During this Easter season we once again commemorate history's pivotal event: the rising from the dead of an itinerant Jewish rabbi called Jesus of Nazareth.
That the Resurrection irrevocably changed the flow of human affairs is beyond dispute. But besides being the most consequential event, it has also been a deeply controversial one, since there have always been those who have maintained that it actually never happened.
This existence of this view is understandable given that the Resurrection is an occurrence so seemingly fantastical that many find it difficult to accept its reality. The most common explanation proffered by skeptics is that it was orchestrated by a group of his close followers. They allege that it was those disciples -- known as the apostles -- who secretly removed their master's corpse from its place of entombment and then claimed he had miraculously triumphed over death.
Given that both the historicity of Jesus and his crucifixion have been well established, this explanation indeed seems the most reasonable to the skeptical mind. But when subjected to careful scrutiny, it not only shows itself untenable, but it actually leads to the opposite conclusion.
In the Gospel of Matthew we read that as Jesus was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was abandoned by his apostles who fled in fear of their lives. Only one -- Peter -- made a misguided attempt to defend him. Subsequently, not one of them came to Jesus' defense when he was interrogated and tortured by the authorities. Worse yet, even the formerly courageous Peter cursed and denied his master when asked whether he was a follower.
The frightened disciples also failed to muster courage during their leader's ensuing crucifixion. During Jesus' direst hour, only one dared to come to the vicinity of the cross to see him die an excruciating death. The disciples' lack of heroism continued in the aftermath: Following Jesus' crucifixion they were hiding together behind a locked door. A careful reader of the gospels is not surprised. Their behavior was largely in keeping with their weak and wavering humanity.
Honest portrayal of Jesus' closest associates is indeed one of the most striking features of the gospels. Even though it may have been an embarrassment to them during their lifetime, it is this unflinching honesty that makes the gospel accounts so powerfully self-authenticating. When reading their story we cannot but recognize that the disciples were human just like us. Weak, fearful, fallible, and sometimes cowardly, they were certainly no great heroes.
And yet those who maintain that the Crucifixion is fiction want us to believe that this stricken and frightened group somehow broke into a well-guarded tomb in order to steal Jesus' body so they could perpetrate the greatest fraud in history. This in itself is implausible enough, but what makes this scenario utterly untenable is the apostles' behavior afterward.
In the years that followed the formerly un-valiant group turned into fiery evangelists who turned the world upside down. But it was not an easy process, for in the course of it they suffered untold hardships, severe prosecution, torture, and martyrdom. The lives of all but one of the apostles were cut short by violence. Sawn in two, beheaded, crucified, dragged to death, thrown to wild beasts -- this is how their lives came to an end.
This should make us pause, because as far as we know no man has yet willingly given his life for something he knew to be a lie. There have, of course, been martyrs in other faiths. Even today we see Muslim suicide-bombers willingly die in the cause of their religion. But here is the crux of the matter: Their belief is empirically unverifiable. There is no way for them to know with absolute certainty whether what they believe is true or not. They have to take the existence of Islamic heaven and the virgins who supposedly await them there on faith. Though they may sincerely believe these things, there is always a real possibility that they may be sincerely wrong.
The apostles, on the other hand, had the ability to know with certainty whether the Resurrection was real. They were in the position to empirically verify the existence of the risen Christ, for they were there to see it for themselves. They were in Jerusalem after the crucifixion, and they either saw their resurrected master with their own eyes, or they did not.
They said they did, and they were willing to lay down their lives to back up the claim. Precisely because they were uniquely situated to know for certain, the idea that they stole the body and then died to propagate the falsehood is completely implausible. That they were un-heroic before Jesus' death we know from the New Testament account. The notion that they would subsequently willingly suffer martyrdom to advance something they knew to be a lie is thoroughly unbelievable.
People maintain lies as long as they derive some benefit or advantage from the deception. But what the apostles ultimately received was suffering, torture, and death. Their steadfast attitude in the face of great hardship and personal destruction can only mean that they had indeed seen their master risen from the dead. Only that can explain their transformation from a band of cowering absconders to dauntless proclaimers of the Gospel.
If we only had the apostles' word, we would be well justified in doubting their story. But the fact that they were willing to give their lives to vouch for its truth should make even the most hardened skeptic rethink his position.
What the apostles did was to, in effect, write the testimony of Christ's Resurrection in their own blood. And this is by far the most convincing form of deposition eyewitnesses can ever submit. Rather than giving any grounds for thinking that the Resurrection is a fabrication, a careful study of the disciples' lives gives powerful confirmation to the truth of the Easter story.
But for those who desire even deeper and more authentic affirmation there is still a better way. The ultimate witness of the Resurrection's reality can be received directly from the living Lord who comes to dwell by his Spirit in the hearts of those who believe.