JESUS; dead or alive?
Some time ago, concluding a long conversation with an atheist at the University of Cape Town, I asked: ‘What do you think of Jesus Christ?’ Without a moment’s hesitation he replied, ‘I am not sure, but I do know this – everything depends on whether or not he rose from the dead’.
Although he denied the very existence of God, let alone the Bible’s claim that Jesus was God in human form, he was certain of this one thing: all debates about the identity, ministry and relevance of Jesus hinge on one question – after he had been executed, certified dead, then buried, did he come back to life? The student was absolutely right – and his ‘everything’ covers more than he may have realised.
To begin with, the integrity and reliability of the entire New Testament hinge on whether Jesus rose from the dead, because time and again it says that he did. It refers to the resurrection of Christ often – never as a myth, legend or theory but always as an historical event.
Sir William Ramsay called Luke, the New Testament writer and physician, ‘one of the very greatest of historians’.1 Luke writes in his Gospel, ‘I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ (Luke 1:3) and elsewhere refers to ‘many convincing proofs’ that Jesus came back from the dead (Acts 1:3).
If Jesus did no such thing, not only was this expert witness mistaken but the New Testament is of no more historical value than a fairy tale. Yet the Bible is far and away the best attested collection of historical documents we have from ancient times.
Secondly, Jesus never predicted his death without claiming that he would rise again. If he did not come back to life, he was either deluded or a liar. Yet to dismiss Jesus in these terms clashes with all the records of his life, which reflect his outstanding integrity, goodness, wisdom and mental balance.
Even novelist H. G. Wells, a self-confessed ‘unbeliever’, admitted that in judging a person’s greatness by historical standards, ‘Jesus stands first’.2
Jesus not only repeatedly told his followers he would rise again; he even pinpointed how long after his burial this would happen. Even his enemies reported him as saying, ‘After three days I will rise’ (Matthew 27:63).
But did he come back to life after being dead and buried? Let’s consider the background to the resurrection story, the Bible’s record of the death and burial of Jesus.
Although there was not a shred of evidence against him, Jesus was charged with crimes ranging from insurrection to blasphemy. After several hearings, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, authorised his crucifixion.
Crucifixion was a barbaric method of execution forbidden by Jewish law but practised by Romans and others. The victims sometimes hung on a cross for days before dying. Soon after he died, Jesus was buried nearby.
The next day, Jewish religious leaders reminded Pilate that Jesus had prophesied that he would rise from the dead in three days. To prevent his followers removing the body and claiming that Jesus had come back to life, they asked Pilate to provide special security at the tomb.
Pilate agreed and ordered a detachment of soldiers to make the tomb ‘as secure as you can’ (Matthew 27:65). A huge rock was placed over the entrance and secured with the governor’s seal. A round-the-clock guard was posted to ensure that nobody tampered with the tomb.
Jesus died at about 3 p.m. on a Friday and his devout Jewish followers would have made sure that he was buried before 6 p.m., when the Jewish Sabbath began. On the Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath, three named women went to the tomb.
When they arrived the guard was gone, the seal was broken and the rock had been moved. They were understandably terrified, but an angel appeared and said, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead’ (Matthew 28:5-7).
On their way back into the city, Jesus himself met them and said, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me’
The missing person
Whatever we think of these accounts, there is one fact over which there can be no argument – by Sunday morning the body had gone. At least five named people who visited the tomb that day confirmed this. There is no record of anybody denying the fact at the time. Even now, 2,000 years later, nobody has produced credible evidence that might disprove the resurrection.
On the other hand, there are compelling reasons for believing that these witnesses were telling the truth. Within weeks, Jesus’ followers took to the streets and risked their lives by preaching that he had risen. Yet all the authorities had to do to prove them wrong was to invite people to visit the tomb and see the body for themselves.
As the German theologian Paul Althaus says, preaching the resurrection of Jesus ‘could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned’.3
The empty tomb does not prove that Jesus rose from the dead. But why would the disciples risk their lives – by preaching that he was alive – if his body lay a few hundred yards away?
Head in the sand
One way that people deny the resurrection is by ignoring it. Richard Dawkins, the one-time Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, is one of the best-known atheists in the world. In The God Delusion (2006), he launched a nuclear assault on all religious faith with one goal in mind: ‘If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down’.4
Early on he states, ‘I am not attacking any particular version of God. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural’,5 though one page later he narrows his target: ‘Unless otherwise stated, I shall have Christianity mostly in mind’.6
Then he gets even more specific: there is ‘no evidence’7 in favour of God’s existence; the Bible is a ‘chaotically cobbled-together anthology of disjointed documents’;8 ‘the only difference between The Da Vinci code and the gospels is that the gospels are ancient fiction while The Da Vinci code is modern fiction’9 ; and the central doctrine of Christianity is ‘barking mad, as well as viciously unpleasant’.10 Jesus ‘probably existed’11 but the idea that he came back to life after being dead and buried is ‘absurd’.12
Since the resurrection of Jesus is directly related to the integrity of the New Testament, the credibility of the Bible as a whole, and even the existence of God, we would therefore expect Dawkins to focus his strongest arguments on his own question – ‘Did he himself (Jesus) come alive again, three days after being crucified?’13
Having pinpointed the critical issue, what space does he then give to addressing it? How long does he spend in assessing the evidence? What proof does he offer that it never happened? None whatsoever.
This is surely amazing. To dismiss the resurrection of Jesus as ‘absurd’ is one thing, but to do so by ignoring it is even more absurd. The British author Andrew Wilson hits the nail on the head. In Deluded by Dawkins? he says that to ignore the resurrection and think that by doing so one has removed the basis for belief in God, ‘is to chase the mice out of the sitting-room, and … announce that the house is free of animals, while there is an elephant grinning on the sofa’.14
Dawkins relishes attacking what Christians believe. Yet although he spends nearly 400 pages in The God delusion on a withering attack against God and the Christian faith, he barely mentions the resurrection of Jesus and never once engages with the evidence.
Whatever the reason for his silence on the subject, ignoring the resurrection of Jesus is not a sensible option and anyone who does so is making a tragic mistake.
An edited extract from John Blanchard’s new book Jesus; dead or alive?published by EP Books.
1. W. M. Ramsey, The bearing of recent discovery on the truthfulness of the New Testament (Hodder & Stoughton), p.222.
2. Cited by Bernard Ramm, Protestant Christian evidences (Moody Press), p.163.
3. Paul Althaus, Die Wahrheit des kirchlichen Osterglaubens.
4-13. Richard Dawkins, The God delusion (Bantam Press), respectively, pp. 5, 36, 37, 59, 237, 97, 253, 97, 157, 59.
14. Andrew Wilson, Deluded by Dawkins? (Monarch Books), p.82.