Risen - a sceptic's perspective

Peter May explores some of the key issues which any account of the resurrection of Jesus needs to address.

The resurrection of Christ is intrinsically improbable. Dead men don't rise; that, surely, is the universal experience of humanity. So from the outset, the Christian claim appears dead in the water. The problem is that all other attempts to explain away the known facts of history also lie dead in the water.

What do we know with some confidence?

  1. Jesus Christ remains by far the most attractive and influential person of history
  2. Christ’s death by crucifixion is one of the best attested facts of history
  3. Within the lifetime of eyewitnesses, Christianity spread dramatically across the Roman Empire
  4. The resurrection of Christ was central to the Christian message from the very beginning
  5. That he was "raised on the third day" is part of the earliest credal statement (1 Corinthians 15:4)
  6. The first Christians, such as Peter, James and Paul, died for this belief
  7. No alternative explanation for the resurrection has ever appeared credible after careful examination
  8. Pilgrims never flocked to his tomb.

Wherein lies the problem?

  1. Roman soldiers were disciplined and experienced executioners
  2. Because of Jesus' Messianic claims, the tomb, we are told, was sealed and guarded
  3. It is inconceivable that Jesus could have recovered unaided
  4. That he could have escaped is astonishing
  5. No single individual could have successfully stolen his corpse
  6. The first Christians clearly believed he was resurrected
  7. They all stuck to this belief and many died because of it
  8. Displaying Christ’s corpse to public gaze would have ended the rumour immediately
  9. Neither the Jews, the Romans or the Christians could offer any other credible explanation.

But it is even more complicated than that. Explaining what happened to the body would solve only half of the problem. You have also to explain the mystery of the resurrection appearances. Why did they say they had seen him alive, if they knew before God they were lying? These people included sceptics like Thomas, James and Paul. It becomes a pivotal part of the story that they were left believing profoundly that the resurrection was true.

Was this group hysteria? Such experiences rarely last a day, let alone for years. No-one ever admitted they had been misled and carried away in the excitement. Thirty years later the survivors were still telling the same story!

Were they having hallucinations? Such mental aberrations are either drug-induced or caused by serious mental or physical illness. Even if they have the same illness or the same drugs, no two people would have the same hallucinations. One might see green fish on his bed, another might see pink elephants climbing in the windows.

All the evidence suggests that the disciples had corporate experiences which they interpreted as being appearances of the risen Jesus. These lasted over a period of several weeks, among different sized groups and in quite different circumstances. They weren't tricks of the light. Two were walking together on a road in the afternoon. Another group saw him when out fishing and had breakfast with him beside the lake. Others were together in a room behind locked doors. One was travelling to Damascus. He later wrote that 500 had been present on just one occasion, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing, some twenty years later. He went on to say that if Christ had not been raised, their preaching was useless and their faith was futile. "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 Corinthians 15:15).

[Return to Part 1 of this resource]

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