Two data: That’s all I need.
The two facts are (a) an empty tomb, and (b) enthusiastic disciples. Let’s see what might follow.
After his death by crucifixion Jesus was buried in a tomb owned by a secret follower, Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus’ tomb was a cave sealed with a rolling rock of some sort. The four Gospels record many other such details of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. For the present purpose, however, almost all of these details can be set aside as we focus on just one: the empty tomb.
Each of the four Gospels records that the tomb was empty (save for the graveclothes left behind). Now, perhaps the Gospels are mistaken or dishonest about this. But why, then, when rumors of Jesus’ resurrection began to circulate in ancient Jerusalem, did neither the Jewish nor the Roman authorities (neither group being friends of Jesus or his followers, as all accounts from that time indicate) simply go to the tomb and produce the body? For that matter, why didn’t any skeptic simply find out where Jesus had been buried and investigate? Given the premium that preachers like Peter were placing upon the resurrection of Jesus (as we have seen in a previous post), surely production of his corpse would have sufficed to smother Christianity in its cradle.
It seems more likely that the Gospel accounts are correct in their assertion that the tomb was empty.
Now, perhaps Jesus’ body was not in the tomb because he had revived and escaped. This explanation (which goes back to the eighteenth century at least) faces considerable obstacles. First, why would the Roman executioners, skilled in their terrible craft, be mistaken about Jesus’ condition and allow him to be buried alive? Second, given the tortures of the standard pre-crucifixion flogging of Jesus, and of the crucifixion itself, how likely is it that Jesus would be healthier after a number of hours in the tomb than he was before? How much more likely that, even if he had been buried alive, he would have died from exposure or loss of blood? Third, the graveclothes in which Jesus was wrapped, if they were typical of the time (and why would they not be?), would have been made of linen fiber—extraordinarily difficult to break—in which Jesus’ body would have been wrapped tightly from neck to foot, with a separate cloth for the head. Even an escape artist might find such an arrangement challenging. A victim of crucifixion freeing himself from such encumbrances is, may we say, an unlikely scenario.
Still, is it not possible that a barely-alive Jesus could have been elaborated into a later myth of resurrection? Well, the myth would have had precious little time to form. Few scholars doubt that Jesus was crucified sometime around A.D. 30, and most agree that Paul wrote to the Corinthians (in the New Testament book called “I Corinthians”) about the resurrection less than thirty years later. Myths that shape whole communities usually take a lot longer than that to form–generation after generation–as anthropologists and historians recognize.
The idea of myth-making runs into further trouble as it provokes the prior question as to whether these disciples were likely candidates for an enterprise of this sort. It could be, of course, that the disciples engaged in a different sort of plot entirely. Perhaps they themselves purloined the dead body of Jesus precisely in order to foment the idea of resurrection and to forestall the devastating blow against their nascent movement of the corpse’s discovery. A third alternative is that the disciples hallucinated and came to believe their master was alive when in fact he was dead. Whichever of the three options one selects, one must deal with the second main datum to be explained: the extraordinary attitude of the disciples after Jesus’ reported resurrection.
The Gospels portray the disciples almost all as either cowardly or despondent during Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution. Given the widespread Jewish belief of the time that Messiah would return in divine power to destroy precisely the Gentile oppressors who were now crushing Jesus, it is entirely understandable that the disciples were thrown into a confusion of terror and despair. The Gospels tell us only what we would expect to hear about such followers at such a time.
What needs to be explained, then, is the subsequent confidence of such followers in such a terrifically unlikely story: that the leader of their little band had in fact been raised to new life by God and had empowered them to bring the good news of his victory over evil to the entire world. Zeal was one thing, perhaps commendable in a land with little hope of freedom. But ancient Jews, according to what cultural records we have, were not more credulous about the possibility of resurrection than are most of us are today. Resurrection was the hope of some, yes, but as a reality to be enjoyed only in the awaited Messianic kingdom and as a general resurrection of all God’s people at the end of days. One lone resurrection as the divine vindication of a crucified Messiah seemed an utter contradiction in terms, and organized Judaism soon moved to stamp out any such idea. The Christians, however, persisted, and many lost careers, families, and even their lives for their faithfulness to this one message: God raised Jesus from the dead, and God eventually will raise you, too, if you believe.
Let’s be blunt: perhaps the disciples were liars and made the whole thing up. They would have to persisted in a large and sustained conspiracy, lasting decades. Philosopher Thomas Morris reflects at length upon this possibility:
This is from the beginning an exceedingly odd sort of agreement—a number of different people get together, concoct a story, and agree to lie about it, each promising not to break and tell the truth. It is crucial to their agreement that they’re all liars, but how in the world can you trust liars to keep their end of an agreement? Any supposition that the apostles of Christ met after his death and entered into this sort of agreement is especially hard to swallow. Here a number of ordinary men [and women, we should add] from walks of life in which the truth mattered, who had just spent an extended period of time with a charismatic leader whom most non-Christians recognize as one of the greatest moral teachers in history, are supposed to have met together after the death of their leader and, to further his work, agreed to tell outrageous lies about him? This is just too bizarre. (See Morris’s book, Making Sense of It All.)
Furthermore, since it is likely that at least some of the ancient traditions about their deaths are true, then some of the apostles died for what they must have known was untrue. How likely is that? At some point, surely at least one of them would have blown the whistle to save himself.
Even if all of the traditions about their martyrdoms are untrue, however, what motive would the earliest Christians have for teaching such a thing? They did not attempt to seize political power by exploiting this story. There was no commercial angle to be played. They risked suffering the same terrible fate as Jesus’ at the hands of the same powers. They gained only a few thousand converts for the first several decades. Why would they lie?
Perhaps they did not lie, therefore, but instead were deluded. Again, however, how likely is this possibility? As Morris cautions, “a mistake can only be so big.” How did the whole group become convinced of the success of a cause and a person who had apparently been an utter failure? Did they simply make up the reports of appearances of Jesus (such as those cited by Paul in the letter quoted above), or did they actually have such experiences as figments of wishful thinking? Did they all possess such powerful imaginations—imaginations, let us remain blunt, that in this case crossed over into sustained psychosis—that they believed that they had seen Jesus, talked with Jesus, and been commissioned by Jesus before his ascent to heaven? Furthermore, did they do so with apparently no dispute about these matters among the central core of followers, even as the historical records show that the early church disagreed about very many other, much less critical, matters?
It is at least logically possible that the whole thing was a massive exercise in group fabrication of an intentional or unintentional sort. Airtight proof is never obtainable in matters of history. Each serious inquirer into this historical question, however, must fairmindedly assess the various explanatory options and select the one that fits the data best. Christians are among those who believe that God really did raise Jesus from the dead, and that this event is the once-for-all historical guarantee of the authenticity of Jesus’ life work.
And at least one more historical matter requires explanation. Why have millions of people, across dozens of cultural lines, including highly-trained scholars and professionals around the world, come to believe the same truths as those first-century Jews—including this truth of the resurrection of Jesus? Can they all be simply credulous? All taking refuge in wish-fulfilment? All setting aside their critical faculties for one wild, desperate hope? Of course, one must fairly ask the same question about any other religion or philosophy, but note this interesting fact: no other religion makes this sort of historical claim. No other religion puts it all on the line: Did this event happen or not?
That’s the sort of hard-headed empirical argument–historically empirical, to be sure, not laboratory-observable empirical–that Richard Dawkins and Company should appreciate, no?
This discussion is adapted from my book, Can God Be Trusted? Faith and the Challenge of Evil (Oxford University Press and InterVarsity Press).