The resurrection is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. As the apostle Paul states, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). As Christians gather all over the world every Sunday to remember Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we want to ask the question, “Did it really happen?” Christians believe that Christ’s defeat of death was part of his work. Critics argue that it was a fairy tale or myth invented by early believers. Let’s explore several reasons why the resurrection makes a strange myth.
- There is no explanation for the multiple witnesses of the resurrected Christ. Mass delusion and hallucination simply do not account for the hundreds of people who saw Jesus alive after he was buried. Furthermore, the earliest statements that mention the resurrection are thought by scholars to have appeared only a few years after the event. This leaves no time for a resurrection myth or legend to grow and develop. The belief in the resurrection appears almost immediately.
- Jesus was viewed as a criminal who got what he deserved. After Jesus claimed to be a king—despite his kingdom being a spiritual one—Pilate could not afford to allow him to live. The authorities did not permit challenges to Roman power. Besides, making an executed criminal, charlatan, and false prophet the leader of a movement focused on maintaining the highest moral standards does not seem very reasonable.
- The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus defied Jewish expectations. Early on, it seems that considerable numbers of Jews flocked to the church. The book of James, for instance, seems to be written to a group of Jewish Christians. This happened in spite of the fact that Jews would have considered Jesus not only a failed messiah but a false one in light of the Mosaic Law: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). Additionally, Jews expected a general resurrection at the end of time.
- There is no motive for creating such a belief. Believers stood to gain nothing of earthly value by worshipping a risen Christ. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. Early Christians defied the cultural norms of Greco-Roman culture and paid a heavy price for it. They were claimed to be atheists because they did not worship the gods of Rome. The authorities viewed them as disloyal to the state because they refused to acknowledge Caesar as Lord – a title they believed only Christ deserved. They were imprisoned, tortured, and executed, often on the strength of nothing more than an anonymous tip. Given an opportunity to renounce Christ or die, many chose the latter.
- Ancient writers understood that Jesus began a movement that did not die with him. In his Antiquities, Josephus states, “The tribe of Christians so named from his are not extinct to this day.” (This passage is often claimed as spurious by critics, but there are no examples of prominent scholars of Josephus doing so.) In The Death of Peregrine, the second century satirist Lucian of Samosata—who was certainly no friend to Christians—called Jesus a “crucified sage” who introduced the “novel rites” that Christians practiced. Other writers such as Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and others mention early Christians as well. Every other messianic movement failed and died out. Christianity is the only one to survive, much less thrive.
The resurrection of Christ, if it is a myth, does not build upon any cultural precedent or preexisting notion. It defied the expectations of those in the first century. It was believed by those who paid a price for their faith. In the end, there was not earthly benefit for believing in a risen Christ. Then again, he was no earthly Savior.