In my ongoing discussions with atheists, I regularly have to deal with a common argument posed by those with little or no historical training; namely, the view that the biblical Gospels are works of religious mythology rather than reliable historical documents. This is an argument that is commonly used to dismiss the claims about Jesus in the Gospels and even propose that Jesus did not exist at all – that he was a mythological figure fabricated in order to substantiate a new religious movement.
This view is not supported by any reputable historian, and to prove this point, in the entirety of this article, I will only quote historians who are atheists or sceptics.
No one who has studied first century history at depth would claim that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist. This is due to the high regard in which the New Testament documents are held by historians, as well as the fact that the life of Christ is substantiated by an impressive number of extra-biblical writers from antiquity, including Cornellius Tacitus, Lucian, Flavius Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Thallus, Philegon and Mara Bar-Serapion.
Thus, respected historian, Neil Carter, who is a professed atheist, writes:
“I can’t believe I’m feeling the need to do this, but today I’d like to write a brief defence of the historicity of Jesus. When people in the sceptic community argue that Jesus never existed, they are dismissing a large body of work for which they have insufficient appreciation, most often due to the fact that they themselves have never formally studied the subject.” (patheos.com/blogs/godlessindixie/2014)
Similarly, respected historian and professed agnostic, Dr. Bart Ehrman, when interviewed on “Atheist Radio” on December 30th, 2011, stated:
“There is no serious historian who doubts the existence of Jesus. There are a lot of people who want to write sensational books claiming that Jesus didn’t exist, but I don’t know any serious scholar who doubts the existence of Jesus.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9CC7qNZkOE)
Of course, it is one thing to concede that Jesus of Nazareth once walked the dusty trails of Judea and Galilee; it is quite another to concede the veracity of his miracles, particularly his resurrection from the dead. Indeed, this is the sticking point for atheists. Because if these miraculous events truly took place, the ‘God-question’ has been well and truly answered and atheism is dead in the water. Thus, atheists are keen to portray these events as completely mythical. But showing them to be mere fables has proven to be extremely problematic, partly because there are numerous references to these miraculous events by pagan and Jewish sources, some of whom were enemies of Jesus.
Thus, the famous liberal scholar, Rudolh Bultman, eventually conceded:
“But there can be no doubt that Jesus did such deeds, which were, in his and his contemporaries’ understanding, miracles, that is, deeds that were the result of supernatural, divine causality. Doubtless he healed the sick and cast out demons.” (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus, Berlin: Deutsche Bibliothek, 1926, p. 159.)
More than just his miracles, however, it is the resurrection of Jesus that is the most crucial claim of the Gospels: a claim which, if true, proves the existence of God and the divinity of Christ, and which, if not true, renders Christianity just another empty religious myth. Thus, sceptics are very keen to disprove the resurrection from a historical point of view. The problem for them, however, is that there are FOUR KEY HISTORICAL FACTS that overwhelmingly support the resurrection. (I am indebted to Dr. William Lane Craig for his discussion of these facts).
FACT 1: THE PUBLIC BURIAL OF JESUS IN THE TOMB OF JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA.
This is extremely significant, because it means that the location of this tomb was known to the people of his day. The fact that it was publicly known as Jesus’ burial place means that any false claims of his resurrection could easily have been thwarted simply by rolling back the tombstone. Dr. John A.T. Robinson, from Cambridge University stated that the burial of Jesus in a well-known tomb is one of “the earliest and best attested historical facts about Jesus.” (John A. T. Robinson, The Human Face of God, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1973, p. 131.)
FACT 2: JESUS’ TOMB WAS DISCOVERED TO BE EMPTY ON SUNDAY MORNING
Historians, even those who are atheists and sceptics, have corroborated the fact of the empty tomb. Dr. Jakob Kremer, an Austrian historian, states, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” (Jakob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien–Geschichten um Geschichte ,Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977, pp. 49-50.) Similarly, Dr. D. H. van Daalen states, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.” (D. H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection(London: Collins, 1972), p. 41.)
FACT 3: MANY PEOPLE WITNESSED POST-RESURRECTION APPEARANCES OF JESUS
The fact that many of Jesus’ followers had post-resurrection experiences of him is conceded by most serious historians today. Thus, even Dr. Gert Lüdemann, a prominent sceptic, admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” (Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden, Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995, p. 80.)
FACT 4: THE EVIDENCE OF THE DISCIPLES’ WILLINGNESS TO DIE FOR THEIR BELIEF IN JESUS’ RESURRECTION.
The martyrdom of the Apostles for their belief in the resurrection is extraordinary considering the fact that the disciples had NO predisposition to believe that Jesus would rise again, and, in fact, had to be convinced of his resurrection before they would believe it. Once convinced, however, 11 of the 12 Apostles ultimately died for that belief, going to their deaths unwilling to renounce their resolute belief in the resurrection. Their radically transformed lives and eventual martyrdoms are historical facts that add overwhelming credence to the resurrection narrative.
Let me stress again, all the scholars quoted above are respected historians who are sceptics, but their study of the facts leads them to concede the veracity of some of the extraordinary evidence of the New Testament narrative concerning the resurrection of Jesus.
In his paper, “The Evidence for Jesus” (reasonablefaith.org), Christian apologist Dr. William Lane Craig recounts a debate on the resurrection of Jesus that he had with a professor at the University of California who was a religious sceptic. The professor in question had written his doctoral dissertation on the resurrection narratives and was, therefore, thoroughly familiar with the historical evidence. During the debate, the sceptical professor conceded all four facts that I have briefly mentioned above; burial in a publicly known tomb, discovery of the verifiably empty tomb, numerous post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his followers, and the disciples’ vehement post-resurrection beliefs and martyrdom. He could not deny these historical facts.
So, how did he explain them in order to maintain his atheism? His answer: he theorised that Jesus must have had a secret identical twin brother who stole his body from the tomb and masqueraded as the risen Jesus thereafter! This ludicrous theory is, of course, a work of pure imagination, because it has absolutely no historical evidence to support it. But it is helpful because it demonstrates two things:
- It demonstrates the extraordinary lengths to which sceptics will go in order to deny the resurrection and maintain their atheism.
- It also demonstrates the fact that historians who have actually studied these events at depth CANNOT DENY the historical facts that provide such strong evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The key corroborating facts are beyond dispute.
What about you? Are you one of those who has conveniently dismissed the resurrection of Jesus as a religious myth without really investigating the facts for yourself? Have you written off the Easter story simply because you find it too hard to believe? After all, miracles like that are impossible, aren’t they?
No. Not if an all-powerful God exists. The God who spoke into existence the whole universe with its untold billions of galaxies, who called it forth from nothing by the power of his command, can easily breathe new life into a single dead body. And he will one day raise you from the dead too, to stand before him and give an account of your life.
You see, if the resurrection of Jesus is true, then it changes everything! It means that there IS a God, and one day, on the other side of your own impending death, you will meet him face to face.
Only those who have not bothered to study the historical evidence dismiss the resurrection narratives in the Gospels lightly. Why don’t you do yourself a favour and check out the evidence for yourself?
Here are two resources to help you investigate the facts:
“Finding God When He Seems to Be Hiding”, Kevin Simington (smartfaith.net/shop and Amazon)
“The Case for The Resurrection”, Lee Strobel (Amazon)