Human psychology sheds light on whether Jesus literally rose from the dead.
Jordan Peterson has become a hero to many because of his relentless truth-telling. Many people of faith see him as an ally. In a wide-ranging interview with Patrick Coffin, former Catholic Answers radio show host, Peterson said about the Resurrection, “I need to think about that for about three more years before I would even venture an answer.” Not a flat-out dismissal of the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead, but an open-ended desire to learn and think more deeply. This respectful position is a far cry from the annual, “Jesus was just a nice guy but the Resurrection never happened” story that someone in the secular media subjects us to, every year right around Easter.
Mass Delusion … or Mass of Witnesses?
So, let’s analyze this, for Dr. Peterson’s sake. Peterson is a psychologist. I submit that human psychology sheds light on whether Jesus literally rose from the dead. The behavior of his disciples makes zero sense unless the Resurrection took place.
If Jesus did not literally rise from the dead, what exactly did happen? Did the disciples think they saw him after his death, but they didn’t really? Were the disciples lying about seeing him after his death? Neither of these alternatives, delusion or lying, can account for the known facts.
Fact: Jesus was dead and buried.
Jesus was executed in a very thorough and very public manner for which the Romans were noted and feared. There is no doubt at all that he was dead. He was buried. The Roman officials and the Jewish leaders insisted that the grave be guarded.
Fact: People claimed they saw him after his death.
On the third day after His death, people claimed they saw Him. Not just one guy, mind you, but lots of people. Mary Magdalene saw him. Ten disciples saw him the night of the Resurrection. So did two random guys on the road to Emmaus. The following week all eleven surviving disciples saw Him. At some point, 500 people saw him at the same time. Mass delusion on this scale seems unlikely.
Believers Paid a Steep Price
A skeptic might respond that people talk each other into delusions all the time. Look at our current “politically correct” mess. Dr. Peterson has become famous precisely for tearing the lid off the mass delusions of our time.
I reply: People get praised and supported for spouting silliness that supports the current incarnation of the mass delusion. Nobody today loses his job for going along with the fantasy ideology that Bruce Jenner is a woman. People lose their jobs for denying the delusion. Stating the obvious truth that the winner of the 1976 Olympic decathlon is now, and always has been, a man: now, that will cost you something.
By contrast, the people who claimed they saw Jesus alive after his execution paid a steep price. Matthew had a cushy job as a tax collector. Should he give that up, because Mary Magdalene metaphorically saw the Lord? Peter, Andrew, James, and John did not abandon their fishing business because they saw a Jungian archetype. Their behavior only makes sense if they really saw Jesus after his death.
Why Suffer for a Lie?
In fact, none of these witnesses could be talked out of their belief that they saw Jesus, despite some very aggressive attempts to do so. Peter and Andrew were both crucified. If they were making stuff up, don’t you think they would have recanted? The most logical conclusion is that they saw him, in the flesh, just as the Gospels report.
Tradition has it that Bartholomew was flayed alive. If he had been lying, the threat of such a painful, prolonged death would have been a good time to start telling the truth. “Put that knife down: I’ll show you where we hid the body.” But he didn’t change his story. He allowed himself to be murdered in an extraordinarily painful way.
The most psychologically compelling conclusion is that the disciples were neither lying, nor deluded. They saw Jesus.
‘Just a Nice Guy’? Give Me a Break
The Resurrection is indeed worthy of a lifetime of deep thought. I myself meditate upon it a couple of times a week and have done so since 1988. I’m still not finished with it. Dr. Peterson, take all the time you need. You can keep thinking about it, even if you do take a leap of faith.
And to the knucklehead journalist who writes this year’s version of “Jesus was just a nice guy, but it didn’t really happen,” story: just stop. As C.S. Lewis put it, Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord. The “just a nice guy” story is the truly delusional belief.