Something happened in first-century Israel. That history forever bent around that particular time and place is historically undeniable. A pebble was dropped into a pond, one that is still producing ripples thousands of years and thousands of miles away.
But what exactly happened? The question demands a response because how we answer it makes all the difference in the world. We cannot be apathetic historians in this regard. Every single person who considers this question has a personal interest in its answer. Eternal life and death, heaven and hell, hang in the balance.
How did some small sect in a virtually abandoned outpost of Rome change the world? What cataclysmic event could have possibly changed everything?
Beginning in Jerusalem and expanding outward, a group of men and women spread throughout the Roman Empire with a message. The gospel they carried was not merely “God loves you” or “believe in God.” The proclamation of early Christians was that Jesus of Nazareth was the appointed and awaited Christ, and that this claim was irrefutably confirmed by the fact of His resurrection. Whether we believe this or not changes everything.
The early Church primarily proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is the central message of Acts and is the foundation for the writing of the Gospels and Epistles. It is also well attested in the early non-canonical writings of Christians. Though we don’t have a great deal of external (non-biblical) evidence, what we do have tells a consistent story.
Why don’t we have much non-Christian evidence? We should note that objective history didn’t exist in that time and place (if ever it does). There was no newspaper or blog to simply and objectively “report the news.” There are dozens of logical reasons for why early historians might have chosen not to write about what they considered to be the myth of the resurrection. Perhaps they feared by reporting and preserving the story they might give a legend further traction and trajectory. Perhaps they intentionally suppressed such reports to limit the spread of ideas that were ripping apart their religions and realm.
The biblical and non-biblical, Christian and non-Christian, evidence that we do have demonstrates that the early Church at least believed that Christ rose from the dead.
So, did He?
Either He did and we have the foundation of the faith, or He didn’t and Christianity is completely and utterly useless (1 Cor. 15). These are really our only options.
Though we cannot prove that Jesus rose from the dead by the use of logic, we can certainly demonstrate that the resurrection is at least the most logical conclusion and the best resolution of the historical data. And though logic alone won’t convince a heart that Christ is the risen Lord, who knows what the Spirit will use?
Something happened to the body of Jesus of Nazareth. The claims of the resurrection could be easily dismissed if Jesus’ body still lay in the tomb. This is not you forgetting where you laid your keys; this is a movement for which proponents were willing to die and opponents were willing to kill. It is absurd at best to suppose that early Christians, Romans and Jews simply forgot to check the grave.
The body of the one man who claimed that He would rise from the dead was missing.
So, if the body wasn’t there, what happened to it? The biblical answer is obvious, but let us weigh carefully the other options. If Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead, it stands to reason that someone or something must have stolen the body. But who or what?
Option 1: An animal stole the body.
This view fails to account for the type of burial seen in historical data from that period. Men and women were not buried in shallow dirt graves easily accessible to scavengers but rather in rocky tombs without entrances or exits large enough for an animal to remove a body.
Option 2: The Romans or Jews stole the body.
To suggest that the opponents of Christianity stole Christ’s body is nonsensical. The Christian sect was ripping apart both the Roman Empire and Jewish tradition. Is it really reasonable to suggest that the authorities would have failed to produce the body and end the resurrection myth if they possessed the body?
Option 3: The disciples stole the body.
This is perhaps the strongest option at first glance. We can imagine a strong desire on the part of Jesus’ followers to continue the movement that was swelling at His death. If the apostles had lived subsequent lives of luxury and ease, this might be a logical conclusion, but that is not the case. We do not see the apostles kicking back on a beach, selling prayer towels and living off the royalties of the gospels and epistles. Instead we see dozens who willingly face horrific torture for the sake of the gospel. They are sawn in two, tossed to beasts, crucified and quartered, beaten, beheaded, boiled and burned alive. Is it really reasonable to think that they would have willingly suffered such treatment for a lie? Lots of people die for lies, but not for what they know to be a lie. That is what this option would require, and it too demands a stretch if not suspension of logic.
We could go on with other theories. Perhaps He wasn’t dead in the first place. Do we really think that Roman executioners were that incompetent? Perhaps random grave robbers took the body. Is it possible? Yes. Is it plausible? Just a bit more plausible than saying that aliens took the body. Is it really logical to think that random grave robbers pulled off the greatest prank the world has ever known and then disappeared into obscurity, content with anonymously changing the entire course of history?
We can make up all kinds of theories, but in the end, the resurrection remains the most rational contender. Though other theories for what happened in the first century are possible, none are as plausible as Jesus Christ actually rising from the dead.
When the Impossible is Logical
The Christian faith is founded upon the belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Christians cannot prove that fact with scientific precision. But neither can we prove that Lincoln was president, Napoleon ever existed or millions of other historical facts. History is not science. By its very nature, it is immeasurable and unrepeatable. We believe in historical events because the weight of historical evidence leads us to conclude with relative certainty that they are historical realities. Quite simply, they are more reasonable to suppose than the alternatives.
Likewise, the weight of historical evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming. We can choose to reject the resurrection, but not on the basis of logic and historical evidence. The resurrection may be implausible, indeed, impossible from a scientific perspective. But its impossibility is not a problem for Christianity; it is the very point. God has done something miraculous that simply cannot happen otherwise.
If the impossible is possible, imagine the possibilities. If God can raise Christ from the dead, then He can raise us from death. If God can raise Christ from the dead, then death itself has been defeated!
If you battle skepticism about this central claim of Christianity, don’t hide from your doubts. Seek out answers. A blog post can do only a limited job of addressing potential objections and questions. My encouragement is simply that there are good answers out there, and the fact that you might not have yet encountered them isn’t evidence that they don’t exist. Keep searching.
Below are a few works that could be particularly useful in your endeavor for truth.