I have already argued that the early Christians proclaimed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and by that they meant that he had been raised bodily, in space and time. Their proclamation did not concern a mere spiritual or moral reality whereby Jesus “lives on” in spite of the fact that his body was rotting away.
Given that, let’s consider two alternative explanations to the traditional Christian claim that the proclamation of Jesus’ disciples resulted from the historical fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. One explanation is that Jesus’ followers knowingly lied and deceived the world. They stole his body and proclaimed him as risen from the dead, but they were able to conceal the evidence of their conspiracy to such a remarkable degree that they were never found out.
This explanation is ridiculous. It requires us to believe that Jesus’ disciples were evil geniuses, capable of all of the following:
- faking severe distress when their master was arrested and executed
- overcoming trained guards at Jesus’ tomb
- faking exuberant joy when they began proclaiming the message of the resurrection
- holding on to this knowingly fabricated message without wavering in spite of intense persecution, even death.
Think about it. Many people die for lies, but that is because they believe the lies to be true. Very, very, very few people will die for what they know is a lie. And yet, on this theory we must assume that all of Jesus’ disciples who were in on the conspiracy, without exception, went to their deaths without ever spilling the beans. And, in any case, what would be the motive? If this theory is true, it requires us to believe, not that Jesus was an exceptional person, but that his disciples were exceptional: exceptionally clever, skilled, and evil. The idea makes little sense.
Another alternative to the traditional view is that the disciples sincerely believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, but they were simply mistaken. The most common way to explain this is to argue that they hallucinated appearances of Jesus. But while this theory has more plausibility than the former one we considered, it still suffers from serious deficiencies.
First, there is the problem of the actual body of Jesus. Several New Testament documents testify that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. All four Gospels make that claim. Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, while it does not mention the tomb, explicitly says that Jesus was buried. There is no rival story in the early Christian tradition. The body of Jesus was laid in a tomb, according to the historical evidence. Therefore, if the disciples hallucinated appearances of Jesus and began proclaiming that he had been raised, all that the enemies of the church had to do to squash the movement was to produce the body. That would not have been hard to do; they knew where it was (they put guards there!). The fact that the body of Jesus was never produced indicates that more than hallucination was going on in those early days of the church.
Second, the early Christians’ account of what actually happened does not match what we would expect in the case of a hallucination. When people hallucinate, they do so in categories that are already in their heads. But if the disicples hallucinated the resurrection of Jesus, then they created totally new categories of thought in the process. The Jewish expectation was that all of the dead would be raised at once at the end of history. The resurrection of Jesus, however, was that of a single individual in the middle of history. In some sense the end had broken into time. Nothing could have prepared the disciples of Jesus to begin to think in these categories. Had they hallucinated, they probably would have seen Jesus in Heaven at Abraham’s bosom or something to that effect. The fact that they claimed to see him, in the flesh, walking, talking, and eating, makes hallucination highly unlikely. They simply would not have had the mental categories for those kinds of hallucinations.
Therefore, I conclude that all the alternative explanations to the traditional claim that Jesus was, in fact, raised bodily from the dead, have no merit. What this means as an apologetic for Christianity I will explain in part 3c.