In our little excursion through Christian apologetics (the ability to explain our faith in ways that make logical and philosophical sense, and easier to understand and digest for skeptics who are earnestly seeking to discover the truth), this week’s destination is even more interesting and challenging than usual: the death and resurrection of Jesus. I mean, how can this absurd story possibly be true? That isn’t the way death works. It’s a scientific fact that dead people generally stay that way.
And yet, the assertion that Jesus died and was raised by God back to life is central to our faith. The Apostle Paul put it this way in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is believed by most scholars to be one of the earliest preserved Christian writings, written within about 20 years of Jesus’ death and resurrection (~AD 54):
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:17 (NIV)
Or, said another way, here is how theologian Gerald O’Collins put it:
In a profound sense, Christianity without the resurrection is not simply Christianity without its final chapter. It is not Christianity at all.Gerald O’Collins, The Easter Jesus (London: Darton, Long-man, & Todd, 1973), 134, cited in Craig, The Son Rises, 136, and in Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (p. 32). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Before I jump in, I should note that in preparation for this topic, I read Lee Strobel’s book, The Case for Easter. Strobel is a journalist with a BA from the University of Missouri and also a Master of Studies in Law (MSL) from Yale Law School. This book provides a much deeper treatment of this topic than I will be able to achieve in a (hopefully!) brief blog post. If you’d like to dive deeper into this topic, I would invite you to check out his book here.
I’d also like to mention that the proof texts for this post are passages in the Bible. If you need help believing the historicity and truthfulness of the Bible, please refer to my previous post in this series on this topic.
How Can You Prove This Is True?
Most of the time in criminal court cases, the police do not see the events the defendant is accused of committing. There is usually no recording, either. So how do they decide whom to accuse? And how do the judge and/or jury determine whether the defendant is guilty or innocent? The answer to these questions is that investigators piece together the events in question based on the evidence they gather. Sometimes it’s forensic evidence, which is analyzed by specialists trained in the topic at hand, whether it’s blood spatter or the flow of money, or countless other areas. Other times, the evidence is circumstantial, or it might be the testimony of witnesses. Whatever the case, investigators take all the pieces of evidence and piece them together like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle in an attempt to figure out what really happened.
Historical events–especially those that happened thousands of years ago–require a similar approach, although the evidence tends to differ significantly. Eyewitnesses are no longer around and forensic evidence is sparse, if it even exists. Thus, to prove the validity (or historicity) of alleged historical events, one must lean heavily on circumstantial evidence. But just as investigators follow the clues to arrive at an honest and logical conclusion, no matter how unlikely it may seem, the same is true when considering the evidence for historical events. An honest and open-minded investigator should be willing to accept the only feasible explanation for the body of evidence, regardless of how unlikely it seems. Similarly, if other theories or explanations are offered, they should be subject to the same rigor you would apply to any of the other explanations. If this sort of consistent rigor is applied, the investigator should also be willing to discard implausible or impossible theories, no matter how much they might wish them to be true.
With this in mind, we should invite skeptics earnestly seeking the truth to follow the historical clues to their logical conclusion, and be willing to accept that conclusion no matter how crazy or far-fetched it may seem.
But Is It Really OK to Poke Around in These Topics?
There’s a false notion that some followers of Christ drag around with them: that it’s sacrilegious to question these most basic foundations of our faith. Actually, quite the opposite is true. God isn’t sitting there worried that we will turn over a rock that will prove the whole thing is a sham. Not at all. In fact, I believe he wants us to turn over those rocks so that, as a result of our investigation and consideration, when we see the truth, our faith will be ever more deeply embedded in the solid rock.
In other words, God gave us our brains and our ability to reason, and he wants us to use them to solidify what we believe in our hearts. So yes, poke away. Didn’t Paul say something like that? No? Well, he should have!
I’ve Heard That Maybe Jesus Didn’t Really Die from the Crucifixion–Was It a Hoax?
One theory that has been circulated to try to prove that the resurrection was a hoax is that Jesus didn’t really die as a result of the crucifixion. This is sometimes referred to as “the swoon theory.” After all, if Jesus didn’t really die, then he would not have needed to be resurrected, and his subsequent appearances would have been nothing more than a hoax to try to convince people that Jesus had divine powers.
Here is Strobel’s statement regarding this hypothesis:
While reputable scholars have repudiated this so-called swoon theory, it keeps recurring in popular literature.Strobel, Lee; The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (p. 11). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
The short answer to this is that the Roman soldiers of Jesus’s time were experts at administering death by crucifixion. They may not have invented it, but they had perfected it. They did not make mistakes when it came to executing someone, nor did they when determining whether the condemned had died. And to make sure of that, there was a Roman military law that dictated that if a prisoner happened to escape death, the soldiers who allowed it to happen would themselves be executed. There were no mistakes.
When the soldiers were ordered to expedite Jesus’s death due to the coming Sabbath and Passover, they went around to break his legs, as was their normal practice. However, they concluded it was unnecessary since he was already dead. To confirm this, they thrust a spear into his side. The Apostle John could not have known the medical significance of the details he provided when he wrote:
Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.John 19:34 (NIV)
This flow of blood and water would have indicated that fluid had collected in the membrane around Jesus’s heart–called a pericardial effusion in modern medical terms–and around his lungs–referred to as a pleural effusion. These would have resulted from the extreme stresses placed on his body by the brutal beating he suffered prior to the crucifixion, and then by the crucifixion itself. This situation leaves no doubt that Jesus was dead.
Strobel provides further medical evidence substantiating that there is no way Jesus could have survived the torturous execution, but in the interest of time and sparing you graphic details (which made me squirm), I’ll move on.
How Do You Know Jesus’s Body Was Really Missing from the Tomb?
Having established that Jesus died as a result of the crucifixion, we move on to address some theories that attempt to refute the assertion that Jesus must have been raised from the dead based on the fact of the empty tomb. Let’s try to move through the most prominent of these quickly.
It wasn’t customary for victims of crucifixion to be taken down and buried, so why would Jesus have been buried? All four gospels specifically mention that Jesus’s body was taken down from the cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jewish leader. We can only speculate why Joseph participated in this or offered up his tomb for Jesus, but the fact that it is unanimously corroborated by all four gospels is compelling evidence that it happened. This includes Mark’s gospel, which he wrote and circulated ~57-59 AD. This was not long after the event took place. Since Joseph of Arimathea was mentioned specifically by name, he would have stepped forward and put an end to the rumor if it wasn’t true.
Jesus’s body was stolen. Matthew actually addresses this theory in his gospel (Matthew 28:12-15), saying that the Jewish leaders bribed the soldiers who had been guarding the tomb to say that they had fallen asleep, so the disciples must have broken into the tomb and stolen the body. This theory isn’t plausible because the guards would have been executed if the body had been stolen on their watch. Also, all of the disciples had abandoned Jesus because they were so afraid, so it seems unlikely they would suddenly be brave enough to take the chance of having to confront armed professional soldiers in the process of trying to steal Jesus’s body. Further, nearly all of the disciples were eventually executed for spreading the good news of Jesus’s resurrection–who can honestly believe that anyone would put themselves in a position to be executed for perpetuating a hoax?
Jesus’s followers went to the wrong tomb. Again, all four gospels specifically state that Jesus was buried in Joseph of Aramathea’s tomb. He would have been well known in Jerusalem, so if by some chance everyone who is reported to have seen the empty tomb had gone to the wrong place, Joseph or someone would have told them that they had gone to the wrong place, and they would have directed the group to the correct location, at which point the body would have been discovered.
There’s one other thing to mention in this section: the disciples did not rely only on the empty tomb to substantiate their claims that Christ had risen–they also leaned on subsequent sightings of the risen Christ, so let’s unpack that now.
Did People Really See a Living Jesus after He Was Crucified and Buried?
Throughout the gospels, the book of Acts, and some of Paul’s letters, there are numerous accounts of the resurrected Christ appearing to and interacting with named individuals and various groups of people. This includes people like James, Jesus’s brother, and Thomas–both disciples who doubted Jesus’s divinity until they saw him after his resurrection. Going back to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he mentions some of these encounters:
and that he appeared to Cephas <Peter>, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:5-6 (NIV, clarification of Cephas added)
Wait, 500 people? Yes, and by pointing out that most of them are still living, Paul is essentially inviting contemporary readers to check it out for themselves. If you don’t believe me, go ask any one of these 500 people!
Surely this is a number that grew over time, as the story reached mythic proportions. Well, as a reminder this letter was written only about 20 years after Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection, meaning that there isn’t enough time for mythology to take hold of this story. This same idea pertains to any claim that these sightings never really happened but must have grown out of myth. Not only Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but Mark’s gospels and several other accounts were all written fairly soon after Jesus’s death and resurrection–too soon to have become distorted by legend.
Maybe everyone who claimed to see the resurrected Christ was hallucinating. Well, do you really think it’s possible that so many different people–500+– were having the same hallucination? It’s not.
There is further evidence to corroborate the sightings of the risen Christ, but again, to try to keep this as brief as possible, I’ll wrap up with this observation by theologian Michael Green:
The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity. . . . There can be no rational doubt that they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this. They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was he.Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1984), 97, emphasis in original. Cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection (pp. 81-82). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
So there it is. The evidence is clear. Jesus died. He was buried. God raised him back to life. He interacted with many people in meaningful ways after that. Jesus’s disciples concluded from this that he is Lord. These people who had previously been cowardly became empowered to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection at the cost of their own lives. Skeptics became believers. The church was born, and God’s strategy to save the world using ordinary people like you and me was launched.
No other event in history has made a bigger impact on the world and its citizens than the resurrection of Jesus.
After this cursory review of the extensive historical evidence, what is your conclusion?