Investigating Jesus. A Lie?

Today we conclude our series “Investigating Jesus” following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace and his book “Cold-Case Christianity”. On this journey of we have considered

There is one more thing to look at which we have not addressed in depth yet. Though we can demonstrate that what was passed on by the early Christians was legitimately from the eyewitnesses of Jesus, what if they themselves were lying in the first place? What if the disciples stole the body, which would account for the empty tomb, and then made up the story about Jesus being raised from the dead? How do we know the disciples were not lying about Jesus’ resurrection?

J. Warner Wallace has experience with conspiracies which will help us answer this qestion. As usual, we are only scratching the surface here and I encourage you to read chapter 7 of “Cold-Case Christianity”. Wallace lists several characterizations of conspiracies:

  1. A conspiracy requires a small number of conspirators. The fewer conspirators there are, the easier it is to pull off a lie.
  2. A conspiracy requires great communication between the conspirators so that it is not broken up. This is why the police like to isolate people quickly.
  3. A conspiracy requires a short time span. To quote from Cold-Case Christianity: “The ideal conspiracy would involve only two conspirators, and one of the conspirators would kill the other right after the crime.”
  4. A conspiracy requires close friendships or “significant relational connections” so that one does not give the rest up.
  5. A conspiracy requires low pressure, because people will always tend to throw others under the bus to save their own bacon.

Do the disciples make good conspirators?

  1. There were too many of them. The eleven closest disciples are already too many. However, there were far more and according to Acts 1:15 there were 120 eyewitnesses all gathered together in one place following the resurrection. Additionally, Paul speaks in 1st Corinthians 15:6 of 500 eyewitnesses, “most of whom are still living”, (1 Corinthians 15:6 NIV).
  2. There was not the opportunity for great communication. The disciples eventually became scattered due to persecution and a drive to evangelize. Remember, this was the days of snail mail and “sail” mail. 
  3. The disciples kept to the story for the long haul, living out their lives dedicated to telling the “good news”.
  4. Some of the eleven close disciples did not know each other before Jesus called them to follow him. The 120 and the 500 mentioned earlier would undoubtedly have included many strangers.
  5. The disciples were persecuted and most of the “big names” were known to be martyred. You might point out here that people are willing to blow themselves up for the sake of religion, and so the martyrdom of the disciples does not necessarily point to the truth of what they were claiming. However, that is a very different thing. Modern day martyrs are not trying to knowingly keep a lie, but die for what they think is true. If the disciples were lying about the resurrection, then they would be dying for a lie. To quote Wallace: “While it’s reasonable to believe that you and I might die for what we mistakingly thought was true, it’s unreasonable to believe that these men died for what they definitely knew to be untrue.” Further, “None of these eyewitnesses ever recanted, none was ever trotted out by the enemies of Christianity in an effort to expose the Christian ‘lie’.”

We can also add that a conspiracy requires a desire to deceive. Why would the disciples want to be anything other than good Jews? They were waiting for the Messiah. If Jesus turned out to not be the Messiah, which would be the logical conclusion if the Romans killed him off, they would not turn him into one, they would go back to waiting for the real Messiah to show up. Something happened that convinced them that Jesus was and still is the real Messiah. They were so convinced they were willing to die for their conviction. What was that something?

Let us remember the “minimal facts” that are broadly agreed upon:

  • Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  • Jesus’ tomb was found empty and no one ever produced His body.
  • Jesus’ disciples said they saw and interacted with Jesus resurrected from the dead.
  • Jesus’ disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it and they never changed their story.

What is the best explanation of that evidence? Keep in mind the things we have learned from Wallace; Jesus really died on the cross, the disciples did not hallucinate or imagine the resurrection,  the story of the resurrection went back to the disciples and was not a fabrication by later Christians, the disciples were not conspiring together and lying about the resurrection. So what accounts for all the evidence? The best explanation of the evidence is also the key reason the disciples knew that Jesus was the Messiah even though he was killed; He rose from the dead.

One More thing we learn from Wallace as we conclude this series. It is important to go “from belief that to belief in.” Christianity is not just a belief that Jesus rose from the dead, it is a belief in the fact that Jesus is Lord and Saviour as demonstrated in his rising from the dead. It goes beyond a changed opinion on one thing, Jesus’ resurection, to a changed perspective on everything. It goes beyond an intellectual assessment of the facts, to an emotional engagement with the One who is the Truth. It goes beyond a belief that God exists, to a knowledge that God loves and loves you. It goes beyond knowing in your head that Jesus is alive, to knowing in your heart that you need God’s grace. J. Warner Wallace as an atheist followed the evidence as one who knows how to follow the evidence. It changed his life. Will it change yours?

Investigating Jesus: Evidence and Explanations

What explanation best fits the evidence? We are continuing the journey we began last week of learning from cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace how to investigate the evidence with respect to the resurrection of Jesus. We are looking today at how to infer to the most reasonable explanation from the evidence.

Let us return to the example of a crime we considered last week when you were called out to investigate the circumstances of my death. Let us review the evidence:

  • My love for chocolate is well known.
  • I was found slumped over a table covered with empty Easter chocolate wrappers.
  • The coroner’s report indicated elevated levels of chocolate in my blood.

Based on the evidence thus far you figure your hunch was correct. This is not a murder scene and I died from chocolate poisoning. However, you discover a new piece of evidence:

  • I have a gunshot wound which the coroner confirmed was the cause of death.

You quickly drop your first explanation knowing that it can not adequately explain the new evidence. Perhaps the best explanation now, is that my wife murdered me for eating her chocolate. However, more new evidence is found:

  • Witnesses confirm that my wife was at a quilting show the day of my death.
  • A gun was found nearby the house with the finger prints of a man known to be a very angry and unstable man who had recently refused treatment for a sever case of chocoholism.
  • Witnesses reported seeing that same man leave my house shortly after shots were heard.

Now let us review the possible explanations that you have come up with at various points along the investigation:

  1. I died from chocolate poisoning.
  2. My wife was mad at me for eating her chocolate and shot me.
  3. I was murdered by my neighbour who wanted my chocolate.

Now which is the best explanation?  Unlike the first two explanations, your third explanation, fits with all the evidence. It has the best explanatory power, and therefore my neighbour is now the prime suspect. What you have just done is infer the most reasonable explanation from the evidence, or what is technically known as “abductive reasoning.”

We do this quite naturally, in fact the disciple known as “Doubting Thomas” likely did this:

But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24-25

When the disciples tell Thomas that they saw Jesus risen from the dead, he likely considered the evidence standing in front of him, the disciples saying they saw Jesus alive, and considered the best explanation was that they had all lost their marbles. But given some new evidence, being able to see and touch Jesus for himself, a different explanation came to be the best one:

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” John 20:26-28

Based on all the evidence, Thomas comes to believe a different explanation of the facts; Jesus is risen!

So how does this apply to us today as we investigate the evidence for Jesus two millennia later? Let us begin by looking at the evidence, then we will go on to think about the explanations.

As we consider the evidence, let us narrow it down to those pieces of evidence that both the prosecution and the defence can agree upon. In other words, let us consider the facts about the Easter story which both Christian and non-Christian historians can agree upon so that we can begin without bias. J. Warner Wallace makes mention in Cold-Case Christianity of the “minimal facts” approach of Gary Habermas and Mike Licona. Remembering that Wallace began his journey as an atheist, consider:

“As I skeptic myself, I formed a list of New Testament claims as I first investigated the resurrection. When I was an unbeliever, I found four of Habermas and Licona’s minimal facts to be the most substantiated by both friends and foes of Christianity” J.Warner Wallace Cold-Case Christianity

So what are these pieces of evidence that must be explained? Wallace lists four:

  1. Jesus died on a cross and was buried.
  2. Jesus’ tomb was found empty and no one ever produced His body.
  3. Jesus’ disciples said they saw and interacted with Jesus – alive (resurrected, not just resuscitated).
  4. Jesus’ disciples were so committed to their testimony that they were willing to die for it. They never changed their story.

Now let us turn to the possible explanations that have been proposed. Again, please refer to Wallace himself in Cold-Case Christianity for deeper discussions, I cannot do them justice here:

Perhaps Jesus did not really die. But:

  • Jesus’ body would have been handled quite a bit, being taken down from the cross, wrapped for burial, and placed in the tomb. The people of antiquity were not stupid and knew a dead body when they saw one.
  • The Romans soldiers in charge of executions were very good at their jobs. In fact their own lives depended on it.
  • The water and blood that flowed from Jesus with the spear thrust is consistent with medical knowledge today about dead bodies.
  • If Jesus had recovered, he would have been very weak, and also would have died again at some point, earning the name “fraud” from the very people that put their lives in danger by calling him “Lord.”

Perhaps the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection. But:

  • This explanation does not account for the fourth piece of evidence, that the disciples, were changed people willing to die for their claim. To quote Wallace:

This theory requires us to believe that the apostles were transformed and emboldened not by the miraculous appearance of the resurrected Jesus but by elaborate lies created without any benefit to those who were perpetuating the hoax (J. Warner Wallace, Cold-Case Christianity)

  • Why would the disciples, being Jews of deep conviction, deny their faith by saying that a dead man was the messiah rather than stick to waiting for the true messiah?
  • Paul speaks of over 500 people seeing Jesus alive, most of whom were still alive at the time Paul wrote. Are we to believe all these were in on a lie?
  • The tomb was guarded, and the disciples had already proven their cowardice.

Perhaps the disciples were delusional, being so upset about the death of Jesus that they imagined seeing Jesus alive. But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • The disciples did not just claim to see Jesus, but interact with him. This level of interaction by so many people on different occasions cannot be explained by hallucinations.
  • The disciples clearly understood Jesus to have risen bodily to a new kind of “resurrection life” than that they had seen visions or a ghost.

Perhaps the disciples were fooled by an imposter. But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • What imposter could convince so many people, especially sceptics like Thomas, not to mention James and Paul?
  • What would have been the motivation for someone to pull off such a hoax?

Perhaps the disciples were influenced by one or two of the group who has some sort of “vision.” But:

  • This explanation fails to account for the tomb being empty and the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • This explanation would only work if the writings of the New Testament were written a long time after the events as such an explanation contradicts the New Testament accounts.

Perhaps the story of the resurrection was added many years following the death of Jesus and so is a legendary fable. But:

  • Even if there were a lengthy passage of time, this explanation still fails to account for the body not being produced to squash the “Jesus movement.”
  • The documents that make up the New Testament were written too close to the events for legend to develop.
  • the Christian creed from the beginning was “Jesus is Lord, and we know this because he is risen.” There is no evidence of development from “Jesus was a great teacher” to “Jesus was really great teacher and miracle worker” to “Jesus is Lord.” There appears in history, quickly following Jesus’ crucifixion (and claimed resurrection), a sudden new way of thinking about God, rather than a period of developing thought.

Perhaps Jesus rose from the dead. 

This last explanation, far more than any other fits all the evidence the best. If we are open to the possibility of the supernatural, and last week we looked at reasons why we should be, then this explanation is the best inference from the evidence. This explanation has the greatest explanatory power for all the “minimal facts” about the resurrection, but so much more evidence also. It explains why the theology developed the way it did and why Jews who were so solid in their Jewish expectations would see all their expectations as fulfilled in Jesus rather than shying away from him as a failed messiah wannabe. It explains, also, why sceptics like James, and especially Paul, did a 180. It explains why the writers of the documents of the New Testament said the kinds of things they did. As I’ve heard Frank Turek say via podcast “the New Testament writers did not create the resurrection, the resurrection created the New Testament writers.”

The disciple known as “Doubting Thomas” should rather be known as “Trusting Thomas.” He trusted the explanation “Jesus is risen” as the best explanation of the  evidence standing in front of him. Many sermons have been preached on how we ought to trust in Jesus without any evidence based on this verse:

Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” John 20:29 (emphases mine)

However, to stop reading there is to stop reading in the wrong place! Consider the next two verses:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30-31 (emphases mine)

The Gospel of John, along with all the documents that make up the New Testament, are, like all documents from ancient times, evidence upon which we can determine the events of history. The best explanation of the facts deduced from those documents is that Jesus rose from the dead. Don’t wait until you stand before Jesus to make a decision. You have enough evidence now to trust in the truth of the best explanation; Jesus is risen. John points out the significance of following where the evidence leads: “ . . . and that through believing you may have life in his name.” The explanation of the evidence is not just true, it is very good news!

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)

How Easter Cures Our Religion Addiction

We can become addicted to religion. Behind this there can be a sense of “if I do the right things, and say the wright words, God will have to love me and be good to me.” Religion has “me” as its focus. What I do. What I say. What I think I deserve. When we are addicted to religion we put ourselves, rather than God, at the centre.

The Christians in Colossae were being pressured into becoming more religious. Some scholars think that the pressure was coming from Jews who thought you needed to practice the Jewish religion to be a Christian. Other scholars think that it was an early form of the religious philosophy “gnosticism” that was the source of the pressure. Either way, in his letter to the Colossians the apostle Paul wants to set the record straight. In chapter two Paul lays out clearly our part in being Christian, but also what we cannot accomplish. Let’s take a look.

First out part:

Colossians 2:6-19 (NRSV) As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, 7 rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Notice, first off, that Paul’s encouragement is not “since you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, now get very religious, doing the right religious looking observances, saying the right religious sounding words.” That would actually be too easy, for you can do that kind of thing on your spare time. What is called for is something far more profound; “live your lives in him.” The requirement is not in doing religion, but living life. It is an every moment thing. The focus is not the religion, but the Person of Jesus. It is a relationship thing.

Sceptics like to say that religion is a man made thing. Paul would agree:

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

Paul is not speaking against philosophy as an academic endeavour here. Philosophy, like all the arts and sciences are worthy pursuits. Paul is warning against, more literally “the philosophy”, that is, a particular way of thinking being foisted on the Christians at Colossae. He is arguing against becoming too religious “according to human tradition.” Rather than pursuing man-made religion, we are to pursue Christ himself.

We could sum up Paul’s line of thought here with “live your lives in him rather than practice religion.” That is our part. Next Paul points us to God’s part. Religion highlights the things we do. In the following passage I have highlighted in bold the things God has done.

9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority. 11 In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.

The focus is on God’s activity. As Paul warns the Christians at Colossae against false religion, he puts the focus on what God has done in Christ. While religion points us to our activity, relationship with God as revealed in the Bible has always been first about what God has done. He created. He Made a covenant with Noah. He called Abraham with his promise of blessing that would touch the world. He rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. He gave His chosen people the law at Sinai. He gave them the promised land. He called the prophets and gave them the words to speak. He came to us incarnate in Jesus. He, God the Father, raised Jesus, God the Son, from the dead. While religion has what we can do as its focus, Christianity has as its focus, something we could never do, that is, raise the dead.

Because Jesus is risen, we do not practice Christianity as a religion, we relate to Jesus as a living Person. We serve Him, we worship Him, we adore Him, we learn from Him. This may give the appearance of being religious as prayer, the Bible, and church become expressions of that. These religious looking things are not the practice of religion, but rather part of how we live our lives in Christ. Living our lives in Christ goes way deeper than doing “religious duties,” it goes to walking with the Spirit and being transformed from the inside out: “. . .the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) Compared to character transformation, being merely religious would be far too easy!

Paul continues his argument against being religious:

16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. 17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Religion fills us with pride as we point to what we have done. The events of Easter fill us with humility as they point to what we have done. We committed a reprehensible crime when we crucified Jesus. We fell short of the glory of God. The events of Easter also point to what God has done. He has reconciled us to Himself. Our part is to live in Christ, “holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” Are you addicted to religion? God has done for you through the events at Easter what religion never could. Why dedicate yourself to religion, when you can dedicate yourself to the One Who loves you?

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)