Today, billions of people around the world are celebrating a birth: the birth of a Palestinian Jew, named Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a nice story. A baby. Shepherds. Angels. Hope. Stargazing wise men may have believed it 2000 years ago. But can we really take it seriously? Or is Christianity – as today’s top cosmologist, Stephen Hawking puts it – “A fairy story for people afraid of the dark?”
The tip of the iceberg
If we find Jesus’s nativity implausible, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The transformation promised by angels at Jesus’ birth was not accomplished only through the birth and earthly ministry of a charismatic teacher from the far reaches of the Roman empire. It was accomplished by his death, and pointedly, by his resurrection from the grave.
Resurrection? Is the concept even intellectually responsible in the 21st century? After all, we know that when human respiration stops, carbon dioxide is not carried out to the body’s cells. This causes intracellular membranes to rupture releasing enzymes that begin to digest the cells. Death = decomposition = dirt. This is simple reality. It happened to all our forebears, and it will happen to all of us. To suggest that the process was somehow different—reversed or subverted—for one individual seems absurd. Again, Stephen Hawking expresses it well: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers.”
If there is nothing beyond the material stuff of this world, then the concept of “resurrection” is ludicrous. However, if there is a God who created the universe, the question is not whether it is possible for God to perform a miracle and raise someone from the dead. The question is whether the resurrection of Jesus is historically plausible.
Sifting the evidence
Ancient historians drool over the comparative wealth of written sources about Jesus, relative to most other historical figures. But, as with any other historical question from the distant past, we have to evaluate how reliable our sources are. We have to look for corroborations from different sources. We have to recognize the biases that these sources might have and to adjudicate between conflicting claims. This is simply the nature of historical reconstruction.
Unfortunately, this can trip people up as they try to sort through the evidence. One common problem, particularly in the blogosphere, is to interpret conflicting written testimony to mean that an episode did not take place. For instance, the gospel of John says that there was a single woman who was the first to see Jesus’ empty tomb. The gospel of Mark indicates that there were three women. Because these two sources do not line up, some conclude, the story of the empty tomb must be fiction. But that is poor methodology and a specious conclusion.
Consider the following: Some sources indicate that Alexander the Great died in agony from poisoning in 323 BC. Others report that he died in agony of natural causes and don’t specify when. Despite these discrepancies, we don’t conclude that the reports are fabrications or that Alexander didn’t die in 323 BC, or that he didn’t die in agony, or that he didn’t die at all. Instead, we look at each source carefully and reconstruct the most likely scenario given the nature of the competing claims.
Another common mistake – made by internet amateurs and scholars alike – is to over-interpret historical silence. In the case of Jesus, the mistake goes something like this:
Surely, if Jesus was the Son of God and did all those amazing things, and was raised from the dead to boot, Roman historians from his time period would have written a lot about him.
This is the wrong conclusion for two reasons. First, no Roman historical writing from the mid-first century has been preserved. We know that it was being written because some of it is quoted in later sources, but we just don’t have access to it. Second, Romans considered Christianity to be a superstition, an unlawful cult. In general, Roman historians didn’t have much interest in curiosities occurring around the Empire. They tended to write about the lives of the emperors, the battles being fought, natural disasters, or political intrigues.
So with these brief comments about interpreting history, let me begin laying out my case for the historical plausibility of the resurrection.
What do we know?
There is a significant amount of historical information written about Jesus. However, nearly all the early written evidence comes from Christian sources. This raises important methodological considerations about where the history ends and the theology begins in these texts. Regardless, most people agree that the historical record is quite strong on the following eight points.
- Jesus was born in ancient Palestine.
- He became known for his healing and teaching activities.
- He clashed with the religious establishment of Jerusalem and was crucified by the Romans.
- He was given a dignified burial.
- His tomb was found empty.
- Many people experienced visions of him after his death including his closest student Peter, ten of the other disciples, his brother James, and a large number of his other followers.
- He was worshipped as God soon after his death
- Belief about him as a divine savior who had been resurrected spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire. (Note that Paul writes of the resurrection in all of his earliest existing letters — I Thessalonians, Galatians and I Corinthians– which were likely composed in 50-53 CE.)
While these points are widely accepted, how to interpret them, particularly the last four, is the crux of the issue. How do you account for an empty tomb? Was it due to a resurrection? Or was the body stolen? Or was Jesus not really dead at all, but awoke in the tomb and got out somehow? How do you account for the visions? Were they subjective (akin to hallucinations) or objective observances of a person who rose from the dead? Why did the original followers, who were raised in a fiercely monotheistic environment, come to accept Jesus as divine?
For me, the resurrection is a plausible way to answer all these questions. It has explanatory scope (i.e. it accounts for the agreed upon facts) and it has explanatory power (the facts are accounted for in a non-arbitrary manner). Indeed, it only requires one external hypothesis: that there is a God who can perform miracles.
And then one must consider the impact of the resurrection on subsequent world history. This minor, Jewish sect has swept across the globe in the last two millennia to become the most widespread and multi-cultural belief system ever seen. And while it’s easy for those of us living in the west to imagine that Christianity is in decline, that view is untenable if you take a global perspective.
Fairy story or true myth?
In a western university setting, belief in God can seem terribly far-fetched, let alone belief in the resurrection. Surely we are too educated, too modern, too scientific to need such ideas to make sense of our reality! Perhaps the story of Jesus – the light of the world, sent to serve the poor, heal the sick, raise the dead, love the lonely, and pay for the sin that separates us from our Creator – is a comforting story for people afraid of the dark. I do not deny that. But Oxford professor, C. S. Lewis, put my own view best. When he was 33 and already an established literary scholar, he came to this realization: “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.”
Lindsay Whaley is a Professor of Mathematics and Linguistics at Dartmouth College and a Veritas Riff Fellow.