April 6, 2010

How An Atheist Came To Believe in the Resurrection

Investigating Easter

By Lee Strobel

I saw plenty of dead bodies as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, but I've never seen anyone come back to life. That was the stuff of mythology and legend. After all, we live in a scientific age. Belief in a resurrection was simply untenable.

At least, that's what I thought until I checked the facts for myself. Using my legal training, I investigated the most audacious claim of history: that Jesus of Nazareth returned from the dead and thus authenticated his claim to being the Son of God.

After nearly two years of research, I found my atheism cracking. Here's some of what I discovered:

First, there's overwhelming evidence Jesus was executed. In addition to multiple, early, independent confirmation in the New Testament documents (which, incidentally, I gave no special treatment), there are also five sources outside the Bible. Even atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann called Jesus' death by crucifixion "indisputable."

Second, we have resurrection accounts that date back so early they can't be legendary - because legends take time to develop. A.N. Sherwin-White, the great classical historian from Oxford, said the passage of two generations was not even enough time for legend to grow up in the ancient world and wipe out a solid core of historical truth.

Yet we have a creed of the early church, recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, that confirms Jesus died, was buried, rose and appeared to named eyewitnesses, including skeptics. Scholars from a wide range of theological belief have dated this creed to within a few years of Jesus' death - and therefore its underlying beliefs go back even further. It's like a historical news flash!

Concluded eminent scholar James D. G. Dunne: "This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus' death." It would be unprecedented for a legend to develop that fast and wipe out a solid core of historical truth.

Third, there's the empty tomb, which is implicit in the early creed and reported in the earliest Gospel.

Scholar William Lane Craig points out that the site of Jesus' tomb was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. If it weren't empty, it would have been impossible for a movement founded on the resurrection to have exploded into existence in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed and buried just a few weeks earlier.

Moreover, the empty tomb was implicitly admitted in the early claim that the disciples had stolen the body. Why would Jesus' opponents manufacture such a cover story unless they were trying to explain away the inconvenient truth that the tomb was empty?

Nobody had a motive for stealing the body, especially the disciples. They wouldn't have knowingly and willingly allowed themselves to be tortured to death for a lie.

Finally, scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona have enumerated nine sources reporting the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples:

• Paul confirms Jesus appeared to him, and then Paul met with the apostles and they agreed their teaching about the resurrection was the same as his.

• The early creed confirms the disciples (plus 500 others!) encountered the risen Jesus; indeed, many scholars believe two eyewitnesses cited in the creed, Peter and James, were the ones who gave the creed to Paul.

• Peter declared to a crowd in Jerusalem just weeks after Jesus' execution that "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it." Three thousand people agreed and the church was born.

• Matthew, Mark, Luke and John independently confirm his post-resurrection appearances. These first-century, eyewitness-rooted Gospels have regained respect in recent years. Scholar Craig Evans, who has lectured at Oxford and Cambridge, said that "there's every reason to conclude the Gospels have fairly and accurately reported the essential elements" of Jesus' resurrection.

• Early church leaders Clement and Polycarp were taught by the apostles. Clement said the apostles had "complete certainty" about the resurrection; Polycarp repeatedly confirmed the resurrection.

So convinced were the disciples that they were willing to die for their conviction that Jesus had risen -- not because they had faith in it, but because they were in the unique position to know for sure that it was true.

Even atheist Lüdemann conceded: "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."

He would claim these were hallucinations or visions, yet I don't find that credible. Hallucinations occur in our brains, like dreams. People can't share hallucinations, yet Jesus appeared to groups three different times.

Were these visions by grieving disciples? This wouldn't explain the conversion of Saul, an opponent of Christians, or James, a skeptic. Neither was primed for a vision, yet each died proclaiming Jesus had appeared to him. Besides, if these were visions, the body would still have been entombed.

My books analyze objections that many skeptics, including myself, have raised. None, in my view, overcome the affirmative evidence. So I reached the verdict that the resurrection really happened - and that's why I'm celebrating my 29th Easter as a follower of Jesus.

Lee Strobel, author of the bestselling "Case" series has created the new resources "The Case for the Resurrection" and "The Case for Christ Study Bible."