Easter Isn’t Make-Believe

He is risen! Happy Easter to all of my readers. This post will be publishing on Easter in 2020. Particularly with the widespread public discourse about suffering at the moment (COVID-19 pandemic), I have been contemplating a lot on suffering and the suffering of the cross in particular. In the Christian message, there is simultaneous acknowledgment of the stark reality of undeserved suffering and of an enduring, conquering hope that even death will be overcome. It is a beautiful message, and one that has carried me through many a trial, and has carried millions of others, if not billions, through their trials.

For this reason, among others, it surprises me that there is significant public discourse that aims to undermine either the source of Easter or those who celebrate it. I don’t really understand why anyone would attack the twin ideas of self-sacrificial love and of redemption from suffering and death, but nonetheless, there are some who will. To anyone who would deny the beauty of the genuine meaning of Easter, I don’t really know what to say.

But that would be quite rare assessment. Far more common than that would be a simple denial that such an event happened. That is, very many people would deny that Jesus Christ rose from the dead on that Sunday morning. When I have heard this denial before, I’ve usually heard it in one of three forms. Firstly, perhaps the person believes that miracles are impossible, and so denies that resurrection even can happen in principle. Or maybe the person simply thinks that there is no historical record that would point to this event actually happening – maybe the Bible has been altered over the years, or maybe it just doesn’t count because it is ‘biased’, or if you were feeling especially bold, you might even dare to try to claim that even the Bible doesn’t say that this happened. The words seem quite plain, this view might argue, but in reality the ‘resurrection’ was only metaphorical or spiritual in some sense, that Jesus’ body would have still been in that grave.

Lots of people believe things like this. I do not intend here to discuss the claim that miracles are impossible (though I believe I can argue that this is profoundly mistaken), but I have been thinking about the other two a lot recently. While they are interesting ideas, and while the seem reasonable, believe it or not, it is far from obvious that either of those are true. The Christian faith actually has very solid, objective historical evidence for its claim of Jesus’ resurrection. I’ll be writing much more in detail about these points in the future, but for now I’ll dive into a broad overview of just a few of the points of secular history that give evidence to the Christian view of the physical resurrection of Jesus.

Did Jesus Exist?

This point hardly even needs clarification, but we know that Jesus existed. There are some who try to argue otherwise, but they are simply wrong. I could show you, for instance, quotes of professional historians and New Testament scholars who compare claims that Jesus is a mythical figure to claims that the earth is flat and that events like the Holocaust and moon landing never happened. I could do this for days, because that’s how, well, virtually every academically respected historian on this topic feels. Just to give one example, here is a quote from the skeptical historian Bart Ehrman, who is my his own admission somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, from his book Did Jesus Exist?

“The idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus” ([1], p. 96).

Ehrman is a leader in his field, and specializes in the historicity of the New Testament. And in the spectrum of scholarship, he is very much on the skeptical end, by which we mean that he is likely to accept a lot less data as established history than others in his field. And yet, even as a non-Christian, he is adamant on Jesus’ existence. (For those looking for more, I will provide resources at the end of this article.)

Historians, including Ehrman himself, are equally adamant about the fact that Jesus was crucified. I’ll give one more quote from Ehrman’s book:

Despite the enormous range of opinion, there are several points on which virtually all scholars of antiquity agree. Jesus was a Jewish man, known to be a preacher and teacher, who was crucified (a Roman form of execution) in Jerusalem during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judea” ([1], p. 12).

In light of the virtual unanimity of scholars today, Christian and non-Christian alike, we can then take for granted as the simple truth of history that Jesus both lived and died on a cross.

What About the Tomb?

Surely though the idea that Jesus’ tomb was found empty is some kind of myth or fabrication, right?

Well… no. No, it isn’t. Once again, the majority of ancient historians who study this, whether Christian or non-Christian, conclude on purely historical grounds (i.e not on religious grounds) that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by some of his women followers on the Sunday after he died. There is plenty of evidence for this, too much for me to share in just one post, but I’ll try to give an overview.

First, and possibly most importantly, is a passage of the Bible from the letter Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, the one who now call 1 Corinthians. Scholars agree that Paul wrote this letter during his third missionary journey, which took place from 52-57 AD [2], which is one of the earliest sources on the Christian church we have (Note that I call it a source – that is because historians while doing their history do not treat the Bible as an infallible, holy Book, but rather as biographical writings and letters from 1st century Palestine. There is no religious bias involved in historical study of the Bible). Here is what the passage says in the ESV.

“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.

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 brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Corinthians 15:1-9, ESV)

Historians have recognized that verse 3 is a preamble to a creed that was used by a large portion of the early church. Creeds were common and very important, because in a primarily oral culture, where many people were illiterate, having easy-to-remember creedal statements was extremely helpful in passing on information. Furthermore, noticing that Paul said he received this, and tracing back the likely time when Paul actually received this creed and taking into account normal historical considerations, even skeptical historians conclude that verses 3-5 were already in being repeated by Christians within about 1 year of Jesus’ death! This is a goldmine for the ancient historian. Also, notice that Jesus was said to have died, and was raised. In 1st century Palestinian Jewish culture, that term raised only means one things – physical resurrection. And since physical resurrections don’t leave bodies behind, the tomb must have been empty.

There are quite a few other reasons. This next one involves the use of the criterion of embarrassment, which historians use frequently to help identify what parts of a historical source are true, and which are false. The criterion of embarrassment is basically just the observation that people never lie in order to make themselves look bad. That’s just not how people work. If someone is lying, they want to make themselves look better. Then if a historical document presents a fact that would have been embarrassing or harmful to the message of the writer, it is quite reasonable to conclude that their report is accurate.

The gospels attest that women were the first to discover the empty tomb of Jesus. It is a well known fact of ancient history that women were not considered reliable witnesses in this culture – so much so that they were not even allowed to testify in court. If the writers of the gospels were making up a story to try to convince people that Jesus rose from the dead, why would they make women the first witnesses? That just doesn’t make any sense from a psychological or cultural perspective. Therefore, it is quite reasonable to conclude that the authors of the gospels sincerely believed this and were simply reporting what happened.

Jesus’ Appearances

The reports that Jesus’ followers had experiences that they interpreted as Jesus sitting with and talking with them in bodily form are also taken to be historically accurate by the majority of scholars. To see just one reason for this, look back at the 1 Corinthians passage. Look at verses 5-8 (as a sidenote, Cephas is another name given to the apostle Peter). It is filled to the brim with appearances – to both groups (even a group of 500) and individuals (Peter, James, Paul), and to those who followed Jesus (his apostles) and those who were not yet followers of Jesus (his brother James and Paul). Remember, this creed has been dated back to within 1 year of Jesus’ death. The people who supposedly saw Jesus were most certainly still alive – Paul even says so explicitly! Paul even knew at least some of these people personally. The most reasonable explanation of the fact that an extremely early creed in the church (which would have been ubiquitous) says this is because the people it cites in fact did have some kind of experience like that.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus did rise from the dead – but certainly there were many people who had experiences that seemed quite vividly like that is what happened.

The Origins of Christianity

Jews at this time did not expect their Messiah to die – the general expectation was that the Messiah would be a military and religious leader who would overthrow Roman rule. Furthermore, Jewish belief in resurrection was, while common, not ubiquitous, and even those who did believe in bodily resurrection only thought it would happen on judgment day, to everybody at the same time. There was no precedent for the disciples to think a thing like this would happen, because it went against the expectations of their culture. And if you read the gospels, you constantly find that Jesus tried quite hard to explain this to his disciples before he died, but the disciples are presented as, well, bone-headed, not understanding even direct explanations. Jesus even rebuked Peter in remarkably harsh language for suggesting that Jesus would never be killed. The criterion of embarrassment applies again here – the writers of the New Testament would never have made the apostles look like such idiots unless that is what actually happened.

Another point – what motive did the early church have for inventing this story? This caused the Jews and Romans alike to despise them. The apostles lived lives of poverty and suffering. Christians at this time were regularly beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed simply for being Christians. Doesn’t look like they have any motive to be lying… Liars make terrible martyrs. Well, that is because liars who know they are lying are not martyrs. It just doesn’t happen. That’s simply not how people work.

Conclusion

I could – and someday will – provide much more in-depth presentations of evidence of this sort. There are books 800 pages long and more (I recently heard of one around 5000 pages long) that present evidence for these claims and similar ones in excruciating detail. Papers in secular, peer-reviewed academic journals argue in favor of these points, at least more often than not. There are always (or at least almost always) exceptions. However, we have very strong secular historical evidence that not only did Jesus live and die on a Roman cross, his tomb was found empty, many people alive at the time reported seeing him after his death, and his closest followers came to believe so firmly in his physical resurrection from the dead that, even under the threats humiliation and execution, they did not give up their beliefs.

Now, I don’t want to force anyone to become a Christian. And I am quite convinced from the Christian Bible that God doesn’t want to compel anyone to follow Him either. God desires relationship, and relationship by definition cannot be compelled. These evidences can be explained or just denied, if you want to do that. But to my eyes, and frankly I think to the eyes of anyone looking seriously at what history tells us, the case that Easter really happened actually looks pretty good.

If you want to learn more, I’ll put many great books and YouTube videos I have seen or read (or in some cases, have on my reading list but haven’t quite gotten to yet) that cover this topic and related questions.

Citations

[1] Ehrman, Bart D. (2012). Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. HarperOne. ISBN 978-0062206442.

[2] http://www.datingthenewtestament.com/Corinthians.htm

More Resources

YouTube:

Books:

  • The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
  • Cold-Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace
  • Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman
  • The Resurrection of the Son of God by NT Wright
  • Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig
  • Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh & Sean McDowell

By the way, the first two of these are records of how intelligent atheists, namely a top-level journalist and a top-level cold case detective, looked at the objective evidence and became Christians.

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