Dead people are supposed to stay dead—that’s a fact of life. So when the Bible records the story of a wise man named Jesus traveling through Palestine 2,000 years ago, all seems well and good—until you come to the ending. Not only is Jesus killed but then Scripture also alleges that He rose from the dead—not as some undead monster but as the glorified Savior of mankind.
The dead coming back to life? Yeah, right!
Even when Jesus appeared in person to His own followers, they didn’t buy it. “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:17, NKJV; emphasis added).1 And yet, today we are faced with the fact that countless millions have dedicated themselves to the truthfulness of this account. At first blush it seems that these people took a myth with good morals and turned it into a historical account about a Messiah.
I propose, however, that if the Resurrection is hard to swallow as a historical fact, the entire account is even harder to swallow as a myth.
the New Testament culture
In his book Lord or Legend: Wrestling With the Jesus Dilemma, Gregory Boyd said that myths are “generally created to express certain social convictions and meet certain social needs.” In other words, a myth, even though it is not true, has to say something significant about the view of reality that is held by the culture that produced it. This being the case, only a complete ignoramus would try to sell a story like Jesus’ death and resurrection to the first-century culture in Palestine. It went completely against the social grain of that culture.
For one thing, people back then were looking for a Messiah who would conquer the Romans, not One who would be killed by them. Their world was full of messiah hopefuls. The first-century historian Josephus tells of a so-called prophet named “The Egyptian” who led a group of his followers to the Mount of Olives and “prepared to force an entrance into Jerusalem and, after overpowering the Roman garrison, to set himself up as a tyrant of the people.” The Roman governor sent a “detachment of soldiers after them and killed four thousand of the rebels.” Military messiahs were quite common in first-century Judaea as the Jews looked for an opportunity to overthrow Rome.
Then Jesus came on the scene. He had no militia and no interest in violent conquest. In fact, He condemned the violence initiated by one of His disciples (Mark 14:47). This doesn’t make sense in light of the numerous revolutionary messiahs in the part of the world where Jesus was raised.
And there are other problems if the Jesus story is a myth.
The Jewish temple was a symbol of national identity for the Jews. They viewed it as the foundation of their relationship with God. So when Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” the religious leaders were incredulous. “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” (John 2:19, 20, NKJV). But if this served to build tension between Jesus and His culture, His claim to forgive sins (Mark 2:5–7) and referring to Himself with titles only God would use (John 8:58) caused the religious leaders to plot His death. This didn’t exactly endear Him to the people.
Jesus fits the cultural norms of His time about as well as the idea that Eskimos might surf in the ocean.
But the greatest oddity is with the story of the Resurrection—if it’s a myth.
the Resurrection story
According to the Bible, the first people to witness the Resurrection were women (Matthew 28:1, 5–7). In his book The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel points out that back then, women were considered so unreliable they were not even allowed to testify in a court of law. So for a writer to make them key eyewitnesses to a mind-bending event was bizarre at best, especially when the Gospel writers stated that their purpose was to help others to have “certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4, ESV).2
Author Tim Keller points out in his book The Reason for God that “not only were women a strange choice to witness Christ’s resurrection, but because some Jews believed in a general resurrection at the end of time” (John 11:23, 24), “the idea of an individual being resurrected in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burned by sickness, decay, and death, was inconceivable.” The claim was absurd.
Yet scholars’ attempts to provide explanations as to why the tomb may have been empty are even more absurd.
One study shows that, across the theological spectrum, 75 percent of scholars agree that the ancient tomb of Jesus was found empty. They just don’t agree about why. Some say that Jesus’ disciples hallucinated. However, it seems most unlikely that everyone would have had the same hallucination at the same time. As Norman Geisler points out in his book I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist “If a friend says to you one morning, ‘Wow! That was a great dream we had last night eh?’ . . . you’d think your friend had gone mad.”
Another theory states that the disciples found the wrong tomb, and yet another says they stole the body. The problem is that in the case of a wrong tomb, the Jews could have simply found the real tomb and paraded the real body through the streets. In the case of theft, it seems most unlikely that a group of ragtag disciples could have overpowered the Roman garrison watching the tomb (Matthew 27:65). As Keller points out, “No one in Jerusalem would have believed the preaching for a minute if the tomb was not empty.” And people have believed, all the way down to the present.
Imagine taking a trip down to New Orleans and announcing that the Minnesota Vikings won the Super Bowl in 2010. If you survived the beating, you’d quickly realize that it would be best to save that kind of lie for later, when the people who actually saw the Super Bowl had passed on—along with several generations of Saints fans.
Now think of this: a man named Paul wrote a letter to a church located in Corinth only 20 years after the events recorded in the Gospels, and he affirmed the story of Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:3–19). It was an open letter meant to be read in public. If this story had been a myth, Paul would have had a great challenge on his hands because the people who were alive at the time of Jesus would have accused him of making things up. Instead, people everywhere believed him.
The gospel story fits the pattern of a myth about as well as The Dark Knight fits the category of a romantic comedy.
Perhaps the most disturbing reality about this odd story of Jesus’ resurrection is the conversion of people like Paul, a staunch Jew and persecutor of Christians. Even if we should reclassify this story as a satire of Jesus’ culture, it fails to explain why people would embrace it as historical reality and suffer persecution, hardship, exile from their community, and gruesome deaths, such as being fed to the lions in the Roman Colosseum.
In his book Phenomenon of the New Testament, C. F. D. Moule says that the appearance of the church tears a hole the “size and shape of the resurrection” in the fabric of history, leaving little room for the secular historian to “stop it up.” All this would seem to indicate that if the resurrection story is a myth, it has to be the worst one ever written. It offers no reason to be believed in the culture it was produced in—unless it really happened. Truth is stranger than fiction—and the only reason to report this strange story, much less believe it to the death, is that it is based on reality.
In his letter to the Christians in Corinth Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14, RSV).3 For Paul, the Resurrection is the fact that gives validity to the story of Jesus. It is the foundation from which the Christian faith springs. Even though we are 2,000 years removed from the days of Paul, the story of Christ’s resurrection has survived to the present.
However, the Resurrection doesn’t find its primary significance in its spread and survival. Its significance is in its power to change the lives of people like Paul—and you and me. The end of the gospel story isn’t fiction, it’s fantastic reality—a reality we are reminded of this time of year. A reality that can take your story—wherever it may be—and give it a supernatural ending that will last for all eternity.
1. Bible verses marked NKJV are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2. Bible verses marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Bible verses quoted from RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
Seth Pierce is an assistant professor in the Communications Department at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.