Is the story of Easter really true?
How do we know?
By Robin Schumacher
There are many different ways to answer this question, but let me make an attempt by first stating the following things: a little over two thousand years ago, a man by the name of Jesus was born to a young and very ordinary couple. There was some controversy surrounding his birth (which primarily centered around who his actual father was), however outside of that, he lived in relative obscurity for about thirty years. He then burst onto the religious scene in the Roman occupied areas of Galilee and Jerusalem as a very learned Jewish Rabbi, despite never being formerly educated. Reports of him performing amazing miracles (e.g. healing the sick, raising the dead, performing exorcisms) spread throughout the regions, along with claims of him being the long awaited Jewish Messiah. He gathered around him a band of fairly unsophisticated disciples, with others also following his itinerant preaching journeys.
Soon, though, he ran afoul of the Jewish religious leaders and was brought before the Roman authorities on a number of unsubstantiated charges. He was then condemned to death under the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, put to death under the common form of Roman execution, which was crucifixion, and then buried. Three days later, his body went missing and remains missing to this day. Reports of him appearing to both believers and unbelievers alike quickly began to circulate. His disciples who had fled from him during his arrest then boldly began to declare that they had seen him alive, that he was the Christ of God, with his resurrection becoming the absolute center of their preaching. Ten of his disciples were martyred for their refusal to deny their story, with only John dying of old age in Ephesus. Lastly, a zealous Jewish Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who had formerly persecuted the new Jesus movement, claimed he too had seen Jesus alive. Saul converted to the Christian faith and eventually was beheaded by the emperor Nero for his faith around 65 A.D.
Now, it's important to understand one thing about the statements I've just made: none of them requires any faith whatsoever to believe. Not one. Every claim above can be confirmed via the standard, scholarly methods used to verify ancient history and are validated by both the historically verifiable New Testament documents as well as over forty extra-biblical sources from antiquity. No historical scholar – either Christian or non-Christian – who has investigated the above statements denies that the events occurred. For example, Princeton scholar Dr. Bart Ehrman, who is well known for his skepticism toward historical Christianity says, "One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate" (my emphasis). The leader of the very liberal Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, has written: "That he [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical ever can be" (my emphasis). And the German scholar and atheist Gerd Ludemann has gone on the record to admit: "It is historically certain that Peter and the other disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ" (my emphasis).
These are the facts concerning the historical life of Jesus. And these facts are not in dispute.
That being the case, we then call upon something in philosophy that is known as "the appeal to the best explanation." In other words, what best explains these historical facts concerning Jesus? Is the best explanation atheist Richard Carrier's contention that the disciples experienced hallucinations about Jesus? Is the best explanation Dr. Robert Cavin's thesis that Jesus had an unknown, identical twin brother who appeared after Jesus' death and fooled everyone?
The truth is, once the evidence is examined, and all presuppositions are pushed aside, the most reasonable conclusion to reach is that Jesus was who He claimed to be and that God raised Him from the dead.
Some may bristle at my statement that these things about Jesus require no faith to believe because the Bible says we are saved by faith. Don't misunderstand what I'm saying. There is a big difference in stating that Jesus of Nazareth was put to death by Pontius Pilate in the first century and his body is still missing to this day, and saying that Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, through the predetermined plan of God died a substitutionary death for humanity, and was resurrected to restore spiritual life to dead, helpless sinners so that they may have eternal life. The first statement is history, the second is the gospel. And the latter requires faith to believe.
Of course, the next question becomes: Is there a way to bridge the gap between history and faith? Actually, there is. But that discussion will have to wait for another column.
Image Credit: Bill Gracey; "Easter Lilly"; Creative Commons