In parts 1, 2 and 3 I looked at just how weird the early church’s behavior was (with respect to the Bible), just how weird the circumstances surrounding their founder’s life were (which is important because his life has always been the central focus of Christianity). Any viable explanation of this weirdness must not only account for the fact that Christianity survived at all, but that it was embraced by some of its most ardent opponents and complete strangers who never met this enigmatic character, Jesus.
Let’s consider the explanation offered by Christianity itself.
As I discussed in the last post, the Christian religion had pretty much everything going against it. A “nobody” founder with a resume that would not have inspired any admiration. Then the founder was dishonourably executed. The early church leaders were cowards and idiots (according to their own records!). The authorities executed the leader because they intended to squash the movement and the intentions (and the tactics) of the authorities had not changed. Joining the movement put one at demonstrably higher risk of persecution and/or execution.
For the record, this is not speculation or religious conviction, but historically verifiable facts affirmed by Christian and non-Christian historians alike.
If this fledgling religion stood any hope in the world of enduring it needed some kind of knock-your-socks-off sales pitch that would counteract all these negative features. And history shows that Christianity not only managed to survive, and not only managed to gain a few followers to boot – which would have been surprising in its own right – but it managed to overtake the Roman Empire in a mere three centuries without the use of military intervention. It persuaded a sizable chunk of the known world to convert based on the merits of the religion itself.
Again, this is not a religious assessment, but a summary of historical facts.
Any intellectually honest individual would have to admit there must have been one mind-blowing “secret sauce” to pull off that kind of history-altering success story. What was that missing ingredient? The early Church made sure to give the missing ingredient a central role in their writings and their theology.
That missing ingredient is the rather simple fact that their executed founder got up and walked out of his own grave after a couple of days.
That one fact alone puts Christianity in a league of its own when it comes to world religions and philosophies. Buddhism offers insights. Islam offers a prophet. Atheism offers… well… whatever it is that Atheism offers.
But Christianity offers God incarnate, walking among us, teaching us, healing us, giving his life for us and then restoring that same life – a life violently ripped from among us in a brutal display of human injustice – by picking himself up and walking right out of the grave.
There were no miracle healers around; they were all cowering in fear in some locked room. There were no religious leaders praying for his restoration; they were praying the movement would die as conclusively as its leader. Nobody went near his tomb except a group of guards tasked with keeping it sealed and secured.
They never imagined the seal would be broken from within, not from without.
That one little fact of history was enough to turn this you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me religion into a tour de force in the Roman Empire and, eventually, across the entire planet. Because no human is capable of performing such a feat, it becomes clear that this founder – who didn’t amount to much of anything by our usual standards – wasn’t any mere human. He was evidently much more than that.
And that missing ingredient is not merely some tacked-on little factoid about the founder that is kind of cool but little more than a party trick. Rather, the surprise twist at the end of his life suddenly put his entire life and ministry into a whole new perspective far more effectively than any M Night Shayamalan movie. His life didn’t amount to much by our usual standards until one realizes that the entire message of his life had to be seen through the lens of his eventual plan to rise from the dead. When his life and teaching is viewed from that perspective it becomes clear that he is far more than anything our usual standards could possibly measure; his teachings far more valuable than just some insightful parables from a wise sage.
Lots of people aren’t thrilled with that “missing ingredient.” I get that. It’s a miracle, and we’re not supposed to believe in those because of “science.” And if God really walked among us then we should probably actually take what he said seriously, to the point of adjusting our entire lives within that new framework. And because Jesus said a whole lot of stuff that we’re not thrilled with I can see how people would be hesitant to hop on board.
I get it. It makes sense. In my honest moments I’d be happy to dismiss this whole thing as “weird” and call it a day, but it’s so weird that it demands an explanation if we are going to be intellectually honest. I understand why people might not like this particular “missing ingredient” explanation, but it does beg the question, “what’s your explanation?”
If not the resurrection, how would you explain Christianity?
I’ll bet your explanation is even weirder than Christianity itself!