In lieu of my usual scripture reflections this week, I’d like to present some thoughts on a very odd fact.
The odd fact is this, succinctly put; Christianity stands and falls entirely upon a single historical event – the resurrection of Jesus. This event is, by all known laws of nature, impossible. Yet no one has satisfactorily explained the existence or rise of Christianity apart from it.
As to the fact that Christianity depends entirely upon the resurrection, St. Paul says as much in his First Letter to the Corinthians: “If Christ has not risen, our preaching is worthless and your faith is in vain.” (1st Corinthians 15: 14). The earliest Christians depended heavily upon the resurrection in their preaching, as shown in the Acts of the Apostles. No, there’s really no question that this is the crux upon which the whole system hangs.
Well, that should be easy enough, right? People don’t come back from the dead, especially not in the strange, superhuman manner that Jesus is described as. But the problem is that it becomes very difficult to explain the events otherwise. First of all, where was Jesus’s body? It obviously wasn’t still in its tomb, since if it were the Romans or Pharisees could simply have taken the people down and showed them. So, one or more of His followers must have stolen it to perpetuate the myth of the resurrection. That and the absurd idea that He actually did rise again from the dead are really the only two options that would explain the fact that Christianity was able to gain any traction at all.
But now we run into two major problems; first of all, it’s quite a leap from ‘the body is missing’ to ‘He’s risen again!’ The Gospel accounts don’t have the Apostles making the leap until they actually see Him. Indeed, when Mary Magdalene discovers the empty tomb, her first thought is, quite sensibly, that someone moved the body. It wasn’t until she actually met Jesus face-to-face that she realized what happened.
People fall into a strange trap here when trying to avoid the resurrection; on the one hand, they seem to say, the Apostles were so fanatical and ignorant that they immediately leapt to the conclusion that an empty tomb = a resurrected Jesus when, as they are eager to point out, there are plenty of other explanations for that particular state of affairs. On the other, the Apostles were shrewd and cunning enough to write the Gospels in such a way as to make themselves look incredulous and doubting so as to lend psychological weight to their evidence. You really can’t have it both ways; someone gullible enough to leap to assuming the resurrection on the sole basis of an empty tomb would not simultaneously be clever and subtle enough to realize how feeble that evidence was and build it up with imagined doubts that were only dispelled by hard evidence. And they certainly wouldn’t keep reemphasizing the existence of eyewitnesses and declaring that this event is the one thing upon which their faith lives or dies on.
In short, to lay the kind of emphasis upon it that they do, the Apostles and Evangelists would have had to honestly believe in the resurrection, but if they honestly believed in it on the sole evidence of an empty tomb, they wouldn’t have been clever enough to simply make up the other evidence that they present.
That’s the first problem. The second is this; let’s assume the Apostles (i.e. a bunch of poor fishermen and tax collectors) actually were just that clever and decided to fake the resurrection somehow, complete with witnesses and stories of initial doubts removed by encounters with the risen Christ. I’m sure that if you really wanted, you could finagle a nice little conspiracy theory that would cover all the bases. The question emerges, though, of why? How do they benefit? Well, you might say, it was a power play! But what power? The Church had no power for the first three hundred years of her existence! Most of the first generation of Christians were executed by the authorities, including all but one of the Apostles themselves. They never got rich or acquired any kind of political or military power. So what was the point? Did the Apostles get together and say “well, it’s entirely possible that several hundred years down the road the Church will grow large enough that some members of the hierarchy will be able to acquire wealth and political power through it, so let’s take our little conspiracy to the grave”?
So, in summary, in order for the Apostles to have faked the resurrection, they would have had to be extremely cunning and bold men with a deep understanding of human psychology, and who valued the worldly power and prestige of men who might exist several centuries in the future over their own lives and welfare.
Ah, you might be saying, but what if they did it in order to keep the teachings of Jesus alive? What if they really believed in Christ’s teachings, despite the lack of a resurrection?
Well, a couple things there. First of all, if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God – was, in fact, God incarnate – the lack of a resurrection would seem to disprove that idea (as, indeed, the Gospels show it to; after Christ’s death, the disciples assumed that He wasn’t the Messiah after all until He appeared to them (e.g. Luke 24: 13-24)). Okay, so throw out the Messianic claims to divinity then; wouldn’t it be worth keeping the ‘spirit’ of Jesus alive for His moral and theological teachings?
The trouble is, you could do that without the resurrection. Rather than inventing a resurrection account that never occurred and basing the entire faith upon it, wouldn’t it be much easier and safer to simply present Him as a prophet and cut out or provide alternate explanations for His talk of rising from the dead? Wouldn’t that be the most logical way to ‘keep the teachings of Jesus alive,’ especially for orthodox Jews?
That is the way with most anti-resurrection accounts: they sound good at first glance, but once you start thinking about them and comparing them with the evidence, you find that they break down (I’m not even going to deal with the ‘Jesus was just a myth’ nonsense here: that’s worth a whole post on its own). There simply is no way to explain why the Apostles made their teachings entirely dependent upon this event except that they honestly believed it actually occurred, and their description of the event is too subtle and rings too true to have simply been concocted by ignorant, gullible peasants to lend credence to their own foolish beliefs.
No, judging by the historical record the only rational conclusion is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead on Easter Sunday. Glory to God!
Vive Christus Rex!