The Benefit of the Doubt

A blog about Dialogue, Doubts, and Christian Faith ~Travis Dickinson~

The Resurrection is unbelievable…unless, of course, it’s true


If someone told you that his religious leader had been killed and then appeared again, you probably wouldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t either…unless of course it was true. What I mean is that if it was true, then you’d expect to see some things that aren’t well explained unless it was true.

Christians don’t believe in the resurrection just because someone ( or 4 Gospel writing someones or 12 apostle someones) has claimed this. When we take a close look at the historical situation, there are some aspects that are very difficult to explain…unless of course it is true.

One fact that I have always found compelling is the steadfast belief of the earliest followers of Jesus in a resurrected Messiah. To claim that, though the alleged Messiah was crucified, he has risen from the dead is very unusual indeed.

What makes the most sense for the disciples of Jesus post-crucifixion? To go back to fishing or whatever life they had led prior. What doesn’t make sense is to claim that Jesus was still the Messiah despite his being crucified.

N.T. Wright makes this point well:

The historian is bound to face the question: once Jesus had been crucified, why would anyone say that He was Israel’s Messiah? Nobody said that about Judas the Galilean after his revolt ended in failure in AD 6. Nobody said it of Simon bar-Giora after his death at the end of Titus’s triumph in AD 70. Nobody said it about bar-Kochbar after his defeat and death in 135. On the contrary, where messianic movements tried to carry on after the death of their would-be messiah, their most important task was to find another messiah. The fact that the early Christians did not do that but continued against all precedent to regard Jesus Himself as Messiah, despite outstanding alternative candidates such as the righteous, devout, and well-respected James, Jesus’ own brother, is evidence that demands an explanation…The rise of early Christianity, and the shape it took in two central and vital respects, thus presses upon the historian the question for an explanation. The early Christian retained the Jewish belief in resurrection, but both modified it and made it more sharp and precise. They retained the Jewish belief in a coming Messiah but redrew it drastically around Jesus Himself. Why? The answer early Christians themselves give for these changes, of course, is that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead on the third day after His crucifixion (“Jesus’ Resurrection and Christian Origins”).

This answer arises immediately after Jesus is crucified and it is given by his closest disciples. When the crucifixion should have squashed the Jesus movement, it only ignited it. The followers of Jesus rally around a central claim: that Jesus had risen from the dead. This certified him as the true Messiah. A Messiah that exceeded and, in some ways, radically changed the 1st century Jewish expectation. As Wright claims, we are faced with asking how could the disciples be so bold and so ingenious? What explains this straightaway is they met with the risen Jesus. No one would believe this…unless of course it happened.

Moreover, this is not an easy claim to make. Those who made it faced fierce opposition.

Chuck Colson once said:

I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.

There are no plausible reasons for the followers of Jesus to claim that Jesus had risen from the dead…unless of course he did.

According to Tacitus, Nero “inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace” (Antiquities). There’s little doubt that Christians were persecuted and killed for their faith. There is a good case to be made that most of the immediate followers of Jesus (i.e., the disciples) were also tortured and killed for their faith. What’s interesting about this is that they were the ones who were in the know. They were the ones that could confirm this claim or come clean and admit that it is a lie. They could have recanted and all of the persecution goes away. But they did not. As Colson makes clear, this is impossible…unless of course it was true.

The resurrection is no ordinary claim. One can’t affirm it easily because it has purchase on the one who would affirm it. It’s a tough word. But it is the very words of eternal life.

The resurrection, it seems, is virtually unbelievable…unless it is true.


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  1. Nilo Florence