I love this time of year; the warmth of spring is in full effect, my girls are able to swim in the pool again, flowers are blooming, summer break is looming, and we get to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus. In the Church world we say that we should celebrate the resurrection every week (and we should) but there is no denying that Christmas and Easter are the two big days in the Christian calendar. This is the time that even those who are only Christian in title (and even non-believers) are willing to risk coming into a church building to spend time with a local church community. This, to me, is a very, very big deal.
One of the questions I have heard many times over the years that is much more prevalent during the Easter season is, “Do you really believe that Jesus rose from the dead?” The sentiment most often is curious and non-demeaning but honestly incredulous to the idea that a person was brutally executed, buried in a grave (technically a cave), left there for multiple days, and that this person supernaturally came back to life? This, understandably, is an important question to ask. When it all comes down to is, this is the crux of the entire Christian faith. If Jesus did not rise from the dead he was at best a good teacher who got too full of himself and at worst a charlatan who convinced thousands to abandon their former lives and follow after him.
Consider what Paul wrote about this in his fist letter to the Christians in Corinth:
12 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? 13 For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. 15 And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. 16 And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. 18 In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! 19 And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19 NLT)
This is the question I will briefly answer in this blog entry. I feel like taking the time to answer this question may help some of my readers to be better equipped to answer the skeptics with a strong, confident, and convincing answer. What I am writing is not anything new; most of you will probably have heard or read these answers before. For a deeper treatment of the topic I would suggest Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free by F. F. Bruce, The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist by Norman Geisler, and Jesus among Other Gods by Ravi Zacharias.
I like the approach J. Warner Wallace took in his book Cold Case Christianity because it looks at this situation from the mind of a skeptic and a detective (I’d read that book too if you haven’t already). When we look at any situation in question we should use Occam’s razor which basically says that no matter how crazy it may sound we must go with the explanation that best fits the evidence. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes used this method in his fictitious detective work as well. With this as our strategy, let’s look at the facts:
- Jesus of Nazareth was a real person who lived 2,000 years ago in Palestine.
- Jesus of Nazareth became a popular radical teacher who attracted a following that included tens of thousands of people throughout Israel and Judea.
- Jesus was executed by the Roman government under the pretext of being a competitor for the Roman crown under the accusations of the Jewish religious leaders and carried out by a Roman Governor named Pontius Pilate.
- Days after his executions Jesus’ closest followers claimed he rose from the dead they began to spread the message that he was God and that he was the only path to salvation.
- This new faith (called Followers of The Way and eventually Christians) spread across the Roman Empire and, despite violent opposition from the Roman Government, eventually became the national religion of the Roman Empire.
- The Apostles (the 11 who originally followed Jesus during his earthly ministry) and a great many of Christians during this time died violent deaths and lived a life of little fortune because of their faith in Jesus and would not recant.
No historian worth their salt will debate these six facts. We have so many historical sources from both religious and secular writers that attest to these statements that there is little if any difficulty at all convincing a skeptic of these six statements. It has been said that there is more historical verification for the life, death, and the belief in the resurrection of Jesus by his followers than there is to verify that many of the Roman Emperors actually existed.
These six facts are the foundation from which we will build our case for the resurrection of Jesus actually being true. At its essence, if the resurrection of Jesus did not really happen the Apostles gained little to nothing from claiming that he did. They were all persecuted for the beliefs and all (except John the Apostle) were executed for their faith (tradition teaches that John was exiled to the prison island of Patmos after he would not die from being boiled in oil). There were so many other ways that religiously untrained men could have spread a new faith without coming into conflict with the Roman Empire or the Jewish religious leaders. To make the claims that the foundation of the Christian faith is based upon are absurd unless the Apostles truly believed it actually happened.
Yet, how could this have happened? What situations could have occurred to convince these 11 men that Jesus came back from the dead? There are many that have been suggested and entire books have been written to tackle them. I will, for the sake of brevity, only review the five listed below. Again, I recommend the books I listed earlier if you’d like a more in-depth treatment on this topic or you can get in touch with me and we can chat about question you may still have.
- The Theft Theory
This is the one I hear about the most often. It is actually the one the followers of Jesus were originally accused of by the Jewish religious leaders (cf. Matthew 27:62-65). The idea here is that the Disciples snuck in and stole the body of Jesus and then claimed Jesus was alive. This one doesn’t work because the text tells us that there was a contingent of Roman soldiers guarding the tomb (anywhere from 6 – 12 soldiers). These were trained fighters who had most likely served for many years and had seen many battles. How were 11 men who were not trained for combat to overcome these odds just to steal the body of a dead man? That makes no sense.
Not to mention that the text also tells us that they sealed the tomb with Pilate’s seal. This means that to break the seal and steal the body would be punishable by death. Would 11 men who had just seen their leader executed in the most excruciating way the Roman Empire could come up with would risk their lives for the body of a dead man as well as fight off a group of trained Roman soldiers? I would think not. Again, they could have come up with a story to found their new faith that did not involve that much risk. All of these scenarios do not line up with the facts and don’t hold much water.
- The Wrong Tomb Theory
This theory says that the Disciples came back to the wrong tomb, found it empty, and concluded that Jesus had come back to life. This is, to me, the silliest theory because it means that these men were crazy enough to jump to the conclusion that Jesus had come back to life from the dead simply because there was no body. They may not have been rocket scientists but these men would not have created a new faith system simply because they found an empty tomb. These men loved Jesus and surely would have been able to keep track of where he was laid to rest. This theory doesn’t work either.
- The Swoon Theory
The idea behind this theory is that Jesus did not actually die but just passed out in such a convincing way that everyone thought he was dead. This sounds plausible until you line it up with the facts we have already covered plus a few more. Jesus was executed by Roman soldiers. These soldiers’ entire job was to kill people and if they failed they would be killed as a punishment for failure (cf. Look Behind the Façade by Abbas Sundiata, pg. 250). They took their job seriously as a result and would have ensured that Jesus was actually dead. Even if Jesus did survive being beaten, flogged, forced to carry a heaven wooden beam for miles, crucifixion, and being stabbed in the side by a spear, would he be able to heal enough in a few days to roll away a stone that would have weighed hundreds of pounds and fight off a contingent of Roman soldiers who were guarding his tomb? I don’t think that is very plausible at all.
- The Hallucination Theory
This is another one that sounds good on the surface until you look at the facts. This theory states that the followers of Jesus only hallucinated that they saw Jesus alive again and that didn’t really rise from the dead. The greatest flaw in this theory is the body of Jesus; when the Disciples began claiming that Jesus was alive again all the Jewish leaders had to do was bring out the dead body of Jesus from the tomb and it would all be over. Not to mention the fact that there were more than 500 followers of Jesus who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. How implausible is it that 500 people would experience the very same hallucination? All the articles I have read on mass hallucination point to this only happening with small numbers of people as those who are easily convinced of the reality of their hallucination are very rare. This theory is out of bounds as well.
- The Impersonation Theory
The last one I’ll quickly cover is the idea that a fake Jesus was seen by the Disciples. There are two sides to this theory; one says that a fake Jesus was crucified and the other that a fake Jesus was seen by the Disciples after the crucifixion. Islam has been one of the proponents of this theory in that they believe Jesus was either taken to Allah before his crucifixion or that another (most likely Judas) took his place (cf. Qur’an 4:156). This teaching in Islam, however, has been interpreted differently by different Imams.
The struggle with this theory again is that it is hard to believe that people wouldn’t have figured it out. Even with identical twins it is almost impossible to create a reasonable impersonation of someone in modern times much less in ancient ones. The followers of Jesus lived with him daily for over 3 years; they would’ve known what he looked like (even after he had been brutally beaten). Some would say that they were the ones in on the switch before the crucifixion and that they used this to kick-start the Christian faith. My question is, “Where and when did the switch happen?” The source evidence tells us that Jesus was constantly supervised from the point of his arrest until his death on the cross. When would another person have had time to take his place? This has too many flaws in it as well.
After years of study I am still convinced of the resurrection of Jesus. This is the only explanation for why his followers would have created the faith system they did, have the boldness to confront the religious leaders who had Jesus put to death, to teach the Christian faith throughout the Roman Empire despite the threat and eventual carrying out of their own executions. There were too many ways for them to get around these problems otherwise. Using Occam’s razor we can see that the best answer to the question using all the facts is that Jesus actually was raised from the dead. This means that he was everything he claimed he was and, to quote my good friend Jackie Watts, if he rose from the dead I can trust what he said.
I hope that this helps your Easter season be more fulfilling and that when you have those conversation with skeptics who question your faith you have an answer that will satisfy their concerns.