With this past Sunday marking the Feast of the Ascension (recognizing the bodily ascension of Jesus into Heaven), it seemed appropriate to write about a necessary prerequisite to the event: rising from the dead. Thankfully, a good friend turned me on to a pretty good analysis, written by a better researcher than myself.
In the late 1970’s Lee Strobel was the legal editor of the Chicago Tribune newspaper. A Yale Law School graduate and a bulldog-like investigative journalist, Strobel was a diehard atheist, never believing in anything that didn’t come with well-documented sources. When his wife (who had been agnostic her whole life) converted to Christianity, Strobel set about “winning her back.” His approach? Disprove Christianity, let her see the folly in her logic, and come back to her senses (and atheism.) As an accomplished journalist, he figured it’d be a pretty simple task. Two years later, he concluded his investigation, converted to Christianity, and began a career of writing books that defend his new-found faith. Ultimately, Strobel would become a pastor at the church his wife began attending when she first came to Christianity.
His first work, The Case For Christ, was made into a feature-length movie. It’s a dramatization of his investigation into the authenticity of Christianity. It’s available on Netflix, but if you don’t want to invest two hours watching it (I recommend you do), Strobel gives an overview of his investigation in a 40-minute talk on YouTube.
Or, if 40 minutes is still too much of a time investment, I’ve outlined the main points of his YouTube talk below.
Pretty much everything from here on in this post is from Strobel’s lecture, mostly verbatim, unless otherwise noted. I added some citations and a few words to bridge some gaps, but Strobel basically wrote this post for me. Without knowing it, of course.
Christianity is an investigatable faith. If you don’t think that part of it actually happened, you can go and research it to disprove all the sheep who believe it did.
Strobel starts with the Resurrection of Jesus. After all, if that didn’t happen, Jesus of Nazareth was really just a blasphemous rabbi who happened to have some good advice and exceptional medical knowledge. Strobel’s research began with him questioning four basic underpinnings of the Christian faith:
- Did Jesus actually die on the cross?
- Did Christianity really just develop as ‘The Legend of Jesus of Nazareth’? (My term, not Strobel’s.)
- Was Jesus’s body ever actually in the tomb to begin with?
- Did anyone actually see Jesus after he died?
Did Jesus actually die on the cross?
Apparently, yes. He did.
There is virtually no dispute among scholars in the field (not just among Christian scholars, but even the wide range of scholarship around the planet) that Jesus was dead after being crucified under Pontius Pilot. Why? Because when we study ancient history, we’re lucky if we get one, or maybe two sources to confirm a fact. And yet for the death of Jesus, we not only have multiple, early 1st-century accounts in the records that are contained in the New Testament, we’ve also got five ancient sources outside the Bible confirming and corroborating His death:
- Josephus (1st-century Jewish historian working for Romans)
- Tacitus (1st-century Roman historian, considered one of the greatest)
- Mara bar Serapion (1st-century Roman philosopher)
- Lucian (2nd-century Roman writer)
- Jewish Talmud (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism)
The death of Jesus on the cross is so well-established of an historical fact, you would get laughed out of a major academic institution if you came in and said, ‘no, no, no, I don’t think Jesus was dead.’
Some have argued that the Roman soldiers (who obviously weren’t doctors) took Jesus down after He had simply passed out, not died. That doesn’t make sense, though, as the soldiers were professional killers. They knew what death looked like, and they also knew that if they let a prisoner go free (or a condemned man escape execution), they would be killed. My money is on them doing their job.
Even the Journal of the American Medical Association conducted an investigation into the death of Jesus. Their conclusion? “Clearly, the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead, even before the wound to His side was inflicted.”
Did Christianity really just develop as a legend?
Strobel initially figured the Resurrection of Jesus was a legend. And since legends take time to develop, Strobel figured that 50, 100, or 200 years after Jesus’s death (long after the deaths of anyone who would have been alive at the time to set the record straight), stories were spun, exaggerations taken as facts, and the legend developed.
Well, to codify and preserve the events of the day, the 1st-century Christians developed a creed, based on the facts they had observed. This wasn’t the Apostle’s Creed as we know it today, but it includes the names of people to whom Jesus appeared, including opponents and skeptics. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, the Apostle Paul writes about Jesus’s reappearance specifically, about 22-25 years after the death of Jesus.
For comparison, the first two biographies of Alexander the Great were written by Plutarch and Arrian, and they’re considered reliable, even though they were written about 460 years after Alexander’s conquests.
One to three years after Jesus’s death, Saul of Tarsus (the Christian-hunter who would later become the Apostle Paul) encounters Jesus, goes into Damascus, and meets with Christians. Three years later, he meets with two eye-witnesses of the Resurrection who were named in the creed, Peter and James. And the Greek word to describe this meeting, ‘historesen,’ suggests that it was an investigative meeting. So within 1-6 years, the details of the resurrection are formalized in the creed and remain unaltered to this day.
As a result, there is no huge time gap between the death of Jesus and the later development of a legend that He rose from the dead, and nowhere ever in history do we see a legend developing that fast and wiping out a core of solid historical observations.
Oxford University historian A. N. Sherwin-White studied the rate that legends developed in the ancient world, and not even two generations were enough time to build a legend. And during the first few centuries AD, all the Biblical writings were circulated throughout the known world, including to witnesses and skeptics who would have gladly pointed out inaccuracies or inconsistencies.
Was Jesus’s body ever actually in the tomb to begin with?
According to some legends, the Romans didn’t bury crucifixion victims. Instead, they left them on the cross to be eaten by wild animals, threw them into a “city dump”, or fed them to the dogs. Apparently, that all happened frequently, but it wasn’t always the case.
According to the ancient Roman legal code “Digesta seu Pandectae”, the Roman law on crucifixion specifically says that capital offense victims can be buried. And in 1968, archaeologists found the buried 2,000-year-old remains of a crucifixion victim, with the spike still through his ankle bone.
More convincing, though, is that even Jesus’s enemies admitted the tomb was empty. When the disciples started proclaiming that Jesus had risen, the deniers never said, “go open the tomb, you’ll find the body.” No, they said, “the disciples stole the body.” They admit that the tomb was empty – they were just trying to explain how it got empty. And explanations are hard to come by: The Romans wouldn’t have taken Him – they were the ones carrying out His sentence, as they wanted Him dead to quell a potential riot. The Jewish leaders certainly weren’t going to take Him and give credence to His claims that He was the Son of God; they wanted Jesus to remain dead. The Disciples couldn’t have done it: they had neither the means nor opportunity. Remember that at the request of the Pharisees, the tomb was sealed (as in, “stamped with a seal”) and secured with a guard of Roman soldiers. And again, these soldiers are professional killers who knew their own lives would be at risk if they let anyone into (or, “out of”, I suppose) the tomb. A few fishermen and accountants weren’t going to overpower them.
I wonder what happened to the soldiers who guarded Jesus’s tomb. They all “fell asleep” on guard duty, which has been a capital offense in the military for at least 3,000 years and is still punishable by death in some countries today. Were they all executed? Did God somehow deliver them? Did they all unanimously say, “um, we were all awake the whole time. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Did anyone actually see Jesus after he died?
Yes. In a dozen different instances, and to more than 515 people, Jesus appeared (alive, as a human) after His death. These people all talked with Him, ate with Him, and touched Him. And remember, earlier we established that there is absolutely no doubt that He died on the cross.
In the world of ancient historiography, finding two sources is apparently gold. Historians love being able to authenticate any old writings with a second source. Regarding seeing Jesus in the flesh, after His death, there are no fewer than nine ancient sources, inside and outside the New Testament, confirming and corroborating the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus.
After the crucifixion, the Disciples were hiding, terrified that they would be executed next. But then in a matter of weeks, in their own cities, they were out publicly – and boldly – proclaiming that Jesus was the Son of God, and that He rose from the dead. And, they were willing to proclaim that message to their own deaths.
After going through this quest, “In light of the avalanche of evidence that points so powerfully toward the truth of Christianity, I realized it would take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian.”
Personally, I agree. And not just about the Resurrection, but also regarding Creation. See my prior post on The Atheists’ Faith, Parts 1-4.
After two years of researching and coming to this conclusion, Strobel said that he felt “let down.” That is, until he read John 1:12, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”
Strobel came to the conclusion that believing the evidence wasn’t enough. He needed to receive Jesus, and His free gift of forgiveness and eternal life. So in Strobel’s words, he prayed, and “confessed a lifetime of immorality.”
His values, characters, relationships, world view, marriage, parenting, everything began to change for the good. But, he didn’t know how to communicate it, because no one he socialized with (his audience) knew him back when he was a violent, drunken jerk. So, he asked God for what to say…
His 5-year-old daughter spent her whole life knowing an angry, drunk dad. After 4-5 months of Strobel being a Christian (and not knowing how to communicate his transformation), his daughter said, “I want God to do for me what He did for Daddy.”
A few decades later, his daughter is married to a seminarian. She’s a novelist, writing books that all have a Christian theme, and with her husband she writes children’s books about God. His son’s earned a Ph.D. in Theology and works as a seminary professor.
Strobel closes his talk by saying, “If you don’t believe Jesus is who He claimed to be, that’s okay. Just check it out for yourself. Do your own research… Both the New Testament and the Old Testament say that if you sincerely seek God, you’ll find Him.”
The YouTube comments on Strobel’s talk were almost universally positive – that’s a rarity among YouTube videos, for sure.
The only negative comment I saw read, “Did this actually convince anyone who wasn’t already a believer? The only thing it convinced me of was that he’s not a skeptical reporter.” No one corrected this person by pointing out that the 40-minute video is the CliffsNotes to a two-year research project.
Strobel began his talk with a good introspection saying, “My skepticism bubbled over into cynicism, and it cemented me into my atheism.” At least he had a strong conviction, which led him to spend a lot of time investigating something he passionately wanted to disprove; he cared enough to go and look, even though he didn’t like what he found. The “old” Strobel and others like him occupy one end of the spectrum: those who believe very passionately that it’s all BS. On the other end of the spectrum are the (affectionately) religious zealots like myself, who believe very passionately that it’s all true.
Throughout history, God is always converting those who passionately deny His existence. Personally, I’m more concerned with the sea of people who occupy the flat middle ground of, “eh, it might be true. It might not. Who cares? I’m fine either way.” That seems like a dangerous ambivalence around what happens to your soul for eternity.