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    No Resurrection, No Christianity

 

The passages below are taken from John Young with David Wilkinson’s book “The Case Against Christ” first published in 1986. This edition is 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton.

 

There exists such overwhelming evidence, positive and negative, factual and circumstantial, that no intelligent jury in the world could fail to bring in the verdict that the resurrection story is true.

              Lord Darling, former Lord Chief Justice of England

 

     A story is told about Talleyrand, a leading statesman during the French Revolution. He was approached by a dejected friend seeking advice. His friend had attempted to found a new religion. It was, he said, a considerable improvement on Christianity, but his best efforts had met with little success. What should he do?

     Talleyrand paused. He agreed that the difficulties were formidable; so great that he hardly knew what to advise. `Still,' he mused `there is one plan which you might at least try. Why don't you get yourself crucified, and then rise again on the third day?'

 

          * * *

 

     Christians believe that this is precisely what did happen 2,000 yeas ago. In this chapter we shall examine some of the evidence for the extraordinary claim. But before we do so, two preliminary comments.

 

1. Christianity stands or falls with this

 

     Resurrection is not simply one aspect of Christianity. We cannot remove that piece of the Christian jigsaw labelled `resurrection', and leave anything which is recognisable as the Christian Faith. We destroy the entire picture. For Jesus himself, his cross, and his resurrection from the dead are the three foundation stones on which Christianity rests.

     People sometimes say, `I'm not bothered about questions like: did Jesus rise from the dead? We've got his marvellous teaching. Surely that's what really counts.' This 'let's-concentrate-on-his-teaching' approach is attractive. But it misses the point. For without his resurrection, it is extremely unlikely that we would have his teaching---or anything else in the New Testament. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey put it: `No resurrection; no Christianity.'

     In the early church there was no preaching of Jesus except as risen Lord. Nor could there be. For without the apostles' conviction that they had encountered Jesus alive again after his death, there would have been no preaching at all.

     There would have been deep mourning for a lost friend. There would have been great admiration for a dead hero. No doubt his profound teaching would have been remembered and cherished by his small, loyal circle of followers. But within a few generations he would have been forgotten.

     Of course, movements do grow and develop after the founder's death; we have ample evidence of this. It happens when the founder's followers are in a buoyant frame of mind---for everything depends on their `get-up-and-go'. After Jesus' death, his disciples had just about enough get-up-and-go to restart their fishing business!

 

2. Assessing the evidence is like detective work

     No one claims to have witnessed the resurrection. There were people on the spot soon afterwards, but nobody claimed that they saw God raise him up. Sorting out what happened is rather like investigating a murder. But in reverse.

     When Miss Marple helps the police she has to work with a series of clues. A body is found. No one saw the murder take place, but certain other related facts come to light. The butler was the long-lost illegitimate son of the victim; a bloodstained candelabra was found nearby; a maid's fingerprints were on the wallet... Miss Marple helps the detectives, and then the lawyers and a jury, discover the most likely explanation for these facts. The case is decided if the explanation for each of the facts, or clues, points in the same direction.

     It is the same with the resurrection of Jesus, except that the problem is reversed. We are dealing, not with a corpse, but with someone said to have come alive from the dead. No one saw what happened to the body. But certain other related facts came to light---facts which demand an explanation just as much as the candelabra and the fingerprints in the murder case.

     We shall examine twelve such facts, and try to find the most likely explanation for each of them.

 

First fact: Jesus died as a young man

     Very few people have founded a great movement, and made a really decisive impact on history. Each of them needed time in which to make their influence felt. Each of them---except Jesus. For example:

 

·        Confucius (The great Chinese teacher) Died in 479 BC, aged 72;

·        Gautama the Buddha (Founder of Buddhism) Died in 483 BC, aged 80;

·        Muhammad (Founder of Islam) Died in AD 632, aged 62;

·        Karl Marx (The great mind behind Communism) Died in 1883, aged 64.

 

     Now compare and contrast Jesus Christ. He died around AD 30, as a young man in his thirties. He spent only three years in the public, eye, and those were spent in a fairly remote place. When he died he left no writing, and only a few dispirited, demoralised followers.

     Yet the impact of Jesus on history has been at least as great as that of the great men listed above. We don't set aside one day in the year to remember him by, as with most other great figures. We base our whole calendar on his life. Every time we write the date we pay an unconscious tribute to his birth. The essayist R W Emerson could say that the name of Jesus `is not so much written, as ploughed, into the history of the world'.

     Professor Hans Kung sums up like this:

 

None of the great founders of religions lived in so restricted an area. None lived for such a terribly short time. None died so young. And yet how great his influence has been ... Numerically, Christianity is well ahead of all world religions.

 

     This is a fact that demands an explanation. How could this village carpenter-turned-preacher make such a colossal impact, given his short life?

     Leaders do continue to exert influence on the world after their death, in two ways: through their writings, and through their followers. Jesus left no writings. True, his short earthly life made a powerful impact on his disciples. But this was largely cancelled out by the shattering blow caused by his early death. So how did he exercise such a massive and growing influence? The New Testament answer is that Jesus really did die on the cross---but God raised him from the dead. So Jesus is alive and he continues to influence events in the world even today, by his Spirit.

     When we read of a satellite circling the earth, we know that it was not the explosion of a firework which put it there. A big fact requires a big explanation. The same is true here. The continuing influence of Jesus, the astonishing transformation in the disciples, and the beginning of the Christian movement that sprang from this, are `big' facts. They require a sufficiently `big' explanation. Resurrection is exactly the right size.

     The mathematical physicist John Polkinghorne reflects on the remarkable rise of the early church and concludes:

 

Something happened to bring it about. Whatever it was it must have been of a magnitude commensurate with the effect it produced. I believe that was the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

 

Second fact: Several people claimed that they saw the risen Lord

     One Easter Sunday, a minister ate a daffodil halfway through his sermon. If young Jason told his mum about this, she might well think that he was winding her up.

     It was an unusual event. We do not readily accept such a report on the evidence of a single witness. But if the 300 people in church that morning all claimed that they saw the same thing, what then? To disbelieve Jason Brown might be sensible scepticism. To disbelieve the 300 would be unreasonable doubt. (Warning to reader---eating daffodils will make you sick, as the vicar discovered later that Easter Sunday!)

     The apostle Paul wrote a letter to the Christians in the Greek town of Corinth, about twenty-five years after the death of Jesus. In this letter he gave a list of people who claimed that they had seen the Lord, very much alive, after his death on the cross.

     James was one. Peter was another. It would be unreasonable not to believe in their integrity, for their teaching and writing were of the highest moral calibre. Besides, they were prepared to suffer and die for their beliefs (see Fact 3). Then there was the group of five hundred. Paul reminded his readers that most of these were still alive when he wrote. Their testimony could easily be checked.

     We are right to view a report that someone has risen from the dead with deep suspicion. But if enough people claim to have seen him, and if other evidence points in the same direction, the situation changes. A continuing refusal to believe does not display a healthy suspicion about an unusual happening; it displays a refusal to face facts.

     In his book Jesus Christ: The Witness of History Professor Sir Norman Anderson recorded a striking example of this. He related a conversation with a professor of philosophy, who agreed that the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is strong. But he refused to accept the evidence because `it simply could not have happened'!

 

Third fact: The disciples suffered for their preaching

     The men who deserted Jesus to save their own skins went into hiding. Then, a few weeks later, they began preaching to large crowds in public spaces. They declared that God had raised Jesus from the dead. This was extremely dangerous. Yet they were the same men who had been crushed and shattered by his crucifixion. They were the same men who had met in secret. But they were very different same men!

     In place of bitter disappointment there was joyful conviction; in place of fear there was boldness; instead of hiding behind locked doors, they were out preaching to the crowds; instead of thinking gloomily that their leader was dead, they proclaimed that he had conquered death.

     In other words, they were transformed. The question is: What transformed them? They claimed that it was because God had raised Jesus from the dead. Were they right? Were they mistaken? Or were they guilty of the greatest fraud in history?

     An invention? They had a motive for lying---to rescue the good name of their beloved teacher. We can imagine them plotting: `Let's steal the body, and say that God has raised him from the dead.'

     This neat solution founders on one fact. History teaches us that people will suffer for deeply held convictions. No one's prepared to suffer for something they've cooked up. We tell lies to get out of trouble, not to get into it! The whip and the sword soon uncover inventions. Besides, liars don't usually write sublime and challenging moral literature like the New Testament.

 

                   * * *

 

     The willing suffering of the disciples also rules out the `swoon' theory. According to this, Jesus didn't die on the cross. Despite terrible wounds, he recovered in the tomb, and escaped. The disciples either nursed him back to health, or tried to and failed.

     This theory bristles with problems. Roman soldiers knew when a man was dead; and the tomb was guarded. But if we allow for a moment that this might have happened, the events which follow simply don't fit.

     Jesus would have cheated death; he would not have conquered it. No doubt the disciples would have been delighted. But they would have kept the whole thing very quiet. Publicity and preaching would have been fatal, for they would have resulted in a search. The authorities would not have made a second mistake.

     Besides, to preach that God had raised Jesus from the dead which is exactly what they did preach---would have been a lie. We are back where we started. The lash, the dungeon and the sword would soon have loosened their tongues. People will suffer and die for their convictions, but not for their inventions.

 

Fourth fact: Hallucinations need certain conditions

     One thing is certain. The first disciples passionately believed that Jesus had been raised from the grave and had appeared to them. Were they mistaken? Perhaps they saw a ghost, or suffered from hallucinations?

     Well, if it was a disembodied spirit, vision or a ghost, it spent a lot of time and energy trying to persuade them that it wasn't! The risen Lord had extraordinary powers of appearance and disappearance. Nevertheless, the disciples were soon convinced that he had a real, physical body, albeit remarkably transformed. They ate with him and touched him---and they concluded that God had raised him from the dead.

 

                *  *  *

 

     Perhaps the disciples were suffering from hallucinations? At first sight this seems more likely. But when we compare the factors involved in hallucinations with the appearances recorded in the Gospels, they don't fit either. For one thing, hallucinations happen to individuals. Several people in a group---under the influence of drugs, for example---might hallucinate together. But they will experience different hallucinations, for these arise from the subconscious mind, and every person's subconscious is as individual as their fingerprints.

     If these appearances were not inventions or delusions, it is hard to escape the logical conclusion. As the theologian John Robinson put it:

 

HE came to them ... Jesus was not a dead memory but a living presence, making new men of them.

 

Fifth fact: They preached resurrection, not resuscitation or survival

     Professor James Dunn underlines this point in The Evidence for Jesus. Throughout history, including Jewish history, extraordinary happenings have convinced some people about life after death. For example, ancient Jewish literature speaks of people seeing visions of their dead heroes---heroes like Abel and Jeremiah. But as James Dunn points out, `In no other case did the one(s) seeing the vision conclude, "This man has been raised from the dead."'

     Nothing in the thought-forms of the day led them to expect the resurrection appearances of Jesus to occur in the way described in the New Testament. Like so many other factors surrounding Jesus, these events were unique and unexpected. Invention of this particular story is highly improbable, because the disciples were not that clever. The conclusion was thrust upon them and very often they were reluctant to accept it.

 

Sixth fact: No one produced the body

     The Church began, not primarily by the spreading of ideas, but by the proclamation of a fact. Something has happened, said the apostles. Jesus, who died on the cross, is now alive.

     To disprove an idea you must argue. To disprove a fact, you must produce evidence. Those who wanted to discredit the apostles---and the Jewish and Roman leaders wanted to do that very much indeed---had only to produce one piece of evidence to make the disciples look very silly.

     All they had to do was to produce the body of Jesus. If they had done that we would never have heard of him, or of his followers. There would be no Christian Church.

     It is very significant that they could not do this. If the authorities had taken the body, or discovered it still in the tomb---because the disciples had lied, or had gone to the wrong grave---they would have produced the corpse. When Peter and the rest began preaching that God had raised Jesus, this would have silenced them instantly.

     Instead, the authorities imprisoned, threatened, and beat the disciples. Herod even had James beheaded. They circulated the report that the disciples had stolen the body. It's absolutely certain that the Jewish and Roman leaders had no idea at all what had happened to

Jesus. Yet the stubborn fact remained: his body had gone.

 

Seventh fact: The tomb was not venerated

     The empty tomb is strongly supported by the fact that the grave of Jesus did not become a place of pilgrimage. Tomb veneration was common at the time of Jesus, and people would often meet for worship at the grave of a dead prophet, as they do today. In surprising contrast, the earliest Jewish Christians did no such thing. `No practice of tomb veneration, or even of meeting for worship at Jesus' tomb is attested for the first Christians', affirms Professor Dunn. Veneration of the empty tomb only began two or three hundred years later, and it persists today.

     We agree with Professor James Dunn's conclusion when he writes, `The tomb was not venerated, it did not become a place of pilgrimage, because the tomb was empty!'

 

Eighth fact: The first witnesses were women

     In the law courts and public life of first-century Judaea, the testimony of women was given little weight. It was held that only the testimony of men could be trusted. It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that in the accounts of the resurrection in the Gospels, the women are centre stage. They are the first at the empty tomb on the Sunday morning. They hear the message of Jesus' resurrection from the angels. Mary is the first person to encounter the risen Christ---whom she mistakes for the gardener.

     This has the ring of authenticity. If the resurrection accounts were invented it would have been crazy to choose women as key witnesses. The Gospels record that the first witnesses were women, because they were!

 

Ninth fact: They called Jesus `Lord'

     The first disciples were Jews, devout monotheists who frequently recited the Shema: `The LORD our God, the LORD is one' (Deuteronomy 6:4). Then they met Jesus. At no point did they abandon their belief in One God. It would have been unthinkable for them to become 'bi-theists' (believers in two Gods), yet their concept of God was greatly enlarged as a result of their contact with Jesus. So, while continuing to assert that God is One, they began to speak of God the Father and God the Son. Within a short period they had firmly placed Jesus, the man from Nazareth, on the Godward side of the line that divides humanity from divinity.

     When the early Christians called Jesus `Lord', they were not politely addressing him as `Sir'. No! They were applying to Jesus the name used for God in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament). This belief was almost forced upon their unwilling minds; it was certainly not invented by them.

     It was also extremely dangerous. Given the culture in which they lived and the Jewish mindset, the notion of any man occupying this position was regarded as blasphemy by their contemporaries. And blasphemy was a very serious offence.

     How can this amazing shift in attitude be explained? How can we account for the fact that these Jewish men and women, some of whom knew Jesus of Nazareth personally, and all of whom knew that he was a man who sweated and wept, could nevertheless address him as `Lord'? It was not deep philosophical analysis which led them to this conclusion. It was reflection upon their puzzling and startling experiences. Above all, it was their conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead. For if Jesus was Lord over life and death, he was, quite simply... LORD.

 

Tenth fact: Modern psychology supports it

     By this we mean that modern knowledge about the way people behave under stress supports our case for the resurrection of Jesus.

John was ordained alongside a man who had been a prisoner-of-war under the Japanese as a very young man. He came to Christian faith as a result of reading the New Testament. He was a wing commander---an experienced leader of men---who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

     From his days in the prisoner-of-war camp in World War II, he understood how people behave under stress. He knew that dispirited people aren't creative people. He knew that people do not reassemble and organise themselves effectively, after the sort of shattering blow which Jesus' disciples had been dealt at his crucifixion.

     A handful of frightened men would not suddenly preach boldly to the very people who had killed their leader, and so risk their own lives. People just do not behave like that---unless something tremendous happens to drive away the fear and disappointment.

     That wing commander was convinced that in the case of the disciples, the necessary `something' must have happened. Jesus really must have appeared to them after rising from the dead. That discovery set in motion the process which was to revolutionise his life.

 

Eleventh fact: Christ's power today

     One surprising feature of the reported resurrection appearances is that they were confined to a period of six weeks. After that they stopped abruptly. Yet the first disciples continued to speak and behave as though Jesus was with them---not physically, but by his Spirit.

     Even more remarkable is the fact that this conviction was shared by others---at first by hundreds, then thousands, then millions, then billions---who had never seen Jesus, before or after his crucifixion.

     The evidence is not confined to the past. Millions of modern men and women continue to experience a new power, and a continuing `presence' in their lives. Although of differing backgrounds, cultures, ages and temperaments, they put it down to the same cause: the risen Lord is alive and at work in our world---and in our lives---today.

     The actor James Fox is an example of this. He has featured in many movies, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. He was one of the `beautiful people' of the swinging Sixties, caught up in a world of drugs, sex, fame and wealth.

     Yet he was confused, and frightened of losing control of his life. Fitfully he read the New Testament and attended church. On Christmas Day 1968, by a series of unlikely `coincidences', he met an enthusiastic Christian over breakfast in a hotel. They talked without embarrassment about the love of God and the way of salvation. James Fox became a Christian---then he became a salesman, an estate agent, and a full-time Christian worker.

     After a ten-year break he picked up the threads of his acting career. He records all this in his book Comeback---described by Dirk Bogarde as `moving, and searingly honest'. To summarise: James Fox met the living risen Lord, who turned his life the right way up.

 

Twelfth fact: The evidence convinces some surprising people

     Two modern Jewish scholars have studied the evidence for the resurrection and---given their background---they have come to a remarkable conclusion. In Jesus the Jew, Professor Geza Vermr, writes:

 

When every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be ... that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.

 

     In 1985 an Orthodox Jewish scholar, Professor Pinchas Lapide, wrote a book entitled The Resurrection of Jesus. He surveyed the evidence and concluded:

 

I accept the resurrection of Jesus not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.

 

Drawing the threads together

     More than once in this book we have conceded that Christianity isn't a `tidy' religion. It is coherent and (in our view) it has the `ring of truth'. But it presents us with problems and loose ends. So we are suspicious when the package presented for our inspection is too neat. However, we are convinced that there are few significant loose ends as far as the resurrection of Jesus is concerned, apart from our own inability or unwillingness to believe such a stupendous event.

     Leslie Weatherhead likened our examination of the evidence to a journey. When all the signposts point to a particular village, then we are foolish to deny that the village exists just because we haven't been there. If this particular village does exist---if God really did raise Jesus from the dead---then our own life and death begin to take on a totally new significance.

     Jesus has defeated death. He is the `first fruits' of a great harvest. We are that harvest. He has thrown wide open the gates of glory. Heaven awaits. Our present life is the shadow; life in the world to come is the substance (1 John 3:1-3).

     As Bishop Tom Wright puts it:

 

With the resurrection itself, a shock wave has gone through the entire cosmos: the new creation has been born, and must now be implemented. [172-185]

 

CONCLUDING QUOTATIONS

As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidence for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling ... as a lawyer I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.

                   Sir Edward Clarke, lawyer

 

  The evidence for the resurrection is astonishingly good.

                   Bishop and theologian Tom Wright

 

  We do not pass away; the world passes away from us ...

          Edvard Munch, Norwegian artist (who painted `The Scream')

 

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