“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand,
and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27).
When discussing matters of religion, whether philosophical ideas, theological doctrines, Biblical stories, spiritual charisms, prayer styles, or other related topics, it's easy to begin to think of religion as abstract or distant––something too mysterious and lofty to even approach. This is what makes Christianity so different from every other religion. Unlike many contemporary religions, which are founded primarily on self-help psychology and superstitious speculation, the credibility of the Christian faith rests entirely on concrete and radical historical claims. The most central of all these claims is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Regarding the centrality of the Resurrection of Christ to the Christian faith, Saint Paul wrote:
If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:17-19).But why would the Christian faith be "futile"? Couldn't we still learn morals and practical life advice from the teachings of Jesus? Wouldn't Christianity still be important as an ideology or cause for good in the world today? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI answered these questions in his second volume of Jesus of Nazareth:
If [the Resurrection] were taken away, it would still be possible to piece together from the Christian tradition a series of interesting ideas about God and men, about man’s being and his obligations, a kind of religious world view: but the Christian faith itself would be dead. Jesus would be a failed religious leader, who despite his failure remains great and can cause us to reflect. But he would then remain purely human, and his authority would extend only so far as his message is of interest to us. He would no longer be a criterion; the only criterion left would be our own judgment in selecting from his heritage what strikes us as helpful. In other words, we would be alone (Ratzinger 241-242).The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not one "doctrine" among other doctrines. It is not a nice "bonus" to the Gospel message or a kind of theological "icing-on-the-cake." The Resurrection is everything. It is the divine seal of credibility regarding the claims Jesus of Nazareth, proving both his divinity and consequently the divine authority of all his teachings. Recognizing that Jesus' resurrection is the foundation of our Christian faith, the question is this: How do we know that it's true? How do we know Jesus actually rose from the dead? Are there convincing historical and logical reasons for believing in the Resurrection? Or do we simply have to accept it as a matter of faith? What reasons might non-Christians offer for not believing in the Resurrection?
Miracle Haters Gonna Hate Miracles
To begin, a more foundational objection to the truth of the Resurrection must be set aside, and that is objecting to the Resurrection simply because it is a miraculous event. This objection is not a historical or scientific one, but a philosophical one; it is the rejection of any supernatural intervening into the natural realm, or, more fundamentally, the rejection of the supernatural altogether. The problem with this objection is that it is immune to being disproven on the basis of solid evidence, and instead dismisses all evidence that could potentially disprove it as non-evidence on the basis of the objector's preconceptions, personal desires, or other biases. It effectively says, "The Resurrection could not have happened, because it would be a miracle, and miracles can't happen." This is begging the question. The question that must be answered is not whether or not miracles can occur, but whether or not the Resurrection did in fact occur. If it did, then the answer to the question of whether or not miracles can occur is, "Yes."
What Needs to Be Explained?
With this in mind, we must first consider the basic facts of history, which come from both the New Testament and non-Christian sources (Roman and Jewish historians), in order to establish what exactly needs to be explained. It is not necessary to presuppose the documents of the New Testament as infallible or even true in order to establish basic historical facts regarding the events surrounding the death of Jesus of Nazareth. These facts are not based on belief in Christianity, God, or even the existence of a supernatural reality. Any alternative theory to the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead would have to explain all of the following data:
– Jesus' death from crucifixion
– The discovery of the empty tomb
– The post-mortem appearances of Jesus to numerous people
– The faith of the early Christians (not the truth of it, but the existence of it)
There are four possible alternative explanations or theories to account for these facts besides the Christian belief in the Resurrection, all of which have been believed and argued by various people throughout history. If all the alternative explanations to the actual resurrection of Jesus can be disproven (or shown to be highly implausible), then the most reasonable explanation of the above data is Christianity. In the words of Sherlock Holmes, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The alternative possibilities to the actual resurrection of Jesus Christ include:
1. The Swoon Theory
2. The Hallucination Theory
3. The Conspiracy Theory
4. The Myth Theory
Resurrection or Recovery?
The "Swoon" theory claims that Jesus was crucified, taken down from the cross, and laid in the tomb, but that he never actually died and only appeared to be dead (he "swooned"). After being laid in the tomb, Jesus was later helped out of it by some other person or persons, and once nursed back to health, returned to his apostles and other followers. The first problem with this theory is that Roman crucifixion, even without the additional scourging and physical trauma that Christ suffered, was designed to kill people. Crucifixion was a common form of the death penalty, and so Roman soldiers were quite efficient at "getting the job done," so to speak. Secondly, the Jewish people had a constant and intimate experience of dealing with the bodies of dead people, due to their very involved burial traditions and rituals. This means that they would have been familiar with what a dead person feels and looks like. It is highly improbable that both the expert Roman executioners and the Jews who buried Jesus would have mistaken him for being dead. Also, even if he had been so close to dying that he was mistaken for being dead, he could not have survived for long after being buried, and certainly not lying in a tomb deprived of water and serious medical attention. An additional proof that Jesus actually died comes from the Gospel of John, when one of the soldiers pierced the side of Christ and "at once there came out blood and water" (Jn 19:34). This is evidence of an actual medical phenomenon known as "pericardial effusion," in which fluid (mostly water) builds up around the heart. The fact that both blood and water came out when Christ's side was pierced is evidence that the soldier's spear actually hit his heart, which definitely would have killed him if he were somehow still alive at that point. A final and very compelling objection to the Swoon theory is that it does not explain the faith of the early Christians. Would you be convinced or motivated by seeing the man who you believed to be your Savior limping around half-alive? Probably not. It also doesn't explain why the early Christians believed that Jesus died on the cross, or why there is no record of Jesus dying at a later date.
Were the Apostles Just "Tripping?"
The Hallucination theory claims that Jesus died on the cross and was buried, but that instead of rising from the dead, he appeared to his followers as some sort of hallucination or product of their imaginations. The first problem is the empty tomb; if Jesus didn't actually rise from the dead, and his followers were simply deceived into thinking he did, then what happened to his body? Did the apostles take it from the tomb? That is extremely unlikely, because how could the same group of people simultaneously know that Jesus was still dead and believe their hallucinations to the contrary? And who else would have wanted to steal Jesus' body (at the risk of severe punishment or death, since the tomb was guarded)? If the apostles had gone around claiming that Jesus rose from the dead, both the Jewish and Roman authorities could have easily went to his tomb and disproven their claim. The next problem is the greater one, namely, the very idea of a group of individuals sharing a collective hallucination. The problem with this concept is that there is absolutely no psychological evidence whatsoever that collective hallucination is even possible––hallucinations are rare and private events. Even if we allow for some sort of group hallucination, how long could that possibly last? A few minutes? A few hours? Highly unlikely. But forty days? Impossible. Additionally, the accounts of Jesus' appearances include him interacting with the apostles and the world in physical ways, which a hallucination obviously could not do. Because he knew their doubts, the resurrected Jesus insists that his apostles physically touch him (Lk 24:39), and he eats food (Lk 24:42-43). The apostles might have initially thought they were hallucinating, but Jesus went out of his way to prove otherwise.
It's a Conspiracy, Man!
The Conspiracy theory claims that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that his resurrection was the deliberate invention of his followers. There are numerous problems with this theory. The theory claims that a small group of simple Jewish fisherman not only came up with the most radical lie in all of human history, but that they were all willing to die for that lie and were able to convince thousands of other people to be willing do die for it as well. It is perhaps conceivable that extremely depressed and fanatical disciples might contrive of such a grande scheme regarding their recently killed leader, but what could their motivations have been for doing so? Liars (not insane people, but liars) always have some selfish motivation or agenda. One would think that if this were the case with the apostles, then the first beheading, boiling alive, or crucifixion of one of their comrades would have been enough to make them spill the beans. That's the problem with liars––they make terrible martyrs. Another problem with the Conspiracy theory is that, given the Jewish theological beliefs and expectations of the apostles, it is unthinkable that they could conceive of the idea of Christ's resurrection, much less do so in a way that would convince countless other Jews of a similar mindset. It is important to realize that, while many Jews believed in a bodily resurrection of the dead, they only believed in that regarding the end of time. This is why, when Jesus told her that her brother Lazarus would rise, Martha responded, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day” (Jn 11:24). The idea that someone could die and rise before the end of time was totally foreign to Jews. Another issue comes from the Gospels and other New Testament writings. In the Gospels, any time people are confronted with the idea that Jesus has risen from the dead, their initial response is almost always one of confusion and disbelief. The most famous example of this is the apostle Thomas, or "doubting Thomas" as he is often called. Recall Thomas' response to hearing of Jesus' resurrection:
Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe (Jn 20:24-25).The question is this: If you were trying to create a false narrative about a man who rose from the dead, and wanted everyone to believe your story, why would you include multiple instances of people doubting that story? There are several other documented cases of people doubting the reality of Jesus' resurrection: The apostles listening to the testimony of Mary Magdalene and the other women (Lk 24:10-11), Mary Magdalene herself near the tomb (Jn 20:14), the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35), and a group of the apostles by the Sea of Tiberius (Jn 21:12). The only reasonable explanation for including stories in which people doubt the resurrection of Jesus is that they are actually true. There is a similar argument to be made from the fact that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb of Jesus. Unfortunately, the culture in that place and time was such that the testimony of a woman carried no weight in any official or legal sense. Therefore, if you were trying to convince the people in that culture to believe in the resurrection of Jesus, then having women as some of your primary witnesses would be a really poor strategy. If you're making up the story, why not have a few members of the Jewish Sanhedrin (the group that condemned Jesus to death) be the first ones to discover the empty tomb? The most reasonable explanation for why women are said to be the first witnesses of the resurrection is––they were. What all of these examples tell us is that, if the apostles of Jesus were trying to make up an account of the resurrection that would convince the people of their time (especially the Jews), then they did a really lousy job!
Jesus Christ: The Man, or the Myth and the Legend?
The Myth theory is probably the most subtle of all the alternative explanations to the resurrection of Jesus. The Myth theory claims that the resurrection of Jesus was not a deliberate conspiracy of the apostles or other followers of him, but that the idea developed slowly over time amongst the early Christians. The plausibility of the Myth theory is largely dependent on the idea that the Gospels and other New Testament documents were written much later then what is traditionally believed. The reason for this is that myths take multiple generations to develop, because new ideas about a person, event, or story cannot be introduced while witnesses to the contrary are still alive and able to testify against them. Saint Paul himself makes this clear in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep (1 Cor 15:3-6).He writes, "most of whom are still alive" as a way of saying, "Go ask them yourselves if you don't believe me!" The effort of so-called "de-mythologizing" was especially prevalent during the early and mid-20th century, which made the Myth theory of the Resurrection seem more plausible to many people. However, the historical-critical method also became more popular during this time, and aided by the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (older manuscripts of Biblical texts), it provided solid confirmation of the original dating of the Gospels and other New testament documents. This confirmation dated the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Saint Paul (e.g. Romans, Corinthians 1 and 2, etc.) as being prior to the destruction of Jerusalem (70 A.D.), and probably during the 60's or even 50's. This means that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was completely established less than 35 years after his time on Earth. Also, the Gospels were all transmitted orally for some time before being written down, which dates belief in the Resurrection back even further. The point of all this talk about dates is that there simply could not have been enough time for such radical myths about Jesus Christ to develop, which makes the Myth theory a highly implausible alternative to the actual Resurrection. Another problem with the Myth theory, which is much more significant than it might seem, is that the literary style is nothing like mythical stories of the time and culture in which the Gospels were written. C.S. Lewis, who was a renowned literary critic (and former atheist), wrote about this fact:
I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this [referring to the Gospels]. (Lewis).If the Gospels and other documents of the New Testament are not literal and accurate recordings of historical events, but merely fiction, then the authors were writing in a literary genre that didn't exist for at least another eighteen hundred years––realistic historical fiction. There are miracles recorded to be sure, but there are no frills, crazy events, or overly extravagant occurrences that one would expect to find in a myth. What does appear in these writings are countless, obscure, and ultimately unnecessary details that one would expect from an eyewitness account. An example of such a detail comes from the story of the woman caught in adultery, in which we are told that Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger (Jn 8:6, 8). That detail doesn't add anything substantial to the message of the story, so why was it included? Most likely, because it actually happened. This brings up another point that undermines the Myth theory. Several different authors of books and letters in the New Testament explicitly state that they are eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, death, and post-mortem appearances. Saint Luke opens his gospel in the following way:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you...that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed (Lk 1:1-4).Saint Paul asserts in multiple letters that the Gospel he writes about is not a myth and that he is telling the literal truth:
For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12).
I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit (Rom 9:1).Saint Peter makes similar claims, written in his second letter, and spoken to the Jews in the book of Acts:
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Pet 1:16).
"This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses" (Acts 2:32).Obviously, Saints Paul and Peter asserting that the Gospel is not a myth does not prove that it isn't one. However, if you were writing a mythical narrative and making claims about historical people and events which no one could check the truth or falsehood of, then why would you call attention to the possibility that the whole story could just be a myth? It would be like a drug dealer under investigation saying to the police officer, "There definitely isn't any cocaine inside the spare tire in the trunk." Inserting into a myth the possibility that the whole thing could just be a myth unnecessarily calls the credibility of the myth into question, and in doing so undermines its power to convince people. Also, if the authors of the New Testament claim it isn't myth, and it is, then they were lying, which takes us back to the problems of the Conspiracy theory.
The Inconvenient Truth
The resurrection of Jesus Christ from dead, while it is no small claim or easy proposition to accept, is the best explanation of all the historical data that we have. After Jesus died, why was his tomb found empty? Why did numerous people claim that Jesus appeared to them after his death? Why were all of the apostles and other followers of Jesus not afraid to die after their leader had just been brutally tortured and executed? Why does Christianity even exist? There is one possibility that answers all of these questions seamlessly and explains all the data we have: Because the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a real historical event in history. It actually happened. In itself, the Resurrection may not be a provable proposition. However, since all alternative attempts to explain the events following the death of Jesus fail miserably, it is completely reasonable to believe in the Resurrection. Once a year, we Christians get to participate in the glorious celebration of that day which literally changes everything, that transforms our existence from one of death and despair to one of life and hope––Easter. Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, give us the grace we need to experience the Resurrection of Your Son not as an abstract theological idea, a nice story, a myth, or theory to be discussed or enjoyed, but as a real, concrete, and historical fact that radically transforms everything in our lives. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, who defeated death that we might have life, Amen.May God continue to bless you on your Lenten journey, and may you be renewed by a most blessed celebration of the Resurrection this Easter! Thanks for reading!
† Under the Mercy,
Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011. Print.