Under Investigation: Some Allege that the Resurrection of Jesus was a Hoax
If this statement is true, there is no evidence for the most central Christian belief next to the existence of God. That would be tragic indeed. As the Apostle Paul wrote to one of the first Christian churches, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless, and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). Easter becomes pure myth without historical substance. This is a powder keg question.
But a reasonable and responsible person needs solid evidence. It is common historical knowledge that Jesus died on a Roman cross and was buried. And the biblical records indicate both that his tomb was found empty shortly afterwards and that a large number of people claimed to have spoken, walked and eaten with him after his death. These claims are indeed unusual, even startling! They need explanation. We must decide whether there is a more plausible alternative than an actual physical, bodily resurrection. Much hangs on the answer.
Alternate explanations abound: 1) that thieves stole the body of Jesus; 2) that the Roman or Jewish authorities stole it; 3) that Jesus’ disciples stole it; and 4) that Jesus was not actually dead when buried and left the tomb on his own. Below we deal with each one briefly.
1) We are told (for example in Matthew chapter 27:62 through to chapter 28:4) that the authorities placed a guard at the tomb to prevent the body from being stolen. And when the body was discovered to be missing, it was noted that the grave clothes—loaded with spices to preserve the body—were still present. They would be strange grave robbers who would fight Roman soldiers to steal a naked corpse, when the only thing of value in the tomb would have been the spice-laden grave clothes.
2) The authorities posted the guard to keep the body buried. We must ask why they would subseqently remove it. When Christianity was first proclaimed, it was seen as a threat to the political and religious establishment of the day. Jesus was executed partly as a threat to Rome’s sovereignty. Because the new teaching was explicitly based upon belief in the resurrection, it would have been a simple matter for the authorities to quash the rumour by producing the body of Jesus. The fact that they did not do so indicates that they did not have the body. Why hold back such critical evidence?
3) Because Roman discipline provided punishments ranging from beatings to death for sleeping on duty, we may assume that the soldiers were alert. This means that the disciples (a discouraged, frightened group of fishermen, tax collectors. and one political activist) would have had to fight the soldiers to get the body—a fight they stood a poor chance of winning. But it was not just the disciples who claimed to have seen Jesus alive post-crucifixion. They would, in other words, have had to convince others to join them in their deception—a deception these others would have no motive for maintaining. Furthermore, 11 out of the original 12 disciples were martyred for their belief and their claims that Jesus rose from the dead. Now people might die for what they believe to be true, even if they are wrong. But few will die for a known lie or deception. The fact that the disciples died saying that Jesus was alive, and therefore Lord and God, means that they certainly did not have his dead body hidden away somewhere obscure.
4) If no one stole the body, then perhaps Jesus did not quite die on the cross, but was buried alive and revived in the tomb. This may be. However, this position reduces to absurdity when we are asked to believe that, half dead due to blood loss, a beating and no medical attention after his crucifixion, Jesus struggled free from his shroud, pushed aside a stone that three healthy women were not sure they could move (see Mark 16:3), and walked several miles on wounded feet. Then he met his disciples, claimed to be risen, victorious over the power of death, and was so convincing that Thomas called him “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). After about a month he wandered off and died in solitude. Remember that no one ever found his body, and that there was massive motivation to search for it. This is surely a theory of desperate last resort. A supernatural resurrection is certainly not less probable than this, unless we reject it from the outset by an uncontrollable bias. Perhaps we should rethink our position as skeptical lawyer Frank Morrison was forced to do by the evidence (Who Moved the Stone).
In conclusion, there is considerable weight behind the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. The implications are staggering! It changes everything. We must then ask why it happened. And we must deal with the Christian claim that this is the supreme act of God intervening in history to restore the world to himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ or Messiah. Hear the profound implications from a modern author Andy Crouch (Culture Making):
The resurrection of Jesus is like a cultural earthquake, its epicenter located in Jerusalem in the early 30s, whose aftershocks are still being felt in the cultural practices of people all over the world, many who have never heard of, and many more who have never believed in, its origins…. The resurrection is the hinge of history—still after two thousand years as far-reaching in its effects as anything that has come since…. The second Adam’s influence on culture comes through the greatest act of dependence, the fulfillment of Israel’s calling to demonstrate faith in the face of the great powers that threatened its existence comes in the willing submission of Jesus to a Roman cross, broken by, but breaking forever its power…. Indeed one of the most dramatic cultural effects of the resurrection is the transformation of that heinous cultural artifact known as a cross. An instrument of domination and condemnation becomes a symbol of the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed: an alternative culture where grace and forgiveness are the last word…. He faces the worst that human powers can do and rises, not just with some merely “spiritual” triumph over those powers, but with a cultural triumph—an answer, right in the midst of human history, to all the fears of Israel in the face of its enemies…. The worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God–the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life.
Other Resources: N.T.Wright’s excellent DVD video on the Resurrection; and his book The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God, Volume 3. (academic depth)
Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003.
Classic Historic Debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew: Did jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate. Harper & Row, 1987. (republished Wipf & Stock 2003) Famous Atheist Philosopher Antony Flew has converted to theism since then. See Antony Flew, There is a god.
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus
Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ay_Db4RwZ_M Gary Habermas on scholarship re: Resurrection
Eugene Peterson, Practice Resurrection.
Michael Green, Christ is Risen: So what? (popular writing)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M5P_DxqPas N. T. Wright on Why the Resurrection Matters @ Emory University (Veritas Forum).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iyxR8uE9GQ Resurrection Reflections: William Lane Craig in Southampton, UK