What really happened on the first Easter, when Christians claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead?
Most skeptics assume that the complete burden of proof for this claim is on Christianity. From all that we know about life, history, biology, and so forth, dead people don’t come back to life again. Therefore, it is extremely unlikely that Jesus came back to life a few days after being crucified by Roman soldiers almost two thousand years ago, and Christians need to come up with some sort of extraordinary proof for their extraordinary claim.
It turns out that a lot of Christians also assume that the responsibility for demonstrating the reality of the resurrection is on our side, but Timothy Keller, in The Reason for God (chapter 13 — The Reality of the Resurrection) offers a different perspective:
Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. That is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation of the birth of the church. You have to provide some other plausible account for how things began.
There is plenty of good evidence that that something incredible happened sometime shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Here are some historical events that are near certain and not widely contested among scholars, including non-believing ones:
- Jesus was crucified by the Romans, leading to his death.
- He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy Jewish leader.
- A guard was placed at the tomb; probably a Roman guard.
- A few days later, the tomb was empty.
- The first witnesses of of the empty tomb were women.
- The Jewish leaders bribed the soldiers to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body.
- No one had the body.
- The disciples of Jesus were not expecting a resurrection, and there was nothing in Jewish, Greek, or Roman culture that would have caused them to hope for the resurrection of their leader.
- The disciples were soon convinced that Christ indeed had risen from the dead.
- The resurrection of Christ was a central teaching of Christianity from the very beginning, and this belief had a profound effect on Jesus’ followers.
Skeptics (1st century through 21st century) have devised a number of devices in their attempt to explain away the resurrection:
- Christ didn’t exist (sort of like saying Julius Caesar didn’t exist).
- Christ wasn’t crucified (doesn’t explain the origin of Christianity and its central teachings involving the death and resurrection of Christ).
- Christ didn’t die; he passed out on the cross, and recovered over the next few days (and appeared as the risen Lord of the universe?).
- The disciples were gullible (people back then were not much different from people now; they knew that dead people don’t come back to life just as much as you or I do).
- The disciples went to the wrong tomb (and so did the women, and the Jewish leaders, and the Romans, etc.)
- The disciples stole the body (and then preached with conviction that Christ was risen, and endured persecution, hardship, loss of families and property, were thrown in jail, and eventually were executed for their steadfast proclamation of what they knew was a lie).
- The disciples had a mass hallucination (uh huh).
- The resurrection story evolved over a period of decades or centuries (the earliest Christian writings, written within as little as twenty years after the earthly life of Christ, included the resurrection of Christ as a central teaching, giving no time for embellishment or evolution of the story).
Keller continues later in his chapter on the resurrection:
It is not enough for the skeptic, then, to simply dismiss the Christian teaching about the resurrection of Jesus by saying, “It just couldn’t have happened.” He or she must face and answer all these historical questions: Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power? No other band of messianic followers in that era concluded their leader was raised from the dead—why did this group do so? No group of Jews ever worshipped a human being as God. What led them to do it? Jews did not believe in divine men or individual resurrections. What changed their worldview virtually overnight? How do you account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their belief?
Adherence to Christianity, with its belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, is by no means an irrational endeavor. There is certainly a considerable element of faith for the Christian, in that one cannot prove that Christ rose from the dead, any more than one can prove that George Washington was president of the United States. But the Christian faith is not a blind-leap-in-the-dark sort of faith; it is firmly grounded in a historical event: the resurrection of Christ. Christians have a number of good reasons to believe that Christ did indeed rise from the dead, and objections to this claim are not nearly as strong as many make them out to be.
So, what really happened on the first Easter? I am convinced that the best answer to this important question is “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
Grace and Peace