“If Christ has not been raised,” St. Paul told the Christians in Corinth, “then your faith is in vain” (1Cor 15:17). It is the Resurrection of Our Lord that underwrites all that He did and said. It almost goes without saying then that the most effective attack Christianity would be to undermine the certainty of Christ’s Resurrection. Clearly it was the first response of the Jews when they paid the guards stationed at the tomb to claim that Our Lord’s followers came and stole the body (Mt 28:12-13). We should not be surprised when, without fail, each Easter we are met with the latest evidence of finding the tomb of Jesus or a long-lost letter describing where the Apostles laid the body when they stole it. Predictably the “evidence” falls flat upon closer scrutiny, but this doesn’t stop someone from trying again. In their approach however, the debunkers do have one thing right—they treat the Resurrection, not as a matter of faith, but as a true historical event.
This was the approach that St. Paul took as well. In the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, he describes all the witnesses to the Resurrection, most of whom were still alive and could testify to the fact that a man whom they knew to have died, still lived. Certainly, the Corinthians would need to believe their testimony. But the testimony was related to a historical fact, not a matter of belief. In other words, they would need to be convinced that the evidence reasonably led to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead. Can we, nearly 2000 years removed from the historical event, reasonably come to the same conclusion based on the evidence?
First a word about historical evidence. All too oftenthe debunkers say that there are no extra-biblical sources that mention the Resurrection and therefore the New Testament is somehow inadmissible as evidence. Of course the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that there are no extra-biblical sources simply means there are no extra-biblical sources that are sin existence (either because they never existed or because they are lost). One cannot conclude that the Gospels are ahistorical simply because you cannot confirm the historicity of the Resurrection. At best, it is an open question. Although the historical circumstances presented in the Gospels do jibe with other historical facts known from other sources (things like who the rulers were, the mass crucifixion in Galilee, etc.). For that reason, one may reasonably conclude that because they are factually accurate in those things we can check, that they are accurate in those that we can’t.
It is more than just circumstantial evidence however. The fact that we have four different eyewitness accounts written in different places at different times that basically agree with each other is a lot of historical evidence given the time span since the events themselves. The fact that the Gospels were later included in the Christian Scriptures has no bearing on them as historical documents. There is no more reason to think them propaganda material than there is for thinking that Caesar did not cross the Rubicon because it is not mentioned in any other source of the time than the Roman Suetonius’ The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Just as Suetonius’ account (100 years after the event) seems to accurately portray other events we find mentioned in other sources, there is no reason to suppose he made up the part about Caesar crossing the Rubicon because he was a Roman who wanted to put the glory of Rome on display.
We accept Suetonius’ account because it fits with the other evidence and likewise we should accept the Resurrection as a historical event because it fits the evidence. We struggle to defend its historicity because we tend to treat it as a matter of faith and not a historical event.
There first is what we can call the biblical package, which includes the empty tomb and the sightings. These need be a single package because people report seeing departed loved ones all the time. What makes the accounts so powerful is that there is evidence that the tomb the deceased one was buried in was also empty. This biblical evidence was the basis of the early Christian argument for the Resurrection. Yet, no one ever attacked the Christian argument by saying that the tomb was not empty. They may have argued for other reasons why the tomb was empty, but the fact that the tomb He was left in was empty on the first Easter morning was never questioned. A reasonable historian would conclude that the tomb was in fact empty. What remains is the explanation.
The Resurrection as Truth
There is an important point for us to grasp about the Resurrection itself. In the Greco-Roman world the notion of the resurrection of the body was absurd. They thought the body was a prison and something to be escaped rather than something to return to. The resurrection of the body would have been seen as a curse and not a triumph. Most Jews believed in the resurrection of the body, but only “only the last day” as a sign that God’s victory had been won. The idea that a man would rise from the dead before that would have been considered anathema. That is one of the reasons it makes little sense to say that the Apostles made up the story or it was something made up later by the Christian community. Christ’s manner of resurrection would have been wholly unexpected and entirely new.
But this is not the only problem with the clever myth hypothesis. We still have the problem with establishing motive. The Apostles had absolutely nothing to gain by fabricating the story, except the suffering promised the followers of Christ. They stood to gain neither wealth nor power from their testimony. The only plausible explanation is that their motive was because it was true.
All too often one will give a variation on Pascal’s argument “I believe those witnesses that get their throats slit” by saying that no one dies for a lie. But the reasoning is more subtle than that. The witnesses of the Resurrection were all martyred not for sticking to the truth. No, they had seen a man who was dead, conquer death. They were willing martyrs because they all had no fear of death. Their Friend had overcome death and promised them the same.
Why didn’t Christ appear to the powers of the age? Surely He could have appeared before Pilate or the Sanhedrin in His Resurrected state and convinced them all. But that is not what He was about. He was looking not to convince the likes of Pilate and Caiaphas. The Church, that is the extension of the Incarnation through time and space, would need credible witnesses to serve as foundation stones. With Pilate and Caiaphas as witnesses, the Resurrection would become just some unexplained historical event. With Peter, Paul and all the Apostles as witnesses, this tiny group of followers founded a society that has outlasted every earthly kingdom. Surely, that should be a strong reason to take the historical evidence surrounding the Resurrection more seriously as a true historical event.