"If Christ had not been raised," Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:17, "our preaching is useless and so is your faith." The resurrection is the most important event in Christianity. (For this reason, Easter is actually a more important holiday for Christians than Christmas.) Other religions such as Judaism and Islam may feature miracles but miracles are not central to their theology. Christianity, by contrast, is based on the miracle of the resurrection.
Since the nineteenth century, some biblical scholars have refused to accept the biblical account of the Resurrection because it was produced by people obviously biased in Christ's favor. Interestingly Christ's followers, by their own admission, did not expect the resurrection. Arriving three days after his death, the women brought spices to his tomb to anoint and preserve his body. Only then did they observe that the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
The fact of the empty tomb was admitted by the Roman guards and also by the Jewish magistrates, who told the Roman authorities that Christ's followers must have stolen the body. In Jewish polemic against Christianity, this has been the standard explanation for the empty tomb. Yet it is prima facie implausible, since how could a handful of female disciples have subdued Roman guards and moved the stone blocking access to the tomb?
The apostles were deeply skeptical about reports of a resurrection, and Christ had to appear to them several times before these doubts were dispelled. Paul writes that Christ "appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, although some have passed away." Paul here appeals to direct empirical evidence: the testimony of multiple witnesses who actually saw Jesus alive after his execution. Of this group, Paul says that many are still alive, which means they are in a position to refute him if what he is claiming is wrong. In the history of hallucinations, is there a single instance in which five hundred people all saw the same person — a figure known to them — and were all equally mistaken?
But is the testimony of the early Christians reliable? Well, let us see. The disciples became so convinced of what they had seen that their dirges of lamentation were replaced with cries of joy. Proclaiming Christ crucified and Christ risen, they launched the greatest wave of religious conversion in history. Historians tell us that the number of Christians increased from around 100 at the time of Christ's death to around 30 million by the early fourth century, when the Roman emperor himself converted to Christianity.
Imagine a disputed event in court where numerous eyewitnesses gave evidence of the same fact and stood by their testimony so firmly that they would be willing to endure life imprisonment or even the death penalty rather than say the contrary.
These conversions occurred in the teeth of fierce political opposition and the persecution of the greatest empire in the ancient world, the empire of Rome. The early Christians did not hesitate to identify themselves with a man who had been branded a traitor and a criminal. They endured imprisonment, torture, exile, and death rather than renounce their commitment to a resurrected Christ.
Imagine a disputed event in court where numerous eyewitnesses gave evidence of the same fact and stood by their testimony so firmly that they would be willing to endure life imprisonment or even the death penalty rather than say the contrary. Would any jury doubt that such people, who would have little to gain and everything to lose, were telling the truth?
"Yes," an atheist friend of mine conceded. "But aren't the radical Muslims also willing to die in order to get the virgins in heaven?" Perhaps so, but the two cases are not comparable. The radical Muslims are taking on faith that their actions will take them to an Elysian place where the virgins will be waiting. By contrast, the Christians who went to their deaths at the hands of the Romans did so because they refused to renounce an event in their own experience. Why would someone be willing to die for something that he knew to be a lie?
Even from a secular point of view, the evidence for Christ's resurrection is surprisingly strong. It might even be sufficient to convince an impartial jury in a court of law. The big question surrounding Good Friday and Easter is not: did all this happen? It did. The big question is whether we will let Christ into our hearts, so that he can raise us up on the day of judgment.
Dinesh D'Souza. "Did the Resurrection Actually Happen?" Dinesh D'Souza Blog (March 21, 2008).
This article reprinted with permission from Dinesh D'Souza.
This Easter reflection is adapted from the book What's So Great About Christianity.
Copyright © 2008 Dinesh D'Souza