It Is Rational To Follow Christ

By Peter Beal

Originally published in The New Hampshire, the student paper for The University of New Hampshire, Friday April 14, 1995.

* The cited sources and most of the thoughts expressed in this article are collected in "Contemporary Scholarship and the Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ" by Professor William Craig.

I believe the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ is as a reliable an historical event as the American-British Revolutionary War. Here's why:

  1. His appearance to James, the younger brother of Jesus. James did not believe Jesus to be anyone special while the latter was alive (Mark 3:21, 31-5; John 7:1-10). Some time later, in Acts 21:18, James is the head of the Christian church in Jerusalem. Josephus, the Jewish historian, relates that James was stoned to death sometime after A.D. 60 for his faith in Jesus Christ. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews) I have a brother named Steve. Let's say he dies. What would it take for me to believe that he is the Son of God raised from the dead? A belief so strong that I lead a church in his name and am executed for my faith in his resurrection? My only possible response for such ridiculous behavior would be that he appeared to me after his death. The skeptical critic, Hans Grass, says that the conversion of James is one of the most sound proofs of the resurrection of Jesus. (Grass, Ostergeschehen)

  2. The story could not be a mere legend. Now for some strange reason, Paul's letters are regularly considered as historical fact while the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are considered legend. The historian Herodotus has tested that even two generations is not long enough to sustain a legend. Scholars agree that the gospels were written within the first generation of the eyewitnesses, within their lifetimes. There simply was not enough time to construct a legend. I heard a speaker say that it would be like someone in the year 2023 claiming that Bill Clinton was just a farmer and never held the office of president of the United States. If the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead did not occur, those who heard the disciples' account would have no more believed in it than we would believe that Bill Clinton was just a farmer. The most plausible explanation of the flourishing Christian faith is that the gospel accounts are not legend, but are actual fact.

  3. The empty tomb. (a) If the tomb were not empty, the disciples would have never believed in the resurrection. For a first century Jew, the belief that a man could be raised from the dead while the body lay in a tomb was a contradiction in terms. (b) Even if the disciples had believed in the resurrection it would have been impossible to sustain a Christian movement while Christ lay dead in a tomb. It would be analogous to a group trying to promote Koreshism while David's bones remain in the ground. Let's say the disciples did make up the story as legend. Well, they are not very intelligent storytellers, because, of all the people who could have been chosen to first see the risen Christ, the writers of the gospels chose, dare I say it, two women. In Jewish society, the testimony of women was viewed as so worthless that they were not even allowed to serve as witnesses in a court of law. Certainly, if the disciples were constructing a legend for the sake of deceiving people, they would have chosen more reliable witnesses.

  4. The earliest Jewish response to the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead was to provide an explanation for the empty tomb. Now why would they do that if the body was in the tomb? Of course, a popular theory in the eighteenth century was that the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection accounts. Most of these disciples, if not all, died as martyrs. Some of these men, like Thomas, did not even believe Jesus was the Son of God while he was alive. Why would they have been executed in his name after he had died? I can just imagine Thomas' thought process. 'Okay Jesus. You are not the Son of God. Oh, look! Now you have died and some of us have stolen your body. I am looking at it lying in front of me. Hmmm. I think I'll go preach to everyone that you really were who you said you were and you were raised from the dead. In fact, I think I shall die for this corpse in front of me.' D.H. van Daalen writes, "It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions." (D.H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection)

  5. The origin of Christianity. The origin of Christianity rests on the belief of the disciples that Jesus was raised from the dead with his body. Even the most skeptical scholars admit that these men and women held to such a belief. They dedicated their entire lives to it. So what was the origin of that belief? R.H. Fuller says that even the most skeptical critic has to explain where that belief came from. (R.H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives) If Jesus did not raise from the dead then the disciples' belief must be explained in terms of Jewish or pagan influences. As was established in the first installment of this article, the disciples held to the belief that Jesus had been resurrected. Scholars needed to find where the origin for such a belief resided. Their search led them to explanations through both pagan and Jewish influences. At the turn of the century, pagan influences were thought to be the origin of the disciples' belief in the resurrection. Scholars of other religions compiled parallels to Jesus' resurrection from their sources. They sought to explain that the Christian belief was influenced by other myths. This movement failed, however, because myths of dying and rising gods are based on seasonal changes and have absolutely nothing to do with actual historical figures. The skeptic Grass writes that it would be "completely unthinkable" for the original disciples to believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead due to myths about seasonal gods. (Grass, Ostergeschehen)

    We are left with Jewish influences. However, there are problems. (a) In Jewish thought, resurrection always occurred after the end of the world and (b) it included all people, not just an individual. The resurrection account of Jesus contradicts both of those beliefs. There are ancient Jewish accounts of resuscitations of the dead; but these people would die again. The idea of a true resurrection prior to the end of the world was unthinkable. For the disciples to spread a story of Jesus' resurrection would be like me telling you that language does not exist. Most of us, I will assume, believe in the existence of language. If you do not, then you have no idea that I have even posed that possibility. In fact, our belief in language is so thorough that a theory contrary to that belief does not seem possible. The same holds true with the disciple's theory of resurrection. A theory of a true resurrection before the end of the world did not seem possible. The origin of the disciple's belief in Jesus' resurrection can not be explained other than the fact that the resurrection actually occurred. C.F.D. Moule writes, "the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church ... remains an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself." (C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament)

  6. The opposing theories are weak. We have established the fact that the disciples believed, tru