“As a child given religion with no answers to why. Just told believe in Jesus cause for me he did die. Curiosity killed the catechism understanding and wisdom became the rhythm that I played to”– Common from the song G.O.D (Gaining One’s Definition)

The quote from Common has been the springboard through which I have been exploring the themes of truth, religion, Christianity and history. In G.O.D (Gaining One’s Definition): Common on religion, truth and God I reflected on how the views I once shared with Common, regarding the relativity of truth in religion, I came to find untenable. In the Myth of Jesus: Discovering the history behind faith I and in Part 2; I turned my attention to address a particular problem regarding how we come to basic knowledge about the Christian faith and Jesus. Growing up we were told “believe in Jesus cause for you he did die” and how that unintentionally created the impression in me that Jesus and factual true history were simply worlds apart. Rather the value of Jesus, his followers and their writings lay in its capacity to teach us how to be good – the factual history of whether it really happened or not was irrelevant.

I spent the previous two posts,  discussing what historians (both Christians and non-christian) consider to be historical facts regarding the life of Jesus and his followers. The historical consensus can be neatly summed up as follows:
A Jewish man named Jesus was crucified by Pontius Pilate, and buried in a tomb by Joseph of Aramethea. Sometime after his death; his tomb where he was buried is found empty and his Jewish followers such as Peter start claiming that he has appeared to them and in fact has risen from the dead. Paul a christian persecutor also changes his former life after claiming that Jesus appeared to him. James the brother of Jesus follows suit and also claims that Jesus appeared to him and is risen from the dead. So sincere the followers are in their claims that they are willing to die for their beliefs and do end up being martyrs. Thus Christianity is born which is founded on the beliefs and testimonies of the followers of Jesus that he has risen from the dead and is who he claimed to be -The Son of God.

The really interesting thing for me as I began exploring what Christianity is about was that none of the points in the above narrative are actually controversial -historians whether christian or non-christian will agree on them! They agree because the narrative is simply historical and well supported by the evidence. The disagreement lies in explaining the narrative; how do we account for the historical facts originating?

Making sense of the facts

Several explanations have been devised over time to make sense of the Christian narrative and its origins. Jesus resurrection was a legend that developed over time; Jesus never existed; Jesus never died but appeared to have died to the disciples; The disciples stole Jesus’ body and lied that he had appeared to them; Disciples had hallucinations of Jesus which led to mistakenly conclude that Jesus had risen from the dead; and lastly Jesus did rise from the dead and did appear to his disciples, Paul and James. I will address only what I consider to be the three strongest explanations for historical facts: Conspiracy, Hallucination and Resurrection. The other explanations are outright and obvious denials of what historians consider to the historical facts that need explaining.

CONSPIRACY – The disciples stole the body of Jesus and made up the story that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The disciples after the death of Jesus stole his body and made up the post-mortem appearances of Jesus
There are four main problems that I found with this explanation. (1) As Jews the disciples would have known that the death of Jesus meant he was simply not the promised Messiah, who was supposed to restore Israel as a powerful kingdom, Jesus’ death meant they had followed a fraud who was cursed by God. The death of Jesus meant that He was not the messiah they thought He was (2) If they lied about Jesus rising from the dead why would they willingly die for a lie knowing that it is a lie they invented.
(3) It leaves unexplained the historical fact that Christianity originated because the disciples believed Jesus had risen from the dead. To say they made it up is to deny precisely what needs explaining. What caused the disciples such as Peter to believe Jesus rose from the dead? It is no explanation to deny what needs explanation.
(4) It does not explain why Paul and James converted to Christianity. Paul was a persecutor whose mission was to eliminate Christianity. Paul would have wanted nothing more to expose Christianity if it was a conspiracy. James was a devout Jew and brother of Jesus, the conspiracy theory does not explain why they would be willing to die for the claim that Jesus rose from the dead knowing they had never seen him.

HALLUCINATION – The disciples, Paul and James had hallucinations of Jesus after his death.

The writer Allision gives a summary of this explanation:

“Maybe a grieving Peter conjured the face of Jesus, which the uncritical, superstitious disciple sincerely thought real. A sort of mass hysteria, the product of emotional contagion, followed, with others, victims of their over-luxuriant imaginations, also claiming to see Jesus, although he was nothing but a figment of their optical delusion”

The disciples after the death of their teacher because of grief had visions of Jesus which they interpreted as Jesus being raised from the dead. Paul and James motivated by guilt also had visions of Jesus which they also interpreted as his resurrection. They then assumed that the tomb of Jesus was empty in order to justify their claims. There are three main problems with this explanation:

(1) Hallucinations do not happen in groups but to single individuals. How could the disciples, Paul and James all have the same hallucination of Jesus? They did not have the same psychological state -Peter was the disciple and one could argue that he was grieving and hallucinated the appearance of Jesus. However Paul was against Christians and wanted to crush it – why would he also hallucinate Jesus. Similarly with James, he was not a follower of Jesus before his crucifixion.
(2) A hallucination of Jesus alone would not have necessarily meant that Jesus had risen from the dead. It would have meant exactly that – he was really dead and they were seeing something like his ghost, however God had vindicated him and they would see him in the after-life. Hallucinations alone would have been insufficient for the disciples to conclude that Jesus has risen from the dead because resurrection for 1st century Jews always meant a bodily resurrection.
(3) If the disciples were hallucinating then why was the tomb empty? In order to end the disciples’ claims and shake them out of their hysteria and hallucinations; all that the Jewish leaders had to do was show them the body of Jesus – but they did not because the tomb was empty. In other words hallucinations do not explain why the tomb of Jesus was empty.

The Resurrection

“…and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless”, said Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. The simple message that Paul was driving home to the Corinthians is that the cornerstone, the crux, the foundation for the Christian faith was the historical event of Jesus rising from the dead. The traditional explanation for the Christian narrative and the historical facts is that something extraordinary really happened to Jesus after his death. Jesus after being crucified for claiming to be the Son of God; rose from the dead on the third day and appeared to his disciples and others. His resurrection explains why his tomb was found empty after his death; it explains why Peter was willing to die for his belief that Jesus was risen and had appeared to him. It explains why Paul a determined and zealous Jew who was hellbent on crushing the new Jesus movement became its most influential leader and eventually died for his claims that Jesus had indeed risen and appeared to him. It explains why James who was not a follower of Jesus when he was alive, became the leader of a church and died a martyr for his belief that Jesus had risen and appeared to him.

I did not come to faith in Jesus because I heard the historical evidence regarding the resurrection. However, knowledge of the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus has been central in strengthening my faith in the credibility and reliability of the Christian worldview. Coming to faith will always be a highly subjective process, however there must be objective reasons that undergird our beliefs. My aim in this post was to provide some answer to the dilemma that Common, others and myself found ourselves in growing up where we are, “Given religion with no answers to why”. The Christian faith has at its epicenter not just good teachings but a historical claim, that people who were in a position to know whether it’s true or false, have been willing to die for. Jesus after his death rose from the dead. It is a claim that is historically defensible and indeed reasonable – no skeptic can simply reject it without seriously considering it. Discovering the historical evidence supporting the Christian faith shattered my own myth that I held about the Easter narrative: that it simply had no origins in history. Even if one finds that the argument for the resurrection is not persuasive nor conclusive – it shows firstly that faith in Jesus is not merely blind faith. Secondly it is still reasonable for one to hold that the literal resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the well attested historical facts surrounding Jesus, his followers and the origins of Christianity. Thirdly, Easter is the central tenet in Christianity because without it there would be no Christianity.


Further reading

  1. NT.Wright. Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem. http://www.NTWrightPage.com