When it comes to discussions about Christianity and Atheism, it’s often suggested that Christianity is based on blind faith, but atheism is based on evidence. Christians just believe what they’re told. Atheists follow the evidence where it leads.
Now, there are a number of reasons why that’s a faulty assumption, but for one thing it fails to recognise that Christianity stands or falls precisely on evidence. The Bible itself appeals to first-hand eye-witness accounts to substantiate the claim that Jesus physically rose from the dead. And there is more solid evidence for the resurrection of Jesus than most people realise.
A Few Key Facts
For context, it’s important to understand that when it comes to the alleged resurrection of Jesus, there is a broad scholarly consensus even amongst non-Christian scholars (e.g. Jews, atheists, etc.) around a few key facts. So imagine you gather the world’s top ancient historians in a room and asked them a few questions:
- Did Jesus exist? Absolutely, no question.
- Was Jesus crucified by the Romans and buried in a tomb? Definitely.
- Was Jesus’ tomb found empty three days later. Yes, most will say.
- Did many of Jesus’ followers claim to have seen him alive and start spreading that news to others? Absolutely, no question about it.
Of course, that’s not to say that these scholars think Jesus’ followers were those early Christians were right in their claim that Jesus rose from the dead; but they recognise without question that that’s what the early Christians claimed.
Now, there is broad scholarly consensus on these facts. But the key question is – and this is where the experts will start to diverge – how do you explain these events? Because of course, none of this proves the resurrection. These are simply historical facts, and our job is to piece together why these things happened. There are a few explanations that are considered most likely.
1. Jesus’ Followers Lied
First of all, some historians suggest the early Christians simply lied. They didn’t actually believe Jesus rose from the dead, they were just lying. They had ulterior motives, something to gain. Maybe they lied to gain power, or religious influence, or to get rich. That’s how the theory goes.
The early Christians simply had nothing to gain by lying about Jesus’ resurrection. They didn’t get power, they didn’t become rich. In fact, the earliest Christians actually faced ostracism and persecution because of their claim about Jesus rising from the dead.
But the problem with this explanation is that the early Christians simply had nothing to gain by lying about Jesus’ resurrection. They didn’t get power, they didn’t become rich. In fact, the earliest Christians actually faced ostracism and persecution because of their claim about Jesus rising from the dead.
Think about the Apostle Paul, for example. Before the risen Jesus appeared to him (as he claimed), he was influential and well-respected within Judaism. His life was comfortable and good. Once he became a Christian, however, Paul was repeatedly beaten, stoned, imprisoned, faced countless sufferings for being a Christian, and was eventually executed for it! Why would he go through all that for what he knew was a lie?
Or take the apostle Peter, one of Jesus’ first followers. Peter was crucified upside down for his faith, an excruciating death. Why would he do that? At what point, while you’re being led out to be crucified, do you admit that it was a fabrication so you can avoid being executed and get on with your life?
These aren’t isolated examples. In fact, eleven out of Jesus’ first twelve followers were all executed because of their claim that Jesus rose from the dead! So the problem with the ‘lies’ theory is that it simply doesn’t do justice to the historical evidence from what we know of early Christianity.
2. Jesus’ Followers Hallucinated
Some scholars conclude that these first Christians weren’t lying: they simply hallucinated. According to this explanation, Peter and the other followers of Jesus were grief-stricken after his death. They were full of emotion, they were distraught, and they had vivid hallucinations where they thought they were seeing Jesus risen from the dead.
Of course, this is a much better explanation than the previous one, because it accounts for the fact that Christians were willing to die for what they believed. And a significant number of historians land here for that reason.
But there are some pretty fatal flaws in this explanation too. Firstly, medically speaking, corporate hallucinations just don’t happen. As psychologist Gary Collins says, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a hallucination at a time.”
So how could it be that, as 1 Corinthians 15 tells us (a letter historians date to about 55AD), Jesus appeared to over 500 people at once? And how could it possibly be that Peter, Paul, all the other apostles, all the 500+, and the women who first witnessed Jesus risen from the dead, that all these people happened to have matching hallucinations over a period of forty days? The reality is, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s not a good explanation of the four historical facts we looked at above. So another explanation has been put forward.
3. Jesus Rose from the Dead
Since it can’t have been lies, and it doesn’t make sense for it to have been hallucinations, another explanation for the presenting evidence is that Jesus actually, physically, rose from the dead, just like his followers claimed.
Since it can’t have been lies, and it doesn’t make sense for it to have been hallucinations, another explanation for the presenting evidence is that Jesus actually, physically, rose from the dead.
This explains the empty tomb. It explains why so many people claimed to see him after his death. It explains why people who were previously hostile to him—like Paul—would suddenly turn around and become Christians, even though it meant suffering. You see, the explanation that best explains the historical evidence is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
But there’s one problem with this explanation, too. And it’s a big one. Do you know what it is? The problem is, dead people stay dead! They don’t come alive again after three days! And that’s a big problem. Because if there’s no natural explanation for how a person could rise from the dead, there must be a supernatural explanation. There must be some kind of God. And it means we have to reckon with the big claims that Jesus makes about himself.
And that makes this explanation very confronting. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, it has huge and confronting implications. And it’s for this reason alone that so many historians choose a different explanation.
Lies? Hallucinations? Grave-robbers? Sure, any of those will have to do! Because even if those reasons are inferior from a historical perspective, even if they don’t fit the evidence, a lot of people will still choose any of those options because it fits better with their beliefs.
But do you see the problem here? What happened to being logical, following the evidence wherever it leads? Don’t take my word for it. This is only a brief article. Read more deeply. Listen to voices from both sides of the aisle. But don’t just settle for what you’ve been told before or what fits comfortably with your beliefs. Investigate for yourself. You may just be surprised where the evidence leads you.
First published at thebensmartblog.com