Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus

Richard Dawkins, a proponent of the so-called New Atheism movement, once said of the resurrection of Jesus:

It is fundamentally incompatible with the sophisticated scientist . . . it’s so petty, it’s so trivial, it’s so local, it’s so earth-bound, it’s so unworthy of our universe.[1]

But is such cynicism justifiable?

The Christian Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are, self-consciously, historical accounts which mention all manner of details such as specific Roman Governors, ancient customs, and geographical descriptors, many of which are collaborated by other historical sources. The existence of Jesus, his reputation as a teacher and worker of miracles, and his crucifixion by the Romans, are all uncontroversial claims available in non-Christian sources. Josephus, a Jewish historian describes the “surprising feats” of a “teacher” named Jesus.[2] My favourite is the Roman historian Tacitus, who speaks with a Dawkins-like disdain about the Christians whom the Emperor Nero used as a scape-goat during the great fire of Rome:

Nero substituted as culprits, and punished with the upmost cruelty, a class of men, loathed for their vices, whom the crowd styled Christians. Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible and shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.[3]

Nobody can reasonably accuse the Gospels of being mere fairy tale – at least not in their core claims of Jesus’ existence, activities, reputation, and untimely death. So, what do we make of the claim, in each of the four Gospels, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? [4]

Admittedly “resurrection” is an extraordinary claim and requires belief in the supernatural. I am personally convinced that it is more reasonable to believe in the existence of God than not. It seems to me that the material universe could not have come into existence without a prior cause. Given that the universe does indeed exist, the only reasonable explanation is that of an ultimate “unmoved mover.” So, a resurrection from the dead is entirely possible, even if it seems improbable.

To return to the Gospels themselves, it is striking to me that the resurrection narratives are not of a different literary character to the other earlier parts of each respective account – they are written as an integral part of the whole historically grounded description of events associated with Jesus. Personally, I think these resurrection accounts have the ring of authenticity to them for these reasons: (1) the empty tomb; (2) no one was expecting it; and (3) the first witnesses of this unexpected empty tomb were female. But the most compelling reason for me is the credibility of the wide range of people who staked their lives on the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. Frankly, I find them credible. One of the most influential of them was Paul who once opposed Christianity but became its most influential advocate. He writes:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. – 1 Cor. 15:14-25

The first witnesses of the resurrection understood the weight of their claims – they were rational and in the first instance, even sceptical people. But something overcame their scepticism, and it was for them no mere matter of intellectual indulgence but an event that changed their entire lives. I love the analysis offered by a scholar of ancient Judaism and Christianity, Pinchas Lapide, who is not a Christian:

When these peasants, shepherds, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation…If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on auto [self] suggestion or self-deception – without a fundamental faith experience – then this would be a greater miracle then the resurrection itself. In a purely logical analysis, the resurrection of Jesus is ‘the lesser of two evils’ for all those who seek a rational explanation of the worldwide consequences of that Easter Faith.[5]

But there is another layer of credibility to those who claimed to be eyewitnesses to this resurrection – their transformation was so profound that they were willing to suffer for their beliefs. In fact, Paul, and so many of those early followers of Jesus, were killed for what they saw and spoke about. With so little to gain, and everything to lose, what other explanation is there but that Jesus really was resurrected from the dead and seen by many many people?

Historian and Christian apologist John Dickson aptly suggests that there is a “resurrection-shaped dent” in the historical record. For me, this dent is just too large to ignore, and to believe in it is indeed the lesser of the two intellectual evils. In fact, when I go beyond an historical method of inquiry, I discover that the resurrection of Jesus has profound explanatory power for the complex and deep yearning that I have for justice and fulfillment, and for existence beyond the grave – what C.S. Lewis calls “paradise”:

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists.[6]

This desire is answered in the credible claim that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, overthrowing an era of decay and death and inaugurating an existence in which we, and the universe, are being turned the “right side up.”[7]

The weight of history and the otherwise inexplicable transformation of witnesses to the resurrection surely demonstrate the opposite of Dawkins’ claims. Belief in the resurrection is hardly incompatible with reason, nor is it petty or trivial, local or earth-bound. In fact, it is truly worthy of the universe, and the historical record that it explains so well.

[1] Spoken in a debate with John Lennox more than a decade ago.

[2] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64. There is some debate over which aspects of Josephus are authentic but what I have quoted is not disputed.

[3] Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in John Dickson, Investigating Jesus: An Historian Quest (2010), p. 65.

[4] Mark doesn’t quite have a resurrection narrative with 16:9-20 not in the earliest manuscripts, but he does record an empty tomb (16:1-8).

[5] Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (1982), p. 125-126, cited in John Dickson, Life of Jesus (2010), p. 156.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (2013), Kindle, p. 32.

[7] T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, Kindle, loc. 4110.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply