I hope you’ll find time to visit my site on Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. I’ve written some pieces that will help take you through each day of that weekend from a special perspective. It may be a powerful new way of thinking about Easter weekend for you.
But back to the topic at hand. There are a lot of theories out there attempting to explain away the Resurrection of Jesus. I’ve discussed many of them in this series, and there are a few others out there as well. All of them have pretty much been vaporized due to lack of any credible support. And so the modern skeptic of the Resurrection today usually stakes her claim on a fairly new default theory.
As in the belief that Jesus never rose bodily, and either he or his disciples never intended people to believe that his actual physical body rose from the dead. Instead, what they really meant was that he had risen in their hearts. That after he died, they realized his message was still very powerful, and so his spirit was alive in them in the same way your parents’ might be alive in your heart after they’ve passed on.
The people that believe this say that the disciples experienced what is called a resurrection of “Easter faith” and this was the true message of Jesus—‘believe in the way I lived my life, believe in the teachings I gave you to love one another, believe that the power of love is stronger than death. And then—oh then my disciples I shall never truly die for I will live on inside you.’
See, now we’re cookin’. Now we got the guru mystic Jesus goin’ on. Come on people now, smile on your brother!
According to this theory, it was only much later, after all the original disciples had died, that the church started morphing and mythologizing the story into one where Jesus had risen physically and was God in human form. And so Christianity isn’t really untrue, from a certain point of view (thank you Ben Kenobi)—it’s just more of a feeling thing than an absolute reality. If you feeeeeeel Jesus in your heart, then it’s symbolically true for you and that’s just super! For you.
There’s just one problem with that.
It doesn’t correspond with the historical facts in any way.
Just like the other theories, it’s an explanation made of balsa wood. Might look good upon a quick glance, but it falls apart under the slightest weight.
The plain fact is that there simply was not enough time for a myth of that nature to build up. It takes several generations for a true story to turn into a legend, but the gospels and much of the New Testament were written while the original followers were still alive. And not only were Jesus’ followers still alive, so were his detractors. They would have been very quick to speak up had they been able.
Not only that, but all the writers attesting to the Resurrection make it abundantly clear that they are specifically referring to the physical resurrection of Jesus. They leave no room for doubt or hedging whatsoever on the matter. Check it out:
The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe…This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.John 19:35, 21:24
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ…I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie.Galatians 1:11-12, 20
And my personal favorite:
We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.2 Peter 1:16
Doesn’t get much clearer than that! But just in case you’re not convinced, here’s another. In 1 Corinthians 15 we see Paul reciting the earliest church creed, wherein he states straight out that “Christ has been raised” and actually appeared to many people, including 500 at one time. This letter was written between 55-57 A.D., and Paul notes that he is repeating a message he had delivered to them earlier. He visited the church in Corinth in 51 A.D., so this creed had to predate that. Already that’s only a gap of 20 years after Jesus’ death…far too short a time for a myth of resurrection to creep out.
But many believe it goes even earlier than that, to within about 5 years after Jesus’ death. Many scholars believe Paul learned this creed either in Damascus itself or in Jerusalem 3 years after his roadside experience.
This shows, without even needing to read the gospels, that the earliest Christians all believed in a physical resurrection. Paul goes on to say many of those people Jesus appeared to are still alive! Basically, go ask them yourself! If you’re making up a story, that’s not something you’re going to say.
Besides that, the style of the gospel stories is as far from myth as you can get. They are purposefully written as eyewitness accounts, not fantastical tales. The gospels are littered with tiny details, place names, and other observations that have no relation whatsoever to a mythological legend. Read some of the old stories about Egyptian gods that you learned about in school, or read about Zeus and his pantheon of gods and goddesses. Then sit those next to the gospels and compare the two. The difference is so obvious that the point really doesn’t even need to be argued.
Look, if Jesus was really nothing more than a sage or mystical guru, then he was absolutely, ridiculously terrible at it. If he never meant his followers to take him literally, then he utterly failed in every one of his core teachings! He becomes very likely the worst teacher in all of human history, as he would be responsible for misleading literally billions of people over the course of two thousand years! To say that this would make him totally incompetent as a spiritual master would be the understatement of the millennium.
Somehow I don’t think you’ll find too many people taking up this line of argument.
Resurrection 2: The Sequel, or Haven’t I Seen This Movie Before?
One final observation on the subject of myth. Some make the argument that the Jesus story is not unique in the slightest. Indeed, there are many ancient cultures and ‘mystery religions’ that tell of gods dying and coming back to life. These stories were meant as allegories for the seasonal harvest cycle, in which a god dies in the winter and rises again in the spring, just like the crops. Jesus, they say, is just another version of that story.
All the explanations given earlier for why the Jesus story is not myth apply here, as well. The gospels appeal soberly and firmly to actual, historical events which really happened at a specific place and time in the world.
Those skeptics argue that Jesus is not unique because he is one among many. I argue just the opposite. Jesus is the fulfillment of these stories. God has set eternity in our hearts, and my belief is that these other harvest god stories are a reflection that all of us have some deep and primal understanding of the gospel message. The fact that this idea exists in cultures across the world shows that there is a reality in the idea of God dying and rising again. Those stories are smudged reflections of the true story.
After all, the concept of death bringing about life is written across the entire universe. A seed is buried, a tree is born. A tree dies in winter, is born anew in spring. A star explodes in fiery death, a solar system has the needed building blocks to form.
Every single thing that you eat for nourishment—every fruit, every vegetable, every piece of meat—was once alive, and it’s death provides you with life. Even your own body is continually dying and remaking itself. There is not a single cell that currently makes up your body that existed 10 years ago.
So why is it so surprising that the death of the Second Adam brings about life for Adam’s heirs?
In the end though, after all is said and done, if the resurrection isn’t actually true, then it isn’t anything true.
Jesus’ story, as C.S. Lewis brilliantly observes, is myth become fact.
Truth poorly defended loses not its truthfulness;
Falsehood aptly defended loses not its falsity.