Alive

It’s the central claim of Christianity: Jesus is alive. Not just that his memory lives on in people’s hearts. Not just that his teaching still inspires people today. But that Jesus rose from the dead – flesh and blood, in time and space. If true, it means Jesus has conquered the grave. It says heaven is not a pipe dream, if we throw our lot in with Jesus.

But of course, dead people don’t rise. I’ve conducted over 100 funerals and I’ve never had to cancel a funeral because the deceased got better. 100% of those I bury stay stone-cold dead..

I am naturally sceptical. A surfer who saw a dolphin in the water during his heats said it must have been his late brother coming back to help him win his first championship! I don’t like to mock. But there is zero evidence for such a claim!

Is the resurrection of Jesus any better? Here are some strands of evidence I find persuasive.

Most of the relevant evidence is contained in the Bible’s New Testament. So why trust the New Testament? In brief, the documents were written close in time to the events they recorded. Ancient historians agree most were written within the same generation! Multiple manuscript copies, good scribal practices and modern linguistic research means they have been reliably transmitted and translated.

And though bound together in one book, the New Testament evidence about Jesus actually includes multiple, independent sources, including Mark, John, James, Paul, plus a source common to Matthew and Luke as well as their own unique material. This criterion of ‘multiple attestation’ is important to ancient historians.

What about the resurrection of Christ? Here are three strands of evidence. Firstly, his tomb was empty. Even the earliest anti-Christian propaganda agrees with this. Otherwise the authorities would have exhumed the body to expose the whole charade. And there was little benefit for disciples in stealing his body for a hoax that brought them much persecution and in some cases cost their own lives!

Secondly, eyewitnesses testified that Jesus appeared to them alive after his death. The various New Testament sources record over ten appearances to individuals and groups, where Jesus was seen, heard and touched. The names of many such eyewitnesses were recorded. And some remained alive decades after, available for cross-examination. This was an accepted method of first century historiography.

Thirdly, where did the transformation of the disciples come from? Peter changed from (a) cowardly denier to (a) brave proclaimer of Christ. Doubting Thomas from a sceptic  to a true believer. Paul from (a) zealous persecutor to persecuted missionary! It’s hard to believe they’d have done this unless they were convinced Jesus really was alive.

The Australian Skeptics Society website suggests we keep an open mind and not reject paranormal claims in advance. Examine the evidence. However it also states we should prefer an ordinary explanation to an extraordinary, the natural to the supernatural, and the simple to the complex.

on the balance of probabilities, the alternative natural explanations for the empty tomb, appearances and changed lives are more far-fetched and complicated, than the simple but supernatural claim that God raised Jesus from the dead grounded in ordinary ‘natural’ history!

I once read of a fisherman who arrived at Taronga Zoo with an injured penguin. The angler swore it fell from the sky, landing on him while fishing. The vet told him it was impossible, as penguins can’t fly. But the odd story became more plausible once they examined the bird’s injuries. They noticed puncture wounds consistent with sea eagle talons, and broken ribs from a fall. The Zoo team guessed the penguin was snatched from the sea, then dropped by its predator. (By the way the penguin recovered!)

My point is something that looks too strange to be true, can appear more realistic, once the evidence is examined closely. So let’s pause before dismissing the surprising historical claim that Jesus is alive. I know he’s changed my life.

Sandy Grant
Senior Minister of St Michael’s Anglican Cathedral, Wollongong