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A lot of people die for their sincerely-held beliefs.  What’s any different about Christianity? 

One of the most frequently cited proofs for Jesus’ resurrection is the fact that his disciples were willing to die for their beliefs.  But so were the 9-11 hijackers.  So were the Branch Davidians.  So were many very sincere, but seriously deluded people throughout the ages.

Jesus’ disciples may have been utterly sincere in thinking they saw him risen from the dead.  But so what?  What does this prove, other than the fact that they are like so many others who’ve died for an ideology, charismatic leader, or deeply-held belief?

Paul writes his first letter to the Corinthians sometime around the mid-50’s A.D.  But in Chapter 15:3-7 he passes on a tradition that the vast majority of scholars—the most skeptical included—agree is the earliest source for the resurrection, easily having been formulated within only five years after Jesus’ death.  According to this tradition, the appearances of Jesus were something that a person living at the time could verify for themselves by asking those who saw them.  This tradition even says that there were some 500 such witnesses to one of Jesus’ appearances.

But Paul then adds his own comment to this tradition and what he says is absolutely stunning.  Writing, again, in the mid-50’s, he says that most of these 500 witnesses are still alive, even though, he notes, some have died.  There is only one reason to mention this: Paul is boldly challenging anyone who doubts the resurrection to verify it for themselves by questioning the many remaining witnesses who are still alive.

The only way Paul could issue such a challenge is if those witnesses believed (unto death)—and would freely acknowledge to anyone who asked—that they had collectively seen Jesus appear to them risen from the dead at the exact same time.  In other words, that the entire group together saw and experienced the same thing, the same public, external event.

What’s even more stunning is that Paul’s conversion took place within three years after Jesus’ death.  So, the tradition he is handing on here must have been formulated by or around the time of his conversion, at the latest in 36 A.D. when he visits with Peter and James to learn about Jesus’ public ministry from them.  At the latest then, this tradition must have been circulating throughout the church prior to Paul’s visit.   

So just a few short years after Jesus’ death (and most likely right from the start), the church was already boldly challenging all who doubted the resurrection to verify it for themselves by talking to the original eyewitnesses.  And this challenge was only possible because the appearances claimed to be objectively public events fresh in the memory of those who witnessed them.

Here’s why this matters:

Those who die for a belief are trusting in the interior, subjective experiences of a leader or founder who claims to have received some revelation or attained some insight which generates that ideology.  In many cases, the personal charisma of a leader is enough to persuade people to die for them and all that they stand for or claim to have experienced.  But there is no way to verify this kind of internal experience.  

For example, the first Muslims might have sincerely believed that Allah revealed Himself to Muhammad.   But how could they know for sure?  They had to rely on what Muhammad told them, what he experienced privately.  They didn’t see it for themselves. 

Likewise, the Branch Davidians were willing to give their lives for David Koresh because they believed him when he said he was God’s chosen servant.  But how could they know this to be true?  There is no way to publicly observe the internal operation of Koresh’s mind and verify that it was indeed God—and not Koresh’s (twisted) imagination—who chose him. 

And the 9-11 hijackers died for an ideology largely manufactured by Osama bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s ideology might have been inspired by Allah, but it may not have—most would say absolutely not!  Though morally repugnant, there’s no way to say for sure because we don’t have access to his subjective thought process.   

Jesus’ disciples, on the other hand, could see for themselves whether Jesus had risen. 

As a publicly observable event, they were in a position to check out the nature of the claim for themselves.     

It wasn’t Jesus’ powerful experiences of the Divine, profound insights, or personal charisma that convinced the disciples to die for him.  In fact, they abandoned Jesus at his death—when he was crucified, they no longer believed in him!

It was the very public events surrounding his resurrection.  Events they were in a position to know happened, to verify. 

Because the resurrection claims to be a fact of history, an external, objective event that could be examined in a public, verifiable way, the disciples weren’t like all those others who die for a belief.  They were willing to die for something they saw for themselves “out there” in the real world and knew to be true.  And those who didn’t see it could question these witnesses to verify it for themselves. 

So, two thousand years later, unable to question these witnesses for ourselves, how can we verify that it’s true, that the disciples weren’t mistaken, that they weren’t just suffering from some kind of mass delusion or group hallucination?

There will be much more to come in future posts on the evidence showing that what they saw wasn’t in their collective imagination, but an actual, objective, external, verifiable event.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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