Jesus And The Null Hypothesis

When trying to determine whether something is true or not, it is common in statistics to run two tests. One if it is true and if it is not (called the null hypothesis). I think it would be useful to examine the life of Jesus using this approach. I’ll take two possible hypotheses, one that Jesus was the Son of God and God in human form, performed miracles and rose from the dead in the standard Christian view. The null hypothesis is that Jesus was just an ordinary teacher with no superhuman powers. I think that a lot can be gained from comparing the two hypotheses and seeing which is the more plausible.

Case 1: Gospels

First, take the Gospels. Imagine if you were the son of God and wanted to leave a message for all humanity for all time. First of all, you would want to write it yourself so it could not be distorted. It would be free of contradictions and above criticism (seeing as it was written by a deity). It would be necessarily detailed and long in order to cover all the problems of life and to give full answers to them all. It would naturally describe the church you were going to create and its structure. It would speak not just to your immediate neighbours, but people living thousands of year’s later living on the other side of the planet. Your messages would be clear and unambiguous containing great insights into both life on Earth and the afterlife.

Now imagine if Jesus was only a teacher. He would say some useful things but he would lack insight into the afterlife and everything beyond his limited surroundings in Palestine. He would not be able to give rules for modern life which he would not have any comprehension of. He would not describe a church he had no intention of setting up nor write a holy book. He could tell vague stories but nothing Earth shattering.

I think it is clear that the evidence suggests we cannot reject the null hypothesis (I’m going to avoid overly technical language from here on out as you probably get the message). Instead of a clear, detailed Gospel straight from God himself, we only have an incredibly short and brief account riddled with contradictions and omissions. We have no firsthand accounts of Jesus or anything from himself. There is little indication that Jesus even intended to set up a new religion and gave incredibly little advice as to how it would look. He mostly spoke in vague parables whose interpretations are very wide and can be taken to mean very little or a great deal. It is so bad that Catholic Church does not believe the Bible is reliable enough to be read by itself but must also include Church teaching and tradition (very little of the Church hierarchy comes from the Bible). So score one for the null.

Case 2: Miracles

Second, let’s take the miracles that Jesus performed. If he was God made man, then we would expect truly spectacular feats. Literally anything would be possible for him. He could move mountains, drain oceans or cure the entire world of disease. Being God, he could easily provide irrefutable evidence that would not leave anyone in the slightest doubt as to who he was. An ordinary teacher would not be able to perform any miracles and even if miracles were ascribed to him, they would be vague and open to criticism.

So what’s the evidence? Well, firstly, Jesus is claimed to be born of a virgin, which is quite an achievement, but one that is impossible to prove either true or false. There is literally no way it could be ever proved conclusively. But what was the point of a virgin birth? There is nothing proved and nothing to gain from it (other than supposedly fulfilling a line of the Old Testament that was misunderstood as a prophecy), so it seems a rather pointless miracle. The next miracle is the turning of water into wine. This too is doubtful as it is very easy to convince drunk people of anything (I have personally convinced drunk people that a glass of water was really vodka). At the end of party no one will be paying close attention so it would be easy to procure barrels of wine and have people presume it was a miracle.

The most common type of miracle that Jesus is supposed to have performed is that of healing. He is claimed to have healed lepers, cured people of blindness and even raised someone from the dead. All of which is compatible with Jesus having special powers, but there is a secular explanation too. It is plausible that Jesus went from town to laying hands on sick people and even if this had no effect some people would recover naturally. If Jesus administered to hundreds and only a handful recovered, then it is possible that we only hear about those who recovered while the rest are ignored. It does seem slightly odd that if Jesus did have the power to cure anyone, he only choose to heal a handful. Add a placebo effect and some exaggeration as the stories are passed orally and the null hypothesis seems very plausible. (It is worth noting that the Kings of England and France used to claim to be able to cure disease with their hands, a practice that thousands of people believed, yet no religious person would believe today.)

Other miracles such as Jesus walking on water during a storm which instantly became calm or the feeding of 5000 are hard to explain. They could be miracles (though we have no reliable sources) or they could be metaphors (how Jesus stands by people during storms of life or Jesus can feed people’s spiritual needs rather than bodily one’s).The raising of Lazarus from the dead could have occurred when Jesus visited a sick man who subsequently got better. The story could have got exaggerated with further telling (he was dying, he was almost dead, he was dead). Or it could be another metaphor, another parable Jesus was so fond of. Jesus also allegedly performed exorcisms and removed demons from people, a point that is usually ignored by modern Christians (except for fundamentalists) and treated as an embarrassment, so they can be rejected.

Based on the evidence, we cannot reject the null. It is safe to say that the miracle stories were undoubtedly exaggerated, but we cannot know for sure by how much. In places of doubt we must go with the simplest and most likely explanation, which casts doubt on the miracles. A key piece of information is the limited nature of the miracles. They were often performed only on front of the disciples (those who were most desperate to believe) and only affected a handful of people (if Jesus could cure anyone or save anyone from death why help so few). The miracles are mostly quite petty and are more akin to magician’s tricks than divine intervention. There is also the point that the miracles were limited to a small area in Palestine and no sources outside the Bible recorded it. Surely if Jesus was the son of God and wanted to convince the whole world, he would do better than this? Extraordinary claim demand extraordinary evidence and this just isn’t present.

Case 3: Resurrection

The most important claim is that Jesus rose from the dead. Without this, there would be no Christianity so this is absolutely crucial. God-made-man would know this and try to make this as convincing as possible and leave nothing to chance. The resurrection would be public so as the gain the widest audience. If you are about to undergo the most important event in human history, then you wouldn’t do it half arsed.

However, the Gospel account is unbelievably brief. This is supposedly the culmination of the Bible, the most important part, what everything before was leading to, yet all we have is a few brief pages. The crucifixion narrative is riddled with contradictions and shows clear signs of being exaggerated over time. The resurrection narrative also contains many contradictions and none of the sources agree on who went to the empty tomb and what they saw.

Surely the Resurrection, the most important event in Christianity would be described in detail proportional to its importance? Instead it gets only a page in the Gospel of Matthew and Mark (even the passages in Mark are believed to have been added later and the original did not contain anyone seeing Jesus risen). Both accounts only mention one appearance of Jesus after which nothing more is said. Nothing is said of where he went or what he did, making the resurrection a bit pointless. In Luke there is more detail, yet here Jesus seems to resemble a ghost who disappears in front of them and re-appears later (though he does eat food). He doesn’t appear to any but his most fervent believers nor is there any mention of what he did next. John is the account that stretches beyond a handful of lines and here too Jesus resembles a ghost who is able to appear in rooms where all the doors are locked. Here again there is no mention of an ascension.

The evidence then is incredibly weak. We have some vague apparitions in front of biased witnesses that are as likely to be spirits or ghosts as to be a physical body returned to life. Jesus is often described as being unrecognisable to the disciples. At no point does Jesus appear to the public which surely would have been strong evidence for the resurrection. It seems strange that what would be undeniably convincing evidence was hidden away. None of the Gospel accounts have an ending or say what happened to Jesus which is an unusual omission. The resurrection accounts are incredibly vague and rushed as though they were of little importance. Based on this, it is highly unlikely that they are true and far more probable than the grieving disciples experienced a hallucination. There is simply too little evidence to reject the null.


Based on the evidence I have examined, I conclude that we cannot reject the null hypothesis that Jesus was not the son of God but merely an ordinary teacher. The limited nature of his teachings and alleged miracles do not suggest a deity but rather a myth no different from the thousands of other claimed Gods and prophets. The accounts are too biased and contradictory to be reliable. The resurrection is the weakest link of all, containing so little evidence as to not be credible. There are a thousand simpler explanations that do not rely on supernatural causes that can just as well explain the miracles of Jesus. We are asked to believe in an all-powerful deity who can only provide mediocre evidence. For these reasons, the null hypothesis is the far more credible explanation.


Filed under Religion

44 responses to “Jesus And The Null Hypothesis

  1. The fascinating thing about the resurrection is that without it, Christianity is dead in the water (admitted by clerics and atheists alike). So, why did the tomb not become a shrine. Many people knew its location, but after those brief comments, nothing. Later we see all kinds of shenanigans with pieces of the cross or the Centurions robe being holy relics, etc, etc. But the effing tomb would be much better than any of those other things. But nobody appparently considered it a holy site which favors the null hypothesis.

  2. Hello Nielsen, hope you are well!
    This is a brilliant piece. The evidence, when it is there, is vague, shallow and contradictory. It can’t help us make a proper historical judgement on the matter.

  3. Ignostic Atheist

    Reblogged this on Ignostic Atheist and commented:
    I’ve had the null hypothesis on the brain for the past week, and now I don’t have to write anything. It is a good day!

  4. God’s Revelation about Himself to man is not about being plausible.

    In fact, it is just the opposite.

    The existence of God is self-evident, that is, it is knowable through reason.

    But only God can reveal God.

    And that does not fall within the realm of plausible.

    It falls within the realm of faith.

    Consequently, we may reason out that knowing Jesus as God is implausible and therefore requires faith.

    Jesus said that over and over again.

    In fact, in the story of the 10 lepers, Jesus cures all 10 but only one comes back to express gratitude.

    Jesus’ response was, “Your faith has saved you.”

    Jesus and the Catholic Church which he founded, teach that faith in God is expressed through gratitude to Him.

    Such heartfelt love can hardly be expressed through the null hypothesis since there is no connection between the two.

    • “God’s Revelation about Himself to man is not about being plausible.
      In fact, it is just the opposite.
      The existence of God is self-evident, that is, it is knowable through reason.”

      So is there or isn’t there evidence? You seem to be contradicting yourself so could you please clarify.

      “Consequently, we may reason out that knowing Jesus as God is implausible and therefore requires faith.”

      So long as this point is stated clearly, I have no problem. However, I do have a problem when some Christians say there is evidence for Jesus or that it is through logical reasons that they are religious. If everyone admits it is merely blind faith, then that would greatly simplify things.

      You are free to continue with your faith, but I choose only to believe in things that there are evidence for.

    • Ignostic Atheist

      The existence of God is self-evident, that is, it is knowable through reason.

      Which is to say, everyone can easily be shown evidence.

      But only God can reveal God.

      Which is to say, only god can provide evidence.

      Consequently, we may reason out that knowing Jesus as God is implausible and therefore requires faith.

      But Jesus is god, and god’s existence is self-evident.

      What you’re saying is reverse-revelation: faith in god/Jesus results in knowledge of Jesus’ divinity. That’s a brilliant recipe for self delusion.

  5. If you were a god coming to earth you probably wouldn’t also pop up in the ass-end of nowhere, rather land straight in the heart of the philosophical, cultural and scientific hotbeds of the day.

    The only possible explanation for how Christians continue to believe this nonsense is that they simply do not actually think about it… ever.

    (also, if you take all the gospels together then Jesus actually raised eight people from the dead, including two boys whom he murdered when he was 5 years old.)

    • I considered pointing out that it would make far more sense to appear in Rome or China, centres of population with literate populations. It also doesn’t make sense that Jesus confined himself to such a small area rather than spreading around. But if I were to include every piece of information that didn’t make sense, I’d never finish the post.

    • Actually, Palestine was a pretty convenient location for spreading a new religion – it’s situated between Rome, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and other population centers, and it’s on multiple trade routes. Being in China would put it in relative isolation. Now, if the leader of the new religion had been a little bit more competent and determined than Jesus, the religion could have spread from there to the entire ancient world pretty quickly – but even with JC as the founder, it did pretty well in the real life, too.

      • A stall on either side of the Bosphorus Straits would have served that geographic purpose far, far better.

      • Surely if Jesus was in Rome he could have quickly got the allegiance of the rulers of the Roman Empire which would have spread around the Western World incredibly quickly. Instead it took 300 years and a lot of luck before the Roman Empire was Christianised. China would be relatively isolated but that depends on who you are comparing it to and you have to remember the enormous population China had. China could offer a literate population capable of recording the life of Jesus, which Palestine could not.

        Of course being Jesus, there is no reason he couldn’t do all of the above.

        • But Romans had their own state religion (Jupiter and Co.), and they didn’t have much of a success spreading it beyond their own borders and settlements. Romans generally let their colonies keep their existing gods and some local administration, if Syria-Palestina colony is any indication. It could have been different if Jesus had made Christianity Rome’s state religion, but we’ll never know.
          Speaking of literacy rates, if I remember correctly, John Z had a post about the fact that Palestine had a fair number of literate people around 0AD, yet none of them deemed Jesus significant enough to mention in their writing.
          And while China had a lot of population, there was no significant contact between it and the West and Middle East until 15th century or so.
          Theoretically speaking, if you want a religion to spread quickly, it should be located near something we could call “the center of mass” of all human settlements – that would be the minimum total travel time (which depends on the available means of travel at that given time) from the point of origin to all other humans on the planet. Palestine may well have been that point 2000 years ago, and the location of that points is actually possible (but incredibly hard) to calculate. Today that point is probably somewhere at a Beijing or New Dehli airport.

          • “But Romans had their own state religion (Jupiter and Co.)”

            But its Jesus, he can do anything. He could perform any kind of miracles in the centre of Rome and convince everyone.

            “Speaking of literacy rates, if I remember correctly, John Z had a post about the fact that Palestine had a fair number of literate people around 0AD, yet none of them deemed Jesus significant enough to mention in their writing.”

            It is true that none of the writings outside the Bible mention Jesus. However, the literacy rate in Palestine was very low. read somewhere it was about 3%.

            • Except, as you wrote in your post, Jesus’ miracles either weren’t too impressive, or happened only in the presence (or halucinations) of few of his closest followers.

          • Would not London be the better cross road between America and not that far from the Islamic borders? and fairly close to Moscow.

            • No – I found out today that there is a term for what I was trying to describe: “center of population”. And the basic one, with distances rather than travel times, puts that center somewhere in South Asia.

    • “The only possible explanation for how Christians continue to believe this nonsense is that they simply do not actually think about it… ever.”

      Over Christmas, my mother and I were talking and somehow we got onto the subject of morality being relative in different cultures. She said, “Take Sodom and Gomorrah, for example…. ”

      I said, “Mom, those are just myths.”

      She burst out laughing and said, “I guess you’re right. For some reason it just never crossed my mind.”

      I said, “Sex with angels, pillars of salt?”

      She laughed even harder. “It’s nuts, isn’t it. I just really never thought about it.”

      She’s an atheist, but her parents sent her to Catholic school until she came home one day wanting to be a nun. At that point my grandfather told her there was no God and put her in public school “so fast it made my head spin.” As she said during that conversation, these stories are embedded so deeply in your mind when you’re a kid that you never even think to question them.

      • It’s true! The priests at my school just never talked about any of it. I swear they were atheists, just couldn’t admit it and lose the free housing and food🙂 The thing is, evangelicals DO think about it… they think about it all the time. How they don’t see the absurdity is beyond me.

        • I have to confess in the last few months becoming fascinated by these evangelical fundamentalists. I’m not even sure what to call them. I only know one person who holds those beliefs and he’s a childhood friend with whom a barely talk anymore. (His mother is beside herself because her grandchildren don’t believe in evolution.) They’re really an unknown entity to me. What I find especially strange is that they seem to think that they represent the mainstream. A few people on the internet have suggested to me that it’s my experience that’s unusual, but I went to public school (U.S. meaning of public school), I had black friends, white friends, Asian friends, Hispanic friends, Catholics, Protestants, Jewish. I don’t want to make it sound as if it was all Kumbaya, but it wasn’t that bad and I think it was pretty mainstream.

          Then I come across people on the internet saying that they grew up in this fundamentalist background, and it just blows my mind.

          But evangelical isn’t the right word because I’ve known plenty of Baptists and Methodists. It’s the isolation of some of these individuals that’s so weird. They have strange gaps in their cultural knowledge. It seems to me that they almost exist in a parallel culture. And that is how they don’t see beyond the absurdity. They exist in a closed environment that reinforces the beliefs.

          Though my own feeling about the people who engage on the internet with atheists is that they have a lot of doubts and that’s why they engage in the first place.

          • You could be right.

            I know what you mean about the oddity of evangelicals. Coming from Australia when i first heard there were people (in the US) who actually believed in the Genesis story i thought it was a joke. Seriously, a joke. Then i found out it wasn’t a joke and ever since i too have been fascinated with them.

            • Where I’m living now, in Baltimore, is probably far more religious than anyplace else I’ve lived in the U.S. However it tends to lean towards what’s called “historically black” protestant denominations and Catholicism.

              Black churches in the U.S. definitely add another dimension to religion here. I think it’s a detail that people from outside the country overlook. It’s one of the reasons I really appreciate the work of black American non-believers who are activists. It’s really hard work for them, I think. Of all demographic groups, African Americans are the single most religious. It’s also an area that I feel I wouldn’t want to go blundering into since I don’t belong to that community.

              It’s really a large country and it’s hard to make any generalizations. A lot of people have expressed fears that the country could split. I don’t know how realistic those fears are. There are days that it seems preposterous, then I read something like this:
              and I start worrying.

              • Just draw a new Mason Dixon Line according to rational thought🙂

                • Please, no! I’m on the wrong side of the Mason Dixon line! (Maryland is weird – it’s a Southern state that had a slave economy but didn’t secede from the Union. One day, I’ll have to look up the historical reasons for that. It might be interesting. Oh, yes, and I can see John Waters from my window. Baltimore is charitably described as “quirky.”)

  6. Maybe no one explained what happened to Jesus, because the Gospel writers were hoping for a sequel.

  7. rater Neilsen, on your commentary as to Jesus being the Son of God, and miracles and so forth, I would have a preference to hear your commentary on finance in relationship to Jesus’s interpretation of the Roman coin, that is “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” what is the meaning of Jesus’s idea?

    • I’m not sure if there is much to be said on finance. Jesus’ quote is usually taken to mean a separation of church and state. The state has right over the civil affairs and people’s life on Earth while the church has right over people’s spiritual affairs and afterlife.

  8. Pingback: Refining an Atheist Identity | Ignostic Atheist

  9. Gary Bell

    My only comment to Christians would be to read your mouldy old book, that’s all, read it from the front cover, that’s what makes atheists, atheists. Reading the buybull will kill religion for everyone, no one could believe these are the words of a omniscient entity but, rather the scribbles of donkey jockeys and goat herders, cowering in caves in the deserts of the Middle East 20-30 centuries ago.

  10. faithhopelove

    i believe people argue about whether Jesus really came to earth as fully God and fully man because they are in denial of the fact that there is something wrong with life. that wrong is sin, and Jesus did not come to make a big show and be known. he came humbly and out of love for us to teach about the kingdom of God and to take the punishment on the cross for our sins. people get too caught up in the insignificant details and their accounts of what they would do if they were a god coming to earth. the only real problem is that people are in such self denial that they need a savior and they want to be lord over their own lives. I pray that God will open all of your eyes so that you will have faith and believe that Jesus came to earth to save you. God bless.

  11. Pingback: Why Your God Is Still Too Small: Response To Mark Sandlin | The Great Bandwagon!

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