This past Sunday a friend of mine (David—he’s also my pastor) told a quick story. He recalled a time not too long ago when he was talking to an atheist, someone who denies the existence of God. He asked David what it would take for him to give up his faith.
What would it take, David, to say the good news about Jesus is not true?
David’s answer was simple: the resurrection. You’d have to prove that the resurrection didn't happen. If someone could find the bones of Jesus somewhere, then Christians would be wasting their time.
Think about how much this would undercut Christianity: not only would the Bible be a sham, but so would Jesus. He told his followers (a few times) that he would rise from the dead. So if Jesus is still dead somewhere, the faith that billions of people have had over the past 2,000 years would be pointless. Paul, one of the authors of the Bible, says the same thing: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15.17).
And to be transparent for a moment, that makes sense. David is weird, isn't he? Isn’t it sort of senile to believe in a dead man getting up to walk again? In the days of The Walking Dead, we’re more likely to believe in zombies than a person who has been brutally murdered and then suddenly comes alive, completely healed and conscious, having conversations and eating fish for breakfast on a lakeshore.
Science doesn’t allow for the resurrection of Jesus, right? And perhaps more than science is our experience: have you ever seen, or even heard of, someone being raised from the dead? Sure, we have heard really cool stories of a heart that stopped beating start again. But that’s different. Jesus was reportedly dead on Friday and alive on Sunday. That’s three days. That never happens—like ever. Millions upon millions of people can’t believe in the resurrection simply because it's not something they’ve seen in their own lives, in their own experience.
Fair enough. I honestly can’t blame the skeptics all that much. It’s a decent point. But a really important question remains.
Why do Christians still say Jesus is alive? Why have Christians for thousands of years defended the resurrection? Surely they must be ignorant. (In fact, one of the common diagnoses of Christians is just that—they are ignorant people who refuse to face the facts.) Surely they must be senile. Surely they must be the victims of a mass delusion.
What led those earliest of Christians—those who actually walked around with Jesus in Galilee, who saw him pinned to that Roman cross—to believe, promote, and preach that Jesus was truly alive?
Answering this question is massive. There are two groups of people that matter here: Jews and Greeks. It was women and men within these two ethnic groups that first embraced the Christian message about Jesus’ death and his resurrection. That alone is fascinating. You see, both Jews and Greeks at the time of Jesus already had views about the plausibility of human resurrection.
Here’s a summary. For Greeks, there were three main prevailing views of life after death. First were those who followed Homer: they believed that when we die, the human becomes a disembodied, “witless” spirit destined to roam Hades. This was some gloomy experience of the Underworld where souls were in continual darkness. So for Homerians, resurrection wasn’t even a consideration. We lose our bodies after death; therefore, Jesus couldn’t be alive in a restored body.
Second are the Epicureans, who believed the soul just ceased to exist after death. (This is a common view today too.) We die and that’s it. Resurrection isn’t possible for an Epicurean. We vanish at death, period.
And third are those who follow Plato’s views. Plato separated the soul from the body: the soul was good and the body was bad. The soul was immaterial and eternal, the body was material and temporal. So for Platonists, death was a good thing. We are finally free of this body and we’ll live in a delightful Hades where we’ll enjoy an intellectual experience without any physical hindrances. (I am indebted to Jonathan Dodson’s Raised? for these succinct summaries of Greek philosophies of the afterlife).
Overall, Greeks didn’t believe in an embodied afterlife. For Jesus to rise from the dead in his physical body is neither possible or desirable. Why would Jesus want to be raised from the dead? That would be the hang up for many Greeks.
Jews were different. They believed in the resurrection of the body. The Old Testament describes a grand-scale resurrection at the end of history, where everyone will stand before God to be judged: some will be awakened to eternal life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (see Daniel 12). Alongside this resurrection is also the restoration of the world: the Jews knew the world is broken. God was going to restore all things at the end of time, including humanity.
So Jews were okay with the concept of resurrection, but they had a big problem with Jesus’ resurrection. If Jesus resurrected, he did so at the wrong time: humanity was supposed to be raised at the end of time, not in the middle of history. Even more, what about everyone else? If resurrection was a worldwide event that included every human and the restoration of the physical world, why was Jesus being raised early and why was there still brokenness in the world?
You see, for a first century Jew, Jesus’ resurrection didn’t make sense. It was unthinkable. As Paul wrote, the Christian message of Jesus’ death and resurrection was a “stumbling block” for Jews (1 Cor 1.23).
Both Greeks and Jews didn’t see Jesus’ resurrection as possible. Centuries and centuries of long held beliefs didn't allow for Jesus to really be alive in a human body.
And yet thousands of Jews and Greeks, with their cultural and philosophical convictions all around them, suddenly embraced the reality of the resurrection.
As Jonathan Dodson writes, “On a dime, they converted to faith in a resurrected Christ.” This is worth considering. Both Jewish and Roman historians record Jews and Greeks embracing the Christian faith: an illogical and life-threatening abandonment of their cultural belief structures to follow this reportedly and self-proclaimed raised-to-life carpenter.
So what accounts for this shift? What could have possibly happened to make these women and men risk their reputations, their jobs, their status within their families and society at large?
Could it be that Jesus actually did rise? Perhaps those early men and women saw him alive again. Or maybe they heard from someone else who saw him. Why else would they drastically switch? There was absolutely no political, societal, or familial advantage to doing so.
Maybe, just maybe, he actually rose.
Now to the skeptic, to the man or woman who is a little frustrated at reading this, I am not trying to force you to believe in the resurrection. Not at all. Doubt is not something that disappears after reading a second-rate blog. All I ask is to consider. Consider that history—not even the Bible per se—records this dramatic shift of allegiance. This sudden following and deep-seeded belief in a resurrected Jesus has to be accounted for. Hopefully what it does is allow for the possibility of the resurrection. Think back to David: is he weird? Absolutely. So is every other Christian out there. But they are not alone in their ‘weird-ness’: in fact, they are some of the many that have considered the plausibility and likelihood of a resurrected King of all. And I must stand with them. Jesus is alive—and that changes everything.