It thus dates to within five years after Jesus’s death.” I wonder how many generations this “tradition” was passed down through in just five years!

Describing Paul’s journey to Jerusalem as “fact-finding” is to beg the question. Indeed, as George A. Wells has made clear in two recent FREE INQUIRY essays, there are hardly any facts at all about the details of Jesus’s life and death in Paul’s writings. If Paul did visit Jerusalem at that time, he learned next to nothing about the circumstances of the Passion story, which is odd—unless, of course, the story wasn’t in circulation yet.

Craig next claims that the Passion story has “earmarks of historicity” because “when we come to the passion story we do have one, smooth, continuously-running narrative. . . . comparison of the narratives of the four gospels shows that their accounts do not diverge from one another until after the burial.” This is simply not true. To quote Ehrman, from his debate with Craig transcribed on the Reasonable Faith website:

Just take the death of Jesus. What day did Jesus die on and what time of day? Did he die on the day before the Passover meal was eaten, as John explicitly says, or did he die after it was eaten, as Mark explicitly says? Did he die at noon, as in John, or at 9 A.M., as in Mark? Did Jesus carry his cross the entire way himself or did Simon of Cyrene carry his cross? It depends which Gospel you read. Did both robbers mock Jesus on the cross or did only one of them mock him and the other come to his defense? It depends which Gospel you read. Did the curtain in the temple rip in half before Jesus died or after he died? It depends which Gospel you read.

There are many more inconsistencies after the burial, as Craig cannot help conceding, but this concession does not make the inconsistencies before the burial disappear. That there are many conflicting versions of what happened seems to indicate that, by the time the Gospels were written—between thirty and sixty years after the event—no one really knew which, if any, of the competing accounts was the “true” one.

Another “earmark of historicity” advanced by Craig is the curious claim that the resurrection account must be factual because “The [Passion] story is simple and lacks signs of legendary embellishment.” Leaving aside whether a dead body disappearing from a sealed tomb, a series of subsequent “live” appearances by the dead person, and that person’s physically rising up into the sky might conceivably count as “legendary embellishments,” the trouble for Craig with this argument is that if valid, it implies its corollary: that those parts of the Bible that are not simple and/or do have signs of “legendary embellishment,” such as virgin birth, walking on water, or raising the dead, are therefore not factual.

As well as these general points aimed at shoring up the credibility of the Gospel stories, Craig argues that certain story elements in the Gospels could not have been invented by early Christian storytellers because they went against their beliefs, and therefore these elements at least must be true.

In the first of these, Craig argues: “As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention. There was strong resentment against the Jewish leadership for their role in the condemnation of Jesus (1 Thess. 2:15). It is therefore highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus who honors Jesus. . . .” Craig seems ignorant here of one of the main devices of good storytelling, narrative irony. A good storyteller will introduce ironies, such as “a member of the court that condemned Jesus” being the same person who “honors Jesus by giving him a proper burial” in order to heighten the impact.

The power of narrative irony was illustrated once again in 1992 when rumors began circulating that Bobby McFerrin, the writer of the 1988 hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” had committed suicide. Because this story appealed to our sense of irony, it spread quickly. However, it wasn’t true. At the time of writing, McFerrin was still alive and at sixty-two years old, still performing and conducting.

If you can show that someone who might be expected to be against you is now for you, this seems to strengthen your case. Craig himself uses this strategy later when he invokes a Jewish expert to his cause: “one of the world’s leading Jewish theologians, the late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at Hebrew University in Israel, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead!” (Craig’s italics and exclamation mark).

The second story element claimed to be unacceptable to the early Christians is the story of the women at the tomb. Craig argues: “The fact that women’s testimony was discounted in first century Palestine stands in favor of the women’s role in discovering the empty tomb. . . . Any later legendary story would certainly have made male disciples discover the empty tomb.” But, as Ehrman points out, this ignores the fact that the story appears first in Mark’s Gospel, and the central theme of Mark’s version is that it was the outsiders, not the establishment, who recognized Jesus for what he was. It is perfectly consistent with Mark’s intentions in writing his account that women (second-class citizens) find the empty tomb.

Finally Craig argues that if “the original disciples believed in and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’s resurrection,” then the event must have actually occurred. But this conclusion goes beyond the evidence. It is only necessary for the disciples to have believed that Jesus’s resurrection occurred; it is not necessary for it to have actually occurred. If we assume that every time someone is willing to die for a belief, that belief is ipso facto true, and then we will also have to believe that Allah dictated the Qur’an to Muhammad and mandated jihad; that Jonestown, Guyana, was a socialist paradise; and that if you were transported to the alien spacecraft trailing behind Comet Hale-Bopp, you could reach a new level of existence.

Moreover, Craig overstates the danger to the disciples. To believe in Jesus’s resurrection was not an immediate death warrant. We know comparatively little about the eleven disciples left after Judas allegedly committed suicide. Basically, all we have is a number of dubious legends (or traditions, if you prefer). Such legends indicate that most of the disciples lived for quite some time after the crucifixion and had eventful lives, preaching the risen Christ and often traveling extensively, even to India. It was certainly not the case that immediate execution was hanging over their heads the minute they took the pledge. True, according to these same legends, all of them except John eventually met grisly ends as martyrs, but this is more a function of storytelling convention than historical inevitability. If you were to be depicted as a saint in the early Church, a martyr’s death was de rigueur. You can read about literally hundreds of such deaths in the incredible medieval collection, The Golden Legend, attributed to Jacobus de Voragine, archbishop of Genoa, in 1275, which as well as martyrdoms contains copious miracles and plentiful resurrections. Most of the stories are so far-
fetched that even the church no longer recognizes their alleged protagonists as real historical saints. But back in the first and second centuries, the genre was flourishing.

To sum up, in his attempt to establish the historicity of the resurrection, William Lane Craig is selective about the authorities he consults, does not subject the evidence to rigorous enough analysis, mischaracterizes the texts and the facts they relate, and problematically interprets ambiguous information in a manner that would support his cause.

Christians such as Craig do not, despite his claim to the contrary, come to an examination of the New Testament texts with the intention of discovering whether they are true or not but with the intention of establishing that they are true, and this distorts their investigative program.

Scientists start off not knowing the answer and go wherever the evidence takes them until they have uncovered the truth, whatever it may be. Christians start off believing that they already know the answer and that their investigation is just a means to an end; they stop as soon as they have reached their desired destination. The quintessential Christian intellectual activity is not reasoning but rationalization.



Caxton, William, trans. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. 1483. Available on Fordham University’s Internet History Sourcebooks Project. http://www.fordham.edu/Halsall/basis/goldenlegend/.

Dundes, Alan. “The Hero Pattern and the Life of Jesus,” in In Quest of the Hero, edited by Robert A. Segal. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, HarperCollins, 2012.

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: The Free Press, 1991.

Kunda, Ziva. “The Case for Motivated Reasoning.” Psychological Bulletin 108, No. 3 (November 1990): 480–98.

Lüdemann, Gerd. The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2004.

Raglan, Lord. The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth and Drama. New York: Vintage, 1956.

Segal, Robert A., ed. In Quest of the Hero. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Wells, George A. “Jesus: What’s the Evidence?” FREE INQUIRY, August/September 2011.

Wells, George A. “The Basis of Paul’s Ideas of Christ. ” FREE INQUIRY, April/May 2012.


Ian Hayward Robinson

Ian H. Robinson is president emeritus of the Rationalist Society of Australia and a former editor of the Australian Rationalist. He has taught Story Structure and Myths and Symbols at the Chisholm Institute of Technical and Further Education in Melbourne, Australia.

Today, adherents of even the wackiest beliefs try to conjure at least a veneer of rational justification and evidential support.

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