The Resurrection Shaped Hole in History
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then he can be dismissed just as easily as anyone else who claims to be the voice of the God. However, if Jesus really did rise from the dead, then we simply have to listen to what he says about God, about God’s word, and about us. Verifying or falsifying the resurrection of Jesus would therefore verify or falsify all of Christianity.
If we can set aside our confirmation bias against all supernatural claims, the historical evidence for the resurrection appears to be quite strong. So much so, that even non-Christian authors write about “The Resurrection-shaped hole in history” (Thomas de Wesselow, The Sign, p9). Jesus’ resurrection would explain a lot of what we know about first century history and of Christianity’s enduring influence on the world, while other theories are forced to explain away both.
According to the sociology of philosophy, a community’s worldview changes over a long period of time. It starts with one person suggesting a new philosophy which goes against the cultural norm, who then brings a few people with them; some of them only part of the way. Over time there is a gradual drift towards the new philosophy, there are debates over the middle ground, and finally, a new worldview emerges (Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, p80-82). However, this worlds apart from how Christianity emerged. As N.T Wright points out:
“Never before had there been a movement which began as a quasi-messianic group within Judaism and was transformed into the sort of movement which Christianity quickly became. Nor has any similar phenomenon ever occurred again. (The common post-Enlightenment perception of Christianity simply as ‘a religion’ masks the huge differences, at the point of origin, between this movement and, say, the rise of Islam or of Buddhism.) Both pagan and Jewish observers of this new movement found it highly anomalous; it was not like a club, not even like a religion (no sacrifices, no images, no oracles, no garlanded priests), certainly not like a radically based cult.” (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, p17-18)
Part of the resurrection-shaped hole in history is that Christianity moved thousands of people who had both theological and cultural objections against the resurrection, to believe in the resurrection of Jesus almost overnight. Theologically, the Jews who believed in a resurrection believed that it would be a resurrection of the whole world at the end of the age (Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:1-14; Daniel 12:2-3). Their theology gave them a very strong bias against believing in the resurrection of a single person to glory and immortality in the middle of human history (John 11:23-24).
Moreover, at that time, the Jews were the last people group in the world to worship a person as God (Deuteronomy 6:13; John 5:18). They had very strong theological objections to both Jesus’ resurrection before the end of history, and worshipping Jesus as Lord – two of the central claims of Christianity (Romans 10:9).
And culturally, ever since Plato (4th century B.C.), the Greco-Roman culture held that the spirit was good and the body was bad, so much so, that the body was described as a prison for the spirit. The prevailing cultural narrative was to seek to transcend the body and be free from it. To the people at the time, the idea of a physical resurrection after death was utterly repulsive.
One of the ways historians discern between history and fiction is by examining the source’s confirmation bias. If a group of people who are expecting or looking for a UFO, claim to see a UFO, it’s more likely that their interpretation of the event they experienced is coloured by their bias. Similarly, if a group of Jews living in first century Greco-Roman culture were expecting or looking for a resurrection from the dead, then their interpretation of what they experienced could also be more easily dismissed as confirmation bias.
However, the Jews were certainly not expecting that a single person would be raised to glory and immortality without the whole world being raised at the end of the age, and the Greco-Roman culture was not at all looking for a physical resurrection from the dead. The theological bias and cultural bias of the first generation of Christians was not towards the resurrection of Jesus, but diametrically opposed to it.
After the crucifixion, even when the disciples were confronted with Jesus in flesh, Matthew records that “when they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17). Just like us, they knew very well that dead people don’t come back to life, and they were neither expecting nor looking for Jesus to rise again.
History is littered with martyrs whose followers disbanded after their execution, but there’s something undeniably unique about the impact of Jesus Christ and his church. Indeed, the cost that the self proclaimed “witnesses” of Jesus’ resurrection, were willing to pay for their testimony, is very powerful.
The historical sources both within the Bible (e.g. Acts 7:59-60; 12:1-2) and outside of the Bible (e.g. 1 Clement 5:2; Shepherd of Hermas 27:2), unanimously attests that the apostles (those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus) willingly died for proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection. While people often die for things that they believe are true but may be false, the apostles died for something that they claimed to have seen with own eyes.
The apostles were in a unique position to know for sure whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead: if it was a lie, they simply had to be in on it, they were the ones who claimed to have seen it. And yet one by one, they all staked their lives on it, paying the ultimate price for what they claimed to have witnessed first-hand. Before the resurrection, they ran from the authorities that had killed Jesus and went into hiding (John 20:19). But after the resurrection, they became fearless before the authorities (Acts 4:13-22), and were transformed into some of the most influential leaders in world history.
When the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection is weighed, it is extraordinarily strong. On examining the historical evidence for the resurrection, the Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide has, without becoming a Christian, concluded the following:
“Despite all the legendary embellishments, in the oldest historical records there remains a recognisable historical kernel which cannot simply be demythologised. When this scared, frightened band of apostles which was just about to throw away everything in order to flee in despair to Galilee; when these peasants, shepherds, and fishermen, who betrayed and denied their master and then failed him miserably, suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society, convinced of salvation and able to work with much more success after Easter than before Easter, then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation. For a sect or school or an order, perhaps a single vision would have been sufficient – but not for a world religion which was able to conquer the Occident thanks to the Easter faith... In a purely logical analysis, the resurrection of Jesus is “the lesser of two evils” for all those who seek a rational explanation of the worldwide consequences of that Easter faith. The true miracle is the fact that this Jewish group of Jesus’ followers came to faith, a miracle which, like all miracles, escapes any exact description or scientific proof.” (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, p125-126)
Given what we know about how worldviews develop, about the contemporary theological and cultural biases against the resurrection, and about the persecution of the early Christians, the growth and impact of the Christian church defies natural explanation. Many have tried, but none have produced a satisfactory answer for it. There really is a resurrection-shaped hole in history.