Paul says if there is no resurrection, then the Christian faith is worthless. 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 So, having always been keenly aware of this important lynchpin of theology, when I picked up a copy of the book Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, I went straight to the chapters about the resurrection.
The arguments in a nutshell are:
1. The bible says so.
Actually, that's really it. The whole thing is about looking closely at the bible and what it says and why we should accept it as a good historical document. I'm not going to bother going into detail on each little event that's recorded in Paul's epistles or the gospels, that's already been done by people far more qualified than I am. So, instead I'm just going to give some thoughts on the matter based on comparison with my own experience (trust me, you'll see there's a point). If you want the scholarly historical analysis of texts and sources and all that, I'll include some links.
The first thing that struck me was the lack of material. This is supposed to be the single most important event in the history of humanity according to Christian theology, and yet there is not a single written contemporary - and by contemporary I don't mean decades later - mention of it that we're aware from anyone, anywhere. No one at the time of this most important thing to EVER happen bothered to write anything down about it; not the Christians, not the Jews who you would think might have had some interest in trying to discredit a story that was so important that it threatened their entire faith, not the Romans, not anyone. We're supposed to believe god is perfect and omnipotent and omniscient, yet he was apparently so nearsighted he didn't think to maybe say to one of his followers, hey, you know, it might be worth writing something down for the future about me rising from the dead and all? Oh, but the early Christians thought Jesus was coming back within their life-time so they didn't need to write it down. So what? Jesus should have known and could have given instructions. Apostate XP 1:7 'And then Jesus said unto them "Peter, write this down. Thomas, you too." and they did.' There, done, history changed, we now have an accurate record of everything by two separate independent first-hand witnesses to everything. Nope, guess it was better to be mysterious and have thoughts higher than ours that don't fit into a puny human conceptions of what a perfect deity should look like. The earliest records are in Paul's letters and come from oral tradition. We're told that since this is from a creed - a memorized statement that is transmitted word for word - that it must be reliable. Ummm, seriously? So rumours have been spreading for a decade or two about a Jesus rising from the dead (a feat which wasn't all that outstandingly amazing considering the semi-literate and ultra-superstitious cultural context), it gets worked into creed, repeated over and over, and eventually Paul writes it down, and that's good evidence? So, if I write a story about some dude based on a poem I heard about from a friend, who heard it from his cousin, who heard it from her boyfriend about events that happened two decades ago, would you trust it to be true and accurate even about something important and noteworthy, yet completely believable with no element of supernatural? No? What if it was a ghost story? No? What if it was in an email forward from your mom? Maybe. What if you pray about it and you get a warm fuzzy feeling? Yes! Oh, ok then.
Apparently, it's especially good evidence since it mentions real people, alive at the time it was written, as witnesses and anyone could have checked them out. So therefore, someone must have checked them out and since no-one bothered to contradict it that we know of, it must mean the witnesses cited agreed with what was written. Really? There are chain letters circulating on the internet that are supposed to be quotes from or stories about real people and real events and even include references. Bill Gates said... The Dalai Lama said... etc. etc. Anyone could look them up in a fraction of a second with a Google search. But guess what? These things still circulate for years, are re-posted in blogs and various social media, re-told orally, added to, embellished, etc and BELIEVED, even though literally anyone could fact check in seconds. Very few actually do. And despite there being those who try and correct the record, they barely make a dent in the circulation of these stories because they're good stories that people want to believe. Most of the people passing these things along are reasonably intelligent, certainly more educated than first century Palestinians, and are at least passingly media savvy enough to know that not everything you read is true. But still, they pass it on uncritically. Add onto that the bias of belief and trust. Sure, people COULD have done some fact checking to find out if the preachers in the early Christian movement really did get their story from so-and-so who lives in that town, but why would they? Human nature says they didn't. Yet on this most important matter we are meant to conclude that since nobody in this semi-literate culture wrote down that he talked to Bob and Bob said Paul is full of crap, that it means Bob must have corroborated the story, right?
Lee Strobel spends a lot of his efforts to try and debunk theories (actually they are speculations or at best hypotheses) put forth over the years by scholars and other authors about possible alternative explanations. In most cases he's right, these alternative theories don't make sense. For example, Jesus probably did actually die, he couldn't have just passed out (the swoon theory) etc. This may sound very convincing to one already convinced; oh, so if these speculations by other people aren't right, then by default it must mean that the resurrection story is true, right? This is right in the same vein as saying you can't disprove god, therefore Christianity is right. That argument is probably equally convincing to those who already believe. But anyone with a skeptical mind can see that is illogical. One thing being wrong, doesn't make the alternative automatically true. The only evidence either for or against the resurrection is an interpretation of the bible itself. Short of having technology that allows us to look into the past and view events exactly as they happened, we can never know for certain the entire truth of what went on at this turning point in history.
But what about the witness of the apostles who were martyred for their faith? The argument here - and repeated others - is that they would not have died for something they knew was a lie. First, where is the documentation of any of them being given an ultimatum to denounce the resurrection as a lie or be martyred? You can take a look at a critical examination of the existing evidence (most of it legends written long after the supposed events) here. For most, we don't have any idea how they really died. Even if we had proof that every one of the apostles died professing the resurrection, it would only prove that they had strong faith. We see examples of people willing to die for strong belief all the time. Faith doesn't necessarily mean that their memory or interpretation of events was accurate. Do we know for certain that they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and not a spiritual resurrection? Maybe they saw a man who pretended to be the resurrected Jesus. You don't have to look very far for examples of people who believe they saw things that aren't possible and will swear to their deaths that what they experienced was real. Think alien abductions, ghost encounters, religious experiences of all stripes like appearances of Mary, of saints, and on and on. Put yourself in the shoes on the apostles. Their whole life has just been taken away from them, their world shattered. They are distressed, they are vulnerable, they are praying for a sign. They are also superstitious believers who accept the miraculous as a part of their lives, and interpret what they experience with a bias towards seeing the hand of god in every event. They are already primed, ready to believe, ready to interpret what they experience in light of their beliefs and expectations. They are poor witnesses, as biased as any witness can possibly be. Even if they are completely sincere, their testimony is highly suspect.
According to the bible, there were hundreds of people who saw the resurrected Jesus. This from that creed I mentioned earlier: 1 Corinthians 15: 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)
We know Paul didn't see Jesus in the flesh, but in a vision (Acts 9:3-8) yet in this passage he places his vision on the same footing as the other encounters. Interestingly, this is the only place anywhere that these 500 witnesses are mentioned. Perhaps none were literate enough to write down their encounter with the living lord. Perhaps some did know how to write, but for some reason chose not to. Or maybe they did write, but their testimonies were not considered important enough to ensure they were preserved. Maybe there were some oral traditions regarding this encounter, but no one preserved them. Was it not important enough? Why, if so many people witnessed the resurrected Christ is there so little written about it? Seriously, the son of god rises from the dead and walks around, preaching and teaching to hundreds, and there's barely a handful of accounts written about it? Not even a single story about what happened at this encounter with 500 brothers and sisters. What did they see? What did he say? What did he do? Sure, it's not like there was an army of bloggers or facebookers in Jesus' day to report their encounters for everyone to see, but you would think that something so momentous would have had numerous written accounts circulating. But all we have about this mass appearance is Paul's one-liner. God did not see fit to inspire others to write about this important event. How mysterious of him.
So, all in all, considering the extraordinary claims, I would like extraordinary evidence before I accept this story and revert back to my formerly religious mode of life. But, unfortunately, the best the creator of the universe could manage to provide was an event less well documented than what happens in the locker room after any major league sports game.
Interested in further reading?
Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
The Rest of the Story (1999)Jeffery J. Lowder