And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” 1 Corinthians 15:17,19.
I set out as a young man to debunk Christianity. I met a young Christian woman who challenged me to intellectually examine the evidence for Christianity, and I accepted her challenge. I aimed to show her-and everyone-that Christianity was nonsense. I thought it would be easy. I thought a careful investigation of the facts would expose Christianity as a lie and its followers as dupes. But then a funny thing happened. As I began investigating the claims of Christianity, I kept running up against the evidence. Time after time, I was surprised to discover the factual basis for the seemingly outlandish things Christians believe. And one of the most convincing categories of evidence I confronted was this: The resurrection accounts found in the Gospels are not the stuff of fable, forgery or fabrication.
I had assumed that someone, or several someones, had invented the stories of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But as I examined those accounts, I had to face the fact that any sensible mythmaker would do things much differently from the way Matthew, Mark, Luke and John did in recording the news of the resurrection. As much as I hated to, I had to admit that if I had been some first-century propagandist trying to fake the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I would have done a number of things differently:
I would wait a prudent period after the events before “publishing” my account
Few historians dispute the fact that the disciples of Jesus began preaching the news of His resurrection soon after the event itself; in fact, Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2) occurred within 50 days of the Resurrection. And textual research indicates that the written accounts of the Resurrection, especially the creedal statement of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, are astoundingly early in origin, possibly within two years of the event. Such early origins argue against any notion that the Resurrection accounts are legendary.
I would publish my account far from the venue where it supposedly happened
Dr. William Lane Craig writes, “One of the most amazing facts about the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection was that it originated in the very city where Jesus was crucified. The Christian faith did not come to exist in some distant city, far from eyewitnesses who knew of Jesus’ death and burial. No, it came into being in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified, under the very eyes of its enemies.”
I would select my “witnesses” very carefully
I would avoid, as much as possible, using any names at all in my account, and I would certainly avoid citing prominent personalities as witnesses. Yet at least 16 individuals are mentioned by name as witnesses in the various accounts, and the mention of Joseph of Arimathea as the man who buried Jesus would have been terribly dangerous if the gospel accounts had been faked or embellished. As a member of the Sanhedrin, a Jewish “Supreme Court,” he would have been well-known. J. P. Moreland writes, “No one could have invented such a person who did not exist and say he was on the Sanhedrin if such were not the case.”
His involvement in the burial of Jesus could have been easily confirmed or refuted. Perhaps most important, I would avoid citing disreputable witnesses, which makes significant the record of Jesus’ first appearances-to women-since in that time and culture women were considered invalid witnesses in a court of law. If the accounts were fabrications, the women would never have been included in the story, at least not as first witnesses.
I would surround the event with impressive supernatural displays and omens
As Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide writes, “We do not read in the first testimonies [of the Resurrection] of an apocalyptic spectacle, exorbitant sensations, or of the transforming impact of a cosmic event. . . . According to all New Testament reports, no human eye saw the resurrection itself, no human being was present, and none of the disciples asserted to have apprehended, let alone understood, its manner and nature. How easy it would have been for them or their immediate successors to supplement this scandalous hole in the concatenation of events by fanciful embellishments! But precisely because none of the evangelists dared to ‘improve upon’ or embellish this unseen resurrection, the total picture of the gospels also gains in trustworthiness.”
I would painstakingly correlate my account with others I knew, embellishing the legend only where I could be confident of not being contradicted
Many critics have pointed out the befuddling differences and apparent contradictions in the Resurrection accounts. But these are actually convincing evidences of their authenticity; they display an ingenuous lack of collusion, agreeing and (apparently) diverging much as eyewitness accounts of any event do.
I would portray myself and any co-conspirators sympathetically, even heroically
Yet the Gospel writers present strikingly unflattering portraits of Jesus’ followers (such as Peter and Thomas) and their often skeptical reactions (Mark 16:11, 13; Luke 24:11, 37; John 20:19, 25, 21:4). Such portrayals are very unlike the popular myths and legends of that (or any) time.
I would disguise the location of the tomb or spectacularly destroy it in my account
If I were creating a resurrection legend, I would keep the tomb’s location a secret to prevent any chance that someone might discover Jesus’ body, or I would record in my account that the angels sealed it or carried it off into heaven after the Resurrection. Or I might have taken the easiest course of all and simply made my fictional resurrection a “spiritual” one, which would have made it impossible to refute even if a body were eventually discovered. But, of course, the Gospel accounts describe the owner of the tomb (Joseph of Arimathea) and its location (“At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb,” John 19:41), and identify Jesus’ resurrection as a bodily one (John 20:27).
I would try to squelch inquiry or investigation.
I might pronounce a curse on anyone attempting to substantiate my claims, or attach a stigma to anyone so shallow as to require evidence. Yet note the frequent appeal of Jesus’ disciples, to the easily confirmed-or discredited-nature of the evidence, as though inviting investigation (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 13:31; 1 Corinthians 15:3-6). This was done within a few years of the events themselves; if the tomb were not empty or the Resurrection appearances were fiction, the early Christians’ opponents could have conclusively debunked the new religion.
As Dr. Edwin Yamauchi says of the citation of the resurrected Christ appearing to more than 500 people in 1 Corinthians 15, “What gives special authority to the list [of witnesses] as historical evidence is the reference to most of the five hundred brethren being still alive. St. Paul says in effect, ‘If you do not believe me, you can ask them.’ ”
I would not preach a message of repentance in light of the Resurrection
No one in his right mind would have chosen to create a fictional message that would invite opposition and persecution from both civil and religious authorities of those days. How much easier and wiser it would have been to preach a less controversial gospel- concentrating on Jesus’ teachings about love, perhaps-thus saving myself and the adherents of my new religion a lot of trouble.
I would stop short of dying for my lie
Lee Strobel has written, “People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false.
“While most people can only have faith that their beliefs are true, the disciples were in a position to know without a doubt whether or not Jesus had risen from the dead. They claimed that they saw him, talked with him, and ate with him. If they weren’t absolutely certain, they wouldn’t have allowed themselves to be tortured to death for proclaiming that the resurrection had happened.”
These are not the only reasons I believe in the truth of the Bible and the reality of the Resurrection. But these were among the “many convincing proofs” (Acts 1:3) that I encountered in my attempts to prove Christianity wrong, which eventually led me to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was who He claimed to be and that He really did rise from the dead. It didn’t happen immediately, but eventually I gave in to the truth, and on Dec. 19, 1959, the Risen Christ radically changed my life. I’ve seen Him do the same for countless others, and I pray, if you haven’t done so already, you will let Him do the same for you.
Copyright © 2000 Josh McDowell. All rights reserved. Used with permission. This article appeared in Focus on the Family magazine.
Josh McDowell is a speaker, author, and traveling representative for Campus Crusade for Christ. His books include Evidence That Demands a Verdict, More Than a Carpenter, and The New Tolerance. He was assisted in writing this article by Bob Hostetler, an award-winning writer who lives in Hamilton, Ohio.