A Hard-Hitting Examination of the Facts
‘Eh?’ asked Amber, mystified.
‘Good men don’t go around emphasizing humility, attacking hypocrisy and then making the stupendous claims that he made, such as, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58). As if it weren’t enough that Abraham lived hundreds of years before him, Jesus didn’t even say, ‘I was’ but ‘I am,’ implying he was eternal and beyond time. Good men don’t claim to be wiser than Solomon, who had been pronounced the wisest man ever to live (Luke 11:31). Good men don’t say, I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to God except by me (John 14:6) or anyone who has seen me has seen God (John 14:9). No good man would be so conceited as to claim that the greatest prophets before him were mere servants of God and that he, in contrast, was the beloved only Son (Mark 12:1-12). Good men don’t go on making claims of this magnitude day after day until finally sentenced to death for the blasphemy of claiming to be God.’
‘Jake’s right!’ exclaimed Jasmin. ‘In contrast, the Apostle Paul – perhaps the greatest Christian ever to live – made claims like, “I am the chief of sinners.” The closer people get to God, the more humble and more aware of their moral shortcomings they become. Jesus was totally different to any other “good man.” He was continually making assertions that would brand him as the most arrogant, hypocritical man ever to live – unless he truly was God.’
‘And more than that,’ added Jake, ‘good men die and stay dead. The firm, historical evidence that Jesus bodily rose from the dead is enormous. And good men don’t keep working miracles 2,000 years after they are dead; transforming the lives of multiplied millions of people of all different races and cultures and religious backgrounds!
‘Here’s a great quote I’ve found.’ Jake fumbled in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and began to read. ‘Christianity “is either the greatest certainty or the greatest delusion . . .” ’ (Source)
‘What excites me about Christianity,’ said Jasmin, ‘is that it is not mere theory; it works. It transforms lives. And more than that, it is rooted in rock-solid historical reality, with a huge emphasis upon eyewitness accounts (Examples).’ ‘I have a theory the early Christians’ huge emphasis on the observable is in part because of their Jewish roots,’ said Jake. ‘Among ancient peoples, the Jews stood out for their rigorous adherence to historical fact, rather than myths, legends or stories. The Cambridge Ancient History states:
The Israelites certainly manifest a genius for historical construction, and the Old Testament embodies the oldest history writing extant. (Source)
‘You could argue that, more than their Jewish roots, it’s because the same God who inspired the events and writings of the Old Testament, inspired the New’ said the Professor, ‘but it is certainly true that wherever you go in the ancient world – not just the Middle East, Persia, Egypt, Greece, Rome and so on, but as far afield as India, China or northern Europe – no people respected observable, verifiable real-life human history like the ancient Jews. Not myths, but real human history was vitally important to them because they discovered God to be not some philosophical concept or nebulous or mythical being but someone who chooses to reveal himself in and through various people. They found that just as the invisible wind becomes observable by the way it interacts with the physical world, so the otherwise unknowable God lets himself become visible by the way he chooses to interact with real people. God kept repeatedly removing himself from the realm of blind faith and making himself observable and knowable by intervening in human lives, and hence in verifiable human history. And God’s ultimate revelation of himself was when he entered human history by actually becoming part of the human race in Jesus. The daring claim of Christianity is that in Jesus, God became flesh – physical, tangible – fully exposing himself to human observation and examination, which should particularly appeal to our scientific age.’
‘Yes,’ continued Jake, ‘and the facts were so well attested that when arguing their case, early Christians would appeal to the non-Christians’ own knowledge of the facts (Examples). This continual appeal to eyewitnesses has become a well-established practice today but was extraordinarily advanced for its era.
‘The Gospels were published so soon after the events they record that many of Jesus’ contemporaries were still living, and yet the Gospels clearly compilations of still earlier documents.’ Jake grabbed a Bible and opened it to the beginning of Luke and began to read:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
‘The Gospels could easily stretch back to notes taken while Jesus spoke.’ ‘Eh?’ Jasmin’s eyes were almost popping out. ‘Let’s be realistic,’ said Jake. ‘We know Jesus drew crowds of multiplied thousands and exceptionally loyal followers. With all those people treasuring Jesus’ every word, who can imagine no one taking notes?’
‘Hey, you’re right!’ exclaimed Jasmin.
‘Even when the Gospel accounts reached their final form and were published, hordes of people who had lived through Jesus’ ministry were still alive. There wasn’t a sufficient time gap to pull the wool over all those people’s eyes.
‘There are several critical factors affecting the reliability of any ancient document, such as how long after the described events it was written, the age of the oldest surviving manuscripts and how many samples of ancient manuscripts have been found. The latter two factors are significant because until the printing press, copies were made by hand, thus introducing the possibility of error. In all key measures, the New Testament writings are typically hundreds of years closer to the events and thousands of copies better than other significant records of ancient events. The New Testament has more manuscript evidence than any ten other pieces of ancient literature combined (9). Amazingly, despite being written after the printing press, the text of Shakespeare’s writings is far less certain than that of the New Testament (9-10).
‘Whoa! Hang on!’ interrupted Jasmin. ‘More than any ten other ancient pieces? Where did you get that from?’
‘Josh McDowell’s New Evidence that Demands a Verdict. Everyone should read it. It’s fascinating, cites scholars left, right and center, and yet remains highly readable. It’s also where I learned the Shakespeare comparison.’ ‘Oh, I’ve seen it!’ said Jasmin defensively, ‘I just must have missed that bit.’ Jake continued, ‘McDowell belongs to that rather long list of scholars who set out to write a book disproving Christianity and ended up having to write a book confirming the authenticity and historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. He admits that even though he had emphasized the importance of finding the truth, once he discovered that the truth confirmed the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, he was very reluctant to commit to that truth. Later, he said, “For me, Christianity was not a ‘leap into the dark’ but rather ‘a step into the light.’ ’(xxv, xxxiii).
‘How many people can you recall like McDowell who set out to disprove Christianity and ended up writing a book supporting it?’ asked Jamin. ‘I know of heaps! I’m particularly impressed by Sir William Ramsay, the famous British archaeologist. Did you know he started off determined to prove that Luke’s writings – the Gospel and Acts – were unreliable . . .’
‘Yes,’ said Jake, ‘he was forced into a complete about-turn. McDowell quotes him a couple of times. Let’s see . . .’ While flipping pages, Jake kept talking, ‘Afer thirty years of archaeological discoveries and meticulous historical research Ramsay said . . . er, here we are: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy . . . this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” ’
‘Wait,’ said Jake, with a huge grin, ‘Here’s what the one-time skeptic wrote in another book: “Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness.” ’
‘How humiliating!’ giggled Amber, ‘And they’ve been lots more who’ve had to eat their words?’
‘Oh, yes!’ said Jasmin and Jake, almost simultaneously.
‘Okay,’ sighed the Professor, ‘let’s move on to Christianity’s most astounding claim: the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection.’
‘Everyone will have to believe when they see all the historical evidence we’ve amassed!’ said Jasmin.
‘No-one is ever forced to believe,’ replied the Professor, rather soberly.
‘They can’t deny the facts.’
‘They’ll find a way.’
Amber sounded mystified. ‘How?’
‘Some claim the multiple sightings of Jesus after his crucifixion must have been an hallucination.’
‘No way!’ protested Jasmin, ‘ . . . spread over forty days with five hundred witnesses?’
That caught Amber’s ear. ‘Five hundred?’ she asked.
‘That’s how many the risen Lord appeared to,’ replied Jasmin (1 Corinthians 15:3-7), ‘and his disciples touched him and ate with him. Some hallucination!’ They all laughed.
‘And that still doesn’t explain the empty grave,’ added Jake.
‘Some say the disciples stole the body,’ said the Professor.
Jake laughed. ‘The religion with the highest conceivable morals, based on the biggest swindle in human history? You’re joking! Simple fishermen putting one over a hundred generations?’
‘It was the official line of the Jewish authorities,’ said the Professor.
‘Only because any other attempt to avoid the facts was even more laughable,’ replied Jake. ‘They had supervised Jesus’ burial, sealed the tomb, set soldiers over it to guard it and then suddenly found themselves unable to produce the corpse when the disciples began claiming Jesus had conquered death.’
‘The authorities were still peddling that story when the ink dried on Matthew’s Gospel’ (Matthew 28:11-15).
‘If there were a smithereen of truth in it they would have arrested the disciples and tortured them until they handed over Jesus’ body,’ said Jasmin.
‘Tortured?’ questioned Amber.
‘Look at what they did to Jesus!’ retorted Jasmin. ‘Then they arrested Peter and John just for healing a life-long cripple. They flogged all the apostles for preaching. Then they stoned Stephen to death. Later they imprisoned Peter, intending to execute him.’
‘And don’t forget what Saul did to Christians to try to make them blaspheme!’ added Jake.
‘I’d forgotten how brutal they were,’ said Amber.
‘And how desperate! But how could the disciples have carried it off?’ Jake began walking on his toes in a delightfully comical way. ‘Tiptoed past blind guards I suppose!’
The others burst into laughter.
‘Oiled the stone so it wouldn’t be heard!’ added Jasmin, doubling over in hysterical laughter. The others laughed even harder.
‘Who could believe that not one of the five hundred, even when dying a martyr’s death, would let it slip that it was all a hoax?’ said Jake. They sobered a little.
‘In it for the fame I suppose!’ jested Jasmin. ‘They’ll be in big demand all right. The Jews were demanding their lives. The Romans were demanding their heads. Christ’s yellow-livered deserters taking on the Jewish leadership and the entire Roman Empire – and all for a sham!’
‘Maybe they were in it for the money!’ laughed Jake. ‘They could make a fortune teaching people how to win popularity contests!’ They were laughing again.
Jasmin, still giggling, added, ‘Or they could write a best seller: How I earned My First Million Bruises.’
‘With books like that they could earn enough to keep them in bandages for weeks!’ replied Jake, laughing heartily.
‘And cash is cold comfort when you’re looking death in the face,’ added Amber, soberly.
‘If they want money they’ve got a much easier option. Put yourself back in that era,’ said Jake. ‘Christianity is set to explode. If the Jews thought they’d killed their problem they were in for a shock. They were running scared. They’d pay big money for someone to prove it was a hoax.
‘No, Professor, no one could believe they’re in it for fame or fortune. And if they’re into fraud, the first thing they’ll change is their own account of their actions. Those dull-minded disciples would be so wise and holy in the gospel tradition they leave posterity. If truth’s not important to them then the denying, deserting disciples would in their gospels be loyally supporting Jesus when he’s sentenced to death. The Sons of Thunder would portray themselves as calmly in control. Loudmouth Peter would ensure he’s the epitome of diplomacy in the revised version. Self-seeking liars don’t paint themselves as bumbling idiots!’
‘Professor, no-one could deny that those scatter-brains were sincere. What transformed the disciples from wusses to fearless leaders, if not their utter conviction that Jesus had conquered death?’
‘Some say Jesus was merely unconscious when they took him down from the cross and revived in the cool of the tomb,’ said the Professor.
All except the Professor burst into fits of laughter.
‘So he survives an horrific flogging followed not only by crucifixion, but a spear driven through his heart,’ replied Jake. ‘He convinces experienced Roman executioners that he’s dead. Then he fools his mother and followers who’d give anything to find a sign of life as they prepare his body for burial. No breath. No bleeding from his open wounds. Then, without them noticing, he manages to breathe through nearly a hundred pounds of spices and grave cloths tightly wound around his face. Next, he somehow bursts through his bonds, and with nail-crushed hands single-handedly rolls back a stone so massive that several women pushing in unison couldn’t budge it.’
‘And Jesus was on the inside,’ added Jasmin.
‘Hey, that’s right!’ exclaimed Jake, ‘This gets better by the minute!’
‘I don’t get it,’ said Amber, a slightly puzzled look on her face.
‘A gravestone is like a solid wheel chiseled out of rock, designed to roll downhill at right angles to the grave,’ explained Jasmin, ‘and, of course, its purpose is to fully seal off the entrance. You don’t want odors escaping. From the outside, people trying to move it push against the rim. From the inside there’s no rim and nothing to grip.’
‘That settles it! Escape was humanly impossible!’ Amber looked triumphant.
‘Skeptics will say that by some miracle . . .’ the Professor managed to say no more.
‘Skeptics who believe in miracles?’ declared Jake.
They erupted into hysterical laughter. Amber was bent over, holding her tummy. Jasmin was rolling on the ground. Jake was on his back kicking his legs in the air. Finally they began to calm down.
‘Okay,’ said Jake, trying to be serious, ‘by some inexplicable means, what must have been the world’s strongest man and greatest escape artist staggers out of the grave . . .’
‘Not bad for someone so mutilated even before he was crucified that he couldn’t drag his cross to avoid yet another beating,’ interrupted Jasmin.
Jake continued, ‘Then he miraculously – er mysteriously – eludes armed guards, somehow hobbling out on nail-pierced feet, gaping wound in his side, back flayed, bruises and lacerations from head to foot, blood dripping everywhere –’
‘If you could imagine blood left in that tortured frame,’ said Jasmin. ‘Don’t forget the Roman executioners confirmed death by thrusting a spear into this side, draining his body of blood.’
‘Looking the most pathetic human wreck, he somehow walks miles to Emmaus with two of his friends when he shouldn’t have been able even to crawl. Later, he staggers alone all the way back to the upper room, breaks through a bolted door and in his emaciated condition manages to convince even the most skeptical of the disciples that he’s conquered death!’
They were all in fits of laughter.
‘Finally,’ continued Jake when he had regained a little composure, ‘he gives his followers the slip and manages to die in such a way that his body is never found. The world’s greatest moral Teacher becomes the world’s greatest con artist? I think not!’
‘They’ll say it was simply someone who looked like Jesus,’ replied the Professor.
‘Oh no! It’s getting worse!’ protested Jake, ‘Not only Jesus’ closest earthly friends, but his very mother was just inches from him when he died. Then they prepared his body. Soon after, they were handling the risen Lord, examining the nail holes, speaking with him and eating with him over a period of 40 days. And his own brothers – brought up with him from infancy – who didn’t believe him when he was alive, suddenly become believers after his resurrection appearances. That’s not mistaken identity, that’s insanity!’
He had them in fits of laughter.
‘And that still doesn’t explain how Jesus’ body mysteriously disappeared,’ added Jake. ‘And what about the survival of Christianity?’ said Jasmin.
‘That’s getting off track,’ said Jake.
‘No!’ insisted Jasmin. ‘No one denies that Jesus was a highly exceptional leader. How many people of his caliber has the world ever seen? Even his bitter critics would be hard pressed not to rank him at rarer than one in a hundred million people. But after killing this exceptional person when he had barely started – a mere three years from starting to teach – and then violently turning on his followers, why wasn’t the tiny movement crushed? Why did it keep growing exponentially, as if the tragic death of its charismatic leader were a mere hiccup?’
‘In fact, as if it were part of the divine plan,’ added Amber.
‘Exactly!’ Jasmin was looking triumphant. ‘And how did Jesus, from a handful of uneducated fishermen and the like, find such high caliber, inspirational leaders to keep the moment roaring ahead? Sure, they were convinced that Jesus had conquered death but it takes more than that to make high quality leaders. What other explanation can there be than that these apparently very ordinary men were divinely selected and divinely empowered, just as the Bible claims, to perpetuate the most important message humanity has ever received?’
‘You’re right,’ said the Professor, ‘but many will still refuse to believe.’
‘Why?’ asked Amber and Jake almost simultaneously.
‘Jesus told his hearers, “If anyone desires to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God . . . .” Spiritual truths are hidden from everyone unwilling to obey God. Again Jesus said, “Men love darkness rather than light for their deeds are evil.” It’s insane, but we humans close our minds to reality because we would rather be enslaved by our pet sins than enjoy intimacy with our loving Creator. We prefer ignorance to truth.’
‘Even though that truth would fill them with never-ending joy and eternal fulfillment?’ quizzed Amber.
‘Yes, Amber, even though it’s the most exciting truth in the universe. We fear the unknown. Not only are we chronically addicted to selfishness and various other sins, we’re like blind beggars who have known no other way of earning money and fear healing because of the major changes to their life that seeing would cause.’
‘Like prisoners who have been behind bars for so that they fear the increased responsibility and lifestyle changes that freedom entails?’ said Jasmin.
‘Or like battered wives scared to make a new life for themselves?’ chimed in Amber.
‘Yes,’ replied the Professor, ‘almost wherever we look, we see people bound by fear of positive change, and nowhere is that more tragic than in people fearing the freedom and fulfillment and wholeness that Jesus offers.’
‘It makes you wonder why Jesus bothered!’ commented Jake.
‘Thankfully there have always been a minority with the guts to face reality, but even they find it hard to admit their need of God and to let go of selfishness long enough to discover the matchless joy of knowing God,’ replied the Professor. ‘The famous scholar, C. S. Lewis, preferred Greek myths to the hard facts of the Gospels. He used to complain about the Gospels being written in an “artless, historical fashion” by “narrow, unattractive Jews too blind to the mythical wealth of the Pagan world around them.” When he changed from atheist to believer, he described himself as perhaps the most reluctant convert in all England, but the truth is that everyone who ends up a true Christian once dreaded the prospect’ (Source).
‘I sure did,’ laughed Amber, ‘I thought all Christians were weird!’
Jasmin giggled. ‘I was certain Christians were all stuck-up hypocrites.’
‘Straight-laced religious people frustrated Jesus,’ said the Professor. ‘He was forever uplifting those who felt down about themselves but the self-righteous earned his stinging rebukes. Bible fanatics in his day hated him so much that they killed him.
‘Severe persecution keeps Christianity pure, but whenever it becomes respectable, pretenders want to become part of it, like loud-mouthed couch potatoes who think themselves sporting experts. It’s a turn-off – yet another excuse for people being reluctant to become true Christians – but those who are truly genuine won’t be deterred in their pursuit of truth. They’ll muster the courage to exchange a life of shame and mediocrity for eternal glory and divine excellence.
‘By the way,’ added the Professor, ‘in discussing the certainty of Jesus’ resurrection, no one has mentioned the Apostle Paul.’
Jake wasn’t sure what the Professor was getting at, but that didn’t silence him. ‘Paul was converted after the early church was established and after Jesus had left earth. Paul was highly intelligent . . . must have known the full inside story of the resurrection from the perspective of Jesus’ enemies. He must have rubbed shoulders with the Jewish officials who set the guard on the tomb, and those same officials must have had close contact with the Romans.’
‘To Paul, Jesus’ resurrection was so undeniable, and so central to Jesus’ astounding claims, that he insisted that without it there is no Christianity,’ added Amber.
‘Where’s your evidence?’ asked the Professor.
There was silence for a couple of seconds. ‘1 Corinthians 15,’ said Jasmin.
‘Paul,’ said Jake, feeling that at last he was on a winner, ‘had committed himself to violent persecution of Christians, torturing them in the hope that they would blaspheme Jesus, until every Christian was wiped from the planet. Suddenly, he threw away everything he had studied and worked all his life for, losing all his status and friends, to become a despised Christian.’
‘Did his career path ever nosedive!’ said Amber, ‘How his former colleagues must have hated him!’
‘But he persisted, despite having access to inside information from those who ordered Jesus’ execution as to what really happened to Jesus’ body,’ added Jake. ‘And not even the Christians wanted him!
‘That’s right! His turnaround was so phenomenal that Christians feared he was playing a deadly trick on them,’ chimed in Jasmin.
‘From then on, until his eventual martyrdom, Paul suffered not mere ridicule but devastating numbers of whippings, beatings, tortures, imprisonments and even stonings – all because this bright, hard-nosed persecutor was convinced that he was blinded on the way to Damascus by none other than the risen Lord who personally spoke to him.’
‘You see,’ said the Professor, ‘this is the amazing thing about Christianity. It didn’t just have a unique, miracle-working founder; it has always been perpetuated by the supernatural. It is truly mind-boggling as to how that tiny, despised, highly persecuted minority ever survived the first century, let alone is thriving almost two thousand years later.
‘Of course, there has always been concrete historical proof but who would die for mere facts? Lives were transformed by Jesus and this has kept going unabated in those who believe in him, century after century, right down to us. Today, who can count, not just the one-time anti-Christian intellectuals who have converted, but all the alcoholics who are now sober, the drug addicts set free, the criminals going straight, the abuse survivors healed, the once-suicidal down-and-outs who are now changing the world, the Mother Theresas, the . . . ? Well, let’s go back to the original documents.’
The Professor opened his Bible. ‘Mark 16:20, “Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”
‘This kept happening throughout the critical early days of the church. Look at Romans 15:19.’ The Professor began turning pages furiously. ‘Here we are . . . “by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.”
‘Supernatural signs and miracles were the early church’s secret weapon. We find it not just with Paul but in Acts with Peter and Philip and Agabus and so many other early Christians. In fact, there is no other explanation for the early church’s phenomenal growth despite all the attempts to annihilate it. See, for example, in Acts 4 when Peter and John were dragged before the Jewish court for daring to proclaim that Jesus had risen. They were in grave danger, but what could the authorities do? All of Jerusalem knew the cripple who for more than forty years had so predominantly begged in front of Israel’s only temple was now healed. Twice they supernaturally burst out of prison. That might stagger skeptics but how else can one explain Christian in its vulnerable beginnings not only surviving despite every attempt to snuff it out, but spreading like wildfire?
‘Look at how confidently the writer to the Hebrews puts it: Hebrews 2: 3-4 “how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”
‘Look at Acts 1:1-2.’ The Professor thumbed through his Bible and then began to read, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven . . .” See! Luke is saying that everything Jesus did up until he returned to heaven was just the beginning of Jesus’ earthly miracles. All the miracles recorded in Acts confirming the reality of the Christian message were but the continuation of Jesus’ ministry.’
‘Yes,’ added Amber, ‘and he’s continued them in my life.’
‘And mine,’ said Jasmin.
‘Mine, too!’ grinned Jake.
‘What fires Christianity is not merely historical facts, nor even the supernatural. It is not just that Christianity is real, but that it satisfies the spiritual hunger of the human soul. Of course, Christianity has had millions of sad hangers-on – having a facade of godliness but not living in its power – but those who have truly tapped in to spiritual reality have found in Jesus true fulfillment, achievement, purpose, meaning, and life-long spiritual adventure,’ said the Professor.
For help in understand and starting this adventure, see You Can Find Love: What Your Fantasizes Reveal.
It’s not too easy arranging your own public execution and resurrection, but harder still when it must be done within the confines of prophecies issued hundreds of years before the event. For proof that Jesus was no ordinary man, see Jesus: The Supernatural Prophesied Messiah?
Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris, 1994, 2004, 2006, 2008. For much more by the same author, see www.net-burst.net
No part of these writings may be copied without citing this entire paragraph. No part may be sold.