Whenever I begin to wonder if there really is an invisible, perfect Creator worthy of worship (which thought, I assure you, can cross the most devout minds), I return to the proof that I have made my lodestar.
Everyone probably has something that is a reminder of the truth of their belief in God: Paul had his road to Damascus, others look at creation itself, some have personal miracles. Like many others, I look back to the event in history that validates the claims of the first-century rabbi that He was the long-awaited messiah: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Skeptics, of course, decry the lack of scientific proof. People are not resurrected from the dead. Ergo, no proof. But, you, my astute reader, know that no historic event can be proven scientifically. All history (at least before the advent of cameras) could only be testified to. All history is based on records written by others who claim to be telling us the truth. We have to judge if the testimonies we have are believable.
From the very first, even from people who were living at the time, alternative theories have been offered for the empty tomb. In fact, can we even be sure the tomb was empty? Was it a conspiracy? Was it a mass delusion? Did Jesus even really die? Are there answers to these questions? Can we know the truth about something that happened 2000 years ago? Why yes, you can.
The definitive response to all these challenges and more is found in a brilliant 2003 book by N.T.Wright: The Resurrection of the Son of God (Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 3). It is an 800-page tome that recounts and counters every possible claim that there was no resurrection. If you can persevere through it, you will be forever convinced that the thing that does not happen did in fact happen: a man came back from the dead.
Wright tackles two main questions: What did the early Christians think had happened and can we find those beliefs plausible?
On the first question, many scholars have proposed that early Christians did not believe that Jesus had actually come bodily out of the grave. Rather, these scholars say, early Christians believed in a spiritual resurrection. The idea of a bodily resurrection was added by later writers. Other scholars say the whole idea of the resurrection is a spiritual question and cannot be answered by historical inquiry. Others say that the disciples borrowed the idea of a risen savior from the pagan religions and foisted if off on gullible followers. And other theories posit that a mass-delusion engulfed believers. Wright exhaustively explores what seems like every major scholar’s objection and defines the ranges and implication of every question. Though he is thorough and this is a scholarly work, this book is very readable and even humorous at times.
One of Wright’s first explanations invokes the sentence “I’m mad about my flat.” He makes the point that to understand this statement, one would need to know if the speaker were American or British. If the former, the person is upset about a tire puncture. If the latter, the person is delighted with his living quarters. So if we are to understand the sentence “Jesus was raised from the dead on the third day,” we have to understand what the speakers themselves may have meant, which Wright exhaustively explains.
One of the main points Wright makes is that the first followers of Jesus were not expecting a physical resurrection. The Resurrection did not fulfill some cultic hope that the disciples propagated to gullible believers. Wright drolly notes, that
The discovery that dead people stayed dead was not first made by the philosophers of the Enlightenment.
The first-century Christians may have been “pre-scientific,” but they weren’t stupid. They were no more expecting that a man could come out of sealed tomb after three days of being dead than we would. And as Wright makes his point with fact after fact, he uses this to show that the testimonies of these first disciples are the testimonies of men and women who saw something they had no expectation of seeing. They had no ultimate plan of promulgating the idea of a resurrected savior to others and starting a major religion. After seeing the crucifixion and fleeing for their own lives, they were as surprised as anyone when the saw their leader again.
So you have probably gotten the idea that this book is a major slog. It is long. It is footnoted. It is exhaustive. But if you want to know the answer to every conceivable objection to the belief in the resurrection of Jesus and to be thoroughly convinced of its historicity, then take the journey and read the book. You will be amply rewarded for your efforts. And you will never be flummoxed by any half-baked or even thoroughly baked argument disputing this reality again.
He is risen. He is risen, indeed!