Today marks one of the most celebrated holidays in our culture: Halloween. There will be events at schools, houses, neighborhoods, and even churches. People will be dressing up, watching scary movies, socializing, and some will binge on The Walking Dead television series. This holiday will likely provide us with many glimpses of people imitating zombies and other ghoulish creatures, which gives way to one of the criticisms I have seen in regards to Christianity.
If you are unaware of some of the criticisms modern atheists make towards Christianity, many jokes and memes have been made concerning Jesus as a zombie. They claim, mockingly, Jesus was nothing more than the first recorded instance of a zombie and our faith in Him is unfounded. They reject the resurrection as a factual reality and see it as nothing more than as an absurd belief in that which is scientifically impossible.
Yes, I understand a physical resurrection is a difficult belief in which to ascribe. Yet, I want to know a better alternative than the historical facts presented. Because when you look at the historical facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus, anything BUT the resurrection is hard to believe.
This is what historians know as fact:
- Jesus was a man who lived in the Palestinian region from, roughly, 3 B.C. to 30 A.D.
- Jesus was tortured and then crucified under the reign of Pontius Pilate.
- Jesus’ disciples, save one, fled from the scene of His death and afterwards all were hiding in fear of their lives.
- Within a month of Jesus’ death, His disciples, whom were largely uneducated men, were boldly proclaiming they had visibly seen a resurrected Jesus.
- Throughout the course of the 1st Century, every single disciple of Jesus, with the exception of John, was killed for their belief in a resurrected Jesus.
So, what changed? Why the sudden and unexplained change in behavior, attitude, and willingness to die on behalf of Jesus? This is a question which MUST be answered. Yes, the physical resurrection of Jesus is a difficult concept to believe. However, if His resurrection did not occur what alternative is there?
I want us to examine the most prolific secular explanations given to warrant this drastic change in behavior and whether or not these explanations have any validity. There are six explanations which are largely indicative of any argument one will be presented with which comes against the physical resurrection of Jesus. We will divide these arguments into three parts, discussing two at a time, so we can look at each argument in a more detailed format.
1. His disciples lied on purpose.
This theory claims the disciples of Jesus understood His teachings concerning His own resurrection and they fabricated a lie to corroborate Jesus’ claims. This theory can be referred to as the “False Witness Theory” or the “Conspiracy Theory.” From the onset, this theory seems like a reasonable explanation. People are known to be self-centered and have, since the dawn of recorded history, done things to benefit themselves even if their actions could negatively affect others. So what might be some problems with this explanation?
The first major problem with the False Witness Theory is the commitment the disciples had to this lie. Ten out of the eleven disciples(remember Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus) who remained after the proclaimed resurrection of Jesus were threatened, tortured, and eventually murdered for this lie. The other disciple, John, was threatened and tortured but was not murdered.
Why is this a problem for the False Witness Theory? During this period of torture, not a single disciple recanted his account of their supposed fabrication. Under incredible distress and physical pain, an individual who had supposedly fabricated a lie would have nothing to gain by holding onto that lie when they knew the outcome would lead to death. Sure, there are instances in history of individuals dying for principles they believed were true. However, no one holds onto a fabrication when there is nothing to gain except death itself.
Chuck Colson, who served as Special Counsel to President Nixon and was imprisoned for his involvement in the Watergate scandal of the 1970’s, said the following,
I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world- and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.
Another problem with the False Witness Theory is the location where said lie was being told. The disciples returned to the very town the crucifixion and claimed resurrection took place: Jerusalem. This goes against common logic. If one wanted to spread a lie, especially one of this magnitude, a person would start with an audience that could NOT refute the claims being made. In other words, the disciples would have started spreading this lie in an area of the world, like eastern Asia, which was oblivious to the story of Jesus and His death.
In addition to these problems, another flaw in the False Witness Theory is the social rejection the disciples knew they would be experiencing. The disciples knew that by proclaiming Jesus was resurrected, making Him the prophesied Messiah the Jewish nation was eagerly waiting for, would be socially divisive and would led to massive criticism and persecution. There was nothing to gain for the disciples. This was not an elaborate money-grab scheme or a way to gain mass popularity. These claims produced the opposite result. They would have been rejected by their families and proclaimed to be heretics worthy of the same death Jesus Himself suffered.
Other factors working against the False Witness Theory are the fact the disciples’ character has never been questioned throughout history, not a single disciple recanted or confessed to a conspiracy to lie about the resurrection, and the fact that if they were lying they wouldn’t have written some of the embarrassing details about themselves in these stories (i.e. Peter being called Satan by Jesus). Looking at all of these factors, the idea the disciples of Jesus would lie about His resurrection goes against every historical instance and psychological reason behind someone lying. This theory, simply stated, is unscientific in nature.
2. His disciples’ teachings never taught Jesus resurrected. Instead, His resurrection became a myth which developed over time.
This next theory, which can be referred to as the “Legend Theory,” is a popular explanation of Jesus’ resurrection story. It maintains Jesus’ claims and resurrection were never actually presented by the disciples. Rather, they presented Jesus as a natural being and, with time, the story of Jesus developed into what it is today: Jesus the Son of God who resurrected from the dead. Therefore, the story of Jesus is nothing more than a myth and legend similar to that of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Without an intimate knowledge of the facts, the Legend Theory seems believable and a likely alternative to the resurrection account. However, just like the False Witness Theory, it is riddled with problems which plague its validity.
The first problem the Legend Theory has is that the language used to create the account of Jesus’ life is not conducive to being a myth/legend, but rather a historical biography. Within myths, the stories told are often exaggerated and overblown events which is why the main characters are simple. There is little effort placed in myths to develop the internal intricacies of human emotion and thought. That is not the case in the gospel accounts of Jesus. The writers of Jesus’ story retold it with succinct clarity. They did not go on and on about meaningless details.
Famed writer C.S. Lewis, who was an educator at Oxford University, was an expert in the area of literature. “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job,” said Lewis. “And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff (Christian Reflections, 209).”
Another problem plaguing the Legend Theory is the amount of time it takes for a myth to develop. Numerous books within the New Testament, including most of the gospel accounts, have been dated to being written before 70 A.D. This means they were completed and in circulation within forty years of the events which are in question. According to A.N. Sherwin-White, an expert in 1st Century Greek and Roman history, a myth during this time period would need more than two generations for the mythical claims to replace historical fact. This would be a period of at least 70 years.
Let me give you an example to further illustrate this point. Forty years ago Elvis Presley, one of the most famous solo artists in American history, was nearing the end of his life and career. Imagine today, nearly forty years after his death, a group of individuals began telling stories which happened during Elvis’ life. They started telling others how he used to wrestle bears on stage and how he could kill a man, using his karate skills, by simply giving an evil stare. This group began to write these stories down for all to hear and circulated them for public consumption.
What would be the response to this newly developed myth?
It would be laughed at. It might be entertained to the same respect as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It would be viewed as a source of comedic parody, at best. Why? Because there are still people alive that can refute these ridiculous claims. My parents remember watching him perform on television. The generations that viewed his life can speak up against such a myth and it would be identified as such. In order for these claims to be able to replace historical fact, the generations who witnessed the events in question would have to be deceased for the claims to stand a chance. That was not the case for the telling of Jesus’ resurrection.
In regards to the idea the disciples and the early Christian church never actually taught Jesus was resurrected, let us look at the work of Paul. All of the epistles Paul wrote were written between 49-65 A.D. Again, the generation which was alive to witness the life and death of Jesus was still alive when Paul consistently proclaimed this consistent message:
1Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.
3For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that He was buried, that He raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 5and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8Last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared also to me (I Corinthians 15:1-8, ESV).
Let’s look at what Paul says in this passage. He begins by stating He is proclaiming that which He has been taught and is being taught to the early Christian church. Then, he articulates the beliefs being circulated concerning Jesus: He died, He was buried, He rose again, and then He appeared to others. Then, Paul says if you do not believe the testimony He (Paul) is giving, go ask those WHO ARE STILL ALIVE and they will confirm it!
So, the idea the early Christian church did not proclaim Jesus was resurrected is in fact a lie. That which they proclaimed was not the stuff of legend. It was not the stuff of myth. It was presented as historical fact to the very generation that witnessed Jesus’ death and was able to be confirmed by those who witnessed it and, as we stated earlier, never recanted their testimony even in the face of severe persecution and death.
In following blog posts we will examine the four remaining explanations one might be given to disprove the resurrection of Jesus. They are:
- His disciples were a group of uneducated fishermen who were confused and believed the rumors they heard about Jesus’ resurrection.
- His disciples had mass hallucinations and were delusional based on this experience.
- His disciples stole His body from the tomb.
- He didn’t die on the cross, but later escaped and died in a hidden location.
*I would like to thank Joe Mulvahill for his help and guidance in my preparation for this series on the resurrection account. He is a gifted teacher and a valued friend.