When Jesus lived, his enthusiastic followers anticipated great things of him, but then he was captured and killed. His followers were dejected and demoralized; the great things they anticipated did not happen and now their failed leader was dead, and the movement he led was dead as well.
The Greatest Evidence for the Resurrection
The movement was dead because they had no reason to go forward. People will fight and die for money, power, an idea, or a strong leader—but not a dead leader who has failed in his mission. They had no prospect of money or power and there was no great idea for them to champion. All they had was Jesus himself and he was dead.
But something happened. Jesus came back to life and energized them to spread his message of life to others. Within forty years, the message of Jesus had spread far and wide and even the Roman Emperor Nero took notice of Jesus’ followers.
The Difficulty of Accepting the Resurrection
Many people question the resurrection however, and this is understandable—resurrection is unnatural; it is inconsistent with our observations of what is possible. This is why it’s important to not accept the account of the resurrection uncritically. On the other hand, if it did occur, then it certainly gets our attention and causes us to consider who Jesus is and what he says.
In response, some believers point to the empty tomb—but this is not useful. With a little help, I can produce an empty tomb. We need evidence, and I think the evidence is that the defeated followers of Jesus were energized by the resurrection to spread his message even in the face of death.
Skeptics suggest alternative scenarios to an actual resurrection. An objector shared this with me in a recent online discussion:
There are just too many natural explanations for such a reaction from the followers of Jesus than that he actually came back to life after being dead for 3 days: 1) they all lied in order to further their Christ beliefs, 2) the cognitive dissonance they were struggling with in their extreme grief caused them to imagine that they had seen Jesus alive again, or 3) they were mistaken in thinking that Jesus had actually died.
Which is the Most Persuasive Scenario?
These are reasonable suggestions, but let’s look at them.
1. The followers of Jesus lied about the resurrection. This is the conspiracy theory: Jesus was killed and his followers invented the resurrection story in order for the movement to maintain traction. But the resulting body of believers that formed in Jerusalem was persecuted by the local authorities. One of the ‘conspirators’ was killed and another was about to be killed when he escaped prison. People are not often willing to die for a known lie.
2. The followers only thought they saw a resurrected Jesus. This is the hallucination theory: Jesus’ followers did not really see Jesus. The energy with which the followers of Jesus responded to the resurrection and the boldness they displayed indicate that they were quite certain they had seen Jesus. The way he looked, the way he talked, the way he related to them was convincing. It is unlikely that they experienced some sort of group hysteria.
3. Jesus really didn’t die—they just thought he did. This is the swoon theory: Jesus did not die; he just passed out and then revived in the tomb. But remember, Jesus was beaten and crucified. He was in no shape to revive and appear to them as anything more than a mangled mess. This is unlikely to inspire the energized results we see.
Incredible as it seems, I find the actual unique resurrection of Jesus to be the most plausible based on the reaction of his followers.
If Jesus’ resurrection did occur, we need to pay attention!