Is Easter believable?

I don’t try to hide the fact that I’m a Christian, but I’m sure some readers are probably scratching their heads a bit wondering how somebody who might otherwise seem relatively sane, intelligent and moral could possibly associate themselves with religious belief of any sort.

Not just religion, broadly speaking, but a religion that emphatically insists that some dead guy came back to life. Utter nonsense, right?

The centrality of the resurrection of Jesus

Some Christians try to downplay the resurrection for a variety of reasons that I won’t get into, but the importance of the resurrection to the Christian faith cannot be overstated. The pre-eminent Christian evangelist of history is the Apostle Paul in the early church, and he was pretty clear on this issue,

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.

(My emphasis)

So for those who want to hang on to some shell of the Christian faith while denying such “superstitions” as this ridiculous idea that Jesus rose from the dead, please understand that this is an all-or-nothing deal. Either Jesus rose from the dead or Christianity is bunk. This is one of those binary issues on which there is no middle ground.

The reliability of the Bible

What we know about Jesus is virtually entirely handed down to us through the Bible; specifically the New Testament. Most especially through the Gospels, though some other data is found in the New Testament letters. That should lead any thinking person to ask a very basic and rational question; can that source material be trusted? Can I believe the Gospels?

(It astonishes me that more Christians don’t ask this question, but that’s a rant for another article.)

I’m going to provide three answers to that question. The first is brief – point form – for those who don’t have the time / interest to dive into this at length.

  • It is widely accepted by scholars that the Gospels were written within the lifetime of those who would have witnessed the events. The earliest parts of the New Testament were written without about 20 years of the life of Jesus. That’s not enough time for myths and legends to creep in.
  • Other ancient historians (not Christians) reference the person of Jesus and confirm the broad picture of his life as described in the Gospels; especially the fact that he was executed and that something very strange happened to his followers after he died. Rather than disappearing, his followers emerged “victorious” and essentially took over the Roman Empire.
  • Thanks to the science of Textual Criticism, we enjoy an extremely high confidence that our present-day Bibles are nearly 100% consistent with what the original authors wrote.

The second answer is longer, in the form of a very interesting lecture. See the link below for an informative, entertaining and still scholarly one-hour lecture summarizing a number of reasons to believe that the Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony.

New Evidence the Gospels were based on eyewitness accounts

The third, and last, answer is a book I would strongly recommend for the very serious student. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses is an extremely scholarly book with one overarching conclusion; we can be strongly confident that the material in the Gospels reliably conveys eyewitness testimony. This book provides some of the material covered in the video I link to, above.

Even if you doubt certain specific accounts within the New Testament, the evidence seems to point to the overall reliability of the New Testament both historically and literarily. And the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus in that message, given the reliability of the New Testament, should give us pause to consider that maybe it actually happened.

The alternatives

But suppose it didn’t happen. Well, if it didn’t happen then we have a bit of a problem; what DID happen? If not the Bible’s version of things, what’s the truth?

(And I have no time for those who would shrug their shoulders and dismiss this as “well, I don’t know and I don’t really think it’s important.”)

Let’s put aside the Bible for a moment and just consider the people and events themselves. Contra the conspiracy theorists out there, it seems safe to conclude that Jesus actually did exist, walk the earth, and say and do stuff worthy of getting a lot of attention. And getting executed. Even the renown skeptic of Christianity, Bart Ehrman, strongly affirms that Jesus existed. So let’s start with the basics.

  • He was executed.
  • His disciples (right from the very earliest of times) claimed that he rose from the dead.
  • Nobody ever produced a body to prove them wrong.

If you’re not going to believe in the resurrection, then how do you explain these points of data? Here are some of the more common alternative explanations.

Disciples stole the body

Maybe his disciples stole his body from the tomb. This would make a lot of sense were it not for the fact that claiming he rose from the dead unleashed the fury of both the Jewish authorities and the Roman authorities. Most of the disciples were persecuted, tortured and eventually executed. If they lied about all that, don’t you think they’d eventually reach a point where they were asking themselves, “why are we doing this?” It’s possible to imagine one, maybe two, guys pulling something like that off and keeping the lie going for that long, but to have all those folks in the early church involved in the deception and none of them eventually deciding, “screw this, I’m going back to my day job” is unfathomable.

That also doesn’t explain how they ever managed to convert anybody, most notably the Apostle Paul who I mentioned previously.

Jesus didn’t really die

This one I find the most amusing. The theory is that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but went unconscious and then came to in the tomb. Let’s think through this.

So you take a guy who has been virtually bled dry and beaten to within an inch of his life and you stick him in the ancient equivalent of a cold storage unit. That alone should kill him, not heal him, but somehow he survives.

Then he wakes up and gets up. Again, good luck with that. Somebody who went through all that would have been bedridden for weeks.

But it gets better. Not only does he wake up, he also pushes aside a massive stone blocking the entrance to the tomb. Because virtually dead guys would have enough energy to do that…

Then he wanders through town without anybody seeing him until he finds his disciples. In amazement, the disciples see his bloodied and beaten body – their leader teetering over from lack of energy – and proclaim that he rose from the dead.

What? I don’t think so. If that happened the far more likely Christian message would have been that God saved Jesus from death. God protected his Messiah from execution. That would have been a powerful message too, but certainly not “God raised him from the dead.”

They all hallucinated

Perhaps those who “saw” Jesus alive again were hallucinating. While that might be believable for one or two people, the concept of group hallucinations just doesn’t cut the mustard. Furthermore, it would be really hard to convert anybody else to join your hallucination.

And, besides, the authorities could just exhume the body and put that hallucination to rest.

No, the alternative theories sound even more ridiculous to me than the explanation that Jesus rose from the dead. And that theory only sounds ridiculous if one begins with the assumption that either there is no God, or God doesn’t do god-like stuff in the world. As if, for some odd reason, God were unable to perform miracles.

If he does exist and he is active, then the resurrection doesn’t seem even remotely far-fetched, at least in principle. Of course we shouldn’t believe everybody who claims to have witnessed a resurrection (miracles are, by definition, rare) but we should not automatically disbelieve without even considering the evidence.