A Look at the Cognitive Dissonance Objection

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. By the way, Michael Brown’s latest book compares the messianic movement of Jesus with other messianic movements. He does have a chapter on the cognitive dissonance theory. Also, see J.P. Holding’s book on the topic. 

Here is a clear definition of cognitive dissonance:

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when your beliefs run counter to your behaviors and/or new information that is presented to you.1 People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so when what you hold true is challenged or what you do doesn’t jibe with what you think, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance (lack of agreement). A classic example of this is “explaining something away.”= see Cognitive Dissonance, When Behavior and Beliefs Disagree by Kendra Cherry, at https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012.

We see the following features of this theory:

  1. The phenomenon of cognitive dissonance begins with an expectation (arising out of a deep longing or yearning) for some particular state of affairs that is followed by a disappointment of that expectation.
  2. The group cannot reconcile itself to the fact that its deepest yearning has been disappointed, and so it perpetuates a state of denial that then provokes it to reorganize its view of reality to conform to this denied state of affairs.
  3. Suppose the early disciples experienced cognitive dissonance; that is, they really wanted Jesus  to be the Messiah, and they were very disappointed when Jesus was crucified.
  4. Being unable to reconcile themselves to this fact, they reorganized their reality to resolve their dissonance and disappointment by projecting His resurrection into their reality. They further reinforced their perspective by adding converts to their ranks. (see R.J. Spitzer, God So Loved The World: Clues to Our Transcendent Destiny from the Revelation of Jesus: Happiness, Suffering, and Transcendence-Book 3 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press. 2016), 171-172.

Thus, what we see here is that since there was no real, physical, raised Jesus, and out of their deep longing for Jesus to be the Jewish Messiah, the disciples created the resurrection appearances stories out of their need to help them cope with their disappointment. There is no doubt this takes us right back to the problems with the false testimonies and hallucination hypothesis.  Here are some my my thoughts.

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 have made up the appearance accounts because they were faced with contrary evidence.  So when read the Book of Acts. we see the following;  

”This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.”- Acts 2: 32

“And you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”- Acts 3:15

“And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”- Acts 5: 32

“And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. ”- Acts 10: 39

“But God raised him from the dead,  and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people.”- Acts 13: 31

But what is the contrary evidence? Jesus was really still dead in a tomb since his body was somewhere else? This puts us back to the problem of why the Jewish leadership or the Roman leadership would not have known where the body was. Or, why would the disciples hide the body and then say Jesus has risen. Furthermore, to cope with their disappointment, why did they say “Jesus is risen.” They had other categories to chose from.

3. The cognitive dissonance explanation would still need to explain the various mutations that took place. 

Skeptics may say the disciples where conditioned to already believe Jesus would rise. Yes, Jesus did predict his death and resurrection. But all one has to do is read the Gospels and they can see the disciples were confused about what he was saying. Also, after he died, there was no expectation he would rise. One can see the confusion and doubt.  Furthermore, there is very little evidence there was any messianic expectation of a Messiah who would rise.

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 a 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. 

Let’s observe the list of appearances:

• Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, shortly after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
• Jesus appears to the women returning from the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10)
• Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
• Jesus appears to Peter ( Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
• Jesus appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
• Jesus again appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. At this time Thomas is present (John 20:24-29).
• Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 28:16; John 21:1,2)
• Jesus is seen by 500 believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
• Jesus appears to James ( 1 Corinthians 15:7)
• Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
• He appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:50-53).
• He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8).

Within, psychology, it is heavily debated whether there is any evidence  for group hallucinations. Yes, individual hallucinations occur. But there  is very  little evidence for group hallucinations.

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

Also see:

The Resurrection of Jesus: a Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of EasterJoseph W. Bergeron, M.D. and Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D

Mike Licona: Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?

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. 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. Can we use cognitive dissonance with other messianic movements and then apply it to the Jesus movement?  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 borrows 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 Historiographical Approach.