By L. Alfred James
We are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. In the past couple of weeks we have seen that the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb is quite formidable, and the evidence for Jesus appearing to the disciples (after his death) is so persuasive that even atheistic scholars admit that there is something to it. But there is another piece of evidence that makes the case for the resurrection even stronger. And that is the fact that the disciples actually believed that Jesus had been physically resurrected to immortality.
This was a very un-Jewish thing to believe. In first century Israel virtually no one believed such a thing was possible. The accepted view was that no human being would be raised from the dead (to immortality) until the end of the world. Only at the end of the world would anyone experience such a resurrection. But—shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion— we find Jesus’ disciples proclaiming, “The standard Jewish belief was wrong! Someone has been raised to immortality before the end of the world.”
Not only that, the typical Jew didn’t believe that any isolated individual would ever be raised in this way. In their minds there would only ever be one single resurrection event, and that would be when everybody in the whole world is resurrected (for the final judgment) at the end of history. The idea that Jesus, all by himself, could be raised from the dead sounded outlandish to them. It sounded about as outlandish as the flat-earth theory sounds to us.
Now, to get a sense of why this odd and un-Jewish belief of the disciples is evidence for the resurrection, consider the topic I just mentioned: belief in a flat-earth. Suppose that tomorrow a group of your most intelligent friends all shared with you that they have become utterly convinced that the earth is flat. “Yeah, I know it sounds crazy, but we’ve all come to this conclusion. We are absolutely convinced that modern science is wrong and that the earth really is flat!”
What would go through your mind? I’ll tell you what would go through mine: “What has happened to these folks? This is absolutely crazy. These are intelligent, normal, well-balanced people! Why would they suddenly come to hold this belief?” In other words, and don’t miss this, it would cry out for an explanation.
And that is exactly why this new belief (of the disciples) is considered evidence. It is considered evidence because it cries out for an explanation.
The reaction they got from their fellow Jews was harsh: “What? You believe in the resurrection of someone before the end of the world? Only one individual? That is weird enough. And you have the gall to tell me that this man who shamefully died like a common criminal is the Messiah? Are you really Jewish? Are you really sane?”
To get an idea of what a gigantic paradigm shift this was for them consider another analogy. Consider Antony Flew.
For more than 50 years Antony Flew was the world’s most notorious atheist. He traveled the world delivering speeches, engaging in debates, writing articles, and publishing books, very passionately arguing that there is no God. But then, in 2003, he announced that he had changed his mind. He made a public statement through an academic journal article saying that he now believed in God. Antony Flew shocked all of his atheist friends with his new belief, a belief that was very un-atheistic.
The first reaction that most academic folks had was, “Why? What would change the mind of someone like that, someone who is so encultured in atheistic thinking?” That is, it cried out for an explanation.
A few years later he published a book to give that explanation. His title was brilliant. The book cover showed the words “There is No God,” with “No” crossed out and replaced by “A.”
To see his explanation, I’ll let you read the book yourself. But Flew’s situation is very similar to that of the original disciples. The disciples did a complete about face and started believing something that was totally radical for intelligent Jews to believe. They underwent a paradigm shift.
Moreover, this change in their beliefs is recognized to be a historical fact. For instance, consider a statement by Bart Ehrman, an authoritative biblical scholar:
Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record. For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.1
Did you get that? It is a historical fact that Jesus’ followers came to accept this belief which, we know from history, was absolutely radical. Moreover, don’t think that Ehrman says this because he is a Christian. He has made it very clear that he is not a Christian. In his book Did Jesus Exist? he says, “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings.”2
The Best Explanation
The question remains: Why? Why did the disciples come to believe something so incredibly un-Jewish? And how would they have so much certainty about this belief that they willingly died for it? Their certainty, and their zeal, is what led to the explosive growth of Christianity in the first century.
Thus, this historical fact is a serious piece of evidence, and no one has been able to provide an adequate explanation for it, apart from admitting the resurrection of Jesus is true.
Indeed, for N.T. Wright this has been the centerpiece of his argument for the historicity of Christ’s resurrection. In his own words, “As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”3
1. Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 231.
2. Barth Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperCollins, 2012), 5.
3. N. T. Wright, “The New Unimproved Jesus,” Christianity Today (September 13, 1993), p. 26.