The Resurrection of Jesus and the Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis

Cognitive Dissonance is all the rage these days. In other words, more and more skeptics are trying to postulate that the birth of the Jesus movement is the result of cognitive dissonance. As N.T Wright says:

“One theory which would go against this conclusion [that the rise of Christianity is best explained by Jesus’ bodily resurrection] was very popular a few years ago but is now widely discredited. Some sociologists suggested that the disciples had been suffering from ‘cognitive dissonance’, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence. Failing to take the negative signs on board, they go deeper and deeper into denial, and can only sustain their position by shouting louder and trying to persuade others to join them. Whatever the likely occurrence of this in other circumstances, there is simply no chance of it being the right explanation for the rise of the early church. Nobody was expecting anyone, least of all a Messiah, to rise from the dead. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. When Simeon ben Koshiba was killed by the Romans in AD 135, nobody went around afterwards saying he really was the Messiah after all, however much they had wanted to believe that he had been. God’s kingdom was something that had to happen in real life, not in some fantasy-land.


Nor was it the case, as some writers are fond of saying, that the idea of ‘resurrection’ was found in religions all over the ancient Near East. Dying and rising ‘gods’, yes; corn-kings, fertility deities, and the like. But – even supposing Jesus’ very Jewish followers knew any traditions like that – nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans. No. The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost (the stories are very clear about that), but as a living, bodily human being”-From Tom Wright’s ‘Simply Christian’, p.96-97

Despite Wright’s comments about the cognitive dissonance theory, it is no surprise that it still seems to be quite popular in skeptical circles. There is also a reply to William Lane Craig’s podcast to the cognitive dissonance topic on Infidel’s website called The Cognitive Dissonance Theory of Christian Origins: A Cordial Reply to Dr. William Craig. After reading the response to Craig (feel free to read it), my thoughts are the following:

1.The resurrection claim was very, very, early. It was something proclaimed from the very start. Therefore, if the disciples/Paul invented the resurrection story (based on a cognitive dissonance issue), they did it from the very start. It was not something invented much later.

2.To posit any kind of cognitive dissonance explanation, we are back to some sort of conspiracy theory. In other words, Jesus did not really (literally) rise from the dead in a physical body. The disciples must of made up the appearance accounts because they were faced with contrary evidence. But what is the contrary evidence? Jesus was really still dead in a tomb since his body was somewhere else?

I find it interesting that many New Testament scholars/historians agree that the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.

Allow me to mention few quotes here:

“We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium, pg 230).

“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” (E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, pg 280)

“That the experiences did occur, even if they are explained in purely natural terms, is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever can agree.” (Reginald H. Fuller, Foundations of New Testament Christology, 142)

Therefore, the cognitive dissonance theory has to rely on the hallucination hypothesis.But this has problems and has been dealt with elsewhere.

Or, see N.T. Wright’s 3 part series on this topic:
Part One:
Part Two:
Part Three:

3.The cognitive dissonance hypothesis would have to posit an adequate explanation for the resurrection category itself. Of course, Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God shows that the Greek word for resurrection which is “anastasis” was used by ancient Jews, pagans, and Christians as bodily in nature, with this being the case until much later (A.D. 200).So if the evidence was contrary (meaning Jesus did not appear bodily to them), this means they could of coped with the situation by making up a category to describe what happened to Jesus such as resuscitation, translation/exaltation (as seen in Enoch and Elijah) or apparitions (visions). Hence, it seems if they did want to win converts they could of picked another category other than resurrection.

4. To posit a cognitive dissonance hypothesis, one must assume in order to deal with the contrary evidence (Jesus was dead), they also made up something else that was radically different: a Messiah that was divine. The birth of the Jesus movement and the birth of Christology are inseparable. Paul’s Letters are the earliest records we have about Christology and it is here we see that that the earliest Christology was something from the start. It was not something that evolved over time. And the Christology we see did not stem from the disciples flirtation with religious syncretism, Hellenism, or Polytheism. It is true Jews don’t follow a dead Messiah (as mentioned in the Infidels article). However, is it true the followers of Jesus really punted to some sort of cognitive dissonance?

If we read the Gospels, we see the case for Jesus being divine even before he was crucified. It is not as if the disciples were presented with contrary evidence and they created a deified Jesus afterwards. According to Jewish law, the claim to be the Messiah was not a criminal, nor capital offense. Therefore, the claim to be the Messiah was not even a blasphemous claim. If this is true, why was Jesus accused of blasphemy?

According to Mark 14:62, Jesus affirmed the chief priests question that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Coming Son of Man who would judge the world. This was considered a claim for deity since the eschatological authority of judgment was for God alone. Jesus provoked the indignation of his opponents because of His application of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 to himself.

Also, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God (Matt. 9:2; Mark 2: 1-12). Forgiving sins was something that was designated for God alone (Exod. 34: 6-7; Neh.9:17; Dan. 9:9) and it was something that was done only in the Temple along with the proper sacrifice. So it can be seen that Jesus acts as if He is the Temple in person.

5. The Infidel’s article touched on Jewish messianism. But just because someone leads a messianic revolt does not qualify them as “the Messiah” (notice the capital “M”). Here are some of the figures who claimed royal prerogatives between 4 B.C.E and 68-70 C.E but are not called “the” or “a” Messiah:

1. In Galilee 4 B.C.E.: Judas, son of bandit leader Ezekias (War 2.56;Ant.17.271-72)
2. In Perea 4 B.C.E.: Simon the Herodian slave (War 2.57-59;Ant 17.273-77)
3. In Judea 4 B.C.E.: Athronges, the shepherd (War 2.60-65;Ant 17.278-84)
4. Menahem: grandson of Judas the Galilean (War 2.433-34, 444)
5. Simon, son of Gioras (bar Giora) (War 2.521, 625-54;4.503-10, 529;7.26-36, 154

As far as I know, none of them (as well as the Jewish leader named Bar Kohba) were accused of blasphemy (as Jesus was). By the way, the Sabbatean movement (something mentioned in the Infidels article) is a movement that borrow heavily from the Jesus story (see Boyd/Eddy’s The Jesus Legend, pgs, 154-156). So trying to compare it to the resurrection story is grasping for straws.

I could go on more here. But it seems to me that the cognitive dissonance theory hypothesis turns into a similar argument that we hear when theists are accused of using a “God of the gaps” argument or atheists are accused of using a “nature of the gaps” argument. Hence, we have a gap in our knowledge and look for an explanation. So now it seems we can punt to the “cognitive dissonance of the gaps.” I also should mention that the cognitive dissonance theory has been discussed in detail in Mike Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographal Approach.


8 thoughts on “The Resurrection of Jesus and the Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis

  1. Eric Bess February 6, 2016 / 7:15 pm

    Seems Wright’s response in the quotation is irrelevant. Who cares if no one expected a dying messiah? If they did, there wouldn’t be much of a rationalization to speak of. The explanatory power of the theory consists precisely in the fact that a dying messiah was unexpected.

    Regarding Eric Chabot’s numbered points:

    1. This seems irrelevant. The theory doesn’t depend on late rationalizations. In fact, the theory appears to work better the earlier the rationalizations are made.

    2. A ‘conspiracy theory’ seems incompatible with cognitive dissonance reduction theory. Conspiracies, by their very nature, are designed to deceive, mislead, or conceal, while the dynamics of cognitive dissonance reduction require the (irrational) sincerity of those making the rationalization. It is also unclear any eyewitnesses composed any ‘appearance accounts’. Some people may have claimed to see Jesus, and thought/rationalized they did so in some fashion, but we have little data on the specifics. Reports by some that others saw or claimed to see Jesus can have multiple explanations beyond the assumption (because that’s all it is) that, e.g., everybody mentioned in the few lines of text in 1Cor 15.3-8 shared the same vivid, visual perceptions of Jesus eating fish or giving Bible lessons or whatever…or even that everybody really had ‘experiences’ at all. It’s impossible to establish the scope, variety and nature of any real experiences behind these claims without independent, firsthand data. As a matter of no dispute, we have only Paul, who doesn’t describe his experience at all. The theory isn’t restricted to hallucinations, which only become problematic anyway if you make the kinds of baseless assumptions about the appearances I just discussed.

    3. Sure, resurrection suggested itself because it propped up the millenarian hopes of the movement for resurrection, just as Paul elucidates in 1Cor 15. It was also a popular idea for righteous martyrs as the claim in the gospels about John the Baptist or one of the olden prophets, like Jeremiah, indicates. The religious milieu made it an immediately available live option, The early Christians combined this idea with translation, because they had to account for why Jesus was no longer around doing his job as the messiah. Resurrection was also a suitable claim in denying the moral legitimacy of the Sadducean-dominated body that orchestrated Jesus’s execution. As Claudia Setzer points out, sectarian identity was defined around this boundary vis a vis the Sadducees. Jesus’s new religious movement agreed with resurrection sects, like the Pharisees, in this respect.

    4. I don’t see a remotely relevant issue here. The objection here is unclear.

    5. Komarnitsky’s point is in response to objections that messiah ‘x’ didn’t receive similar rationalizations after their deaths. But that’s to be expected for the reasons Komarnitsky gives. Moreover, to explain something plausibly with reference to the theory doesn’t require that it will always be the case in comparable circumstances. Komarnitsky points that out too. This fifth point doesn’t respond to anything.

  2. chab123 February 7, 2016 / 2:03 am

    Hi Eric,

    In the end, there is not alot of dispute about whether they disciples thought they saw the resurrected Jesus. Many skeptics, atheists, and liberal Christian scholars agree with this. As far as what accounts for the appearances, that can be debated. I have written more about above on the link here. I mention translation and righteous martyrdom, etc…

    As far as first hand accounts, as I discuss in my post here:

    Richard Bauckham notes in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony”the Greek word for “eyewitness” (autoptai), does not have forensic meaning, and in that sense the English word “eyewitnesses” with its suggestion of a metaphor from the law courts, is a little misleading. The autoptai are simply firsthand observers of those events. Bauckham has followed the work of Samuel Byrskog in arguing that while the Gospels though in some ways are a very distinctive form of historiography, they share broadly in the attitude to eyewitness testimony that was common among historians in the Greco-Roman period. These historians valued above all reports of firsthand experience of the events they recounted.

    Best of all was for the historian to have been himself a participant in the events (direct autopsy). Failing that (and no historian was present at all the events he need to recount, not least because some would be simultaneous), they sought informants who could speak from firsthand knowledge and whom they could interview (indirect autopsy).” In other words, Byrskog defines “autopsy,” as a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).

    Byrskog also claims that such autopsy is arguably used by Paul (1 Cor.9:1; 15:5–8; Gal. 1:16), Luke (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41) and John (19:35; 21:24; 1 John 1:1–4).

    As far as Paul and his appearance, I discuss that more here:

    In the end, the only option on the table is some kind of psychological explanation. That’s the only on that’s really debated anymore. That is discussed here:

    Take care.

  3. Eric Bess February 7, 2016 / 5:20 am

    I have already read both of those links, Eric Chabot. Unfortunately, they don’t provide any evidence that addresses anything I wrote. They merely repeat key assumptions, which you’ll need evidence to defend, not repetition.

    Let me elaborate:

    The first link consists largely of quotes stating in various ways that there were people who thought Jesus ‘appeared’ to them. I have already agreed with that. It seems to be a reasonable inference. But that’s a very generally worded claim. It doesn’t tell us who and how many people really thought that; who, if they at least claimed it, was sincere about it; what these instances of ‘seeing’ Jesus were like, and so forth.

    Before you can raise the issue of whether or not claimed visual sightings of Jesus should be attributed to actually seeing Jesus or hallucinations, you first need to defend the presuppositions that inform this (what I take to be false) dichotomy by answering the kinds of questions I posed above…with evidence, not assumption. And your links don’t do that. It’d be hard to do without firsthand accounts.

    Which brings us to your second link, which you think answers the problem I posed of firsthand accounts.

    It doesn’t.

    The earliness of 1Cor 15.3-8 is only good to show that it’s reasonable to believe that some claims were made about seeing Jesus by the people who claimed to experienced those sightings. But that doesn’t tell us very much. There are well over 500 people (the 500 group plus the individuals and other groups mentioned) included in this passage. What is the evidence that all 500+ people claimed this and were sincere about it? What is the evidence that what or who they allegedly ‘saw’ was consistent? What evidence do you for what these ‘appearances’ were like to these people at all? What evidence rules out collusion, mental illness, or the suggestive, coercive influence of prominent figures among the early Christians, etc.?

    With regard to the creed, your second link seems to offer a common line of reasoning: that its earliness means each claim was confirmed of the putative eyewitnesses in a reliable way, such as that Paul wouldn’t have written it unless he, or anyone else who believed it, had good, solid reasons (by rational standards of evidence) to believe it was all true.

    But this is a non sequitur informed by many, unstated, undefended assumptions. None of those assumptions are supported in your links or in the works of apologists generally. If you have this kind of evidence, kindly point me to it. I’ve been looking for it for years. Thanks…

  4. Eric Bess February 7, 2016 / 5:27 am

    Btw the article by Bergeron & Habermas doesn’t answer my questions either. Read it when it first appeared on Habermas’s site. Simply put, their discussion departs from the same kinds of baseless assumptions you do. Thanks.

    • chab123 February 8, 2016 / 4:17 am

      Eric, I will try to respond a little later this week.I have a busy few days ahead of me.

  5. chab123 February 8, 2016 / 4:35 pm


    I now remember you form the past. I got some free time today. Let me respond.

    1. First, you keep saying I make baseless assumptions. Then you ask for evidence that seems to show you really are either asking the wrong questions, or you’re not understanding what I am saying.

    2. The only option really on the table these days is the a psychological explanation. Nobody is challenging the sincerity of the disciples/apostles and asking whether they lied about it anymore. People generally lie for power, sex, or money. We don’t see that in the NT. We see the opposite. So you are asking something (about their sincerity), that really isn’t disputed anymore. You can keep disputing it, but it wouldn’t get a hearing in any of the resurrection debates over the last decade or more. So you can agree that they at least thought they ‘saw’ the risen Jesus. Then you can posit an explanation for it. Most if not all skeptics posit a psychological explanation. But I think Habermas and others have shown that to be problematic. In the end, it may be an issue of one’s worldview simply won’t ever be able to agree that Jesus rose.

    3. You keep harping on the ‘nature’ of the appearances. My post on what resurrection means laid out the possible options for the categories they could of picked from. I was quite detailed on all the options that were on table and what they could of picked from in order to describe the appearances. YOU have to explain why they chose ‘resurrection’ over translation, apparitions, visions, exaltation, and the others. So you need to provide evidence for that.

    I am not providing baseless assumptions one iota. You seem to be looking for a way to ‘interview’ the witnesses and ask “so what did you really see?” All history is in the past, and we have to reconstruct what happened by documents, witnesses and historical causation. You seem to be looking for some kind of certitude which is defined as follows:

    (1) It cannot be challenged by the consideration of new evidence that results from improved observation

    (2) It can’t be criticized by improved reasoning or the detection of inadequacies or errors in the reasoning we have done. Beyond such challenge or criticism, such judgments are indubitable, or beyond doubt

    You won’t get certitude with the resurrection nor for that matter, you won’t get it with much of anything.

    Also, as far as the ‘nature’ of the appearances, if you read the posts carefully (the Paul one as well)….then you would see that I provided evidence (not a baseless assumption), based on exegesis on what Paul meant when he discussed the appearance. Note I also said word studies won’t entirely resolve it.

    You still keep discussing firsthand accounts which I have answered. I am not saying because something is only ‘earlier’ that makes it true. But the evidence is that it isn’t some legend that grew over several decades. The resurrection was being proclaimed from the very start of the movement.

    As I said, “autopsy,” is a visual means of gathering data about a certain object and can include means that are either direct (being an eyewitness) or indirect (access to eyewitnesses).
    You seem to want only direct autopsy. So for you, if we have indirect autopsy, that means we need to be skeptical. I don’t agree and that doesn’t mean I am providing a baseless assumption, Luke’s Gospel shows displays a variety of historical figures that have been confirmed. For example, Luke gives correct titles for the following officials: Cyprus, proconsul (13:7–8); Thessalonica, politarchs (17:6); Ephesus, temple wardens (19:35); Malta, the first man of the island. Each of these has been confirmed by Roman usage. In all, Luke names thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands without an error. (see See Geisler, N. L., BECA, pg 431).

    So are we to say “well, Luke is an example of indirect autopsy, so forget him.”

    My conclusion is you maybe misunderstanding the difference between evidence and assumptions. And because you can’t get certitude with your questions, you just say “oh, that’s a baseless assumption.” We can make a circumstantial case for the resurrection (just like most of anything in the past where we can’t talk to the witnesses directly). See J. Warner Wallace’s work.

    You may want to watch Inspiring Philosophy’s clip as well (see below). It is quite detailed. It is long as well.

    I think that I have laid out my case in my posts here that have answered your questions. If you say “well, I still can’t get my questions answered”..then I conclude we may just have to move on. I wish you well.

  6. Eric Bess February 19, 2016 / 8:18 am

    1. It’s you, I think, who doesn’t understand what I am saying. To be explained shortly.

    2. Your claims about what’s on the table in the scholarship amount to little else but ad populum intimidation, not evidence. You also keep referring to ‘they’ in reference to the appearances, but won’t explain who ‘they’ are, or how your specific claims are generalizable to ‘they’, even though I’ve pointed out this is essential to actually making anything out of your claims. You say I’m looking for ‘certitude’ when I should look to ‘documents, witnesses, and historical causation’. In fact, what I’m doing is pointing out you do *not* have sufficient evidence by way of the latter to sustain the claims you make. Which is why I suspect you are speaking in vague generalities, with consensus assertions as a rear guard. The moment you look deeper, your inferences actually begin to look like overreaching, uncritical non sequiturs.

    3. My ‘harping’ about the nature of the appearances has nothing to do with how they would have been interpreted in terms of ‘categories’ supplied by the religious culture of those you claim experienced the appearances. What I’m saying is more fundamental: what did anyone actually ‘see’ or ‘experience’? You can’t really establish this… you merely assume that what (everyone?) saw was Jesus, probably in a manner depicted in Luke or John, and that these sightings or ‘experiences’ were more or less consistent, etc. But again, I’d like to know how you know this when for the vast majority of people claimed to have experienced an ‘appearance’, there is zero documentation…just a few lines of text. This is not looking for ‘certitude’. It is pointing out your arguments implicitly take for granted assertions for which you have little to no evidence, although it is crucial to have this evidence if your claims should be taken seriously.

    4. I don’t think you’ve posed any significant challenge to my remarks about the dearth of independent, firsthand testimony. Luke making accurate mundane historical claims doesn’t really tell us anything by way of what we would actually want to know. It’s also commonly thought that Luke made a number of embarrassing historical errors. We don’t know what knowledge Luke brought to the table with him, or where what he wrote was the result of his ‘investigation’ or questioning of eyewitnesses. He, in contrast to more critical historians of the era, doesn’t reveal that kind of information. And it has been a notoriously difficult to distinguish between where actual eyewitness information lay, and where it doesn’t.

    Anyway, yeah, I think we’re done here… unless you want to continue.

    • chab123 February 19, 2016 / 2:07 pm

      Okay Eric, sounds good. It is clear we are talking past each other. Just remember, instead of using “baseless assumption” try using the word “assertion.” Hope the Inspiring Philosophy clip helps. I wish you well.

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