Is it really impossible to “prove a negative”?

A recent review of Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed on Kirkus states that, “it is famously impossible to prove a negative…” There is just one problem: It is not impossible to prove a negative. Indeed, proving negatives is central to many aspects of logic, science, and criminal justice. If we couldn’t prove negatives we essentially wouldn’t be able to prove anything at all. What is famous, are the efforts of people defending indefensible claims to try and structure their claims in ways that that are difficult to disprove, often in ways that require opponents to prove negatives, and then to claim, falsely, that it can’t be done.

I’m not saying that the reviewer on Kirkus intentionally did that, as their review is generally positive, but it is a common misconception that you “can’t prove a negative”, which you most certainly can. The most obvious way that negatives are proven is to prove that alternative mutually exclusive claims are true. This is a guiding principle of how our criminal justice system works. If you are accused of a crime you can prove that you didn’t do the crime by proving some other explanation for the crime. Now this isn’t even required in our justice system, nor is it generally required in science. The burden of proof lies on the one making the claim or accusation. In other words, if you are accused of a crime you don’t have to prove that you didn’t do it, the accuser has to prove that you did do it.

Obviously if you are accused of murdering someone for example, you can “prove the negative” of that claim, i.e. that you did not murder someone, by proving that someone else committed the murder or that it is impossible for you to have done it, etc. That is an example of “proving a negative”. Likewise, if someone says that, “there is a red balloon in that box,” you can prove the negative, i.e. that there is not a red balloon in the box, by simply opening the box and showing that there is no balloon in it. Again, a simple example of proving a negative.

But what about more difficult things. What about proving that “there are no leprechauns”, for example? Is it possible to “prove” that leprechauns don’t exist? Generally yes, it is possible to prove that leprechauns don’t exist. Is it possible to construct claims that cannot be proven or disproven? Yes, it is possible to do that, but that is really a philosophical debate and has little to do with real-world claims.

We can prove that leprechauns don’t exist by proving that all of the claims/evidence put forward for their existence are false. When all of the claims for the existence of something are proven to be false, then it is proven that that thing does not exist by definition. This is because the definition of what the thing is, is determined by the claims for its existence. To continue to claim that “leprechauns” may exist once all evidence for their existence has been disproven requires changing the definition of what a “leprechaun” is to something that no longer matches the definition of what was disproven. At that point you are just making up words.

In the real world, mythical beings, gods, paranormal phenomena, etc., have real definitions and descriptions. Yes, it is possible to contrive a description of something that can’t be disproven, but that’s not what real legends are based on. Real legends tend to form around well described things and events that people believe are true. Is it possible to come up with a definition of “god” that is undetectable and cannot be disproven? Yes it is, but traditional gods that have been worshiped by people for thousands of years aren’t like that. All traditional gods have explicit and testable definitions. Traditional gods are described as having some features, they are claimed to have done various things, they are claimed to be able to do various things, and are often said to have certain qualities. All of those things can be proven or disproven.

But what about “ancient people”, it is possible to “prove” that someone didn’t exist? Yes, it is possible to prove that someone didn’t exist, just like it is possible to prove that leprechauns don’t exist. One can prove that a “historical person” didn’t exist by disproving all of the evidence for their existence and by demonstrating other alternative explanations for the emergence of belief in their existence.

So what are some ways that you can prove an ancient person didn’t exist?

  1. Archaeological evidence that the civilization they are said to be from didn’t exist at the time they were said to have lived.
  2. Evidence that descriptions of someone like the person the pre-date the time the person is supposed to have lived.
  3. Evidence that the account of the person’s life is copied from a story from a different culture.
  4. Archaeological or documentary evidence showing that the individual was known to be a divine or imaginary being prior to the belief that they were a real person.
  5. An authentic statement from the writer of the first account of the person that the account is made up.
  6. Establishing that every detail of a person’s description is not true.
  7. Testimony from someone of the time explaining that the person wasn’t real.

I’m sure there are others as well. Some of these things may not be very likely to be established, but they are ways that you can “prove” that a person didn’t exist.

The classic example of this is the case of William Tell of Swiss legend. It is now widely accepted by historians that the legend of William Tell is not based on the life of any real person. One of the key lines of evidence against the reality of the Tell legend is comparative mythology, showing that the core narrative of William Tell’s “biography” comes from Germanic myths that predate the time of the supposed life of Tell.

Another problem we have, however, in “proving that someone didn’t exist”, is defining what it means for “that person” to “exist”. This is a challenge when it comes to establishing that “Jesus” did not “exist”. There are those among Jesus historicists who basically claim that the Jesus of the Gospels was inspired by a real person, even if the real person did and said none of the things described in the Gospels. According to this argument, basically anyone could be Jesus. I would dispute such a position. If it can be shown that every aspect of the description of a person is not true, then by definition that person did not exist.

There are some Jesus historicists who take the position that even if it is proven that the Gospels are entirely fictional, and nothing that Jesus said or did in the Gospels really happened and that the Gospels are proven not to be based on the life of a person named Jesus at all, that even that wouldn’t prove that “Jesus never existed”. According to this view, there could still be some theoretical Jesus person who it is impossible to prove never existed. But even if we assume that to be true (which it isn’t), that “Jesus person” would clearly not actually be the Jesus of Christianity, because the Jesus of Christianity is the Jesus described in the Gospels.

But even a theoretical undescribed Jesus person cannot be a full defense against establishing that Jesus never existed, because it is possible to show that the Jesus being worshiped by the earliest worshipers was a celestial deity, not a person. For example, if a document was found that was conclusively dated to around 10 CE that explicitly said something like, “We worship the Lord Jesus Christ, who is a heavenly ruler and has never been incarnate, who was crucified in the heavens,” that would be singularly conclusive evidence that the concept of “Jesus” began with the  worship of a heavenly deity, not a person, and thus that Jesus didn’t exist.

When it comes to Jesus, defenders of the historical Jesus have been playing a self-referential game of sorts. You see, there is already compelling evidence that the earliest form of Jesus worship was worship of a celestial deity, not a person. The defense against this evidence, however, has always been the Gospels, with the claim that because the Gospels describe a person the interpretation of the evidence that the original conception of Jesus was celestial must be wrong. However, once we establish that the Gospels are fictional and that nothing in them is based on the life of a real Jesus person, as I do in Deciphering the Gospels Proves Jesus Never Existed, then the Gospels can no longer be used to defend against the evidence that Jesus was originally a celestial deity.

And that is how it is “proven” that Jesus never existed. Yes, it is provable.

Point 1: There are no credible description of Jesus the person
Point 2: There is strong evidence that worship of Jesus originated with the worship of a celestial deity

The original Jesus was a celestial deity and the Gospels do not counter the evidence that Jesus was originally conceived of as celestial being. The Gospels were always the only defense against the idea that Jesus was just a celestial deity, so once we establish that the Gospels not only have no basis in fact, but are not even inspired by the life of a real person (other than Paul), the evidence proving that Jesus was originally a celestial deity is decisive.

It is, of course, possible to “prove a negative”. It is possible to prove that a supposed ancient person never existed. And in fact the case against the existence of Jesus is arguably stronger than the case against the existence of just about any figure from ancient lore because of the nature and quality of the documentation that we have from the time of the origin of the myth. I would argue that it’s actually more difficult to prove that Hercules or even Zeus didn’t exist than it is to prove that Jesus never existed. And in reality, the case against the existence of Jesus is far stronger than the case against the existence of William Tell.

So the next time someone tells you that you can’t prove someone didn’t exist, explain to them why you actually can.

For more info on “proving negatives” see:


Can’t prove a negative? Sure you can!

You Can’t Prove a Negative : MYTH

Proving Non-Existence

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