“What counts is not what sounds plausible, not what we’d like to believe, not what one or two witnesses claim, but only what is supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
In that specific context, Sagan was talking about UFO sightings and reports of alien abductions, but the “Sagan Standard,” as it’s been dubbed, is commonly cited by skeptics with regard to any paranormal, supernatural, or otherwise extraordinary claim, and particularly to questions of God and religion.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, and despite his well-publicized rejection of Christianity, Sagan’s skepticism is a posture actually counseled repeatedly throughout scripture: extraordinary claims do require extraordinary evidence, and acceptance of such claims without commensurate evidence is not faith in the sense upheld by Jesus, Moses, and the prophets and apostles. As discussed at length previously, that isn’t faith at all, but credulity and superstition and the surest way to be taken in by con men, false prophets, and demons. If a person believes an extraordinary claim in the absence of such evidence, it isn’t because he has such strong faith in God, because he doesn’t actually really know that God is the Source of the claim—only that people cite God as the Source of their claims. And people make all kinds of different and contradictory claims in the name of God every day, and all too often with bad intentions and disastrous outcomes. Rather than faith, a belief without evidence is the product, normally, of emotional manipulation and cultural conditioning, which are obviously not reliable guides to truth. At their very best, these might provide a sense of comfort, security, belonging, cultural identity, and social validation, but they can never offer truth… or, at least, any truth to which they point is merely incidental, and likely to be buried or perverted by the methods used to reach it.
On the other hand, though… there is precious little any of us can believe without first having to take someone else’s word for it at some point along the way, because (as also discussed at length previously) human testimony is really the only evidence there ever really is, in the final analysis.
As Sagan himself pointed out in the aforementioned Cosmos episode, photographs can be faked and other forms of evidence are always subject to human analysis and interpretation, so all we’re ultimately left with for evidence of anything is what people say, and whatever “hard evidence” there is can only serve to corroborate or contradict the narratives provided by people. Without those narratives, physical evidence is meaningless.
Those narratives have to be weighed against other narratives by seeing which best fits and accounts for the evidence at hand. As Carl Sagan put it, they have to be rigorously and skeptically examined…
After due examination, there is only ever one of three conclusions possible for any given narrative: it’s either a lie, a mistake, or the truth.
The extraordinary claim made by the original Christians was that God Himself had entered into the stream of human events in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, which they claimed to know by the fact of having encountered Jesus risen—alive and in the flesh and glorified—after he had been publicly executed and buried. They claimed to have seen him, spoken with him, touched him, and even shared meals with him before he ascended beyond this plane of existence, and that he instructed them to pass on his teachings and the news of his resurrection to the rest of humanity in preparation for his return at the end of history.
That was their claim, at least. That was the content of their message as they traveled from city to city throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, transforming the movement in Jesus’ name into a worldwide institution that has proliferated to this day.
Seldom has a more extraordinary claim been made in human history, and seldom has such an extraordinary claim so profoundly shaped the flow of human events.
Is the evidence for that claim commensurately extraordinary for us to believe it, though?
As discussed previously, the manuscript evidence for the reliability of the New Testament is nothing short of extraordinary.
That alone, however, proves only that its content is well-preserved, not necessarily that its content accurately represents the teachings of the apostles, or of Jesus.
Modern biblical scholarship—or, the consensus among a great many biblical scholars, at least—has it that the four Gospels were written long after the apostles were dead, and are the product of generations of legends and folk stories layered upon scant few authentic memories of Jesus. Consequently, they assert, the “Christ of faith” depicted therein is but a mythological echo of the real Jesus of actual history. That being the case, they argue, what the New Testament seems to report as history with regard to the resurrection of Jesus was originally meant by the apostle as mere metaphor or parable (metaphor for what, exactly, they never quite say).
As I explained at length in my previous entry, though, the academics in question freely acknowledge that they don’t believe in a distinction between the “Christ of faith” and the Jesus of history because the Gospel accounts are known to have been written later, nor because any other pertinent evidence lends itself to that conclusion. Their reasoning works the other way around, actually: they presume from the outset that the God depicted in the New Testament does not exist, therefore the “Christ of faith” also depicted therein can’t have been an accurate portrait of the historical Jesus, and so they sift the facts to fit their invented story—a story in which the original followers of Jesus simply could not have intended a literal resurrection, so the Gospel accounts had to have been written by later generations.
It’s not a conclusion “supported by hard evidence, rigorously and skeptically examined”; it’s an assumption they attempt to justify by rewriting history.
Their narrative withers and dies under scrutiny, though, because it just doesn’t fit the plain facts. For instance, whatever we believe about the four Gospels, it is beyond dispute that Paul’s epistles were still written well within the lifetimes of the other apostles, and they explicitly proclaim a literal, bodily, and physical resurrection of Jesus as the essential message of Christianity from the very beginning. Also (as explained at length previously), the internal evidence of the Gospels and Acts supports an earlier date of composition, within the lifetimes of the apostles and other original followers of Jesus.
There is also the testimony of the first generation of church leaders after the apostles (the Apostolic Fathers) and the early Church Fathers, who unanimously attributed the Gospel of Matthew to the apostle Matthew/Levi, the Gospel of Mark to the apostle Peter’s disciple, who compiled the apostle’s memoirs, the Gospel of Luke/Acts of the Apostles to Paul’s disciple and traveling companion, and the Gospel of John to John the apostle (if not as the direct author, at the very least as the source).
Naturally, of course, modern academics dismiss these claims as mere “tradition.” They do raise various points of argument, some of which are more worthwhile than others, but none of them are particularly compelling, and what strength they do have depends greatly upon their theological assumption that the “Christ of faith” is the product of a long development of legendary tradition.
Their argument hinges on the notion that the Gospels were written anonymously, so the testimony of early church leaders represents only a tradition shaped by religious dogma, and so it isn’t credible as historical documentation, they argue. Just because the authors didn’t sign their names to them within the text itself doesn’t mean the four Gospels were anonymous to the people for whom they were first written, though. Papias, Polycarp, Clement, and other early church leaders knew the apostles personally. But, they weren’t just speaking from personal experience, but from the experience of entire communities of people they represented who also knew the apostles and their writings, and accepted their writings for that reason.
Modern scholars say “according to tradition” to mean “not according to historical research,” but that’s an erroneous distinction proceeding from a false premise. The origins of Christianity and the New Testament aren’t nearly so opaque as modern scholars insist. The only obscurity there is about the early Church comes from the fact that the theological biases of modern academics aren’t served by what was plainly documented at the time, so they dismiss it and rewrite history to fit their preconceptions. The plain and simple truth is that neither the four Gospels nor the rest of the writings of the New Testament emerged mysteriously out of a vacuum, but were written by authors known to the people who first received them and passed them on. The authorship of any other ancient writing with this much external attestation would never be disputed.
It is a matter of incontrovertible historical fact, then, that the people who knew Jesus claimed to have encountered him after his bodily resurrection from the dead, and the evidence for them having made that claim is nothing short of extraordinary.
What, then, do we make of that?
Did they make it all up as an elaborate deception?
Were they sincere, but somehow mistaken?
Or were they telling the truth?
Strict adherence to the Sagan Standard would require extraordinary physical evidence to corroborate their claim. Except, what kind of physical evidence could there be for such a claim? If this were a murder investigation, the victim’s body would be the central piece of evidence, but this is the precise opposite of a murder investigation. This is a resurrection investigation, so by definition, the body isn’t available for examination (except at the time, when Jesus appeared to the apostles and they inspected his wounds, but that doesn’t help for our purposes). There is, of course, the empty tomb, but the absence of a body from the tomb (assuming we could somehow positively identify the tomb as his) doesn’t necessarily prove that the body is alive again. Physical evidence of such a claim, then—even if the claim is true, is a pretty tall order, because there’s not much in the way of physical evidence that ever could corroborate such a claim.
The Shroud of Turin might be admissible as evidence if it were proven to be authentic, but it’s debatable if even that would qualify as decisive proof. So far, it seems to be what believers claim it to be: the image on the shroud was created through unknown means, incomprehensible to modern science, and the image wasn’t even visible until 1898 when the invention of photography made it detectable in a photographic negative; forensic analysis has verified the authenticity of the bloodstains and their consistency with injuries from crucifixion and scourging; the species of flax, the weave pattern of the shroud, as well as pollen and dirt samples found on it are all consistent with 1st century Jerusalem. The only substantial argument against its authenticity as the possible burial shroud of Jesus Christ is that carbon-14 dating places its origin in the 13th or 14th century. That conclusion has been heavily disputed, however, on the ground that the sample used for carbon dating wasn’t from the original shroud, but from a patch added in the 16th century to repair damage sustained after a fire. Every other feature of the shroud accords precisely with what would be expected if it were authentic.
The Shroud of Turin is an interesting and edifying curiosity, but nothing really hinges upon it, though. If it were eventually proven by carbon dating to have originated in or before the 1st century, there still would be no way to absolutely prove that the image upon it was created at the moment of Christ’s resurrection, or that it’s the same sheet of linen discovered in the empty tomb. It would support the apostles’ claim without necessarily proving it, and disproving the Shroud’s authenticity wouldn’t in any way disprove the apostles.
So, there isn’t—nor could there be—extraordinary positive evidence to prove that the apostles were telling the truth.
There is, however, extraordinary evidence against the only two alternatives, which is no different than proof of the truth of their claim. We can know for certain that they did, in fact, claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and if there is extraordinary evidence against them having lied and against them having been mistaken, then that equates to extraordinary evidence for the only possible alternative. As I like to quote Sherlock Holmes, and Spock after him: “If we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth.”
The Trial of the Ages
If the apostles were to be put on trial for the crime of lying about the resurrection, the burden would normally fall on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt by convincing the jury that they had motivation, means, and opportunity to do so.
Except, this is not a court of criminal law with a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven; this is the Court of Skepticism of Extraordinary Claims, and the Sagan Standard presumes guilt until innocence is proven. But that’s not a problem, because the evidence can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they had neither motive, nor means, nor opportunity to lie about the resurrection, and are therefore innocent.
So, what would motivate the original followers of Jesus to fabricate a story about having encountered him after he’d risen from the dead? What could they have expected to gain by it?
Well, why does anybody lie? Advertisers, politicians, and, yes—religious leaders show up in headlines all the time for perpetrating various deceptions, and their motivations aren’t terribly mysterious: they lie for money, power, sex, self-aggrandizement, or some combination thereof. They lie either to exploit people in pursuit of these interests, or they lie because they’re already guilty of indulging, despite reputations to the contrary. More than a few politicians and religious leaders have been exposed in the past few years for leading double lives: playing the pious, devoted family man in campaign commercials or sermons, all the while consorting with prostitutes or mistresses or having trysts with strangers in airport bathrooms. Examples abound also of people who have used their positions of trust or authority to enrich themselves with bribes or tithes, who are easily identifiable by their expensive suits, high-end cars, private jets, and palatial living accommodations.
Of course, there are plenty of cult leaders who have eschewed riches or political power (or resigned themselves to the improbability of ever attaining them), but they still reap some payoff for their manipulations. It’s hard to find an example of a cult leader, for instance, who hasn’t had some “revelation from God” that it’s his divine right and destiny to have multiple high school-age girls as his “wives” as he enjoys the worship and admiration of his brainwashed followers.
What about the apostles, though? What benefits did they reap, or expect to reap, from their lifelong efforts to spread the news of the resurrection?
Just to be clear about the situation: their efforts began just a few weeks after their rabbi had been arrested and condemned by the Jewish religious elite, then humiliated, tortured, and crucified at their urging by the Roman imperial authorities.
And that was somewhat routine back then. As Luke explained, quoting the renowned rabbi Gamaliel, and as the 1st-century historian Flavius Josephus corroborated: aspiring messiahs were a denarius-a-dozen at the time, and they often gathered hundreds of people to their cause with lofty ambitions to restore the sovereignty of the Chosen People by forcibly driving the pagan invaders from the Holy Land. The Romans didn’t mess around, though, and wasted no time arresting and crucifying the leaders. Their followers would typically scatter and go into hiding, presumably heartbroken and traumatized, but undoubtedly relieved to have escaped the same fate.
In contrast, what did the apostles do in the same situation?
At first, they did the same thing: they made themselves scarce, lest they suffer the same fate as their leader.
Soon after, though—just as Jesus himself had done in the week leading up to his death—they showed up in a crowded, public place, in the very city in which Jesus had been tried and executed, right under the noses of the very people responsible, and proclaimed that the man whom they’d condemned and brutalized had been raised to life again by God… which, of course, was a dangerous thing to do: “You are the enemies of God because you murdered the Messiah,” they said, and to people who were more than capable of doing the same to them.
If one person did something like that, we’d assume he or she was just grief-stricken, mentally ill, and probably suicidal. Worldwide religious movements don’t normally launch from such isolated and maladroit beginnings, though, and Luke reported that there were about 120 people in Jerusalem who accompanied Peter and the other apostles when they first proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus, who had witnessed Jesus’ final appearance before he ascended.
Now, if 120 people, or if even only twelve people, or just two people were deliberately lying about all that, then they would have talked about it first. They would have made sure they had their story straight, they were on the same page, and they would have come to some clear, calculated understanding about why they were doing it, and what benefits they could reasonably expect from it. They would have conspired, and their conspiracy would have had an agreed-upon purpose and motivation.
If they were lying about it, after all, then they would have known for a fact—each and all of them—that the eternal rewards they promised for following Jesus were a sham. Their message, essentially, was that God had raised Jesus from the dead, and so those who trust and obey Jesus by following his teachings are promised the same. If that was a lie, then they certainly would not have expected to be resurrected themselves at the end of all their efforts, so there would have had to have been some other payoff.
What’s more, that payoff would have had to have been worth the risk of dying a slow, agonizing and humiliating death, and it would have had to have been something multiple people would have come to an agreement—before they began to carry out their plan—that it was worth that risk, because they had every reason to expect to meet with the same fate as Jesus before them.
And, as we know, that expectation was met, because they did all meet with the same or similar fates. After multiple imprisonments for them both through the course of their ministries, according to the early Church Fathers, Peter was crucified upside-down (chapter 1, vs. 2) and Paul was beheaded (chapters 4 and 5) during the Neronian Persecution. The apostle James was run-through with a sword. Philip is believed to have been either crucified or beheaded. Josephus reports that James, the brother of Christ, was stoned to death, having also been condemned by the Sanhedrin. And so on and so forth—all of the apostles were reported to have been similarly executed for their testimony about the resurrection of Jesus, with the exception of the apostle John, who survived to extreme old age, but only after he was boiled alive in oil and exiled to the island of Patmos (scroll down to chapter 36).
So if they didn’t really believe they’d be resurrected at the end of their efforts, what could have been so enticing that they’d persistently risk and incur persecution and death in order to spread a lie about the resurrection of Jesus?
All things considered, is it even remotely believable that the twelve apostles and their many followers conspired together to fabricate this story… because they thought it would be a smart way to get ahead in life?
First… I think we can safely rule out the possibility that they did it all to get girls. And if it’s not obvious enough just yet why that’s a no-brainer, it will be after we cover Means and Opportunity.
Did any of them get rich as apostles, or even (from a material standpoint) attain a higher quality of life?
Prior to his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was an up-and-coming celebrity in Pharisaical Judaism, studying under the likes of the renowned rabbi Gamaliel and garnering considerable power and influence among his fellow Jews. By becoming, not only a Christian, but a Christian missionary who claimed to have been personally visited by the risen Jesus, Paul effectively committed career suicide in the world he knew.
If it was money and power and prestige he was after, he had far better opportunities available to him than joining the Nazarene sect he’d previously sought to eradicate. In fact, becoming a Christian cost him—not only his career, but his social standing and his freedom on numerous occasions, as well as his life.
The rest of the apostles weren’t exactly rich before they decided to follow Jesus, but they nonetheless left everything behind to do so. There is indication that they were beginning to return to their previous, familiar lives after the crucifixion, but then they suddenly returned to Jerusalem to publicly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus to the very people who’d had him crucified weeks earlier.
Is it even dimly realistic to think they did this because they thought there would be big monetary rewards in their future?
When large sums of money change hands, there is always a natural suspicion of abuse on the part of the people controlling the money. But, it’s pretty difficult for such a scheme to be profitable when the money has to be divided between at least twelve different people, and even more difficult to maintain the appearance that there is no economic need whatsoever among the people you’re exploiting, if you’re spending the money on yourself (let’s see Benny Hinn or Creflo Dollar pull something like that off).
That particular passage from the Book of Acts is the only possible basis for suspicion of a financial motive for the apostles to lie about the resurrection. Even with this passage, though, it’s unreasonable to the extreme to believe that they concocted the story on the hope that maybe, just maybe… through the course of setting up a commune and eliminating poverty among their followers, they might be able to skim some cash off the top for themselves. This becomes even more untenable when we consider that confiscation of property, slavery, and imprisonment were common sentences under Roman law—for those fortunate enough to be spared crucifixion, decapitation, or stoning, that is—so they stood to lose far more than they could reasonably hope to gain by possibly running afoul of the Roman and Jewish authorities (and for all we know, that risk might have been part of the motivation for some of their followers to liquidate their assets).
So, I don’t think anyone apprised of the circumstances of the time could entertain any honest belief in a financial motive for the apostles to lie about the resurrection.
What about fame and self-aggrandizement, then?
Isn’t that an all-too-common motivation for cult leaders: to have people hanging on their every word, worshiping them, admiring them, submitting to their whims and feeding their hero complexes?
How do the apostles accord with that profile, though?
Or, to look at it from the other direction—do cult leaders usually team up and share the spotlight with eleven others, as equals?
No, they surround themselves with passive, weak-willed, easily-controlled people, and weed out and eliminate competition from any other potential “alpha males.” For instance, Warren Jeffs, convicted child rapist and leader of the polygamist FLDS cult, routinely exiled dissenting males from his compound and reassigned their wives and families to other men—men who submitted to his domination. Jim Jones forced his followers to spy on each other and report to him, then would berate and publicly humiliate people for deviating ever-so-slightly from his instructions. Charles Manson used to lure men into his fold by having his female followers entice them with sex, then he’d keep them compliant and open to suggestion with LSD and other psychotropic drugs.
Cult leaders also typically isolate their followers, lest their carefully-crafted spells of mind-control and delusion be undermined by outside, rational influences. They use sex, intimidation, violence, drugs, social pressure, sleep deprivation, isolation and other mind-control techniques to manipulate and exploit people as they bask in the reflected radiance of their own perceived power and importance, often making ridiculous and ostentatious claims of being the Messiah, God incarnate, or Jesus reincarnated, before they lead their followers to a spectacular and tragic demise.
If the apostles were driven to lie about the resurrection of Jesus by any of the motivations common to cult masterminds, they managed to do so without conforming to any of the well-documented patterns also common to them.
For example—for people supposedly bent on an ego-trip of that magnitude, they were generous with the spotlight.
It’s true that Peter enjoyed a greater share of attention in the beginning than the rest, but when he told his followers about Jesus—if he was in it for the fame and admiration—he might have done better to leave out the part where he abandoned and disowned Jesus on the night he was arrested.
And that really goes for all of the apostles: collectively, they might have left out that whole episode where they all abandoned Jesus at his arrest, or any of the numerous occasions in which Jesus rebuked them for their petty bickering, their weak faith, their decidedly un-Christian inclinations, for being “perverse and faithless,” or when he called their chief apostle “Satan.”
For a bunch of guys allegedly driven to such extreme lengths by a need to be admired and exalted by adoring followers, they didn’t paint very flattering portraits of themselves.
In fact, it appears that they did everything they could to deflect any and all attention away from themselves and to Jesus instead. The glory was his alone, they insisted, and the only distinction they could claim was as the bumbling, unworthy recipients of his grace, which was a distinction they all shared alike. Everything they said and did succeeded only in directing people to the person and teachings of Jesus—the Jesus they would have known was dead and gone if they were lying about his resurrection. So, maybe we could dismiss the original Christian movement as just another cult of personality… except the personality in question wasn’t even around to enjoy it, unlike every other cult that has ever emerged.
If exalting the name and reputation of Jesus was some indirect scheme to win attention and admiration for themselves, though, that scheme must have been a pretty tough sell for whoever came up with it in the days before their public debut. Let’s face it—on paper, Jesus wouldn’t have been a particularly flashy and appealing figure, much less a likely bearer of coattails bound for fame and fortune. If the apostles were willing to risk humiliation and death in the pursuit of fame and adulation, there were much more tried-and-true methods than the one under discussion. Armed rebellion against the Roman Empire would have been a much more assured path to glory than worshiping a peasant-class teacher who taught them to “turn the other cheek” before he was condemned as a common criminal. Jesus’ background and credentials didn’t make him the kind of figure to whom people generally rally, so if the apostles made it all up for personal glory, they picked an extremely high-risk plan with no guaranteed or realistic benefits.
Also, if they just wanted a bunch of worshipers to control, then they probably would have at least tried to actually control them: they would have isolated and subdued them the way any self-respecting cult leader would. Instead, they enacted their alleged scheme by becoming itinerant preachers, which is precisely opposite of the methods employed by cult leaders. Instead of isolating people and controlling their access to information and outside influences, the apostles instead left their own comfort zones to meet people on their own turf, settled as foreigners for a few years to train and empower others to lead their local community of Christians, and then they left to do the same somewhere else while somebody else stayed behind to lead the group they’d just organized. It’s hard to cast them as narcissistic manipulators when they didn’t even stick around to enjoy the fruits of their supposed manipulations.
Whatever their motivation, then, it wasn’t for power or personal glory that they would have lied about the resurrection of Jesus.
A particularly glib, albeit common accusation is that they fabricated the story about the resurrection because they “just wanted something to believe in.” This is a frequent, almost kneejerk answer to the question under discussion. Some even offer up this explanation approvingly, as if it would be somehow admirable for the apostles to have made it all up for the purpose of “giving people faith,” even when they themselves knew none of it was true.
There are several reasons this couldn’t have been a motive, though.
First, their concept of faith wasn’t quite the pluralistic, postmodern notion we identity as “faith” today. They didn’t think blind faith—faith just for the sake of having faith, regardless of its object—was a virtue in itself like we do. However, they did attach some of the same baggage to it in that that many people in the ancient world—Jews and Romans alike—saw religious faith as a component of civic duty and cultural obligation: eating kosher and keeping the Sabbath, for instance, were as much social as religious obligations for Jews, and it was incumbent upon any good Roman or Greek to stay on the gods’ good side to keep natural disaster at bay and to prosper the community.
In that regard, though, there simply was no religious vacuum to be filled. In fact, to spread their message, the apostles had to compete against the endless array of traditional gods to which people were already deeply committed throughout the Roman Empire. People didn’t “need something to believe in,” because the religious market was already overflowing with options for belief.
The apostles were Jews, though, of course, and so they had the religion of Moses and the prophets, and like any Jew at the time, they based much of their identity and sense of purpose in their ancestral religion. If they were driven by a need to retain their devotion to their departed rabbi within a Jewish framework, though, they could have simply cast Jesus in the role of a martyred prophet along the same lines as Joseph, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the others. They could have easily validated Jesus’ role as a spokesman for God that way without even having to exaggerate, much less concoct an extraordinary story about his resurrection and ascension after his death for the atonement of the sins of the world. In fact, if they’d done that instead of allegedly inventing a new theology and covenant around the story of the resurrection, they might well have mitigated some of their vulnerability to persecution and won a much wider following among their own people.
Also, if they invented the story of the resurrection for the purpose of promoting their own and others’ faith in God, they would have defeated their own purposes by doing so. If the apostles conspired to deliberately lie about all that to perpetrate a hoax about God having dramatically intervened in the world when they knew full well that He actually didn’t, that would have amounted to a complete, unanimous, private rejection of the God of their ancestors.
People freely invent things about God only if they believe God is nothing but an invention; they only do that, in other words, if they don’t actually believe in God. They didn’t preach some vague, pious sentiment about Jesus, like “Yes, Virginia, Jesus is alive…” or “Jesus is in a better place now” or “We feel that Jesus is still with us.” People say things like that all the time in the name of “faith” today, because we cling to religious doctrines on the basis of feelings, and it’s easy to lie to ourselves, or—to put it more diplomatically—it’s easy to suspend disbelief about such things, because they’re subjective, and it’s not really a “lie” when we think “God” is whatever our feelings tell us He should be.
The apostles’ message centered upon something much more concrete, much more vivid and explicit than that. Their message didn’t revolve around their subjective feelings about Jesus, but events that they claimed to have experienced objectively and empirically. They claimed to have collectively encountered Jesus after he rose from the dead: they saw him, spoke with him, touched his crucifixion wounds, ate with him, and they all heard him give them the same instructions, which they spent the rest of their lives carrying out. You can’t suspend disbelief about something like that, or convince yourself that you’re doing the will of God when you say He did those things when you know for a fact that He didn’t. To say He did things like that when He didn’t is to offer a fictitious God, which is an explicit rejection of God as a reality.
As the apostle Paul said: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 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…”
The apostles lived and died by their message that Jesus rose from the dead. The obvious question is “Why would someone do that if it was a lie?” After 2,000 years, I don’t know of any answer given yet to that question that fits with the known facts of the origins of the Church.
Equally important to “Why would they…?” is the question of “How could they have lied?” If the first Christians were lying about having witnessed the risen Jesus Christ, could they have maintained the conspiracy for the remainder of their lives?
For the decades between their first public proclamation of the resurrection and their eventual deaths as martyrs to the cause of Christ, the apostles and other original disciples of Jesus consistently proclaimed the resurrection as the impetus and inspiration to lead lives of self-sacrificing integrity, holiness, and heroic moral quality:
“Surely you heard of (Christ) and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body… Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient… Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible.”
If the apostles were themselves lying about the resurrection, then they weren’t only lying about it, but about the moral quality to which they said it should impel all believers. Again—when people lie, they do it to manipulate and exploit their hearers, or to hide their own duplicity. If the apostles were lying about the resurrection, then they were doing it to get people—not only to be completely honest and morally upright in their own lives, but to reject and stand up against falsehood and dishonesty from others among them.
And, based on the testimony of even their enemies, they succeeded in setting that standard. Pliny the Younger, Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor, sent a letter (XCVII) to Emperor Trajan in the year 112 in which he discussed what policies he had enacted to curb the “contagious superstition” perpetuated by the followers of Jesus:
“They were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath—not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up…”
Pliny’s letter goes on to speak of the tortures he inflicted upon suspected Christians to get them to confess to what they were really up to, but found nothing unlawful or immoral for which he could charge them, so he asked the emperor for guidance on the extent to which he should actively seek to stamp out the new religion.
By spreading the news of the resurrection, the apostles created a network of communities throughout the Empire that would come to be renowned even among their enemies for their moral purity and absolute commitment to truth and honesty.
Could they have done this consistently and convincingly if they themselves were lying, though? And even if they could somehow pull it off—again, why would they?
People who live lies like that, after all—such as the aforementioned cult leaders and two-faced religious leaders—tend to eventually get exposed and meet with some personal disaster or another. Stories get leaked to the media, and the double-dealing politician or preacher has his ignominious fall from grace through the usual routine of denials, story-modifications and qualifications, and then an eventual abject mea culpa before he
disappears from public view as he is stripped of leadership or carted off to jail. Or, the situation grows beyond the cult leader’s control and he’s either arrested for taking his power too far, he leads a mass-suicide, or he gets himself and all of his followers killed in an eschatological stand-off with the government.
The real question, then, is could the apostles have concocted the resurrection for selfish gain and still managed to maintain such a convincing charade for the remainder of their lives? Could the apostles have been motivated by greed, but still convinced their followers that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil”? Could they have been driven by narcissism and a need for personal glory, yet convincingly preached that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble”? Could they have done it to exploit people for sex (as cult leaders and corrupt preachers are wont to do), yet taught that “God will judge the sexually immoral”?
It goes without saying that they would have had to have modeled all of these teachings to be taken seriously in preaching them. Could they have done that convincingly, and in close, communal fellowship with their disciples, if they didn’t really believe those things themselves?
It’s pretty difficult to imagine a scenario in which all of the apostles and early followers of Jesus could have pulled all of this off without anyone ever getting a glimpse behind the curtain to unravel the whole scheme. We see news headlines every day in this country about religious leaders whose double lives are exposed, because it’s impossible to keep up such a deception indefinitely.
Is it conceivable that twelve men, among hundreds of others who also followed and testified about Jesus, could preach and seem to model such a lofty moral standard as we see in the early Church, but not really believe it themselves, and even secretly live in denial of it?
If they did, then they pulled something off that hasn’t been accomplished since, and they did it without using any of the tricks and mind-control techniques cult leaders typically use to brainwash their followers.
What’s more, the apostles’ claims about Jesus and his resurrection were hardly limited to their private, closed-door experiences: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”
Paul referenced more than five hundred people whom he said encountered the risen Christ. Notice that he did not say “more than five hundred of the brothers believe in the resurrection.” No—he said more than five hundred people saw the resurrected Jesus.
We might surmise that Paul just said that, perhaps, because he was bluffing and gambled that nobody would call him on it. He didn’t write that as an offer to get five hundred people to vouch for his story, though. He wrote that as an appeal to what his readers already knew—he was reminding them of what he’d already passed on to them previously, which they accepted, presumably on the collective testimony of those five hundred people. An occurrence witnessed by so many is a public event, after all, and a public event of that significance causes a big splash with far-reaching ripples. Those five hundred people weren’t sitting at home, waiting for Paul or the other apostles to call on them to corroborate their story. They were already talking about it, and the buzz had already been carried along trade routes and other avenues of news delivery to reach the people of Corinth, and that’s partly how Christianity grew from a small and eccentric sect of Judaism into a major world religion within a single generation of Jesus.
How do you get hundreds of people to join you in a conspiracy of that magnitude, and without any kind of earthly enticement? After all, how could Paul and the other apostles have bribed or threatened so many to go along with them? What would the payoff have even been for the five hundred? And even if Paul could bribe or entice so many, would it have benefited him in any way if he had to part with such a fortune to do so? Even if he had the resources to somehow leverage so many people, what possible motivation could there have been to use those resources in such a manner? Wouldn’t it cost them far more than it could ever benefit them, if they’re recruiting hundreds of people as co-conspirators?
It strains credulity beyond the breaking point to think that the apostles had the means to successfully lie about the resurrection. We see what happens when one person—even an accomplished con man, attempts to live that kind of a double life indefinitely: he’s eventually exposed. The longer such a deception goes on, and the more people are involved, the more likely it is to fall apart. Yet, the apostles involved hundreds of people in their efforts, and maintained those efforts for the rest of their lives, and managed to maintain every appearance that they believed everything they were saying.
The apostles didn’t just reference their allies and followers in their accounts of events. Along with claiming a very public audience for most of the events of the ministries of Jesus and themselves, the apostles also painted extremely unflattering portraits of various high-profile public figures, such as Pontius Pilate, the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, King Herod, governors Felix and Festus, King Agrippa and others. And other public figures, like Gamaliel, are mentioned as having been somewhat supportive of the apostles.
They claimed, for instance, that Pilate and the Jewish rulers all knew about the empty tomb, and that the Jewish leaders bribed the Roman guards to help them spread a phony cover story to account for it, and that this story was common knowledge at the time Matthew wrote his Gospel.
None of these were made up characters, but living, breathing, powerful public figures of the time who—like anyone else—would have been intensely interested in their own images and reputations. The New Testament writers wouldn’t have made such frequent mention of such well-known people—and often in an unfavorable light—if they had any credibility issues about which to be nervous, because these people and their associates were certainly capable of setting the record straight, had it been unfairly skewed.
If they were lying about the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus, or about him having performed miraculous feats in full view of the public and in full view of his enemies, it’s baffling that no one stood up to set the record straight, especially when they painted such unflattering portraits of so many high-profile public figures in the
process. It would be like claiming today, for instance, that Bruce Lee isn’t really buried in Seattle, but that he miraculously rose from the grave shortly after his death in 1973. Not only that, but before his death, his superior kung fu skills enabled him to fly, bend steel with his bare hands, shoot fire from his eyes, and catch bullets in his teeth, andthat he did all this in full view of the public… right up until the Kennedys had him assassinated, that is!
Today, four decades after his untimely death, Lee still has several disciples and countless admirers all over the world, many of whom might even enthusiastically embrace such tales. But those stories wouldn’t get very far before they’d be corrected and repudiated by those who actually knew and loved the real Bruce Lee, like his widow, daughter, and students, as well as by most of his admiring public who—while certainly impressed by his remarkable feats of athletic prowess, don’t recall him defying the laws of nature or proving to be an immortal wonder-worker. And, of course, the Kennedy family would probably use their considerable public platform to weigh-in on those stories, too.
Likewise, if the portrait we have of Jesus in the New Testament (and in the oral tradition it preserves) were a distortion or inflation of the real person, someone would have said something. If not his committed followers or his surviving family, any number of his powerful enemies would have set the record straight. But, his followers fearlessly proclaimed his resurrection from the dead, his family enthusiastically joined the cause, and his enemies kept silent and tried to pretend nothing of significance had happened.
It’s true that dishonesty and deception are par for the course in this world. It’s human nature. But, it’s also no less human nature to want to see liars and hypocrites exposed, especially those who most present themselves as being blameless and transparent. The apostles certainly had their enemies. There was no shortage of people who would have loved to see them exposed, if they were lying, and who would have relished the opportunity to point out any inconsistencies between their public personas and their private lives. Evidently, though, no such opportunity ever presented itself.
There was no conceivable motive for them to have lied about the resurrection that could even begin to outweigh the tremendous risk of persecution, poverty, and agonizing death they incurred by preaching about it.
To have consistently maintained such a deception would have demanded virtually superhuman means, considering the level of discipline and perseverance among dozens of leaders and hundreds of accomplices that would have been needed to pull off such a hoax—and that with no hope of earthly reward for their efforts.
Finally, the apostles eliminated any opportunity to misrepresent the circumstances surrounding the resurrection by making so many claims about events that were matters of public record involving powerful public figures.
If the apostles were to be put on trial for the crime of lying about the resurrection, and even if the presumption of the court were that they were guilty until proven innocent, it’s inconceivable that any jury of twelve reasonable people could consider the plain facts and find them guilty, because there is extraordinary evidence that they had neither motive nor means nor opportunity to lie about it.
The apostles gave every indication that they believed the things they taught and modeled, and that they were driven by their love for Jesus and their hope of being resurrected from the dead as he was. Whatever else we believe about God or Christianity, the facts themselves dictate that it was impossible that they were lying about what they claimed.
Living and Dying for a Straw Man…?
If they weren’t lying, then what? Could they have been mistaken somehow?
There have been a handful of scenarios proposed along that premise but, in my view, they do more to strengthen the Christian position than undermine it.
The scenario I hear most often, almost as another knee-jerk skeptical reaction, is the Mass-Hallucination Hypothesis:
Out of their extreme grief and emotional distress over the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples thought he appeared to them from beyond the grave, risen in glory, not having been abandoned by God after all. In their desperation to cope with the disaster of the sudden and shameful end of his rising stardom, Jesus’ disciples’ wounded psyches’ manufactured visions of his reanimated, crucified form to assure them that this was all part of the divine plan, and that they were to carry on his work.
Some variations of this hypothesis involve magic mushrooms or other mind-altering substances to make them susceptible to hallucination.
And this all sounds believable, if we’ve already made up our minds absolutely that there is no God, or that God does not or cannot intervene, and if we ignore the fact that it took the advanced chemical knowledge of the 20th-century to come up with a hallucinogen as potent as LSD (and even that doesn’t induce predictable or consistent effects from person to person). If we take any of those assumptions for granted, this might actually be the best explanation on the market.
Except, when was the last time five hundred people shared a hallucination? Or a dozen people? Or even two people? If a person sees or hears something that isn’t really there, it’s because his own mind manufactures the experience and fools his senses. Even if mind-altering substances affect everyone involved, they might all hallucinate, but they won’t have the same hallucination, because one person’s mind can’t manufacture a vision for someone else’s mind. Drug-induced or otherwise, hallucinations are strictly solitary experiences, and they are not contagious.
Even if there is precedent for shared hallucination, how detailed and specific was it? Could they touch the hallucination? Could they carry on a group conversation with it? Could they share a meal with it?
What’s more, would a hallucination give detailed instructions to follow for the rest of their lives, and at great personal cost, which they would consistently obey? Even if we accept the Mass-Hallucination Hypothesis as a possibility, could such an emotional response sustain itself among so many, and over the course of a lifetime? Wouldn’t the movement gradually slow down and taper off, instead of growing and increasing in momentum?
For hundreds, or dozens, or even a handful of people to share such a vivid, detailed, and identical “hallucination” and to have it set the course for the rest of their lives would be a miracle in itself, on par with the resurrection. Such a “hallucination” would more rightfully be called a “supernatural vision,” but that’s precisely the kind of miracle detractors are trying to deny. An extremely intense emotional trauma might explain such a scenario for one or maybe two impressionable people, but emotions like that do not sustain themselves over the period of a lifetime, and not among the hundreds who comprised the original Church.
Further, even if that were the case, the apostles’ delusion could have easily been put to rest by the Jewish or Roman authorities simply by producing the crucified corpse and saying, “See? Your messiah is still dead after all…”
Unless, of course, the body was missing, which it would have to have been if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. Or, it would be missing if someone stole it. But, who would have cause to do so? The only people who would have any reason to steal the body would be the apostles, which would mean they weren’t delusional about Jesus rising from the dead, but dishonest. But, we’ve already eliminated that as a possibility.
Another attempted explanation is the Swoon Hypothesis. According to this scenario, when Jesus was taken down from the cross, he wasn’t really dead, just unconscious. Having been taken down from the cross and placed on the cool, stone slab inside the tomb, he revived, got up, left the tomb, and made his way to his disciples’ doorstep. Then they mistook his near-death resuscitation for a glorious, divine triumph over death.
Is this even worth refuting?
In the extremely unlikely event that he survived the flogging and crucifixion at the hands of professional Roman executioners, and then what would have been an indelicate removal from the cross (after being stabbed through the heart with a spear, if we accept the account in John’s Gospel), and in the even more unlikely event that, rather than dying later in the tomb, he woke up, somehow removed the massive stone from the tomb’s opening, snuck past or overpowered the guards, managed to make his way through the city and find his way to the disciples… could he then manage to convince them that he had conquered death and the Devil and could provide eternal life for all mankind? Wouldn’t they be more likely to pity him in this condition than worship him? And even if they did worship him initially, wouldn’t they rethink that after he passed out from blood loss or asked for medical attention and bed rest?
Another scenario even more absurd is the Twin Hypothesis. According to this scenario, it wasn’t Jesus who appeared to the disciples after the crucifixion, but his identical twin brother, who posed as Jesus to convince them of the resurrection. The sole basis for this bizarre fantasy is the fact that the apostle Thomas’ name means “twin.” So, some have proposed, if there was someone named “Twin” hanging around, it could have been none other than Jesus’ twin.
Of course, if Thomas was Jesus’ twin, you would think the rest of the apostles would have had a few questions about the nativity story, as well as Jesus’ status as the “only begotten Son of God.” If Jesus was believed to have been the Scion of David and the Son of God conceived by the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t Thomas have had equal claim to all that? If that were the case, wouldn’t he be just as good to have around? So why bother with a resurrection at all? And why would they think Thomas was Jesus if they were used to him hanging around in the first place?
There are probably more ideas out there for how the apostles could have honestly but mistakenly believed Jesus to have risen from the dead, but these are the most common I’ve encountered. To be honest, I feel a bit silly for having gone through the exercise of examining and refuting them, because they don’t really warrant the attention. It might look like I’m just setting up straw men to cut down, and, well… I am. Not by choice, mind you—it’s just that straw men are the only targets available for exploring this hypothesis.
There simply isn’t any reasonable way to imagine how any group of people could somehow be honestly mistaken about experiencing what the followers of Jesus said they experienced. Again—they not only claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, but to have seen him up close and spoken with him at length, shared meals with him, even touched his nail-scarred hands and the wound in his side. They were together when all of this happened, and when he gave them the instructions they followed for the rest of their lives.
How do dozens, and in at least one instance, hundreds of people think they’re seeing a living, breathing, speaking and moving person when they’re really not? How do you think you’re having a conversation with someone who isn’t really there, when other people are also there, seeing the same person and having the same conversation?
What’s more, look at Christian culture of the past 2,000 years. There are fights and schisms and deadly conflicts among Christians all the time, and over matters as weighty as doctrine or church mission statements and as trivial as what kind of carpet to put in the sanctuary. Christians have slaughtered each other over the centuries because of these differences. Where there is religion, there are strong feelings, and where there are strong feelings, there are conflicts, and the stronger the feelings, the bloodier the conflicts.
And there were certainly heated arguments within the early Church over matters like circumcision and dietary laws and whether it’s kosher to eat with non-Jews. But, they were unanimous on several key points. In fact, it was only by agreeing on these key points that they had any framework within which to argue about the rest. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was the lynchpin for that framework, as were the final instructions Jesus gave to the disciples before he ascended, which was to bear witness to the world and to pass on his teachings until his return.
How could they have come to such unanimous agreement on something that didn’t even happen? How could they all be agreed on something about which they were all deluded and mistaken? How could they all be mistaken about such vivid experiences and such detailed instructions, must less agree about how to proceed?
Once again, applying the rules of logic, if we eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, is the truth. Of all the options before us, which makes the most sense? Which best accounts for the known facts? Which requires the least leap of faith?
In summary, I have so far yet to hear any proposed scenario to explain how the disciples could have been mistaken about the resurrection which hasn’t actually strengthened my certainty about the Event, because none of them are easier to believe than that God really did raise Jesus from the dead. It is equally impossible to believe that the apostles were purposefully deceptive about it. The only explanation that accounts for all of the known facts is that when the apostles claimed to have seen and spoken with the resurrected Jesus, it was because they really did, literally and truly, experience God’s miraculous intervention in the world.
The central claim of Christianity is not a matter of personal, private conviction, religious socialization, or subjective feelings, but is a verifiable historical fact, and, of all the proposed explanations for the existence of the New Testament and the Church, it is by far the least fantastic.
When the actual facts about the origins of Christianity are considered, they line up with clear, mathematical certainty to point to a single objective and inescapable conclusion: Jesus rose from the dead and is therefore the Messiah, the Son of God, and the Savior of the world.
That’s not a statement of faith. It’s not a religious dogma. It’s not a superstition clung to because of circularly-reasoned childhood indoctrination. It is a knowable, proven, and immutable fact, and it is the central fact of human history.
Faith, however, is what we do with that fact. We can either put our trust in the One who raised Jesus from the dead, or we can go the other way by rejecting Him because we prefer instead to cling blindly to our faith in the false promises of our own appetites and culturally-conditioned preconceptions.
I realize, though, that the case presented here might not be instantly compelling for people disinclined to believe in God or in the possibility of miracles. Believe it or not, I share your disposition. Left to my own inclinations, none of it sounds particularly likely to me either.
But, the facts are the facts, and they don’t care what our expectations were before we found them.
If you’re not convinced, though—mull it over. Or, better yet, try to prove me wrong.
If you do, what will happen is that the more you stare at this and consider it from every possible angle—to prove either that they were lying, mistaken, or that they didn’t claim to witness the resurrection at all—the less you’ll be able to resist believing, and the more clearly you’ll see that it’s the truth. It’ll sink in that this can’t not be true, and you’ll wake up one day with the realization that God is real, and that He actually loves humanity so much that He would reveal Himself this way, and sacrifice His Son to give us eternal life…
It would be better, though, to come to that realization without the “kicking and screaming”-part, so here’s another crazy idea—pray about it. Ask Him to show you the truth. That’s what I did, and then I learned that a God who can raise the dead can easily change my inclinations…
(Note to reader: In previous entries, I’d mentioned my plan to examine Islam alongside Christianity, asking the same questions and applying the same standards of evidence. I’m still doing that, but out of organizational concerns and consideration for your patience, I decided to do it as a separate entry. That’s coming up next. Stay tuned. And hopefully I won’t have a fatwa on my head afterward. If I do, though, I’m going to brag about it incessantly, and I’ll probably even get t-shirts made…)
 I’m just a layman and not a scholar, so take this with a grain of salt, but I don’t personally believe John the apostle directly wrote the Gospel bearing his name. He was certainly the source of its content, having committed his recollections to writing in some earlier form, but I suspect it was a disciple who was a native Greek-speaker and an adept in Platonic philosophy who, under John’s supervision, arranged them in the form we now have. The Book of Revelation is also attributed to John, and was written in somewhat crudely-rendered Greek—which is exactly what we might expect from a blue-collar native Aramaic-speaker exiled on an island whose original vocation was fishing. In contrast, the Greek of the Gospel is highly refined, and contains highly-developed Greek philosophical ideas seamlessly interwoven with Hebraic religious concepts. The two books also have in common, along with John’s first epistle, their use of the Platonic technical term “Logos” or “Word” in reference to Jesus, which is found in no other book of the New Testament. To me, this suggests a common source for the three books, while their differences in style and writing quality suggest different direct authorship. None of this makes it any less John’s Gospel, though, or any less credible as authentic memories of Jesus.