Cognitive Dissonance and the Resurrection of Jesus
From The Fourth R magazine
Volume 27, Issue 5
The conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead is among the earliest of all Christian beliefs. Paul, the earliest known Christian author, reports the resurrection of Jesus was proclaimed by those who came before him in the Jesus movement (1 Cor 15:3–4). How does one account for the rise of this belief if the gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb and corporeal postmortem appearances of Jesus are legends, as many scholars propose?
The most popular answer to this question is that belief in the resurrection came about due to a post-mortem bereavement hallucination of Jesus by Peter,* and possibly others. Another largely overlooked possibility for the rise of the resurrection belief is the extraordinary phenomenon of cognitive dissonance reduction.
What is Cognitive Dissonance Reduction?
Many scholars doubt that Jesus ever claimed he was the Messiah. However, Jesus obviously made a big impression on some people. Because of this, some may have thought or hoped he was the Messiah, a sentiment not unlike that expressed in the Gospel of Luke: “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). How might people like these, Jesus’ most ardent followers who thought or hoped he might be the Messiah, have reacted to the harsh reality of his death? Jews, at the time of the historical Jesus, expected the Messiah to be a victor, not a victim. The notion that the Messiah would die for the sins of others did not yet exist.
For most people most of the time, the reaction in such a situation would be the depressing realization that expectations were wrong. But sometimes people do not follow that route. We human beings have a tendency, when we deeply believe or want to believe in something, to look for and arrive at conclusions that confirm what we already believe or want to believe. When strongly held beliefs are inescapably disconfirmed by reality, this sometimes leads to extraordinary displays of rationalization. In the case of Jesus’ followers, the strongly held belief was that Jesus was the Messiah, and the disconfirming event was his crucifixion by his enemies. The internal tension caused by a disconfirming event is called “cognitive dissonance” by psychologists, and the release of this tension due to a rationalization (or any other action that releases the tension) is called “cognitive dissonance reduction.” The Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling defines cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance reduction this way:
An individual holds beliefs or cognitions that do not fit with each other (e.g., I believe the world will end, and the world did not end as predicted). Nonfitting beliefs give rise to dissonance, a hypothetical aversive state the individual is motivated to reduce. . . . Dissonance may be reduced by changing behavior, altering a belief, or adding a new one.
The first attempt to study how cognitive dissonance can lead to a new belief was conducted by the highly respected social psychologist Leon Festinger in the 1950s. In this study, Festinger infiltrated a small cult group and observed firsthand their behavior when their religious beliefs were disconfirmed by the harsh reality of events. This study will be summarized below. It both serves as an initial explanation and the first of four examples of the extraordinary effects of cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance reduction, and demonstrates how they can give birth to a new belief.
Festinger’s Small Cult Group Study
Before summarizing Festinger’s small cult group study, I want to emphasize that the beliefs of the cult group below, which are quite bizarre and no doubt related to the UFO craze of the 1950s, are not being compared to Christianity in any way. My discussion of Festinger’s study aims only to illustrate that people can sometimes come up with ingenious and complex explanations in order to make sense of a disconnect between deeply held beliefs and the harsh reality of events.
The cult group consisted of eleven hardcore members and numerous less committed participants. It was led by a woman who believed she was receiving mental messages from spacemen on another planet. The cult received a message in August 1954 that, on December 21 of that same year, a great cataclysm would ensue around the world. The cult publicly declared this belief and attracted much media attention. Additional messages from the spacemen led the cult to believe that at midnight on the eve before the cataclysm they would be removed from Earth and spared from the destruction. In order for this to happen, they were instructed to wait inside certain identified parked cars and that spacemen would then transfer them from the parked cars to a flying saucer. Imposter cult members (three social psychologists) infiltrated the group and were able, over a period of weeks, to observe the buildup to these expectations and the reaction of the hardcore believers to the shock of disconfirmation, on December 21, when none of the events occurred as they had expected.
Two of the hardcore cult members rejected their beliefs and left the group. But the other nine did not. Instead, they went through a period of intense rationalization over a matter of hours. As members of the group wrestled with their catastrophic disappointment, they floated many explanations. For example, they reasoned that the spacemen must have given them the wrong date. Another explanation was that the events had been postponed, possibly for years, so that more people could prepare to “meet their maker.” Yet another was more complex: the message from the spacemen, which had them waiting in parked cars from which they would be moved to the flying saucer, must be symbolic because parked cars do not move and hence could not take anyone anywhere; therefore, the parked cars must symbolically refer to their physical bodies, and the flying saucer must symbolically refer to the importance to their rescue of their own inner “strength, knowing, and light.” The small group even considered leaving the disconfirmation unexplained while insisting that the plan had never gone astray, accepting that they did not have to understand everything for it all to still be essentially true.
During this rationalization period, one of the social psychologists feigned frustration and walked outside. One of the hardcore members, a physician, followed and offered verbal support. Here are the words of a sane, rational, and intelligent human being who has staked everything on a belief, only to have that belief cruelly disconfirmed by reality:
I’ve had to go a long way. I’ve given up just about everything. I’ve cut every tie. I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there isn’t any other truth. . . . I won’t doubt even if we have to make an announcement to the press tomorrow and admit we were wrong. You’re having your period of doubt now, but hang on boy, hang on. This is a tough time but we know that the boys upstairs are taking care of us. . . . These are tough times and the way is not easy. We all have to take a beating. I’ve taken a terrific one, but I have no doubt.
In the end, the group settled on a rationalization provided by the group’s leader, which was based on a timely message she received from the spacemen. She said that the steadfast belief and waiting by their small group had brought so much “good and light” into the world, that God called off the pickup and the cataclysm. This rationalization was received with jubilation. According to Festinger, “The group was able to accept and believe this explanation because they could support one another and convince each other that this was, in fact, a valid explanation.”
Although the mental health of all the cult members was not open for examination, there was an opportunity for professional psychiatrists to evaluate one of the hardcore cult members, the physician quoted above. The only reason this psychiatric examination was conducted was because relatives questioned his sanity and sought to gain custody of his children. This doctor, a believer in the cult all the way through the disconfirmation and beyond, was cleared by two court-appointed psychiatrists. They concluded that although the physician had some unusual ideas, he was “entirely normal.”
There have been two objections to Festinger’s experiment. First, since the cult group studied was very small, there is no way to rule out the possibility that the three imposter cult members influenced the cult in a way that actually caused the results. To avoid this possibility would require infiltrating a much larger cult group and being present during a disconfirmation of beliefs. While I am sure there are many social psychologists who would love to do just that, I assume such opportunities are rare. This limitation of Festinger’s experiment will be addressed shortly when we turn to three other examples of cognitive dissonance in much larger religious movements. The second problem sometimes cited with Festinger’s study is that it did not follow the cult members for longer than one month after the disconfirmation event. For all we know, belief in their rationalization might have lasted only a month and then faded away. Because of this, Festinger’s cult group study is only useful for showing that a disconfirmation can produce new beliefs; it is not useful for showing that such new beliefs can be sustained. This limitation of Festinger’s experiment will also be addressed in the next examples involving larger religious movements where the new beliefs were sustained. The basic theory of how cognitive dissonance and cognitive dissonance reduction can lead to new beliefs is summarized by Festinger:
Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. . . . The dissonance [conflict between belief and reality] would be largely eliminated if they discarded the belief that had been disconfirmed. . . . Indeed this pattern sometimes occurs. . . . But frequently the behavioral commitment to the belief system is so strong that almost any other course of action is preferable. . . . Believers may try to find reasonable explanations and very often they find ingenious ones. . . . For rationalization to be fully effective, support from others is needed to make the explanation or the revision seem correct. Fortunately, the disappointed believer can usually turn to others in the same movement, who have the same dissonance and the same pressures to reduce it. Support for the new explanation is, hence, forthcoming.
The second example of cognitive dissonance reduction leading to a new belief involves a large religious movement called the Millerites. The Millerite movement began in 1818 with a man named William Miller. By the 1840s, the movement had membership in the thousands across many cities. Miller believed that the Bible predicted that Jesus’ second coming would be sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844. When the later date came and went without incident, the movement did not crumble. Instead, despite heavy ridicule, the group’s founder and his apostles rationalized that there must have been some minor error in calculating the exact time, but that the end was nevertheless still near. A corrected date came from a follower within the movement, Reverend Samuel Snow. Despite the objections of the group’s leaders that the exact date could not be known, Snow declared October 22, 1844, as the new date for Jesus’ second coming. Belief in this date by the Millerites took on a life of its own, as described by a Millerite newspaper editor:
At first the definite time was generally opposed; but there seemed to be an irresistible power attending its proclamation, which prostrated all before it. It swept over the land with the velocity of a tornado, and it reached hearts in different and distant places almost simultaneously, and in a manner which can be accounted for only on the supposition that God was [in] it. . . . The lecturers among the Adventists were the last to embrace the views of the time. . . . It was not until within about two weeks of the commencement of the seventh month [about the first of October—the editor is using the Jewish calendar], that we were particularly impressed with the progress of the movement, when we had such a view of it, that to oppose it, or even to remain silent longer, seemed to us to be opposing the work of the Holy Spirit; and in entering upon the work with all our souls, we could but exclaim, “What were we, that we should resist God?” It seemed to us to have been so independent of human agency, that we could but regard it as a fulfillment of the “midnight cry.”
Based on this new date, things reached an incredible pitch of fervor, zeal, and conviction. One of the elders in the Millerite movement described it this way:
The “Advent Herald”, “the Midnight Cry”, and other Advent papers, periodicals, pamphlets, tracts, leaflets, voicing the coming glory, were scattered, and broadcast everywhere like autumn leaves in the forest. Every house was visited by them. . . . A mighty effort through the Spirit and the word preached was made to bring sinners to repentance, and to have the wandering ones return.
But October 22, 1844, came and went with no second coming of Jesus. This second disconfirmation almost killed the movement, but still, yet another, and this time much more complex, belief emerged—the date had been correct, but Jesus’ second coming had occurred in heaven, not on earth. Jesus had begun an investigative judgment of the world, and when he is done he will return to earth, but no one knows exactly when. This rationalization was sustained and continues to this day with membership in the millions. It is known as the Church of Seventh-day Adventists.
The third example of cognitive dissonance reduction leading to a new belief is documented in a one thousand page tome by the late President of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Gershom Scholem. This example of cognitive dissonance reduction occurred in the seventeenth-century Jewish messianic movement of Sabbatai Sevi (sometimes spelled “Zevi” or “Zvi”), a Jew who publicly proclaimed himself to be the Messiah in 1665. Sevi, an adherent to a popular Jewish theology called Lurianic Kabbalism, was a charismatic manic-depressive who would deliberately and spectacularly break the law of Moses, eat forbidden foods and utter the sacred name of God, and then claim he had been inspired to do so by special revelation. Sabbatai gained a huge following spanning Italy, Holland, Germany, and Poland. His followers thought he would usher in a new age of redemption for Israel. However, when Sabbatai traveled to Istanbul in 1666, he was arrested and imprisoned by Muslim authorities. The Sultan gave him a choice: conversion to Islam or death. Sabbatai chose Islam. Gershom Scholem explains the effect of Sabbatai’s shocking choice on his followers:
Sabbatai’s apostasy burst like a bombshell, taking by surprise the messiah’s closest associates as well as the most vehement unbelievers. Neither literary tradition nor the psychology of the ordinary Jew had envisaged the possibility of an apostate messiah. . . . In order to survive, the movement had to develop an ideology that would enable its followers to live amid the tensions between inner and outer realities. . . . The peculiar Sabbatian doctrines developed and crystalized with extraordinary rapidity in the years following the apostasy. Two factors were responsible for this, as for many similar developments in the history of religions: on the one hand, a deeply rooted faith, nourished by a profound and immediate experience . . . and, on the other hand, the ideological need to explain and rationalize the painful contradiction between historical reality and faith. The interaction of these two factors gave birth to Sabbatian theology, whose doctrine of the messiah was defined by the prophet Nathan in the years after the apostasy.
In a nutshell, the theology defined by the prophet Nathan after Sevi’s apostasy was that it was part of an intentional strategy to assume evil’s form and then kill it from within. As Scholem notes, “When discussing the Sabbatian paradox by means of which cruel disappointment was turned into a positive affirmation of faith, the analogy with early Christianity almost obtrudes itself.”
The fourth and final example of cognitive dissonance reduction leading to a new belief is the most applicable to Christian origins and involves another Jewish Messiah movement, this one from the 1990s. A group of Hasidic Jews called Lubavitch (or Chabad), a subgroup of Orthodox Jews, was headquartered in New York City and had approximately two hundred thousand followers worldwide. Beginning in 1991, there grew an increasing fervor among the Lubavitch that their spiritual leader, the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (“Rebbe” is the formal title for the Lubavitch spiritual leader), might be the long-awaited Messiah, the one who would usher in the end times redemption. Like Jesus, Rebbe Schneerson never explicitly claimed that he was the Messiah, but he made such a big impression on so many of his followers that many thought he might be.
In March 1992, the eighty-nine year old Rebbe Schneerson had a stroke that rendered him paralyzed on the right side of his body and unable to talk. Simon Dein, a psychiatrist, social anthropologist, and Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Medicine at University College London, was living in a Lubavitch community in Stamford Hill, England, at the time and studying another aspect of the Lubavitch. Dein explains how Rebbe Schneerson’s followers made sense of the Rebbe’s new disabilities in light of their belief that he might be the Messiah:
Despite his profound incapacity, messianic fervor in the Lubavitch community intensified, culminating in plans to crown him as Mosiach [the Messiah]. Lubavitchers referred to Isaiah 53, “a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering”, and argued that his illness was a prerequisite to the messianic arrival. . . . that the Rebbe himself had chosen to become ill and had taken on the suffering of the Jewish people.
Two years later, on March 10, 1994, Rebbe Schneerson had another stroke, this one rendering him comatose. His followers were unshaken, again holding fast to their belief that he could be the Messiah. One Lubavitcher Rabbi gave the following rationalization:
The Rebbe is now in a state of concealment. The Jews could not see Moses on Mount Sinai and thought he was dead. They built the golden calf and had a vision of him lying dead on a bier, whereas he was in fact alive and in a state of concealment. The Rebbe is in a state of Chinoplet, a trancelike state where the soul leaves the body. The soul of the Rebbe has to go down to lower realms to drag up the souls of the sinners. He must do this before he declares himself as Moshiach [the Messiah].
According to Simon Dein:
[Rebbe Schneerson’s] faithful followers saw this [the second stroke] as a prelude to his messianic revelation and the arrival of the redemption. As he lay dying in intensive care, several hundred followers assembled outside Beth Israel Medical Centre singing and dancing—anticipating the imminent arrival of the redemption. . . . Supporters and believers signed petitions to God, demanding that he allow their Rebbe to reveal himself as the long-awaited Messiah and rise from his sickbed to lead all humanity to their redemption.
Three months after this second stroke, on June 12, 1994, Rebbe Schneerson died. This still failed to extinguish the belief that he could be the Messiah. Dein, who was still with the Lubavitch community in Stamford Hill when Rebbe Schneerson died, observed yet another and this time even more startling rationalization: “Many Lubavitchers expressed the idea that he would be resurrected.” Dein watched the funeral procession in New York City via satellite on the same day that Schneerson died and saw Lubavitchers “dancing and singing in anticipation of his resurrection and imminent redemption.” One observer on the street said of these people celebrating, “They were certain that any second, the hoax would end and the Rebbe would get up and lead us to the redemption right then.”
Although exact numbers are unknown, the idea that Rebbe Schneerson would resurrect from the dead soon swept through the Lubavitch community worldwide and gained a significant following. In Stamford Hill, Dein reported, “Very soon, the overwhelming feeling in the community was that the Rebbe would resurrect and that the redemption would arrive.” Five days after the Rebbe’s death, a full-page advertisement in a widely circulated Jewish Orthodox weekly in New York City (the Jewish Press) declared that Rebbe Schneerson would be resurrected as the Messiah. Two years after Rebbe Schneerson’s death, the International Campaign to Bring Moshiach set up a huge billboard beside New York’s George Washington Bridge proclaiming Rebbe Schneerson was the Messiah. Seven years after the Rebbe’s death, David Berger, professor of Jewish History, past president of the Association for Jewish Studies, and outspoken critic of the Rebbe Schneerson movement gave this assessment of the movement:
[A] large majority of Lubavitch hasidim believe with perfect faith in the return of the Rebbe as Messiah son of David. . . . The dominant elements among hasidim in the major Lubavitch population centres of Crown Heights in Brooklyn and Kfar Chabad in Israel—perfectly normal people representing a highly successful, very important Jewish movement—believe that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson will return from the dead . . . and lead the world to redemption.
Berger goes on to say, “With the exception of Sabbatianism, Lubavitch messianists have already generated the largest and most long-lived messianic movement in Jewish history since antiquity.”
In explaining the difficulty Rebbe Schneerson’s followers would have had rationalizing a dead Messiah, Berger notes,
[Lubavitch is] a major movement located well within the parameters of Orthodox Judaism. . . . There is no more fundamental messianic belief in Judaism than the conviction that the Davidic Messiah who appears at the end of days will not die before completing his mission. . . . [A person] is invalidated as a potential Messiah the moment that he dies in an unredeemed world.
This expectation about the Messiah explains Berger’s reaction when he saw his fellow Jews rationalize Rebbe Schneerson’s death:
My sense of puzzlement, bewilderment, disorientation began to grow. The world appeared surreal, as if I had been transported into Alice’s Wonderland or a Jewish Twilight Zone. The rules of Judaism seemed suspended. . . . Here was a movement of posthumous false messianism self-evidently alien to Judaism that no generation of mainstream Jewish leaders would ever have countenanced even for a fleeting moment. . . . Any appeal to Maimonides’ criteria seemed clearly impossible.
But it was not impossible. Rebbe Schneerson’s followers rationalized that their dead Messiah would complete his mission later, after he resurrected from the dead. Putting aside whether or not this rationalization is coherent, Berger’s reaction illustrates how big a gap there can be between what we think is possible with a cognitive dissonance reduction rationalization and what actually is possible. Leon Festinger explains this in general terms:
Where there are a number of people having the same cognitive dissonance, the phenomenon [of cognitive dissonance reduction] may be much more spectacular, even to the point where it is possible to withstand evidence which would otherwise be overwhelming. . . . There is a tendency to seek explanations of these striking phenomena which match them in dramatic quality; that is, one looks for something unusual to explain the unusual result. It may be, however, that there is nothing more unusual about these phenomena than the relative rarity of the specific combination of ordinary circumstances that brings about their occurrence.
Explaining the Lubavitch rationalization from the perspective of a social scientist, Simon Dein says:
[The] Lubavitch are not a group of fanatics. . . . They are sane people trying to reason their way through facts and in the pursuit of understanding. . . . Like many groups whose messianic expectations fail to materialize, resort is made to eschatological hermeneutics to explain and reinforce the messianic ideology…. The Rebbe’s illness and subsequent death posed cognitive challenges for his followers. They made two predictions that were empirically disconfirmed: that he would recover from his illness and that he would usher in the Redemption. In accordance with cognitive dissonance theory . . . they appealed to a number of post hoc rationalizations to allay the dissonance.
Dein goes on to say, “Not surprisingly, these new beliefs have attracted a lot of derision from the wider Jewish community and, on account of their proclamations of the imminent resurrection of Schneerson, some have labeled [them] . . . ‘Christians’.”
Of course, the Lubavitchers’ rationalization is not quite the same as that of Jesus’ followers, who claimed that Jesus had already been resurrected from the dead, but there is a good reason for this difference. In Lubavitcher theology, a “prince,” in this case Rebbe Schneerson (who did not designate a successor), must be present in this world in some physical capacity in order to mediate the world’s divine force or the world would cease to exist. Since the world still existed, Rebbe Schneerson had to still be physically present in the grave; he could not have been resurrected from the dead and transported up to heaven as Jesus’ followers believed about him.
The Lubavitcher example is especially relevant to the study of Christian origins because of how close it comes to Christian beliefs. Although Dein says there is no empirical evidence that the Lubavitch were influenced by Christian beliefs, even if they were, all that would mean is that they needed a little nudge from others who went first in rationalizing a dead Messiah who would resurrect from the dead.
The significance of the Lubavitch example to the study of Christian origins is summed up by David Berger: “Though largely ignored thus far, this is a development of striking importance for the history of world religions, and it is an earthquake in the history of Judaism.”
In conclusion, cognitive dissonance reduction is a powerful human phenomenon that seems fully capable of explaining the rise of the resurrection belief among Jesus’ followers. It is also worth noting that a significant amount of rationalization by Jesus’ followers would still have been necessary even if a post-mortem bereavement hallucination of Jesus marked the beginning of the resurrection belief. We can say this because we know that many other Jews before the time of Jesus must have experienced post-mortem bereavement hallucinations of lost loved ones, and yet there is no record of such people concluding that their lost loved ones had been resurrected from the dead. The rationalization component of the hallucination hypothesis seems necessarily so large that the hallucination seems secondary to the point of not even being necessary. It is also worth noting that if the resurrection belief came about purely through rationalization, the resultant highly charged religious environment would seem to make hallucinations of Jesus more probable than they would be in just a post-mortem bereavement environment. In short, cognitive dissonance may have given rise to the resurrection belief and then the appearance experiences followed only after the resurrection belief was in place.
Kris Komarnitsky works in the aviation industry and has been studying Christian origins as a side interest for the past fifteen years. He has written articles for The Fourth R, The Bible and Interpretation website, the Huffington Post, Free Inquiry magazine, and the Secular Web. He is the author of Doubting Jesus’ Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box? (2nd ed, 2014).
* See “Peters’ Mourning and His Easter Vision,” by Gerd Lüdemann (Fourth R 27-1, Jan–Feb 2014).
1. R. L. Timpe, Baker Encyclopedia, 220 (emphasis added).
2. Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, When Prophecy Fails, 168.
3. Festinger in Stanley Schachter and Michael S. Gazzaniga, eds., Extending Psychological Frontiers, 255–56.
4. Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 232.
5. Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 3, 27–28.
6. Advent Herald, October 30, 1844, quoted in Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 19–20.
7. Luther Boutelle, quoted in Festinger, When Prophecy Fails, 20.
8. Gershom Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 792–95.
9. Scholem, Sabbatai Sevi, 795.
10. Simon Dein, “Messiah from the Dead,” 542 and “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 394.
11. Dein, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 395.
12. Dein, Lubavitcher Messianism, 58 and “Messiah from the Dead,” 543.
13. Dein, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 397.
14. Dein, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 397.
15. Joel Marcus, “The Once and Future Messiah,” 394.
16. Dein, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 397–98.
17. David Berger, The Rebbe, 11, 41.
18. Dein, Lubavitcher Messianism, 63.
19. Berger, The Rebbe, xxxi, xxxvi, 26.
20. Berger, The Rebbe, 28.
21. Berger, The Rebbe, 18, 41, xli.
22. Berger, The Rebbe, 13, 24. Maimonides’ criteria tied the arrival of the Messiah to the end times redemption in the same way that Jews always have: utopia, the resurrection of the dead, the end of persecution, and the joyful gathering of all Jews in Israel.
23. Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, 233, 47.
24. Dein, “What Really Happens When Prophecy Fails,” 399, “Messiah from the Dead,” 550, and Lubavitcher Messianism, 139.
25. Dein, “Messiah from the Dead,” 551 n. 5.
26. Berger, The Rebbe, xxxii.
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