Each spring, Christians celebrate Easter, which is the anniversary of the day they believe a divine miracle took place: the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, three days after he was crucified in the first century Greco-Roman world. In our post-secular culture, we feel the need for transcendence from our physical world. Eastern religions, meditation, and yoga are gaining popularity in the US, and new age spiritual gurus have become household names. In our consumer-driven society, we tend only to care if our brand of spirituality makes us feel good, but do not seem at all concerned about the more crucial question:
Is it true?
While there is abundant historical evidence for the truth of Christianity, I’d like to just focus on two pieces of historical evidence: the rapid emergence of a new worldview, and the martyrdom of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection.
Rapid emergence of a new worldview
First century Jews would have been the last people on the face of the earth to believe that God could be a man. It would not have been that odd for eastern religions to believe that man could be divine since they believed God was a life force that lived in everything, and the Romans and Greeks believed the gods on Mt. Olympus frequently took on human form. However, the Jews’ first commandment from God was not to worship anything created. They believed God transcended the universe. What caused Jesus’ disciples, who lived with him and interacted with him every day, with all the opportunity to see any ungodly flaws, to believe that he was the incarnation of the living God?
More broadly, all first century people found the resurrection to be just as inconceivable as you do. Based on the prevailing worldviews of the time, the resurrection of the dead was impossible. To argue that first century people were unscientific and superstitious, and therefore easily accepted the resurrection, is to engage in what C.S. Lewis termed “chronological snobbery.” Instead, they had their worldview challenged by the evidence, and as a result, a new worldview, which normally takes years of debate, emerged virtually overnight.
Who would die for a hoax?
Pascal said, “I [believe] those witnesses that get their throats cut.” How many people do you know that are willing to cross the street for their beliefs, let alone give their lives for them? One might argue that people die for beliefs all the time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean they are true. There is a crucial difference with the resurrection, though. The disciples were in a position to know for sure whether the claim was true or false. Peter was crucified upside down, and ten of the other twelve disciples suffered horrible deaths, unwilling to relinquish the belief that Jesus was the Son of God whom they saw risen from the dead. And these were not what we would describe as hallucinations; they claimed that Jesus appeared to many people at once, and in at least one instance, to hundreds of people at one time (1 Corinthians 15). It would have to have been a tremendous conspiracy for so many people to die for a hoax.
Reflecting on denials of the resurrection, N.T. Wright harshly put it this way:
“The early Christians did not invent the empty tomb and the meetings or sightings of the risen Jesus…Nobody was expecting this kind of thing; no kind of conversion experience would have invented it, no matter how guilty (or how forgiven) they felt, no matter how many hours they pored over the scriptures. To suggest otherwise is to stop doing history and enter into a fantasy world of our own.”
Lastly, even if you don’t think the resurrection is true, you should want it to be true. Most people here on PolicyMic care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment, and find it discouraging when others do not. Yet if you believe that the material world was caused by accident, and everything will one day burn up in the death of the sun, as many on PolicyMic do, your own worldview ironically undermines any motivation to make the world a better place. Why should we sacrifice for others if, in the end, nothing really makes a difference at all? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, it means there is infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world. N.T. Wright said:
“The message of the resurrection is that this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won…If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual sense – [then] it is only about me and finding a new dimension in my personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world – news which warms our hearts precisely because it isn’t just about warming hearts. Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things – and that we will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of Jesus over them all. Take away Easter and Karl Marx was probably right to accuse Christianity of ignoring problems of the material world. Take it away and Freud was probably right to say Christianity is wish-fulfillment. Take it away and Nietzsche probably was right to say it was for wimps.”
“Fortunately,” as one scholar put it, “the Christian faith does not call for us to put our minds on the shelf, to fly in the face of common sense and history, or to make a leap of faith into the dark. The rational person, fully apprised of the evidence, can confidently believe that on the first Easter morning a divine miracle took place.”
Many of these thoughts and ideas are from the following references:
The Reason for God by Tim Keller
Jesus Under Fire, edited by J.P. Moreland and Michael J. Wilkins
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel