In this installment of my series of posts on why I’m not an atheist, we will be examining the central truth claim of Christianity: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Christianity is unique among the religions of the world in that its veracity hinges upon a single historical event. The atheist arguments concerning the six-day creation, the worldwide flood during the time of Noah, the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, and other such events are meaningless in the end (not to mention based upon a deeply flawed and heretical Protestant fundamentalist view of Scripture). Everything hinges on the Resurrection. If Christ is risen, his claims are verified: he is the Son of God come in the flesh to save mankind. If Christ is not risen, Christianity is the greatest farce in all of history. The Apostle Paul, one of the earliest Christian writers, recognized this already when he wrote a letter to the Christian community at Corinth in AD 55:
“If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-19, NKJV)
It is the Resurrection that either makes or breaks Christianity.
In this post, we will examine the historical evidence regarding the Resurrection of Christ. We will then look at the most popular scenarios that have been proposed in both ancient and modern times based upon this evidence, examining the merits and faults of each proposed scenario. Finally, we will summarize by attempting to discern which is the most probable of the various proposed ways of dealing with the evidence.
Before we start delving into the historical evidence, let’s take just a moment to discount the ridiculous idea called the “Christ-myth hypothesis.” The idea, the defining feature of which is that Jesus of Nazareth was not a real historical personality, originated amongst the proto-atheists, occults, and neo-pagans of the 18th and 19th centuries. Although popular amongst certain audiences at those times, it was subsequently utterly obliterated under the weight of real facts with the rise of a very thorough and scientific study of early Christian origins at the opening of the 20th century. Although it is completely discounted by scholars, the “Christ-myth hypothesis” has seen a resurgence amongst atheists and neo-pagans in recent years; perhaps the most famous and most popular version of the “Christ-myth hypothesis” is that which has been fabricated by Peter Joseph’s Zeitgeist, The Movie and Archya S’s The Christ Conspiracy: The Greatest Story Ever Sold, the book upon which the movie is based.
Leaving aside the world of intelligence-deficient conspiracy theorists and snake oil peddlers with the logical capacities of a five-year-old, here’s what real scholars and academics in the field of early Christian studies have to say about the “Christ-myth hypothesis”:
… from the eighteenth century onwards, there have been attempts to insist that Jesus did not even ‘seem’ to exist, and that all tales of his appearance upon the earth were pure fiction. In particular, his history was compared to the pagan mythologies inventing fictitious dying and rising gods.
In the first place, Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths of gods seem so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit. But above all, if we apply to the New Testament, as we should, the same sort of criteria as we should apply to other ancient writings containing historical material, we can no more reject Jesus’ existence than we can reject the existence of a mass of pagan personages whose reality as historical figures is never questioned. Certainly, there are all those discrepancies from one Gospel to another. But we do not deny that an event ever took place just because pagan historians such as, for example, Livy and Polybius, happen to have described it in differing terms. That there was a growth of legend round Jesus cannot be denied, and it arose very quickly. But there had also been a rapid growth of legend round pagan figures like Alexander the Great; and yet nobody regards him as wholly mythical and fictitious. To sum up, modern critical methods fail to support the Christ-myth theory. It has ‘again and again been answered and annihiliated by first-rank scholars’. In recent years ‘no serious scholar has ventured to postulate the non-historicity of Jesus’ – or at any rate very few, and they have not succeeded in disposing of the much stronger, indeed very abundant, evidence to the contrary. (Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, pp. 199-200 )
“What about those writers like Acharya S (The Christ Conspiracy) and Timothy Freke & Peter Gandy (The Jesus Mysteries), who say that Jesus never existed, and that Christianity was an invented religion, the Jewish equivalent of the Greek mystery religions?
This is an old argument, even though it shows up every 10 years or so. This current craze that Christianity was a mystery religion like these other mystery religions-the people who are saying this are almost always people who know nothing about the mystery religions; they’ve read a few popular books, but they’re not scholars of mystery religions. The reality is, we know very little about mystery religions-the whole point of mystery religions is that they’re secret! So I think it’s crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this. I think the evidence is just so overwhelming that Jesus existed, that it’s silly to talk about him not existing. I don’t know anyone who is a responsible historian, who is actually trained in the historical method, or anybody who is a biblical scholar who does this for a living, who gives any credence at all to any of this.” (Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, “The Gospel According to Bart”, Fortean Times, pg. 221 )
And another, a bit more concise:
“I think that there are hardly any historians today, in fact I don’t know of any historians today, who doubt the existence of Jesus… So I think that question can be put to rest.” (N. T. Wright, “The Self-Revelation of God in Human History: A Dialogue on Jesus with N. T. Wright”, in Antony Flew & Roy Abraham Vargese, There is a God, pg. 188 )
And one more for good measure:
“When they say that Christian beliefs about Jesus are derived from pagan mythology, I think you should laugh. Then look at them wide-eyed and with a big grin, and exclaim, ‘Do you really believe that?’ Act as though you’ve just met a flat earther or Roswell conspirator.” (William Lane Craig, “Question 90: Jesus and Pagan Mythology”, Reasonable Faith )
Yes, that’s right; Christ-mythicism is right up there with aliens-probed-my-anus and the-holocaust-didn’t-really-happen. And those who buy into it deserve nothing short of the mockery such a position merits.
Now that we’ve dismissed the lunacy, let’s look at the historical documentation surrounding the Resurrection. Unfortunately, the nature of a blog post does not allow for an in depth analysis of every piece of historical evidence, but we’ll take at least a glance at each; those who want to continue to investigate further are encouraged to do so. I also welcome any questions and I’d be happy to attempt to provide answers in requests for more information. In order not to complicate the issues too much, I have used the dating and attribution standard amongst scholars; I disagree, based on my own research, with some of the conclusions that are held by a majority of scholars today, but I have refrained from interjecting my own opinions as much as possible.
First and foremost amongst our historical sources for the Resurrection are, of course, the gospels of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John and the letters of Paul.
The Gospel of Mark was probably the first of the four Biblical gospels to be written. Most scholars believe that it was written somewhere around AD 70. Mark, its author, was a disciple of the Apostle Peter (Peter describes him as “my son” in 1 Peter 5:13) and based the contents of his gospel upon what he learned from Peter, an eyewitness to the Resurrection of Christ.
The Gospel of Matthew was written by the Apostle Matthew in about AD 80. Matthew was himself an Apostle and an eyewitness of the Resurrected Christ.
The Gospel of Luke was written by in about AD 80 by Luke, a disciple of the Apostle Paul (Paul calls him “the beloved physician” in Colossians 4:14 and “my fellow-laborer” in Philemon 1:24; he also indicates that Luke was with him in Rome in 2 Timothy 4:11). Although not an eyewitness to the Ressurection himself, he traveled extensively with Paul and he also tells us in the opening verses of his gospel that he had based its contents upon the testimony of “those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” (Luke 1:2).
The Gospel of John was written by the Apostle John, an eyewitness to the Resurrection of Christ and the last living Apostle, in about AD 90.
Paul’s letters (13 or 14 total, depending on whether the Epistle to the Hebrews was written by him or not) were written to various churches and individuals between AD 40 and his death in AD 62. Paul himself was not an eyewitness to the Resurrection (though he did see and speak with the Resurrected Christ (see Acts 9), but, being an Apostle, he had close and constant associations with those who were:
“… He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time” (1 Corinthians 15:5-8, NKJV)
There are other historical sources for information about the Resurrection of Christ, but these are the most important and so it is these that we will be dealing with in this post. For those who want more information, here is a list of writings either by eyewitnesses to the Resurrection or those who were friends and/or disciples of witnesses to the Resurrection:
- Didache [disciples of eyewitnesses]
- a Letter of James the Righteous [eyewitness]
- two Letters of the Apostle Peter [eyewitness]
- Acts of the Apostles (another work by the author of the Gospel of Luke) [disciple of eyewitnesses]
- Letter of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians [friend and disciple of eyewitnesses]
- three Letters and an Apocalypse by John (the same who wrote the Gospel of John) [eyewitness]
- Letter of the Apostle Jude (aka Thaddeus) [eyewitness]
- seven Letters of Ignatius of Antioch (to Polycarp, to the Smyrnaeans, to the Philadelphians, to the Romans, to the Trallians, to the Magnesians, and to the Ephesians) [friend and disciple of eyewitnesses]
- Letter of Polycarp of Smyrna to the Philippians [friend and disciple of an eyewitness]
- a book (now mostly lost to history, though some important fragments survive) by Papias of Hierapolis [disciple of eyewitnesses]
- a book (again, mostly lost to history, but with important surviving fragments) by Quadratus of Athens [disciple of eyewitnesses]
- Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus [disciple of eyewitnesses]
Now we’ll look at some of the common arguments that atheists put forward against the veracity of the historical accounts of the Resurrection found in the four gospels and Paul’s letters; we’ll see how they hold up.
One of the most common arguments put forward against the Resurrection accounts in the gospels is that Christ’s Resurrection would have occurred in about the year 30, whereas the gospels were all written in AD 70 and later — 40 or more years after the events would have taken place. They will then often bring up the example of the “telephone game” in order to demonstrate how accounts written several decades after the actual events took place could be wildly different from what really happened.
There are quite a few flaws with all of this, though. First, there is the fact that two of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) and the other two were written by very close companions of eyewitnesses (Luke and Mark); surely those of you are old enough to do so can recall some truly remarkable event in your life 40 years ago — something tells me that a dead body coming back to life after three days would stick in your memory!
I watched on an interview on the television not too long ago in which a World War II veteran talked about some of experiences during the war. World War II took place 70 years ago. Was he just making it all up?
Even so, let’s pretend, for argument’s sake, that none of the gospels were written by eyewitnesses or even associates of eyewitnesses — perhaps associates of associates of eyewitnesses. The comparison with the “telephone game” still fails miserably. For those not familiar with the “telephone game,” the rules are simple. The game is usually played in elementary school classrooms to demonstrate to children the dangers of gossip and how a message can become distorted when passed through a chain. The teacher will have all of the students sit in a line in the classroom; she then whispers a sentence into the ear of the student at the beginning of the line, who whispers it to the person next to him, who in turn whispers it to the person next to him, and on and on until it reaches the last person in line who then says it aloud for the whole class to hear, usually altered from the original sentence.
This is a very different scenario from that of the first century Christian Church. In the “telephone game,” the person only gets to hear the sentence one time (or maybe two, depending on what version the class if playing). In the ancient Christian Church, the story of Christ’s Resurrection — the central truth claim of Christianity — would have been repeated over and over again. Very few first century Christians were literate; they lived in a culture that largely passed down its stories and customs through oral tradition. Researchers have discovered oral traditions which accurately document events that took place hundreds of even thousands of years ago; the first century Christians would not have had a problem passing along a message for only 40 years.
In addition, the four gospels each came from a different part of the world. Luke wrote and disseminated his gospel in Rome; Matthew wrote and disseminated his gospel Syria; Mark wrote and disseminated his gospel in Alexandria, Egypt; and John wrote and disseminated his gospel in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey). Those who compare the gospels to the “telephone game” would have us believe that the same message was passed down four different chains and all four chains produced the same message which was different from the original message; well, that would be a miracle in itself, wouldn’t it?
There is the additional problem that this atheist argument generally ignores the letters of the Apostle Paul and focuses only on the Gospels. As already mentioned, most of Paul’s letters were written in the AD 50s. His first letter, that to the Thessalonians may have been written as early as the 40s. Scholars are also in agreement that Paul cites earlier Christian writings, hymns, and oral traditions (for example, Philippians 2:5-11, which identifies Christ as God, is almost certainly a hymn already in use in the Christian Church well before Paul wrote his letter, as he quoted it expecting his readers to be familiar with it without further explanation being necessary). This means that already within 10-20 years after Christ’s death, the Resurrection was already a central Christian belief (note the quote from 1 Corinthians, written in AD 55, at the beginning of this post).
How does such a thing happen within only 10 years? There was no “telephone game” to be had in such a short span. The people who were proclaiming the Resurrection only 10 years later had to have been the people who had witnessed it for themselves. If wasn’t true, why did no one step forward to say that it wasn’t? Why didn’t the Roman authorities and/or the Jewish authorities, both of whom hated and persecuted the Christians, produce a body and destroy the Christian movement before it even got off the ground? There would have been plenty of eyewitnesses around at this point, but nobody rose up to dispel the Christian teaching of the Resurrection.
The “telephone game” analogy fails.
Another common attempt that atheists make to refute the Resurrection accounts of the gospels is to claim that they contradict each other. They will point out, for instance, that Matthew 28:2 says that there was “an” angel (singular) at Christ’s empty tomb when it was discovered, but Luke 24:4 says that there were two angels. Similarly, Matthew 28:1 says that there were two women who discovered the empty tomb, while Mark 16:1 and Luke 24:10 both say there were three. There are other examples, but these are a couple of the atheists’ favorites.
The problem with this argument is that this is exactly what we would expect if these were authentic eyewitness accounts. Eyewitnesses, especially to traumatic events (like, say, a dead man rising after three days!), are likely to have discrepancies between their accounts because of their individual and unique vantage points.
A man robs a liquor store and takes off with the cash. Police come and question the clerk and the three people who were in the store while the robbery occurred. The clerk says the robber’s shirt was dark blue, two of the witnesses say it was black, and the other witness says it was navy blue. Does this mean the robbery didn’t really happen and the police should pack up and head back to the station? Of course not!
Here’s what a lawyer and retired judge, Herbert C. Casteel, has written on the matter:
“Each of the four Gospels gives an account of that first Easter Sunday when Jesus arose from the tomb. When we first read these accounts it appears they are in hopeless contradiction. Matthew says it was Mary Magdalene and the other Mary who went out to the tomb. Mark says it was Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Luke says it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them, and John mentions only Mary Magdalene. Furthermore, they all mention different people to whom Jesus appeared on that day.
Does this mean that these are false reports, made-up by dishonest men to deceive us? On the contrary, this is good evidence that these are truthful accounts, because people who conspire to testify to a falsehood rehearse carefully to avoid contradictions. False testimony appears on the surface to be in harmony, but discrepancies appear when you dig deeper. True accounts may appear on the surface to be contradictory, but are found to be in harmony when you dig deeper.” (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, College Press: 1992, 2nd rev.; p. 211ff)
John Chrysostom, an Orthodox Christian bishop and theologian of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, reached the same conclusion even 1600 years ago:
“‘But the contrary,’ it may be said, ‘hath come to pass, for in many places they [the gospels] are convicted of discordance.’ Nay, this very thing is a very great evidence of their truth. For if they had agreed in all things exactly even to time, and place, and to the very words, none of our enemies would have believed but that they had met together, and had written what they wrote by some human compact; because such entire agreement as this cometh not of simplicity. But now even that discordance which seems to exist in little matters delivers them from all suspicion, and speaks clearly in behalf of the character of the writers.
But if there be anything touching times or places, which they have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said. And these things too, so far as God shall enable us, we will endeavor, as we proceed, to point out; requiring you, together with what we have mentioned, to observe, that in the chief heads, those which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine, nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed, no not ever so little.
But what are these points? Such as follow: That God became man, that He wrought miracles, that He was crucified, that He was buried, that He rose again, that He ascended, that He will judge, that He hath given commandments tending to salvation, that He hath brought in a law not contrary to the Old Testament, that He is a Son, that He is only-begotten, that He is a true Son, that He is of the same substance with the Father, and as many things as are like these; for touching these we shall find that there is in them a full agreement.
And if amongst the miracles they have not all of them mentioned all, but one these, the other those, let not this trouble thee. For if on the one hand one had spoken of all, the number of the rest would have been superfluous; and if again all had written fresh things, and different one from another, the proof of their agreement would not have been manifest. For this cause they have both treated of many in common, and each of them hath also received and declared something of his own; that, on the one hand, he might not seem superfluous, and cast on the heap to no purpose; on the other, he might make our test of the truth of their affirmations perfect.” (Homilies on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 1:6)
The argument that the gospel accounts contradict each other is a weak and desperate argument; it fails miserably.
The fact is that there is such abundant historical evidence for the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb three days after his death that most scholars and historians accept it as undeniable fact. Oxford University historian William Wand summarizes thus:
“All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history.” (Christianity: A Historical Religion?, 1972)
This, however, is where many scholars and historians choose to stop. The common claim is that a historian cannot endorse a miraculous explanation of a historical event. The problem with this statement, as we will see, is that in the case of the empty tomb it it is the miraculous explanation that is the most likely.
We will now look at the five most commonly proposed explanations of the empty tomb by atheists, observing why each falls short:
- Stolen body theory This theory posits that someone (Christ’s disciples being the most likely culprits) stole the body from the tomb. The tomb, however, was being guarded by highly-trained, highly-disciplined Roman soldiers; it’s a stretch of the imagination, to say the least, to think that a bunch of scrawny, raggedy Judean peasants were able to either overwhelm the guards or sneak past them. Another problem with this theory is that it would have involved quite a few people to carry out; all but one of Christ’s original twelve Apostles were martyred for their claim to have seen the Resurrected Christ. The stolen body theory ridiculously insinuates that at least eleven people died for something they knew to be a lie and not one recanted and confessed the truth. Where’s the reward? Where’s the motivation? Why the deception for nothing at all?
- Missing body theory This theory is similar to the stolen body theory but instead posits that someone other than the disciples removed the body from the tomb. Common candidates put forward are Joseph of Arimathea or maybe even the Roman soldiers themselves for some strange reason. The obvious question, though, is: why didn’t these people produce a body when the disciples started claiming that Christ had Resurrected? That would have seemed the obvious answer to put an end to the young and much hated Christian movement.
- Swoon theory This theory states that Christ did not actually die on the cross, but instead only appeared to die, was placed in the tomb, and escaped on the third day. Just as with the stolen body theory, however, this ignores the training and discipline of Roman soldiers, in this case both the soldiers at the cross and those at the tomb. The soldiers who crucified Christ had no doubt crucified many criminals previously as crucifixion was a fairly common punishment in the ancient Roman Empire. They knew how to kill effectively. Also keep in mind that Christ had been scourged mercilessly and forced to carry his cross out of the city and up a hill to where he would be crucified. The gospels report that he was so weakened by his scourging that he fell and the Roman soldiers had to have another man, Simon of Cyrene, carry his cross instead just so that he could make it to the crucifixion site before dying! Christ then hung for three hours on the cross; after his “apparent” death, he was stabbed in the side by a Roman soldier’s spear. He was then taken down from the cross, wrapped in his grave cloths, and placed in a cold, dark tomb which was sealed with a rock. The wounds inflicted on him were severe and the environment he was placed into was hardly what one would call comfortable. If he didn’t die on the cross, he definitely would have died waiting in there for three days! There is also the question of motivation; why would a person put himself through such horrible pain and significant risk of death for apparently no reward? This theory is also hugely out of character for Christ, who consistently chastised others for being deceptive.
- Drugged body theory This theory is similar to the swoon theory, but adds to it the claim that Christ ingested some kind of drug which made him appear dead. This theory suffers from the same faults as the swoon theory and fails on the same grounds.
- Vision theory This theory posits that the disciples of Christ were so shaken by their master’s death that they experienced a kind of group insanity in which they all witnessed a vision of the Resurrected Christ. The most glaring problem with this theory is that what we know of contemporary Judaism indicates that a glorified-bodily Resurrection like Christ’s would not have been the Resurrection that was expected. The gospels also make clear that the disciples were not expecting a Ressurection of Christ at all. How, then, would they all simultaneously have had a vision which conflicted significantly with their cultural and personal expectations? And again there’s the question: why didn’t the Romans just produce the body and put an end to all the lunacy?
All of these proposed alternatives to the Resurrection of Christ are fragile and most of them are rather silly. All of them require multiple people to act significantly out of character. Highly trained Roman soldiers have to be buffoons. Scrawny, unintelligent peasants have to be conspiracy masterminds. Christ himself has to be a deceiver and a plotter — for no apparent reason. Each of them requires unmatched ineptitude on the part of many and complex conspiracies carried out perfectly.
And then there are the facts. The fact is that each time the empty tomb — that quite historically verifiable little event — appears in the ancient documents, it is accompanied by one explanation: Christ is risen!
Using the reliable standard of Occam’s razor — that the simplest explanation is always the best explanation — we can safely say that the Resurrection of Christ far and away the most likely explanation of the empty tomb. Every other theory proposed is a complicated mess with dozens of moving parts all working in perfect precision while attempting to work against each other — the soldiers just happen to act of character and be idiots at the same time that the disciples act of character and mastermind a conspiracy at the same time that Christ acts of character and deceives them and he’s just lucky enough that he didn’t die even after a brutal lashing, carrying a large piece of wood some distance, being nailed to a cross for three hours, stabbed in the side, and placed in a tomb for days (thanks to the added stupidity of the Roman soldiers at the crucifixion site!) — yeah, okay…
Like it or not, in the case of the empty tomb the most likely explanation is the miraculous explanation. And the only choice one has upon this realization is that he or she must become a Christian. The only question is: where to go now?
In the next installment in this series of posts, I will discuss the Orthodox Church, the Church founded by the Apostles.