II. Comparing Cases
III. Supernatural Cases
A. The Spiritualist Church
B. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
C. The Well to Hell
D. The Missing Day
IV. Naturalistic Explanations
A. Skeptics Do Not Need Naturalistic Theories
B. Skeptics Have Naturalistic Theories
V. Something Happened and the Story Grew
A. Anything Might Have Happened
B. People See Things: Hallucinations, Visions, and Spiritual Eyes
C. People Invent Weird Stories
D. Good People Tell Tales
E. People Believe Weird Stories
F. When Prophecy Fails
VI. Unreliable Evidence
VII. Stronger Evidence for Spiritualism
When I practiced law judges seldom cared about my opinions or beliefs about any legal issue when I appeared in court. They considered my arguments if I cited legal authority that supported my position. That is exactly what I did in my previous brief on legal apologetics, “You Be the Judge: An Unopposed Brief Challenging Legal Apologetics.” I now venture into an area in which statutes and case law provide little guidance—evidence of supernatural events, especially Jesus’ resurrection. Nonetheless, I hope you will find my observations to be interesting.
II. Comparing Cases
Christian evidentialist apologists often claim to have “strong” evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, but what does that mean? Strong as compared to what?
A court compares the case it is deciding to previous cases to determine the strength of evidence. For example, drug dealers often use boats to transport drugs, but just being on the boat doesn’t make a person guilty. Courts have developed guidelines about the kind of facts that show a person knew about drugs on a boat. A small boat, a small crew with a close working relationship, a long voyage, and a huge quantity of smelly marijuana amount to strong evidence that crewmembers knew about the drugs. A passenger on a short voyage in a big ship containing a few ounces of cocaine hidden in the captain’s quarters would be weak evidence of the passenger’s guilt.
Analogizing cases is more art than science, but other cases still provide a standard of comparison. Evidence is sufficient if it is equivalent to or stronger than evidence considered sufficient in analogous cases. Conversely, evidence is insufficient if it is equivalent to or weaker than evidence considered insufficient in analogous cases.
Case law provides no such guidelines for evaluating evidence for supernatural events. The physical facts rule bars all evidence of miracles, so no cases compare one miracle to another. Evidentialists cannot show that evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is equivalent to or stronger than analogous cases finding sufficient evidence for miracles because no such cases exist. Likewise, no cases discuss insufficient evidence—as opposed to no evidence—for miracles.
III. Supernatural Cases
Because no legal cases discuss sufficiency of evidence for miracles, I must resort to analogizing the Resurrection to supernatural claims never discussed in court. I focus on four supernatural “cases”—two religions (Spiritualism and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and two urban legends (the “Well to Hell” and the “Missing Day”). I outline only a few salient facts for each, and I suggest you read more about them on your own.
Both Spiritualists and Mormons contend evidence supports their faith. Although some Christians believe in a spirit realm inhabited by demons, angels, and a God who art in Heaven, I can reasonably assume that non-Mormon Christian apologists—such as Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, and William Lane Craig—do not believe Spiritualist or Mormon evidence. Likewise, leading apologists probably do not believe my two urban legends.
I can therefore use these supernatural cases to provide a standard of comparison for insufficient evidence. Evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is insufficient because it is equivalent to or weaker than evidence in other “cases” in which evidentialists believe the evidence is insufficient to prove a miracle.
A. The Spiritualist Church
Many people think Spiritualists are all fortunetellers and con artists. Spiritualism is a religion with believers as sincere and reverent as any other religion. However, I am more interested in the religion’s early history than with its present beliefs and practices.
Spiritualism as now practiced by Spiritualist churches began as a children’s prank. Kate Fox (aged 15) and Margaret Fox (age 11) of Hydesville, New York could make cracking noises with their toe joints while standing perfectly still. On March 31, 1848 the sisters used this talent to convince their mother that a ghost had contacted them through “spirit rappings.” The story spread, and the girls’ ability to summon spirits on demand caught the public’s imagination. They became mediums and held séances attended by famous and influential figures such as James Fennimore Cooper and William Lloyd Garrison.
The sisters inspired imitators, and soon mediums were holding séances throughout America and Europe. In addition to rapping, spirits communicated through a wide array of “manifestations,” including physical materialization. With no real hierarchy or organization, Spiritualism developed into a loose-knit religion with millions of true believers. It included in its ranks US Congressmen, European nobility, and other influential people such as newspaper editor and presidential candidate Horace Greeley.
Spiritualists claimed to base their religion on scientific evidence, and scientists investigated their claims. Spirit manifestations withstood skeptical investigation surprisingly well for the first four decades after 1848. In 1853 the distinguished chemist Professor Robert Hare investigated Spiritualism in order to “stem the tide of popular madness … of the gross delusion called Spiritualism.” Despite his initial opposition, Professor Hare ended up believing in the spirit world. In 1855 he published his scientific proof of Spiritualism in Experimental Investigation of the Spirit Manifestation.
Spirit manifestations likewise convinced other eminent scientists. In 1874 Sir William Crookes, one of the most eminent scientists of his day and the discoverer of the element thallium, also investigated spirit manifestations. Among other experiments, he tested the medium Florence Cook and her spirit guide, Katie King. Skeptics had claimed Katie was merely Ms. Cook in disguise, but Katie materialized at Sir William’s home laboratory. He saw both Katie and Miss Cook at the same time, and examined both closely enough to determine Katie’s ears were not pierced while Ms. Cook wore earrings. Katie allowed Crookes to touch her, and the scientist found the materialized spirit to be “as material a being as Miss Cook herself.” Crookes concluded the evidence for Spiritualism was “unprecedented”:
I say unprecedented, because, although we have records of many popular delusions of similar kind and equal magnitude, and speculative delusions among the learned, I can cite no instance of skillful experimental experts being utterly, egregiously, and repeatedly deceived by the mechanical action of experimental test apparatus carefully constructed and used by themselves.
After almost 40 years, skeptics finally made real progress toward exposing fraudulent mediums. In 1882 several British thinkers formed the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) with the stated purpose to investigate psychic phenomena with an open mind. The SPR included both skeptics and Spiritualists, but the skeptics were more persuasive. A series of articles in 1886 and 1887 exposed many tricks commonly used by mediums.
From 1884 to 1887 the Seybert Commission, a group of University of Pennsylvania faculty members, uncovered fraud by several prominent mediums. Committee members attended séances, and H. H. Furness made some particularly keen observations about materializations:
It is, I confess, a very puzzling problem to account for the faith, undoubtedly genuine, which Spiritualists have in the personal reappearance of their departed friends…. Again and again, men have led round the circles the Materialized Spirits of their wives, and introduced them to each visitor in turn; fathers have taken round their daughters, and I have seen widows sob in the arms of their dead husbands. Testimony, such as this, staggers me.
Furness explained that no one else seemed to notice that all the materialized spirits bore an uncanny resemblance to the medium. Nonetheless, “one after another, honest men and women at my side, within ten minutes of each other” recognized their own dear departed. When questioned, the bereaved made such comments as: “Are you saying I cannot recognize my own husband?”
In 1888 the Fox sisters admitted their original spirit contact forty years earlier had been a hoax. Margaret Fox stated: “After I expose it I hope Spiritualism will be given a death blow. I was the first in the field and I have a right to expose it.” However, the sisters later recanted their admissions, and they had little effect on the faithful.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became Spiritualism’s most notable champion, and the modern Spiritualist church still considers his book—The History of Spiritualism, Volume I and Volume II—to be a definitive text. In his memoirs, the Sherlock Holmes creator also gave his eyewitness account of materialized spirits: “I have seen my mother and my nephew, the young Oscar Hornig, as plainly as ever I saw them in life—so plainly I could almost have counted the wrinkles of one and the freckles of the other.” “I have seen spirits walk round the room in fair light and join in the talk of the company.”
In the 1920s, magician Harry Houdini—one of Doyle’s good friends—became the most ardent opponent of fraudulent mediums. Houdini objected to mediums using the tools of his honorable profession to mislead people, a grievance similar to my attitude toward legal apologists. Houdini conducted an anti-Spiritualist crusade in which he exposed mediums’ tricks on stage and attended séances in disguise, accompanied by a reporter and police officer.
However, Houdini recognized that fake mediums were not necessarily bad people. In 1926 he made a joint appearance with Anna Clark Benninghofer, a reformed medium who explained: “I really believed in Spiritualism all the time I was practicing it, but I thought I was justified in helping the spirits out…. I thought I was justified in trickery because through trickery I could get more converts to what I thought was a good and beautiful religion.”
Present-day Spiritualists still believe it is a good and beautiful religion, but most of them place less emphasis on parlor tricks than did their Victorian predecessors. Nonetheless, some Spiritualists still write eyewitness accounts of materialized spirits, and mediums have even photographed and recorded visitors from the spirit world. Thousands of believers have gathered in Lily Dale, New York every year since 1879.
For further reading, I recommend Ronald Pearsall’s The Table-Rappers (1972) and Massimo Polidoro’s The Final Séance: The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle (2001).
B. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
The introduction to the Book of Mormon explains it “is a sacred record of peoples in ancient America, and was engraved on sheets of metal.” Joseph Smith, a young farm laborer and sometimes treasure hunter in western New York claimed that in 1827 an angel named Moroni told him where to find these metal plates. Smith gathered a few followers while he translated the engravings into English from “reformed Egyptian,” a language not seen before or since. Smith translated the plates using seer stones, magic rocks that Smith had previously used while hunting for buried treasure. Smith showed the plates to eleven people. The Book of Mormon begins with “The Testimony of Three Witnesses” and “The Testimony of Eight Witnesses,” in which the witnesses solemnly affirm that they saw the plates and their engravings. The eight witnesses added that they “hefted” the plates.
In his History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Smith later described in detail the story behind the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses.” In June 1829 or shortly thereafter, Smith took Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery into the woods to “try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer” a “view” of the plates. They prayed. Nothing happened. They prayed again. Nothing happened. Harris withdrew some distance because he felt unworthy. Whitmer, Cowdery, and Smith then saw an angel holding the plates. His work done with Whitmer and Cowdery, Smith left them and found Harris. Smith later explained:
We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, “‘Tis enough; ’tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;” and jumping up, he shouted, “Hosanna,” blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.
Notice that Smith wrote that the three witnesses saw the metal plates in a “vision,” a detail not mentioned in the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” or in current Mormon literature. Smith provided no information regarding how the eight witnesses “hefted” the visionary plates. John Gilbert, the typesetter for the first edition of the Book of Mormon, claimed to have questioned Martin Harris about the plates:
I said to him, — “Martin, did you see those plates with your naked eyes?” Martin looked down for an instant, raised his eyes up, and said, “No, I saw them with a spiritual eye.”
In sum, the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” and that of the Eight Witnesses claim that witnesses saw and/or physically hefted plates, but Smith describes only a visionary experience for the three witnesses. Smith is maddeningly imprecise about whether any other person saw the physical plates, and he did not seem to need the plates for the translation process. Smith claimed that at some unspecified time he returned the plates to the angel Moroni, who has not since shown them to anyone else.
In 1830 Smith published the Book of Mormon. The book describes four ancient American civilizations previously unknown to history: the Nephites, Lamanites, Jaredites, and Mulekites. Archaeologists have never found a single artifact of these civilizations. Smith obviously knew nothing about pre-Columbian America, and the Book of Mormon includes numerous anachronisms. Smith’s ancient America included horses, elephants, goats, cattle, linen, silk, barley, wheat, steel, wheeled vehicles, and many other useful things that disappeared without a trace before Europeans arrived.
In 1830 Smith also organized a new church. Like early Christians, schisms would divide the church into multiple branches. I will focus on the branch that continued under Smith’s command: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called Mormons.
The Mormons suffered persecution in New York, and according to Mormon Church history, the Lord ordered them to move to Ohio “that ye might escape the power of the enemy.” In 1831 the Mormons gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and then established a settlement 800 miles west in Independence, Missouri.
While in Kirtland, Smith began making divinely inspired corrections to the King James Version of the Bible, and Mormons now have the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. However, this version preserves verses modern scholars now know to be later additions, such as Mark’s snake-handling alternate ending.
Smith also began “translating” some ancient Egyptian papyri he had acquired from a traveling exhibit. Frenchman John François Champollion had translated the Rosetta Stone by 1822, but he did not publish his French/hieroglyphic dictionary until 1841. In the 1830s Smith had no reason to believe anyone would ever decipher hieroglyphics.
A mob tarred and feathered Smith when he visited Missouri in 1832. Nonetheless, the prophet fled to Missouri in 1838 when the Mormons suffered further persecution in Kirtland. Missouri proved inhospitable, and Governor Lilburn W. Boggs ordered: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary.”
In 1839 Smith and his followers drained a swamp next to the Mississippi River and founded Nauvoo, Illinois. In 1842 Smith published his translation of the papyri he obtained in Kirtland. Apparently, Smith’s Egyptian papyri happened to have been written by the Hebrew patriarch Abraham. Smith called his translation The Book of Abraham, and Mormons now include it in The Pearl of Great Price, a collection of Mormon sacred writings.
The Book of Abraham includes facsimiles of three Egyptian papyri from which Smith supposedly translated the book. Smith says the first facsimile shows “the idolatrous priest of Elkenah attempting to offer up Abraham as a sacrifice” to four idolatrous gods, Elkenah, Libnah, Mahmackrah, and Korash. Egyptologists now know the papyrus shows the resurrection of Osiris from the Book of the Dead. The four idolatrous gods are actually four canopic jars, which held the four organs Egyptians believed the deceased needed in the afterlife: stomach, intestines, lungs, and liver. Images of Horus’ four sons decorate the four jars.
In the early 1840s Smith was a virtual dictator in Nauvoo: Mayor, Chief Justice, Lieutenant General of his 2,000-man private army, newspaper publisher, storeowner, and most importantly, the Church’s first president and prophet. In 1844 Smith destroyed a newspaper’s printing press when the publication criticized his autocratic rule.
The Illinois governor demanded Smith surrender to officials in Carthage, Illinois. Smith predicted he would be “butchered” in Carthage, but that his followers in Nauvoo “would be massacred by lawless mob under the sanction of the Governor” if he resisted. Whatever his other faults as a prophet, Smith’s last prediction came to pass after he voluntarily surrendered to authorities in Carthage. A mob stormed the jailhouse and killed Smith, but spared his followers in Nauvoo. Persecution continued, and most Mormons moved on to Utah under Brigham Young’s leadership.
For further reading, I recommend the short biography by eminent historian Robert V. Remini simply titled Joseph Smith (2002).
C. The Well to Hell
The Soviet Union drilled the deepest well on earth, the Kola Superdeep Borehole, located on the Kola Peninsula. The Soviets publicized this accomplishment, and the Borehole has been in the Guinness Book of World Records since 1985. In 1989 the Borehole reached its deepest depth—40,230 feet (about 12,260 meters).
In June 1989 Vaeltajat—the newsletter of a group of Finnish missionaries—published an article about Soviet scientists in Siberia (not the Kola Peninsula) drilling a hole into Hell. Vaeltajat did not identify the article’s author, but cited as its source an article from a California magazine, Jewels of Jericho. The California magazine supposedly identified “Dir. Azzacov” as the “manager of the project to drill a 14.4 kilometer hole in remote Siberia.”
The account continues: “After they had drilled several kilometers through the earth’s crust, the drill bit suddenly began to rotate wildly. ‘There is only one explanation—that the deep center of the earth is hollow,’ the surprised Azzacov explained.” Azzacov also discovered tremendous heat. “It seems almost like an inferno of fire is brutally going on in the center of the earth.” The Soviets made their most shocking discovery when they lowered microphones down the hole to “listen to the earth’s movements.”
We could hardly believe our own ears. We heard a human voice, screaming in pain. Even though one voice was discernible, we could hear thousands, perhaps millions, in the background, of suffering souls screaming.
After this ghastly discovery, about half the scientists quit because of fear. “Hopefully, that which is down there will stay there,” Dir. Azzacov added.
The story, which may have begun in California, followed a circuitous route back to California. A newspaper called the South Finland News republished the Vaeltajat article in the letters to the editor section. Ammennusastia, a Finnish Evangelical Lutheran magazine, reprinted the story in August 1989. Texas evangelist R. W. Schambach somehow acquired a translation of the Ammennusastia article, and he passed it on to the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) in Costa Mesa, California. TBN broadcast the story and published it in the February 1990 issue of its newsletter, Praise the Lord.
Åge Rendalen, a Norwegian man visiting the US, saw the “Well to Hell” story enthusiastically reported on TBN. Rendalen felt the story did not reflect high journalistic standards, and so decided to run a little test.
After he returned to Norway, Rendalen wrote a letter to TBN in which he claimed that Norwegian newspapers were reporting even more sensational details about the story. Rendalen provided a bogus translation from “Norway’s largest and most reputable newspaper” in which a Mr. Nummedal related his eyewitness account describing “a fountainhead of luminous gas shooting up from the drill site, and out of the midst of this incandescent cloud pillar a brilliant being with bat wings revealed itself with the words (in Russian): ‘I have conquered,’ emblazoned against the dark Siberian sky.” The atheistic Soviets supposedly tried to administer drugs to wipe out witnesses’ memories of this shocking event.
Rendalen gave TBN three ways to check the story before broadcasting it. In addition to his address and telephone number, he gave them the contact information for a pastor friend in California who would have revealed the hoax to anyone who called. Rendalen also provided the newspaper article he claimed to have translated. It was actually an article about a building inspector. TBN broadcast the story without doing anything to check the facts.
TBN apparently received some pushback on the story from their more reality-based viewers. On January 29, 1990 TBN’s on-air host said:
I got a letter today from a geologist in Oklahoma and he’s really giving me a rough time. He says that there isn’t anything that could drill that deep. Folks, I’m just reporting what people have been sending to me and I don’t know if this is true or not. I know one thing, if this is a trick of the Devil, he sure has blown it, because I know of about 2,000 people that have found Christ because of it!
Rich Buhler, Christian radio broadcaster and nobody’s fool, decided to investigate the story after several people called his radio program. TBN told Buhler they had documentation confirming the story, and Schambach claimed a “respected scientific journal” in Finland reported the facts. Despite these exaggerated assurances of authenticity, Buhler continued digging. He called Rendalen who happily admitted his hoax. Buhler also traced the story back to the Vaeltajat article, but he could not find the Jewels of Jericho. To this day, whoever started the story has never claimed credit.
In July 1990 Buhler published an article in Christianity Today thoroughly debunking the Well to Hell, but the story refused to die. In August 1990 a con man skipped town with $20,000 collected by an Arizona congregation to finance further research at the well.
A reader sent Biblical Archaeology Review an article from an evangelical publication, The Midnight Cry, that claimed Azzacov—who may or may not have been a real person—worked for the nonexistent “European Science Drilling Project” and claimed Soviet officials gave Finnish and Norwegian scientists huge bribes to keep silent about the discovery of Hell. The scholarly archaeological journal “thought the claim that hell was discovered … was so inherently ridiculous that our readers would get a laugh over the story” and reprinted it in November 1990 under the heading “NOT FROZEN OVER.” Nonetheless, some people didn’t get the joke and quoted Biblical Archaeology Review as substantiating the story.
The Well to Hell continues to be a popular urban legend today, and you can even listen on YouTube to recordings of the damned screaming in Hell. You can search Google and YouTube to find myriad articles and videos. My favorite video is by The Why Files, which discusses the story and then debunks it at the end. Buhler’s discussion on the TruthorFiction website is probably the most compete.
D. The Missing Day
Lieutenant Charles A. L. Totten taught military science and tactics at Yale between 1889 and 1892. In 1890 Totten published Joshua’s Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz, in which he predicted that the world would end before 1901. Totten reached his apocalyptic prediction by counting days back from 1890 and forward from Creation to find the exact day that Yahweh made the sun stand still for a day in Joshua 10:12-14. Totten claimed he figured this out by “seven years of close calculations,” but his computations were too complicated to explain. Through similarly obscure means, Totten also determined that Joshua’s long day was only 23 1/3 hours and that God accounted for the remaining forty minutes of a full day when he caused the Sun’s shadow to retreat ten degrees on the dial of Ahaz in 2 Kings 20:8-11.
In 1936 evidentialist/creationist Harry Rimmer published The Harmony of Science and Scripture explaining how modern science proved the Bible. He concluded his book with his most convincing proof of biblical truth, Joshua’s long day. According to Rimmer, the long day “is attested by eminent men of science,” and a book by “Prof. C.A. Totten of Yale” written in 1890 “establishes the case beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
According to Rimmer, Totten talked to an unnamed “fellow-professor” and “accomplished astronomer” who “made the strange discovery that the earth was twenty-four hours out of schedule!” Totten challenged the astronomer, a nonbeliever, to search the Bible for an answer. The astronomer then found that “twenty-three hours and twenty minutes were lost” at the time of Joshua, corresponding to “about the space of a whole day” in Joshua 10:12-14. The astronomer remained unconvinced of biblical truth because forty minutes remained unaccounted for, but Totten urged him to continue his research. The atheistic astronomer then found the missing forty minutes in 2 Kings 20:8-11: “When the astronomer found his day of missing time thus accounted for, he laid down the Book and worshiped its Writer, saying, ‘Lord, I believe!'”
Of course, no modern astronomer can duplicate the unnamed astronomer’s research. Lieutenant Totten was not an eminent scientist, and his 1890 book related no such anecdote. Rimmer also claimed “the great British astronomer” Sir Edwin Ball confirmed the Missing Day, but no such person existed.
In his 1974 book How to Live like a King’s Kid, Christian writer and speaker Harold Hill told an updated version of the Missing Day. Hill claimed to have heard the story when he served as a consultant with NASA.
“Space scientists” were calculating trajectories of asteroids and meteors so the astronauts would not “bump into something.” The NASA computers discovered “there’s a day missing somewhere in elapsed time,” and this unexplained discrepancy brought NASA to “a baffled standstill.” A “religious fellow on the team” suggested they could find the answer in the Bible, and the rational scientists naturally laughed at him. Nonetheless, they humored the silly Christian and discovered to their amazement that he was right:
Twenty-three hours and twenty minutes accounted for in Joshua’s day, plus forty minutes accounted for in Hezekiah’s day—there were the whole twenty-four hours, the Missing Day that the space scientist had to make allowance for in the logbook.
The inspiring story of the Bible triumphing over science spread like wildfire among the Christians who inundated NASA with letters requesting more information. However, the “logbook” does not exist. NASA issued a statement that Hill had worked briefly as a plant engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center, “a position which would not place him in direct contact with our computer facilities or teams engaged in orbital computations.” Of course, no real scientist can use computers to find a missing day. When faced with the obvious fabrication, Hill claimed he had supporting documentation, but he couldn’t find it. He maintained his “inability to furnish documentation of the ‘Missing Day’ incident in no way detracts from its authenticity.”
For further reading, I suggest Jan Harold Brunvand’s The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! (2000).
IV. Naturalistic Explanations
Evidentialists often claim that skeptics have no “naturalistic explanations” to explain the Resurrection. “Naturalistic” in this context refers to the philosophy of naturalism, which asserts that all events have natural explanations.
Evidentialists further argue that “[s]keptics must provide more than alternative theories for the Resurrection; they must provide first-century evidence for those theories.” These arguments fail for at least two reasons: (1) skeptics do not need naturalistic theories and (2) skeptics have naturalistic theories.
A. Skeptics Do Not Need Naturalistic Theories
In 1868 an English lord, a future Scottish lord, and an Army captain claimed to have seen Spiritualist medium D. D. Home levitate himself out a window 85 feet above the street and then back into another window in an adjacent room. Conan Doyle recognized that the witnesses’ written accounts were “clumsily worded,” but opined: “When one considers, however, the standing of the three eye-witnesses who have testified to this, one may well ask whether in an ancient or modern times any preternatural event has been more clearly proved.” Contemporaries less impressed with the notion that social standing is a guarantee of veracity noted that the witness accounts differed regarding basic facts, such as where the event occurred.
In 1920 Harry Houdini investigated the incident and concluded that Home deceived the three witnesses. Houdini explained that he could reproduce Home’s alleged levitation. However, the fact that a magician could simulate levitation does not mean that Home used the same trick. If Home had tricked the witnesses, would they not tell the same story about where they saw Home levitating above the street? A hoax seems more likely to me—they agreed on a fantastic story, but didn’t get the mundane details straight.
Houdini and I can theorize about what happened in 1868, but no one will ever know. Conflicting stories by three witnesses who claim to have observed a supernatural event provide insufficient evidence to determine what really happened. However, Houdini and I agree that Home did not really perform a miraculous levitation. Naturalistic explanations exist—we just don’t know which one is right.
We should not be surprised that no one can backtrack a 2,000-year-old trail for Jesus’ supposed resurrection. Rich Buhler, both an evangelical pastor and creator of the myth-busting website¸ www.truthorfiction.com, began investigating the Well to Hell less than a year after the original Vaeltajat article, but Buhler couldn’t ferret out the story’s origin.
Requiring skeptics to propose naturalistic explanations of an alleged supernatural event is an argumentum ad ignorantiam, which is Latin for “argument from ignorance.” An argument from ignorance is “the mistake that is committed whenever it is argued that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false, or that it is false because it has not been proved true.” Case law precedent reads: “While argumentum ad ignorantiam is the source of some consternation in philosophical circles, the law deals with the fallacy by placing the burden of proof on the plaintiff and (usually) leaving it there, requiring him to prove the existence of critical facts at the peril of losing his case.”
B. Skeptics Have Naturalistic Theories
In 2014 two HarperCollins imprints published two books that discussed opposing views on Jesus’ resurrection. HarperOne published How Jesus Became God, The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee by Bart Ehrman. Zondervan published a rebuttal by a team of evangelical scholars—How God Became Jesus, The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature.
Ehrman asserted that Jesus was a mortal man, a Jewish preacher from Galilee. This may be an oversimplification of Ehrman’s thesis, but he reasoned that Jesus’ followers came to believe he was God through a two-step process:
- At least some of the disciples had some kind of visionary or hallucinatory experience of Jesus after his crucifixion; and
- Over time, Jesus’ followers developed the belief that he was God.
Michael F. Bird characterized this view as “evolutionary” because it posits that beliefs about Jesus mutated over time. “Evolutionary” may be a fair description of Ehrman’s views. This “evolutionary” theory is also quite naturalistic. Nothing could be more natural than adherents to a new religion changing their doctrines and modifying their history. Ehrman’s book is a detailed explanation of his naturalistic thesis.
Bird also observed that Ehrman’s “evolutionary” arguments are not “particularly innovative or new.” That is quite true, and Ehrman ever claimed otherwise. To the contrary, Ehrman has written that the hundreds of books about Jesus have left a “well-beaten and much-trod path.” Many of these books espouse naturalistic theories about the Resurrection. Evidentialists may disagree with these scholars, but it is disingenuous for them to claim skeptics have no naturalistic explanations.
V. Something Happened and the Story Grew
Although scholars theorize how narratives about Jesus’ physical resurrection developed before the first written version in Mark, no one pretends to know an exact sequence of events. Mythicist scholars believe Jesus never existed. In my layman’s opinion, it is more likely that Jesus existed and was crucified. After crucifixion, something may have happened to make some of the disciples believe that Jesus still lived, and then the story grew into the Gospel narratives.
I am neither a historian nor a psychologist, and these are just my personal observations about how these factors might have contributed to the beliefs of early Christians. Just as judges recognize issues that often arise in drug cases, I can see a few things that some supernatural claims have in common, and I can compare the alleged evidence of the Resurrection to the evidence for other supernatural events.
A. Anything Might Have Happened
What caused the Salem Witch Trials? Trick question—several factors probably combined to cause that particular travesty of justice. In 1976 Linda Caporael suggested a previously unconsidered cause—ergot mold poisoning from rye bread. Ergot mold forms hallucinogenic drugs similar to LSD, and it thrives on rye grain when a cold winter is followed by a wet spring, which was the case in Salem in the spring of 1692.
Caporael’s article was immediately criticized. However, it received new support in 1989 when Mary Matossian studied seven Centuries of weather and crop records from Europe and America, and found that drops in population have followed diets heavy in rye bread and weather that favors ergot. She also found that ergot may have exacerbated the Black Death in 1347.
My point is not that ergot mold poisoning definitely caused the Witch Trials or the plague. Instead, I find it illuminating that, for centuries, no one considered food poisoning as a possible contributing factor for either event. Events often have unknown causes. It would be sheer hubris for anyone to claim that they have identified all possible explanations and contributing factors for an event that occurred two thousand years ago and was recorded only in conflicting accounts written years later.
People have proposed all sorts of theories to explain how Jesus survived his crucifixion. Jesus had a twin. Jesus merely swooned on the cross and later recovered—like the Romans don’t know how to kill a man. Judas Iscariot took Jesus’ place on the cross. His brother, Isukiri, died on the cross, and Jesus settled down in Japan where you can visit his grave today.
These notions have little or no credibility, but they illustrate a valid point. The Gospel accounts may have been inspired by some unlikely behind-the-scenes situation that is completely unknown to us.
B. People See Things: Hallucinations, Visions, and Spiritual Eyes
Around 13% of recently widowed men and women experience auditory and/or visual hallucinations of their deceased spouse. Some critical scholars suggest that Jesus’ followers, being as upset as bereaved spouses are, saw him in hallucinations after his crucifixion, and then Christians embellished stories of the postmortem hallucinations.
Evidentialists criticize this hallucination theory because groups of people don’t have the same hallucination. That is certainly true, but hallucinations are not the only way that people see things that are not physically there.
Many religious people report having visions, which raises a question. What is the difference between hallucination and a vision? In general, a hallucination is a sensory experience caused by a mental disorder or hallucinogen, and a vision is a sensory experience caused by a supernatural agency. One man’s hallucination might be another man’s vision. Although Paul may have had a vision on the road to Damascus, talking with God demonstrates insanity in modern courts.
Visions are quite popular in a religious context. The entire Mormon Church rests upon Joseph Smith’s visions. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon, Mohammed, Jim Jones, Shirley MacLaine, Charles Manson and countless other people have experienced visions or at least claimed to have done so. The “Three Witnesses” and “Eight Witnesses” of the Book of Mormon all reported seeing the same vision.
Religious believers also report seeing an even greater number of alleged supernatural manifestations that I cannot categorize as either hallucinations or visions.
According to some sources, “millions” of people saw the Virgin Mary make semiregular appearances at the Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Church in Zeitoun, Egypt, from 1968 to 1970. Although reverent believers described her walking, smiling and blessing them, photographs show shapeless blobs of light. Scientists would probably ascribe these miraculous sightings to the universal human tendency to impose patterns on everything we see. If the same lights appeared at a UFO convention, people would see aliens.
An unknown number of Spiritualists saw dead relatives without suffering hallucinations. In 1874 a Parisian photographer named Buguet confessed to selling fraudulent “spirit” photographs. Buguet used double exposures, dolls, and various paraphernalia to falsify pictures of deceased loved ones. At his trial:
Witness after witness—journalists, photographic expert, musician, merchant, man of letters, optician, ex-professor of history, Colonel of Artillery, etc., etc.—came forward to testify on behalf of the accused…. and found it impossible to relinquish their faith. One after another these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done. One after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes.
Martin Harris saw the Book of Mormon‘s Golden plates with his “spiritual eyes.” In the mid-1800s, Shakers also saw angels and myriad other things with their “spiritual eyes” rather than their “natural eyes.” Shakers wore spiritual clothes, ate spiritual food, and talked with spirits of the departed. “But ask them why they believe in these things, and their only answer is, ‘I feel that is a reality. I know it is true.'”
People, sometimes in groups, see things that are not there and continue to believe them despite evidence to the contrary. Jesus’ followers might have done the same.
C. People Invent Weird Stories
An unknown storyteller invented the Well to Hell, and a hoaxer embellished it. Totten, Rimmer, and Hill concocted three versions of the Missing Day. People make stuff up all the time. Being human, almost all of us exaggerate or distort stories. Storytellers invent, exaggerate and embellish stories, and then pass off their tall tales as gospel truth.
Mormons naturally disagree, but the evidence indicates Smith simply made up Mormon sacred writings. Most people assume that humans invented other people’s religions. Scholars study, theorize, and speculate about why some people invent religions and other people believe strange things, but these psychological and sociological ideas are outside my wheelhouse. I cannot explain exactly why people concoct strange stories, but it is sufficient for my purposes to understand that people do.
Religious writers also gloss over embarrassing events. Other than fanciful legends, anonymous hearsay statements in Acts provide the best evidence about what the disciples might have believed after Jesus’ crucifixion. Acts 1:13 lists eleven disciples, but the Bible never mentions seven of them again. Andrew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James disappear from Scripture.
Mormon history provides an interesting parallel for the disappearing disciples. Six of Joseph Smith’s original eleven witnesses—the ones who signed the “Testimony of the Three Witnesses” and the “Testimony of the Eight Witnesses”—were excommunicated and/or joined splinter groups. Mormons downplay these defections and omit the six apostates from Mormon histories.
Might the seven missing disciples have left the Christian church and formed splinter groups? They could have been some of the false prophets denounced by Paul. No evidence supports this speculation, but then no credible evidence exists to support anything else about their postcrucifixion careers. It is as likely as any other theory about the seven missing Apostles.
D. Good People Tell Tales
Apologists generally assume that people who tell stories that are not entirely factual must be “liars and cheats.” Simon Greenleaf wrote that the Evangelists were “good men” if the Gospels are true and “bad men” if they were not. This is a false dilemma that ignores a multitude of possibilities.
Few issues are so black or white, yet it can be effective to portray a situation as involving only two choices because people like easy decisions. “Matters are seldom that simple. There is usually some middle or alternative ground that needs to be considered.” This is especially true for historical issues. “The criticism ‘it’s more complicated than that’ is almost invariably a safe one in historical circles.”
Good people sometimes stray from the truth for many reasons. Åge Rendalen hoaxed TBN, and TBN justified their lack of journalistic integrity by claiming that the Well to Hell story had saved 2,000 souls.
I know of no Christian or former Christian who has been quite so candid and succinct about engaging in a pious fraud as Anna Clark Benninghofer, the reformed medium who revealed that she had thought that her trickery was justified in order to make converts to what she thought was a good and beautiful religion. However, Christians have certainly created their share of religious fakes.
For my money, the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery is the best thing in the Bible. It is a one-paragraph masterpiece that we should all take to heart. I was surprised and saddened when I learned that even evangelical apologists like Lee Strobel agree that Biblical scholars have known for more than a century that it is not authentic. I can’t say exactly why this news made me sad, but don’t try to tell me that the unknown scribe who added this story to scripture was a bad man.
E. People Believe Weird Stories
Apologists often make the naive assumption that Paul and the gospel authors would have abandoned their faith if faced with contrary evidence. For example, John Warwick Montgomery opines that “testimony to Christ’s resurrection [was] presented contemporaneously in the synagogues—in the very teeth of opposition, among hostile cross-examiners who would certainly have destroyed the case for Christianity had the facts been otherwise.” The world might be a better place if people so cherished critical thinking, but such is not human nature. Mormons have not abandoned The Book of Abraham merely because Egyptologists exposed it as a fraud, Harold Hill remained undeterred when NASA disproved his Missing Day story, and Spiritualists kept the faith after the Fox sisters confessed their deception.
Credulity, the willingness to believe without evidence or even against the evidence, characterizes supernatural claims. TBN demonstrated absolute disdain for evidence and couldn’t even be bothered to make a telephone call to check out Åge Rendalen’s outrageous hoax. I don’t claim my four supernatural cases establish that all people believe incredible stories with no evidence. Mainstream networks ignored the “Well to Hell” story, and Biblical Archaeology Review considered it ridiculous. Nonetheless, some people will believe some strange things—enough to make Mormonism the fastest growing religion on Earth.
I use the word “credulity,” not gullibility, because gullibility implies intent to deceive. Religious cheats and cons abound, such as the grifter who solicited funds for more research at the Well to Hell. Some fake Spiritualists fooled grieving people and took their money. However, most people who pass along miraculous stories don’t intend to deceive anyone. Vaeltajat and Ammennusastia didn’t cheat anyone.
F. When Prophecy Fails
Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter pioneered analysis of a particular type of supernatural claim—unfulfilled prophecies and other “disconfirmations” that contradict religious beliefs. In When Prophecy Fails, a classic work of social psychology first published in 1956, they studied historical examples of failed prophecy and conducted a case study on a contemporary UFO religion.
People encounter “inconvenient truths” in both religious and secular matters. Cognitive dissonance, a conflict between one’s beliefs and disconfirming facts, makes people uncomfortable. However, unfulfilled prophecies do not usually cause religions to dry up and blow away.
Believers sometimes explain away a failed prophecy by deciding that invisible beings fulfilled the prophecy on a spiritual plane. William Miller, a Baptist minister, interpreted verses in Daniel and Revelation to mean that Christ would return in 1843. He didn’t. Despite this failure, Miller continued to attract followers. Many “Millerites” sold their homes and businesses when Miller predicted Jesus would return on October 22, 1844, a date now called the Great Disappointment. Most Millerites abandoned the movement when Jesus again failed to appear, but some decided Daniel 8:14 meant that in 1844 Jesus entered into a heavenly Holy of Holies to begin a final atonement for humanity. These Millerites formed the Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
During the 1990s, a group of Hasidic Jews in New York called Chabad-Lubavitch began to believe their spiritual leader, the “Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, was the Moshiach, Hebrew for Messiah. The Rebbe died in 1994. His followers now assert:
Since the 3rd of Tammuz (5754-1994), we are no longer able to physically see the Rebbe King Moshiach. The Rebbe remains physically alive just as before; it is only to our eyes that he is concealed. Therefore we call this a day of concealment, and many refer to this as the “last test.” Just as we know that there is a God though we may not see him, so, too, the Rebbe King Moshiach is here even though we do not see him.
Like the Seventh-Day Adventist Church and the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Christianity began with a series of failed predictions. Yahweh promised King David in 2 Samuel 7:16 that his kingdom would last forever. Unfortunately, Yahweh neglected to inform the Assyrians and Babylonians of this divine guarantee, and they subjected the Jews to humiliating exile and captivity. The prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea then claimed Yahweh was punishing the Jews for disobeying him. This explanation began to wear thin when the Jews did their level best to obey Yahweh, and yet pagans like Alexander the Great and the Romans continued to lord over Yahweh’s chosen people.
The prophets predicted a Messiah would come to set these injustices right. First-century Jews disagreed about the details of messianic prophecy, but they all thought the mighty Messiah would defeat Israel’s overlords. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, but he failed to defeat anyone. Paul calls this great disappointment the chief “stumbling block” for Jews accepting Jesus as the Messiah.
Even without a resurrection, some of Jesus’ disciples might have had as much faith in Jesus as modern Chabad-Lubavitch still have in the Rebbe. Faced with the undeniable fact that Jesus was not the conquering hero Jews expected, Christians changed the Messiah’s earthly kingdom to a heavenly reward and/or a second coming. To these true believers, Jesus would still be alive—just as the Rebbe is alive today to the Chabad-Lubavitch.
VI. Unreliable Evidence
People tend to exaggerate the evidence for miracles. Schambach changed Ammennusastia, an Evangelical Lutheran magazine, into a “respected scientific journal.” Rimmer’s “eminent men of science” did not exist. Hill was not, as he claimed, a consultant with NASA.
As a natural corollary to exaggerated evidence, miracles wither when investigated. Through persistence and hard work, Rich Buhler thoroughly debunked the Well to Hell. “The Testimony of the Three Witnesses” at the beginning of every Book of Mormon says they saw metal plates, but further research reveals they merely saw a vision. People all over the world still see the Virgin Mary every year, but images of the Holy Mother, such as the Holy Grilled Cheese Sandwich, invariably show shapeless blobs. Miracles are like mirages—they disappear when you get close to them.
I can never disprove Jesus’ resurrection—just as I can never disprove Home’s levitation. I cannot get close enough to either miracle to figure out exactly what happened. However, alleged evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is no better—and in many cases is worse—than evidence for other supernatural claims. I find similarities between evidentialist and Spiritualist apologetics to be particularly interesting because both focus on evidence—not faith.
VII. Stronger Evidence for Spiritualism
I do not claim that Spiritualist evidence is credible—quite the opposite. I don’t trust any evidence that violates the physical facts rule. Nonetheless, the evidence for Spiritualist phenomena is still more credible than evidence for Jesus’ resurrection because evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is even worse.
Evidentialist and Spiritualist apologists make some of the same philosophical arguments about the possibility of proving miracles, and both claim “testimony” proves the miracles of their religion. Evidentialists claim Jesus materialized after his death, and Spiritualists make the same claim for numerous spirits. Evidentialists may object to the word “materialize” for Jesus’ appearances, but he mysteriously appeared in closed rooms. That is materialization—no different from spirits who materialize during séances.
Both evidentialist and Spiritualist apologists recognize proponents of their respective religions have fabricated and exaggerated purported miracles. Spiritualists agree fraudulent mediums have faked the entire catalog of spiritual manifestations—from spirit rappings to full-body materializations. Likewise, early Christians used at least seventeen Gospels that evidentialists now believe to be false. Spiritualists maintain fraudulent mediums do not disprove more trustworthy evidence of spirit materializations, and evidentialists argue false gospels do not discredit the four canonical Gospels. Both evidentialists and Spiritualists claim discerning people must separate the wheat from the chaff to find the real miracles.
Evidentialists make certain arguments, such as fulfilled prophecy and “nobody dies for a lie,” for which Spiritualism has no counterpart. However, no evidence supports these arguments. Spiritualist evidence is far superior when you look at fundamental evidentiary issues:
Christian: Claims that Jesus appeared to family and friends “who were chosen by God as witnesses” are entitled to little or no weight.
Spiritualist: Spiritualist mediums produced materialized spirits on demand to skeptics and established an “unprecedented” record of scientific acceptance.
Christian: Anonymous gospels are multiple hearsay with no chain of declarants back to an eyewitness.
Spiritualist: Numerous books and articles published by eyewitnesses are single hearsay.
Christian: Four conflicting Gospels, plus Paul’s vague or ambiguous statements about some kind of revelation or appearance.
Spiritualist: Hundreds or perhaps thousands of eyewitness accounts of materialized spirits, including books and articles by eminent scientists, authors, and a US Representative.
Christian: Gospels written decades after crucifixion.
Spiritualist: Numerous books and articles, including reports of scientific investigations, published shortly after observations.
As a matter of faith, Jesus’ resurrection holds great meaning to Christians. However, as an issue of fact, evidence for the Resurrection is of the same character and quality as many other supernatural claims, and inferior to Spiritualist evidence.
 Todd Jay Leonard, Talking to the Other Side: A History of Modern Spiritualism and Mediumship (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2005), p. 75; Bob Bennett, Leap of Faith: Confronting the Origins of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 2009), pp. ix-x.
 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, Volume I (London, UK: Cassell and Co., 1926), p. 133.
 Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, Volume I, pp. 126-127, 132-135, 135-136, 154-155, 162, 165-166, 188, 237, 260; Alfred Russel Wallace, Miracles and Modern Spiritualism (London, UK: Nichols & Co., 1896), p. 37, 49, 166, 125, 157, 171.
 Sir William Crookes, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism (London, UK: J. Burns, 1874), pp. 105-107, 110-111.
 Crookes, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, p. 106.
 Crookes, Researches in the Phenomena of Spiritualism, p. 61.
 Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism in Accordance with the Request of the Late Henry Seybert with a Foreword by H. H. Furness, Junior (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1920), p. 150.
 Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1924), p. 5.
 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Memories and Adventures (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Co., 1924), pp. 392-393.
 Doyle, Memories and Adventures (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company 1924), p. 394.
 Jan W. Vanderessande, Life after Death: Some of the Best Evidence (Denver, CO: Outskirts Press, 2008), pp. 143-151; Victor Zammit and Wendy Zammit, A Lawyer Presents the Evidence for an Afterlife (Guildford, UK: White Crow Books, 2013), pp. 15-20.
 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Volume I (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret News, 1902), p. 55.
 Royal Skousen, “Worthy of Another Look: John Gilbert’s 1892 Account of the 1830 Printing of the Book of Mormon.” Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture Vol. 21, No. 2 (2012): Article 6, p. 72 [p. 6 of Gilbert’s reproduced Memorandum].
 Charles A. L. Totten, Joshua’s Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz, A Scientific Vindication and “A Midnight Cry” (New Haven, CT: The Our Race Publishing Co., 1890), p. xviii.
 Totten, Joshua’s Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz, pp. 17, 23-24.
 Doyle, The History of Spiritualism, Volume I (London, UK: Cassell and Co.,1926), p. 202.
 Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits, pp. 48-49.
 Alabama-Tombigbee Rivers Coal. v. Kempthorne, 477 F.3d 1250, 1257 (11th Cir. 2007), citing Irving M. Copi & Carl Cohen, Introduction to Logic, 8th ed. (London, UK: Macmillan, 1990), p. 93.
 Emery v. Talladega Coll., 169 F. Supp. 3d 1271, 1283, n.12 (N.D. Ala. 2016).
 Michael F. Bird, “The Story of Jesus as the Story of God” in How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Jesus’ Divine Nature—A Response to Bart D. Ehrman ed. Michael F. Bird (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014): 11-21, p. 11.
 Keith Parsons, “Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli on the Hallucination Theory” in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave ed. Robert M. Price & Jeffery Jay Lowder (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2005): 433-451, p. 442.
 Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits, pp. 120-122.
 David R. Lamson, Two Years’ Experience among the Shakers (West Boylston, MA: David R. Lamson, 1848), p. 59, 89, 99.
 Lamson, Two Years’ Experience among the Shakers, pp. 51, 65-66.
 Lamson, Two Years’ Experience among the Shakers, p. 96.
 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), p. 32, 36, 66.
 Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice (Boston, MA: Charles Little and James Brown, 1846), p. 54, §34.
 See: Kris D. Komarnitsky, Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box (Draper, UT: Stone Arrow Books, 2014), pp. 59-80.