|Crucifixion of Peter|
We have already discussed the evidence for the empty tomb and examined the possible explanations for why Paul and the other apostles claimed to have seen Jesus postmortem. What remains is a discussion of the Easter faith that sprung up in a climate of severe persecution and grew into the dominant world religion.
The late orthodox Jewish rabbi and theologian Pinchas Lapide came to the conclusion that the God of Israel raised Jesus from the dead, and said in The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective, that if the faith-shattering cry of Jesus on the cross, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" had been the end of the story, the movement would have died right there. The Jews believed in a faithful, just God who never abandoned the righteous.
He concluded: "If the defeated and depressed group of disciples overnight could change into a victorious movement of faith, based only on autosuggestion or self-deception--without a fundamental faith experience--then this would be a much greater miracle than the resurrection itself."
So the final question is this: What caused the Easter faith of the early followers of Jesus that grew into four million Christians by 300 AD? Did a group of simple men perpetrate the most masterful hoax ever, while preaching an ethic of love, faithfulness, and truth? And even if they could and would do it, what would have motivated them?
We know from Paul's letters that he used to be a zealous, successful Pharisee who persecuted the church, and he gave it up for imprisonment, persecution, and poverty. Writing from prison, he said, "But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:7-8).
What could possibly have motivated him? Note that I am not asking what did motivate him--we can never know exactly what combination of factors lead other people to do what they do. However, if Jesus did not appear to Paul as he claimed, there should be other possible explanations for his willingness to sacrifice everything for his hope in the resurrection. What are they?
Liberal theologian and church historian Ferdinand Christian Baur rejected the resurrection and the other supernatural aspects of the primitive church for most of his life. But shortly before he died he concluded that the conversion of Paul was an unsolvable psychological puzzle which was a miracle in and of itself, and according to Philip Schaff, this led Baur to "bow before the greater miracle of the resurrection of Christ, without which the former is an inexplicable enigma."
Why did Stephen, when he stood before the Sanhedrin, gaze into the heavens and boldly report, "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56), echoing the words that earned Jesus the death penalty? And when they rushed at him as an angry mob and stoned him to death, how could he have cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" as he died?
Pliny the Younger describes the Christian martyrs in much the same way in his letter to Emperor Trajan in 112 AD--that true Christians would die before they cursed Christ or worshipped pagan gods, like Pliny ordered them to do. And their conduct was blameless. He wrote:
In the meanwhile, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. For whatever the nature of their creed might be, I could at least feel no doubt that contumacy and inflexible obstinacy deserved chastisement.And,
They affirmed, however, the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food -- but food of an ordinary and innocent kind. Even this practice, however, they had abandoned after the publication of my edict, by which, according to your orders, I had forbidden political associations. I judged it so much the more necessary to extract the real truth, with the assistance of torture, from two female slaves, who were styled deaconesses: but I could discover nothing more than depraved and excessive superstition.So eighty years after the death of Christ, His followers were still known for their loyalty to Him. They were still true to His word and fearless in the face of death because of their hope of eternal life.
The movement continued to grow after the stoning of James by the Sandedrin in 62 AD, and after the deaths of Paul and Peter during the severe persecution by Nero, who lit up his 64 AD garden party with torches of burning Christians and put them to death in other horrific ways for the amusement of the Romans. And it continued to grow through many subsequent waves of persecution when Christians were ordered to recant or be executed. As Tertullian observed, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church."
Paul lays it on the line in 1 Corinthians 15:15 by saying that if Jesus had not been raised, then he and the others would have been "false witnesses of God because we testified against God that He raised Christ." He makes it very clear that the truth of the resurrection is crucial, and if it didn't happen, the apostles would have been false witnesses against God. He leaves no room for any wishy-washy thinking about faith being such a beautiful thing that there is no need to worry about pesky things like facts. And the hope of the later martyrs was grounded in the historical fact of the resurrection that the apostles themselves were willing to die for.
If we take into account the whole panoply of human motivations, how does the Easter faith make any sense if this resurrection did not happen?