Easter Sunday is coming, which has a lot of people thinking about resurrection from the dead. Two Sundays ago, I preached on how Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been dead (and smelly) for 4 days (John 11). This was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the religious leaders to kill Jesus once and for all (John 11:47-53). It’s sort of hard to disprove a religion where people keep coming back from the dead, after all.
This got me thinking about the significance of the other New Testament accounts of people being raised from the dead, and wondering if other religions made these same claims. It’s sort of going “all in” once you say that 6 local “Average Joe” types that everyone knew had risen from the dead in spectacular, public fashion, most of them at their very public funerals, and you try circulating that story in the very town you claim it happened. (Knowing your reward for circulating it was persecution, torture, and death by the Roman authorities)
I did a little research…okay I posted in on my Facebook page…to see if other faiths/religions made such audacious claims of local people coming back from the dead or not. If your God is able to make dead people come back to life, that’s a pretty good claim of authenticity.
The concept of people or beings coming back from the dead is not exclusive to the New Testament or Christianity, though there some very important ways the New Testament resurrections were recorded that give them lots of credibility. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I’m not sure logically how they could have been fabricated. Consider the following, which I will later compare to other religions’ death-to-life claims:
The Nain (or Nein) widow’s son – Luke 7:11-17 – Lots of specifics are given: the town of Nain, a widow and her son, as well as a large crowd. Jesus literally interrupts a public funeral that is in process and brings this son from death to life. When the book of Luke would have been later circulated in Nain with this story in it and people who were at this funeral, possibly the son or the widow themselves, were still alive in Nain, would it not have been very simple to discredit this story? Nain was not New York City, it was a small village, and this would have been big news! Would anyone have subjected themselves to torture and death as Luke was circulated, defending the truth of this story as many did, if it could have been so easily discredited?
Jairus’s daughter – Matthew 9:18-26; Mark 5:21-43 – This one takes place in Capernaum (Matthew 9:1). Jairus is a synagogue leader, so the guy is going to be well known in the Jewish community; a local celebrity. Like the widow’s son in Nain, a noisy crowd was gathered to mourn the death of Jairus’s daughter. When the books of Matthew and Mark would have been later circulated in Capernaum with this story in it and people who were at the house mourning, possibly the daughter or Jairus himself, were still alive in Capernaum, would it not have been very simple to discredit this story? This would have been big news! Would anyone have subjected themselves to torture and death as Matthew and Mark were circulated, defending the truth of this story as many did, if it could have been so easily discredited?
Lazarus – John 11 – Lazaraus’s resurrection takes place in Bethany and his account is extra grisly because the text goes out of its way to point out he had been dead 4 days and there was already a bad odor. You have another large crowd, as well as specific names of Lazarus’s sisters Mary and Martha. When the book of John would have been later circulated in Bethany with this story in it and people who were at the tomb mourning, possibly Mary, Martha, or Lazarus himself, were still alive in Bethany, would it not have been very simple to discredit this story? This would have been big news! Would anyone have subjected themselves to torture and death as John was circulated, defending the truth of this story as many did, if it could have been so easily discredited?
Peter raises Dorcas/Tabitha – Acts 9:36-42 – This takes place in Joppa and specifically makes the point that the news became known all over Joppa. How could it not? When the book of Acts would have been later circulated in Joppa with this story in it and people who were at the house mourning, possibly Dorcas herself, were still alive in Joppa, would it not have been very simple to discredit this story? This would have been big news! Would anyone have subjected themselves to torture and death as Acts was circulated, defending the truth of this story as many did, if it could have been so easily discredited?
Paul raises Eutychus – Acts 20:3-12 – This takes place in Troas and host of witnesses are listed by name, as well as the familiar description of a large crowd. A very specific dated time frame is also given: But we sailed from Philippi after the Festival of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days. On the first day of the week… When the book of Acts would have been later circulated in Troas with this story in it and people’s names listed in the story, the owners of the house the sermon was held at, even possibly Eutychus himself and his family and friends, were still alive in Joppa, would it not have been very simple to discredit this story? This would have been big news! Would anyone have subjected themselves to torture and death as Acts was circulated, defending the truth of this story as many did, if it could have been so easily discredited?
I hope you see my point here. It’s not original to make claims that people rose from the dead, but it is original to do so in such a specific way that begs for a logical argument for how these stories could have been fabricated, seeing how they were circulated among the very people where they claim to have happened, at the risking of life of everyone involved in circulating them.
These are “Average Joe” accounts. Regular people like you or me, with tons of eyewitnesses around, in specific places at specific times, claiming they were brought back to dead. The written account of these accounts being circulated during their lifetimes.
The response to my question on Facebook, did other religions claim any accounts of rising from the dead, came back with quite different types of accounts…
Ganesha (Hindu) – An elephant-headed god. One of 33 – 330,000,000 gods in the Hindu pantheon (depending on the interpretation).
Tammuz in the Epic of Gilgamesh – A god within Mesopotamian mythology. Ironically, he’s mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14-15 as one of the idols Israel was worshiping.
Krishna (Hindu) – A Hindu god, One of 33 – 330,000,000 gods in the Hindu pantheon (depending on the interpretation). Krishna raises his guru’s son from the dead.
Sukracharya – a god who used a mantra to raise people from the dead and restore their youth to them.
Rasputin as an individual in more modern day. – He didn’t come back to life, he was just hard to kill!
Aztecs had a god of resurrection that Mormons think is Jesus.
Do you see a difference in this list from the New Testament list? A bunch of gods, not real humans living real lives with real eyewitnesses in real places whose stories happened in time with when they were written about and circulated.
The Qur’an (written 609-632 AD, around 600 years after Jesus’s life) has four human resurrection accounts, listed here. While these have more credibility than elephant-headed ancient gods, they still lack the extreme specificity of the New Testament accounts: the towns and eyewitness’s names listed, the stories happening in time with when the written account was circulated, the public accounts, as well as the risk of persecution, torture, and death for circulating it.
My list of the New Testament resurrection accounts, glaringly, doesn’t include Jesus’s resurrection. Jesus’s resurrection is similar to the 5 I listed because he was another “Average Joe” person with lots of “Average Joe” people around him. And that many people died circulating Matthew-Revelation in all of the towns Jesus walked, where all the miracles and teachings he did happened, in front of all the people still alive when the books were circulated, with tons of people dying for what the books said to be true. Why again, would they spread these books of the New Testament knowing it would result in their torture and death? (With all due respect to Islam, please do not compare suicide bombers to Christian martyrs. One is choosing to kill themselves to gain what they believe to be salvation, the other is being tortured and killed against their will by authorities for spreading the message of Jesus.) I would gander it is because they had seen 6 resurrections!! If you saw 6 people rise from the dead, one of them being Jesus, the threat of murder probably wouldn’t scare you very much! (I’d wonder, “Hey maybe I’ll get resurrected too?!”) What’s unique about Jesus’s resurrection, of course, is that he also defeated death and sin and Satan and came back as a fish-eating, scarred-hand, warm, palpable human, but in a glorified body, giving us a glimpse of what our heavenly, resurrected bodies will be like.
I’ll admit, I have a hard time in my natural mind picturing eternity and heavenly bodies. But I can definitely picture being at Lazarus’s funeral. Or playing the pipes at Jairus’s house. Or consoling the Nain widow.
Take a deep, humble breath. How could these New Testament accounts have been fabricated?
Did the early disciples really say, “Hey let’s make up 6 fake stories of local people who everyone knows, and everyone knows their mamas and their uncles and their kids, and we’ll tell everyone they came back to life from the dead. Let’s make sure to say exactly when and where this happened, and make sure they are very public places with lots of witnesses. Shoot, we’ll just write out an entire fictional public funeral that the entire town would have been at! Knowing that when we do this, we’ll be mutilated and tortured and killed. Okay, let’s go start a religion!”
Ravi Zacharias points out: All the skeptics of the day had to do to falsify Christianity was present Jesus’s body.
That wouldn’t have been that hard.
Or Eutychus’s body, or Jairus’s daughter’s body, or the Nain widow’s son’s body, or Dorcas’s body, or Lazarus’s body.
Jesus came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. All who call on the name of the Lord Jesus will be saved. By his grace we are saved, by his wounds we are healed. He paid a debt he did not owe because we owed a debt we could not pay. Praise be to God.
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I appreciate the idea of looking at the viability of resurrection – after all, I believe in the resurrection. I do, however, question whether this kind of apologetic is a worthwhile task if our task is sharing the gospel and creating disciples.
In the final matter of things: a) we can’t really provide a burden of proof, just a certain logic about the reliability of accounts and b.) this same kind of logic can (and often does) quickly get turned around on Christianity by people who are far more learned than either of us.
This isn’t a criticism of our belief – it’s a criticism of Christian’s reflecting the world by using the same methods of modernity that everyone else uses.
We believe in the resurrection because we have to – we are compelled, even coerced to, by the authority of our tradition. This isn’t a bad thing. The resurrection, with or without substantive proof, is the story passed down to us through tradition in the community Christ established – that story thus becomes the only thing that makes our lives intelligible. The Church makes the resurrection a reality without the need of historical proof.
This of course requires one to be part of the community before believing in the resurrection – a radical claim when compared to the traditional mantra of evangelicalism in the U.S. But perhaps if we look at the gospels a little more carefully we’ll find that to follow and observe Jesus with the help of other disciples precedes belief and does not follow from it.
Again, this kind of enquiry is fine – but is it really something that can minister to people?
Noah Filipiak says
Hi Brett, you make great points. I don’t mean to try to prove Christianity, this post, and my most recent one titled “Let’s Start a Religion” are a response to messages being thrown my way that only idiots would believe in the resurrection of Jesus, or the Bible at all. I get tired of that hyper-intellectual argument that talks down at Christians like we are all mindless and nothing we believe has any plausibility to it. It is very likely that I’m reacting a bit too much and probably fighting fire with fire, which I need to be careful of. More than try to use these posts as evangelism, I want Christians to know they aren’t idiots and that what we believe makes a lot of sense if you look at its origins and move forward with it (as in, start in the 1st century and move forward, rather than starting in 2017 and moving backwards). I’m not trying to prove it, I hate those arguments because they usually won’t deal with the points, but get caught on subtopic after subtopic. But to say, let’s start with everything we know about God, about nature, about the meaning of life, then add that to a credible and plausible resurrection account.
I appreciate you keeping me in check, I really do!