Early in my undergraduate education I remember sitting in class and jotting down the question, what makes Christianity true? Is it the Bible? To some (perhaps most), this is about as far as one needs to look when determining the validity of the Christian faith. Anyone who knows me will know that I have views on the Bible that require me to look deeper in my search for truth, and I would imagine anyone who gives it a deep and honest look will feel the same way. So does the Church make Christianity true? An enormously large demographic of people over the last couple thousand years have considered themselves part of the Church, so this fact must be considered when answering our question. Remember also, many people claim to believe and experience all sorts of things, so this alone cannot prove Christianity to be true. Not to mention, the Church is often the reason people dismiss Jesus altogether. This was more or less the progression I was going through as I wrestled with what made Christianity different from any other belief, and what (if anything) made it right.
I ended up landing on Jesus, which may have been where I should have started in the first place. Specifically, I found that if the resurrection actually happened, then there really was something to this belief system. Mind you, this does not mean that I ignore or disregard the importance of things like the Bible or the Church, but if there is one thing that the door of Christianity hinges upon it is Jesus’ resurrection.
The New Testament authors were claiming that the historical figure of Jesus was physically raised from the dead. This is a bold claim, and one that would have been met with just as much backlash and skepticism in the first century as it would have been today. As an avid lover of history, it was very important to me that this event could be historically proven or verified. As with all things, when talking about something being proven in history, it’s about probability. We need to look at the evidence we have and determine if the hypothesis of Jesus’ physical resurrection is probable or not. Afterwards, we have some choices to make regardless of our findings.
So here are some things that helped solidify the probability of the resurrection in my mind. I would like to acknowledge the contributions of N.T. Wright and Dr. Gary Habermas on this subject, as their work was very beneficial to me.
Obviously, it’s important that Jesus was a real person. Some people still debate whether or not this is true, but the vast majority of biblical and secular scholars agree that Jesus existed. There are a few extra-biblical sources for Jesus, including 1st century Jewish historian Josephus who writes, “Now there was about his time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as received the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.” Other direct or indirect references to Jesus within the 1st or 2nd century AD come from Tacitus and Suetonius (on mischievous Christians), Julius Africanus (on darkness during crucifixion), and Pliny the Younger (random dealings with Christians).
PERTINENT NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS WERE WRITTEN EARLY
While it is difficult to determine the exact dates for the New Testament documents, it is generally held that the 26 books were written before the end of the 1st century AD. While the four gospel accounts are dated sporadically throughout the second half of the first century, some of the Apostle Paul’s letters were written closer to Jesus crucifixion. This includes 1st Corinthians, in which Paul states that over 500 hundred people saw the risen Jesus at one time. It is important to remember that ancient history was recorded much differently than it is in the modern period; many things which we take for granted as historical fact (such as the life of Alexander the Great) were not written down until long after the fact. Compared to other recorded history of the time, the New Testament documents are right on par.
THE TOMB WAS EMPTY
Had the tomb not been empty, all someone would have needed to do was go and show that Jesus was still there. As it was, followers and enemies of Jesus alike must have gone to examine it and seen that no one was home. In my mind, there are two possible explanations for this; either Jesus was raised from the dead or the disciples somehow stole the body and hid it so well that we have yet to discover it. My major problem with the latter is that the disciples seem to have been just as confused by the resurrection as everyone else. 1st century Jews did not have a file in their theological filing cabinet for this sort of thing. There was a general idea that some people may be raised to life at the end of all things, but the thought that one man in the middle of history would be raised would not have crossed their minds.
PEOPLE CLAIMED TO HAVE SEEN JESUS ALIVE
As I hinted at earlier, just because someone says they’ve seen something or that they believe something doesn’t mean it’s true. But remember, it’s not like these people were getting high-fives and raisin cakes for proclaiming the resurrection, this was serious stuff that often led to persecution and death. What this tells us is that a lot of people really believed in this, despite the dangerous consequences.
THE CHURCH EXPLODES ONTO THE SCENE
It is a documented fact that the Christian Church erupted out of Jerusalem following Jesus’ crucifixion. What is astonishing about this is that it was an anomaly for movements in Roman governed territories. We know of a handful of other messianic movements around the time of Jesus, all of which had a leader claiming to be Israel’s messiah. Once the movements caused too much of an uproar or threat to Rome, the leader was killed. At that point, the movement either died or the followers would claim someone else to be the leader, often a close relative of the first. One thing they did not do was say he had been raised from the dead. There does not seem to be any reason for the rise of the Church, save that many of Jesus’ followers (and many who were at one time His enemies) truly believed He was alive.
The Gospels are inconsistent. This may seem like a bad thing, and arguments can be made that they are consistent, but I would say it is to be expected that when you have different people experiencing something it will be communicated in different ways; this does not mean what they experienced did not happen. To me, minor inconsistencies show something authentic about what was going on. I’ve also heard arguments that the Gospel accounts were written by people wanting to start a religious movement. However, the Gospels (supposedly written by people following Jesus) make the disciples look like unfaithful idiots who have no real idea about what Jesus is doing. Secondly, they give precedence to women on many occasions, not the least of which is in the resurrection narratives. In 1st century judicial systems, women could not commonly be considered credible witnesses, so if they were trying to start some movement they likely would have had the men witness the resurrection first.
What I’ve come to find is that the resurrection is an anchor that keeps me from drifting into the open seas, but it doesn’t keep me from waves and storms from every direction. To me, the resurrection doesn’t mean the Bible is inerrant, or that the Church is the way God wants it to be. It means Jesus is alive and I have to make a decision about what that means. I hope this was helpful but I want to encourage you to look into these things for yourself. You may find a few different bits of information or you may come to different conclusions about the evidence. Either way I think it is important that everyone takes a long, humble look at Jesus and whether we agree or disagree, take time to listen to one another.
Questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Let’s talk.
Tyler B. Wilson