A few years ago Time Magazine published an article in which an assembled panel of experts concluded that of all the people who have ever walked the face of this planet, the Jewish carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus has left the biggest historical footprint of anyone.
And if you’re a thinking person you have to ask “why?” Especially when you consider that Jesus wasn’t wealthy, he wasn’t powerful, he never travelled that far from home and he was killed when he was only 33 years old, in the most humiliating fashion possible, hung naked on a cross to die in full public spectacle. And yet today 100s millions across the globe call themselves Christians.
So, obviously something extraordinary must have happened after this very humiliating death – and of course Christians believe something extraordinary did happen! The resurrection!
But, what evidence, if any, do we have for the resurrection? Well, as it turns out, plenty.
If you were to gather every academic historian, whether Christian, atheist, agnostic or otherwise and ask them what are the bedrock facts about Jesus that everyone agrees on, then we would have at least the following three facts:
- that he died by crucifixion
- that his disciples genuinely believed that he rose from the dead and appeared to them on a number of occasions
- that the early church exploded in numbers soon after Jesus death.
Now, if the resurrection happened it explains these bedrock facts perfectly. So, the question to ask is, “are there any plausible alternative explanations for these bedrock facts?”
Well, if Jesus really didn’t rise from the dead as Christians believe then it means that his disciples, who said that he did, were either deceivers, deceived or deluded?
Could the disciples have deceived everyone? Well, no. Because as I said, historians unanimously agree the disciples sincerely believed they saw a risen Jesus. Why? Well, besides the fact that it would have been a logistical nightmare to try to steal the body to hoax a resurrection, which was virtually impossible given it was sealed with a boulder and kept under Roman guard, the fact is that the disciples refused to back down on their claim that he had risen from the dead even after terrible persecution. And nothing, say historians, proves sincerity more than martyrdom. The disciples had nothing to gain by propagating such a lie, if it was a lie, but everything to lose, including their social standing and physical safety.
Then, what about the second option? If the disciples weren’t lying could they have been deceived? Well, you have to ask, “who would want to deceive them?” Not the Romans. They wouldn’t have wanted to create a legend that would challenge Rome’s authority in an already politically unstable area. And not the religious leaders, they wanted Jesus dead because he was challenging their religious authority.
Well, perhaps Jesus himself deceived everybody and didn’t really die? This was for a time a leading alternative theory – that Jesus merely swooned or fainted on the cross; revived himself in the tomb; rolled the massive stone away sealing his tomb; somehow slipped past the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb and then convinced his followers that he had risen from the dead when, in fact, he had only fainted. The practical impossibility of this theory reminds me of the humorous story of the boy who submitted the following letter to a question-and-answer forum of a magazine:
Regarding Easter my teacher says that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?
The reply was:
I suggest you take your teacher and beat him, hard, 39 times with a cat-of nine-tails whip, then nail him to a cross, and hang him in the sun for six hours, then run a spear through his side into his lungs and put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours, and see what happens.
In other words, this theory has been thoroughly discredited in modern times as going against the weight of historical and medical evidence of how crucifixion worked. Soldiers were adept at breaking legs; spearing people in the abdomen; and checking for breathing to make sure the crucified were dead. Also, the way in which the biblical narrative describes the presence of blood and water from Jesus’ side we now know is indicative of a build-up of pericardial and pleural fluid in the membranes around the heart and lungs, itself a symptom of severe blood loss and thirst. And even if Jesus had somehow merely swooned, despite all that’s just been said, he would’ve been in a state of horrendous disfiguration and trauma. In other words, hardly a picture of a miraculous resurrection!
So, okay then, what about the third option? If the disciples were neither deceived nor deceivers, then perhaps they were just deluded. Some have tried to argue this, that the disciples merely hallucinated Jesus’ resurrection.
Obviously, a hallucination theory could explain how it is possible that certain people would individually believe that they had seen someone come back from the dead. However, the problem with this theory is that even though it could account for appearances to individuals, it can’t account for Jesus’ appearances to groups because hallucinations are not a group phenomenon – particularly hallucinations that stay around for 40 days, that large groups of people see, that talks and eat with those groups of people and whose words and actions are afterwards remembered by those groups of people in exactly the same way.
Thus we see, that in light of the alternative explanations, that there really is only one explanation that explains the evidence. That Jesus really did rise from the dead as he claimed on numerous occasions that he would. No wonder, that biblical scholar NT Wright concludes:
‘I have examined all the alternative explanations, ancient and modern, for the rise of the early church, and I have to say that far and away the best historical explanation is that Jesus of Nazareth…really did rise from the dead.’