Contrary to popular misconception, Christianity is eminently and easily provable by simple logic and straightforward reference to a few basic, minimal and uncontroversial facts of history and reality.
I call this argument the “Prime Radiant,” after the central equation of psychohistory from Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series, because it’s the centermost tenet from which all else in the system of study radiates, and everything else is a consequence and corollary to this primary truth. If the Prime Radiant is valid, the larger body of thought is thereby generally true, even if all of the extremities don’t hold up equally well. If the Prime Radiant can be falsified, then all else falls with it, regardless of how useful or seemingly true the extremities appear.
And, it also has in common with Asimov’s concept that it is the central organizing principle by which all of human history can be understood.
The Prime Radiant is as follows:
Christianity exists because the disciples publicly proclaimed, “Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to us.”
And they didn’t claim, “We hope he rose from the dead,” “We feel he rose from the dead,” or “We heard he rose from the dead.” Theirs was a claim to empirical experience (CEE), which is falsifiable, as opposed to a claim to subjective experience, which is not.
And apart from that CEE, there would be no Christianity today of which to speak, because every shred of information we have about Christianity’s origin tells us it came into existence as a consequence of the disciples of Jesus traveling throughout the Roman Empire, building communities around their CEE of having encountered Jesus alive again after his public execution and burial. That thesis and the circumstances resulting from it are corroborated by Roman and Jewish sources, along with the historical evidence within the New Testament itself for an early, formalized creedal statement about the resurrection as a CEE by the apostles.
Further, there is not a single ancient source even dimly suggesting any alternative explanation for Christianity’s origin.
This information, as a historical fact, is as well attested and certain as any fact of history. As such, it is barely even controversial.
In and of itself, it’s not controversial at all among historians and scholars. Controversy only sets in when its inevitable implications come into the discussion.
It absolutely necessarily logically follows that one of these three scenarios must be true of any CEE:
1) The claimant is lying.
2) The claimant honestly believes it happened, but is mistaken somehow.
3) The claimant is telling the truth about something that actually happened.
Only one of these scenarios can be true, and one of them absolutely must be true. So if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be true.
These implications apply universally, any time anyone anywhere makes any CEE, no matter how extraordinary or unlikely or seemingly impossible that claim is – be it an experience of miracles, aliens, ghosts, garden gnomes, encounters with Bigfoot or what – one of these implications must unavoidably logically follow.
Regarding the resurrection, there is every possible evidence one could ask for that the original Christians sincerely believed what they claimed. They were not lying.
The more acquainted a person is with the evidence – that is, the more familiar one is with the writings of the apostles and their immediate disciples collected in the New Testament and in the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and the more familiar one is with what Roman writers said about the original and early Christians – the more impossible it is to genuinely think they had anything but the most sincere confidence in the truth of what they proclaimed.
Also, if they were lying, they would have had to have conspired beforehand and come to unanimous agreement, not just about the story they would tell, but about what they wanted to get out of it – about their collective motivations and expectations in carrying out their hoax. When they had every reason to expect that the same fate that befell Jesus would come upon them as well, it is inconceivable that they all agreed on a plan to publicly lie about having encountered him risen from the dead, because there is simply nothing they could have gained by this that couldn’t be much more easily obtained by other, less costly, risky, difficult and painful means.
In the past 2,000 years, no plausible scenario has ever been proposed to explain how the original Christians thought they experienced the risen Jesus, but didn’t.
That’s not to say no scenarios have been proposed, but the more you consider them, the less tenable they become: the Mass Hallucination Hypothesis, the Swoon Theory, the Twin Theory, etc.
For someone well enough acquainted with the evidence to eliminate Scenario i., but still inclined to reject the resurrection, any of these might seem plausible at first glance, but they collapse under scrutiny because they defy everything we know from medical science and from straightforward logic: there’s no such thing as “mass hallucination,” there are too many reasons to list for why the Swoon Theory fails, and the Twin Theory is outright laughable, and of all the different scenarios proposed over the millennia, these three are the best skeptics have been able to come up with.
By process of elimination, Scenario iii emerges as the best explanation, and there is no reason to reject it, other than a philosophical predisposition against the existence of God and the supernatural.
To summarize the Prime Radiant:
Christianity exists because the disciples publicly taught, as a claim to objective personal experience (CEE), “Jesus has risen from the dead and appeared to us.”
It necessarily logically follows from any CEE that 1.) the claimant is lying, 2) the claimant is honestly mistaken, or 3) the claimant is telling the truth. One of these must be true, but only one of them can be, so if options can be eliminated, the truth is in whatever remains.
The weight of evidence is that the original Christians believed what they claimed, eliminating the first option.
No plausible scenario has ever been proposed to explain how they could have been mistaken, eliminating the second option.
Other than a philosophical predisposition against the existence of God and the supernatural (i.e., atheistic materialism), there is no evidence by which to eliminate the third option.
Therefore, the resurrection happened and Christianity is true.
Obviously, there are nuances to this far beyond what I’ve addressed here, though.
If you know the evidence, this is a compelling argument, but most people don’t know the evidence (which is why it’s imperative that learning the evidence become standard operating procedure in discipleship and evangelism).
Some will try to argue that the apostles didn’t intend for their claim about the resurrection to be taken literally.
Again, learning the evidence is the best vaccination against that idea, but for efficiency’s sake, it’s worth noting that the very same people who reject Christianity because of the supposed ignorance and primitive thinking of its founders will turn around and attribute “progressive” 20th/21st-century Postmodernist religious thinking to the original Christians when it suits their argument – which is essentially what the “non-literal resurrection” notion would have been. And there’s a lot you have to ignore to try to claim that the apostles weren’t being literal when they taught about the resurrection. The deaths they risked and suffered were pretty literal, because they expected literal resurrections. Also, “resurrection” as a concept was well established within 1st-century Jewish thought, and that concept was a literal, bodily resurrection.
More often, though – particularly since the rise of the New Atheism movement – the difficulty comes from there just not being a lot of knowledge of history or of what’s written in the New Testament, much less in the works of the Apostolic Fathers.
Someone always naively argues that they lied “so they’d have something to believe in,” or because “they needed to validate Jesus’ message.”
As Jews, they didn’t have any religious vacuum that needed filling, and they already had a pretty well-established tradition of martyred prophets within Judaism, so they didn’t need Jesus to be resurrected or to be the Messiah for his message to be validated.
It might have taken some massaging to work a crucified prophet into that tradition, given the shame and stigma attached to crucifixion at the time, but it would have taken far less massaging than their message of a crucified and risen Messiah.
The far-and-away most common objection I’ve encountered is simply, “I don’t find that convincing,” or “That’s not very strong evidence.”
Which is, essentially, a shrug and a “nuh-uh.” It’s not a refutation; it’s a lazy dismissal.
This is typical of the New Atheist “Flying Spaghetti Monster”-paradigm, which insists that the entire burden of evidence is on theists, since we’re making a positive claim.
While I agree that theists – and Christians especially – bear a certain burden of evidence for our claims, the atheist still has his or her own burden to meet. “Atheism” isn’t simply “a lack of belief about God or gods.” In the absence of a theistic belief, atheists are still holding out a positive belief about Ultimate Reality – about How the Universe/Reality Really Is. They’re claiming that the universe is a closed system and that absolutely nothing transcends nature and the material universe, which is in no way known with any certainty or presupposed with any rational justification. It’s a philosophical presumption no different than any other philosophical presumption. Insisting that theirs is the default position is just as faith-based and circularly-reasoned as they accuse Christians of being.
As it pertains to the Prime Radiant, a shrug and a blithe dismissal as “not enough evidence” exposes their bluff: when they say things like, “There’s no evidence for God or Christianity,” and then refuse to engage the points raised through the Prime Radiant, it just shows that they’ve never looked for evidence and don’t actually want any evidence. Their position is essentially, “Don’t bother me with the evidence, my mind is made up that there’s no evidence … I like being an atheist, and I don’t want to lose my justification.”
If they reject the resurrection, I turn it around with, “Well, what do you believe?”
Because if they reject the conclusion of the Prime Radiant – unless they’re being willfully ignorant and intellectually dishonest – they must hold some other belief about where its premises lead.
To that, I let them know that the burden is on them to provide an alternative, evidence-supported explanation for all those churches dotting the land, if they don’t accept the initial premise that the apostles claimed to have encountered Jesus alive again after his public execution.
Whatever attempts are made at overturning this point are usually short-lived, unless they veer off into the upside-down land of conspiracy theories like the Jesus Myth Hypothesis (which is easy enough to refute, but that’s a different discussion, and one that’s already been capably explored elsewhere), so I move on to ask how they meet the burden of arguing for options 1 or 2.
They’ll usually pick one of them, or keep their options for both, so I challenge them to make a case for either – not based on their assumptions, imagination or ignorance, but on the actual evidence.
If you can get them to commit to doing that, then you’ve won – nothing you can say, and no amount of knowledge you produce on your own will compare with what they’ll see on their own as they investigate for themselves what happened 2,000 years ago to give rise to Christianity. The more acquainted they become with the evidence, the more obvious and inescapable it is that Jesus, literally and truly, rose from the dead.
There simply is no other conclusion logically possible from the evidence.