I watched a 20/20 special last Friday exploring the Resurrection story of Jesus. The program featured comments by leading Christian and history scholars and a tour of the most likely places of Jesus’ crucifixion, entombment, and movements after his resurrection. The overall theme of the program seemed to be that Jesus truly did rise from the dead in some fashion and that we have ample grounds for believing this.
Scholars argued that no one of that time, including the Romans, is on record as having denied that Jesus’ body disappeared from his tomb shortly after his death. Second, all of his disciples claimed to have seen his resurrected body even if they didn’t always recognize him at first. Third, and most compellingly, although most of his disciples were in hiding after his apprehension and during his execution, their lives changed profoundly after claiming to see his resurrected body. From that point on, they and their followers openly declared their faith and risked and in many cases had inflicted upon them arrest, agonizing torture, and death for that faith. Finally, quite a number of men lived around the time of Jesus who preached and had followings of their own and claimed to be the Messiah and to work miracles, and they too were crucified. But we don’t know anything more about them, whereas Jesus’ life and story grew into the most popular and powerful religion the world has ever seen. An itinerant preacher for only a year or two (biblical accounts differ on this) who lived only into his early thirties became, after his death, the most famous if not revered person in history. How could all of this have happened if Jesus was not truly the Son of God and did not truly rise from the dead?
I don’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I don’t believe that he rose from the dead. I believe that Christianity is based on a fairy tale. I don’t claim to know for sure that it is, but I never cease to be amazed at how otherwise intelligent and sensible people of today can believe the biblical story of Jesus without question and at how an American politician who said he or she doesn’t believe it wouldn’t have a proverbial snowball’s chance in hell of being elected to high office, whereas one who espoused belief in such an equally implausible figure as Santa Claus or a flying saucer God would be mocked and scorned right out of the campaign if not committed to a mental hospital.
I wrote a moment ago of the “biblical story” of Jesus because that is essentially all it is. So far as I know, there is scant and totally unremarkable mention of Jesus by any of his contemporaries other than his followers. Virtually everything believers think they know about Jesus comes from a few books in a religious document designed to spread and reinforce the Christian faith, and even these books were written decades after Jesus’ death. And, interestingly enough, even these books differ in what they say about the matter. Most of our information about Jesus’ life comes from the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yet, Mark ends with an empty tomb, and the other Gospels differ on important details regarding who saw Jesus’ resurrected body and how and where they saw it. This hardly seems like the stuff of indubitable historical fact.
But even if all these books agreed with one another and told the same story, there would still be serious problems with the story itself. There is the terribly vexing question of why an omniscient and omnipotent God of supreme love and mercy would create human beings with a nature he always knew would sin and require redemption, and why he would decide that the best and only way to provide redemption was to incarnate himself into Jesus and suffer and die on the cross and then require that everyone from that era until the end of the world believe the biblical story of Jesus if they were to be saved. If we are to believe what the Gospels tell us, even Jesus’ own disciples didn’t believe that Jesus was God incarnate whose mission was to redeem humankind by his death and resurrection until they allegedly saw him resurrected. Though they lived with him, heard all his preachings, and saw all of his alleged miracles, they were devastated when they saw him apprehended by the Jewish authorities, and they ran and hid from the Jews and the Romans lest they meet the same fate as Jesus. And when some reported seeing Jesus alive again after his death, most of these same disciples didn’t believe it. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was dead and so were their hopes of him being the Messiah who would deliver their people from Roman dominance.
If even these disciples who knew Jesus more intimately by far than anyone didn’t understand his mission and didn’t believe he was the Son of God and didn’t believe he died for our sins and was resurrected until they allegedly saw his resurrected body with their own eyes, how in the world can we, almost two thousand years later, be expected to believe a word of it? Interestingly enough, one of the scholars, Fr. Richard McBrien, interviewed in the 20/20 program said that he sometimes has difficulty believing it. If a Catholic priest and leading authority on Catholic teachings has this difficulty, how can the rest of us, especially those of us outside the Church and outside Christianity entirely, be reasonably expected to believe at all? Yet we are told that we will suffer forever in hell if we don’t and rise to heaven only if we do. This seems utterly and completely absurd!
Of course, we are still left with the questions of how Jesus’ disciples allegedly transformed from dispirited, terrified men in hiding after Jesus’ arrest to bold evangelists risking limb and life after his death, and how Christianity went on to become the world’s most popular religion. How could this have happened if Jesus wasn’t truly the Son of God who rose from the dead to redeem us?
I admit that it’s difficult to explain, but when seeking an explanation, doesn’t it make sense to pick simpler, more plausible explanations over more complicated and less plausible ones? If so, is it simpler and more plausible to believe that Jesus was what the bible and Christian religion say he was, or that he was a mortal man who died on the cross and that his followers felt so desperate to find justification and meaning for the lives they had led with Jesus and the sacrifices they had made that they succumbed to a kind of collective hallucination and delusion about Jesus’ resurrection that gave them overriding purpose for the rest of their lives? Is it simpler and more plausible to assume that Christianity became the world’s most popular and powerful religion because it’s the true religion, or that Jesus lived in the right place at the right time for his followers to influence Roman civilization to influence all of dominant Western civilization with the Christian message? Does anyone believe that Jesus would have the impact he did on the world if he had been born and executed in Tibet or Mexico?
I would like to believe that Jesus was an extraordinarily wise and spiritually realized man whose biblical story of life, death, and resurrection is a mixture of truth and myth that can have powerful metaphorical and transfiguring meaning for humankind. But I cannot, using the tools of reason and commonsense that God himself allegedly gave us, believe that Jesus was literally what the bible and conventional Christian teachings tell me he was. How can anyone?