Is Jesus’ Resurrection Credible?

 
Rebecca McLaughlin | 21 Feb 2023

The extraordinary spread of Christianity, both numerically and geographically, doesn’t prove that Jesus really rose again. But how a man born into a subjugated ethnic group in an obscure Roman province—who lived poor, died young, who never wrote a book, raised an army, or sat on a throne—has come to be the most impactful human in all human history does require some kind of explanation.

Explaining the spread of Christianity against all odds

Crucifying troublesome popular leaders was standard practice for the Romans, and the Gospels tell us how cowardly Jesus’ twelve apostles were when he was arrested. One might reasonably have expected Jesus’ crucifixion to have polished off the movement. But it didn’t. Instead, somehow, Jesus’ little ragtag band of followers became the most successful movement-spreaders in history.

If the Gospel authors had been making things up to serve the political agenda of the early church, they did an extremely poor job!

Some sceptics have suggested that Jesus of Nazareth was an inspiring rabbi who was mythologized over time, with the resurrection as the culmination of this process. The recipe is simple: take a charismatic preacher, add a virgin birth here, some miracles there, cap it all off with a resurrection and bingo: the Son of God! It sounds quite plausible at first. Indeed, the famous British sceptic Richard Dawkins in his book Outgrowing God imagines it this way, with “early recruits to the young religion of Christianity” being “eager to pass on stories and rumours about Jesus, without checking them for truth”. But Dawkins’s hypothesis is untenable.

There was nothing to recruit for without the resurrection

First, without the resurrection, there would have been no young religion to recruit. The Christian message is that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died to take the punishment for the sins of any who will trust in him, that he rose from the dead, and that he welcomes all who will repent and believe to live with him forevermore. It’s not a story that can stop halfway. Christianity without the resurrection would be like Disney’s Frozen without Elsa. The resurrection isn’t a nice-to-have. It’s fundamental to the Christian package.

The stories would have grown more outlandish if made up

Second, if the resurrection claim was the culmination of a process of mythologizing over time, with the stories about Jesus getting more and more outlandish, we’d expect the resurrection claim to crop up only in later writings about Jesus. (“I heard he healed a leper just by touching him.” “Oh yeah? Well, I heard he could heal people from a distance, just by saying the word.” “If you think that’s cool, I heard he rose from the dead!”)

But the resurrection is central to the earliest Christian writings we have: letters from the apostle Paul to some of the 1st-century churches. As Paul puts it in a letter to Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

Why make up the resurrection?

Third, if Jesus’ resurrection was deliberately made up, it’s hard to see how this could have been pulled off or why. All of Jesus’ twelve apostles (except Judas, who betrayed him and died) claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus, so it would have taken a coordinated conspiracy to keep that story going. But many of them went on to be executed for proclaiming Jesus as the risen Lord of all. If they had knowingly fabricated Jesus’ resurrection, it’s wild to think they’d die for a lie!

Somehow, Jesus’ little ragtag band of followers became the most successful movement-spreaders in history.

Some people make the suggestion that Jesus didn’t actually die on the cross, so what his followers witnessed was merely a resuscitation. To be sure, crucifixion was a deliberately slow-burn death. The Roman governor, Pilate, was surprised to hear that Jesus had died a mere six hours after he was crucified. But the Romans were execution experts. To finish off the criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus, the soldiers broke their legs so they could no longer push their bodies up to gasp for breath. But Jesus was dead already. To make quite sure, they stuck a spear into his side (John 19:31-34).

You might say, “Well, you got those details from a Gospel”. That’s true. But we know from other historical sources that the Romans didn’t mess around. If they knew anything (aside from how to take a bath), they knew how to kill. Jesus had caused quite a stir in Jerusalem. His was by far the most high-profile crucifixion that day. The idea that the soldiers botched the job and what the disciples witnessed was a resuscitation and not a resurrection is at best implausible.

Truth or propaganda?

Some say that the Gospels are propaganda from the early church. But this does not align well with the texts themselves. Jesus’ apostles went on to be key leaders in the 1st-century church, but their portrayal in the Gospels is frankly embarrassing. Time and again, they fail to believe what Jesus says. Jesus even calls them “you of little faith” (Matthew 8:26).

Peter gets especially bad press. For instance, when Jesus first predicts his death, Peter tries to talk him out of it. Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mark 8:33). Later, Peter swears he’s ready to die with Jesus. But Jesus tells him that instead, that very night, Peter is going to deny even knowing Jesus three times—and Jesus is right (Mark 14:26-31; 66-72)! If anyone had power in the early church to censor the stories about Jesus, it was Peter. Yet even Mark’s Gospel (the one that’s based on Peter’s own testimony) paints Peter in a very shameful light.

On top of this, the role that women play in all the Gospels cuts against the culture of that day. In particular, all four Gospels present women as the key eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection at a time when the testimony of women would not have been seen as credible. If the Gospel authors had been making things up to serve the political agenda of the early church, they did an extremely poor job!

Many today think that our gullible, prescientific ancestors might have been easily convinced that someone rose from the dead, but that modern, educated people can’t take the resurrection seriously. But I’ve worked with countless leading academics at universities from MIT to Cambridge, in fields ranging from physics to philosophy, and from places as diverse as England, India, China, and Iran, who do believe this central, historical claim of Christianity. They haven’t ditched their rationality to live on anti-scientific, historically unfounded faith. In fact, the historical evidence for the resurrection is as good as for almost any event of ancient history.

 

This is an extract from Is Easter Unbelievable? by Rebecca McLaughlin—an evangelistic book for Easter which explores the evidence for Jesus' resurrection. 

 

Rebecca McLaughlin

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities. She's the author of several books including Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World's Largest Religion, and Is Christmas Unbelievable?

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