Although Jesus wasn’t the only self-professed “Jewish Messiah” traveling around the ancient world, he was the only one to be called Lord after being murdered by the Romans. This is very peculiar fact, in and of itself, one demands an explanation, if not a modern response. N.T. Wright points out that when other Messiah figures were killed by the Romans, their followers made the obvious deduction that they had been mistaken, and that their murdered leader was no Messiah. Why, then, he asks, “did Christianity even begin, let alone continue, as a messianic movement, when its Messiah so obviously not only did not do what a Messiah was supposed to do but suffered a fate which ought to have showed conclusively that he could not possibly have been Israel’s anointed?” Good question!
Of course, the most compelling answer, would be that unlike other so-called Messiahs killed by the Romans, Jesus actually came back to life. While that doesn’t necessarily prove his resurrection happened, it does, mean that belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection dates back to his earliest followers. As a matter of scholarly many think that the resurrection statement, in I Corinthians 15 dates back to within twenty years of Jesus’ life. Some, including Christianity’s arch-critic, Bart Ehrman, put the statement even earlier, to within a few years of his death.
Thus, even in the modern context, it seems quite reasonable to believe two historical facts: (1) That Jesus really died; and (2) That some of his earliest followers were convinced they’d had experiences with his physical body after his death.
Sure, the disciples could have lied. But what would that have gain them? And besides that would have been easily disproved. In the day, Caesar was considered divine, and it wasn’t a safe bet to suggest that he wasn’t — which is why “Jesus is Lord” was such a dangerous creed to adopt. After all, it was a direct challenge to Rome, and it put Christian’s lives in mortal danger. As a matter of fact, most early Christians were slaughtered clinging to stories they would have had to know was nothing but lies?
So, could they have been mistaken? Maybe the Jesus they saw was a hallucination? After all, they would have obviously been distressed from watching their leader brutally murdered. So, it makes sense that they might have experienced some kind of bereavement vision of him. Right? But the ancients had words for those sorts of things: such as, ghosts, apparitions, and spirits. So, when they encountered one of these phenomena, they would have taken that as confirmation that the person they were seeing was in fact dead — not alive!
Of course, there’s always the way of confessing the resurrection that doesn’t require abandoning the metaphysical assumption that miracles don’t happen. That, you believe in the resurrection as a metaphorical event. In other words, Jesus rose again, or so the argument goes, in the hearts of his disciples, but not in reality. We can say that “Christ is alive in our generous and charitable actions.” This does, in a way, affirm the supernatural and yet maintain a modern skepticism. But the problem with seeing the resurrection in this way is that it’s not how the early Christians saw it. Let’s face it, the language of Jesus’ first followers “meant one thing and only one thing — God’s act of raising from physical death.” The Jewish confession of God’s justice was intimately tied to the belief that one day he would bodily raise all the righteous who had previously died (ie., Abraham, David, the prophets), and particularly, the Jewish martyrs who died at the hands of pagans. If God was just, and if he was to make good on the promise that he would recreate the world, then he’d have to raise to life all of the righteous who had died so they could enjoy a new earth, in which justice would rush down like waters. Within this theological framework, the claim that Jesus was raised would’ve been spoken and heard to mean something physical had happened to his dead body.
A final objection, perhaps the most common, is that miracles simply don’t happen, and therefore this one didn’t happen. But good luck proving that! The Enlightenment scientism that made no room for God is increasingly being rejected by a culture that realizes there’s more to the universe than what meets the eye. If you start with the assumption that God does not exist, then you might not make it to the resurrection. But if your worldview allows for the possibility of a God who is very interested in justice being brought about in our physical world, then something like the resurrection of Jesus becomes at least a necessity.
C.S. Lewis once famously remarked that he believed in Christianity just like he believed in the sun: “Not only because I see it,” he said, “but because by it I see everything else.” That’s how I see Jesus’ resurrection; not so much an event I look at, as an event I look through. For me, it remains the interpretive key to the entire universe. And though it might seem improbable and primitive, we’re all aware that the idea is written large across both our imaginations and even the cosmos. Each morning, the sun is reborn; each spring, harvests come back to life; after each disappointment, our dashed hopes are reanimated, and soar to even newer heights. For all the death and evil and greed and ugliness of our world, I can’t shake the fact that every last atom of this place is pulsing in time with the rhythm of resurrection.
Are there good historical reasons to believe Jesus rose bodily from the dead? I think there are. But at the same time, I think Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose philosophical work reveals the way language shapes our knowledge of the world, was on to something when he said, “It is love that believes the resurrection.”
Based on the article “Why I Shouldn’t Believe in the Resurrection, But Do” by BRANDON AMBROSINO, Daily Beast, 04.05.15 3:45 AM ET