This is it. The conclusion. It should really come at the end. But it might take a lifetime to complete authoring this book. And as an excellent barrister once taught me, the secret to presenting any case well is to write the closing speech first.
So here goes. For me, the supernatural personality, the eternal deity commonly known in the Western world as God, is, I believe, the ultimate reality, the single unending entity that always has been and always will be. I prefer the name Father.
I believe that, partly because I was taught this as a child and continue to draw comfort from a worldview which informs me that I am never alone and that the relationships I value in this lifetime can continue beyond the grave.
However, I also believe this because I can find no better explanation for the life, death and resurrection of the man called Jesus Christ, than this.
It is undoubtedly correct that the some of the facts and inferences drawn in this book are mistaken, ill conceived, or just plain wrong. That should be expected of any attempt to detail history after it has happened. It is only in the present that we truly experience what is real. Everything else is mist and shadows.
Witnesses can be unreliable in accurately describing what happened yesterday, let alone narrating an account of what might have happened almost two millennia ago. But only a coward or a fool would close his eyes to enquiry or conclude that because a detail or two is incorrect then the whole episode is a myth.
At court, although judges sometimes have to be forced into making a decision about a case, the vast majority routinely do so based on evidence they know to be incomplete and often imprecise, but nevertheless sufficient enough to paint a picture that dimly reflects the reality of events that really occurred.
And so it is with this book, and more accurately with the two independent eye witness accounts we have in the Gospels of Mark and John, as found in the New Testament of the Bible.
In these two documents we have, I believe, a detailed description of the trial and execution of Yeshua of Nazareth at the hands of Pontius Pilate, Roman Procurator; and the subsequent discovery of an empty tomb and sightings of the man Jesus, very much alive after he had been witnessed very much medically certifiably dead.
These two witnesses, most likely Peter the Apostle (as told through his companion in the Gospel of Mark) and John Mark, the beloved disciple and cousin of Barnabus, who accompanied the Apostle Paul during his early missionary journeys (as told through the Gospel of John), were able to describe in detail the events in the hours leading up to and following the death of Christ; and appear to do so independently of each other.
Not only do they agree on significant number of factual details (and differ on others – an important indicator that collusion has not taken place), they do so in their own language, using their own idioms, and reflecting their own culture and context – Peter being a Galilean Fishermen and John Mark, a Judean Scholar.
Both men describe how on the first day after the Sabbath a woman reported having found the tomb in which Jesus was buried, empty. Given the status afforded to the testimony of women at the time, this was hardly a convincing proof of the Resurrection. If you were seeking to establish a new cult based on an incredible event, you would not, at the time the Gospels were penned, rely on a woman’s account as reliably evidencing the truth of the encounter.
So both men went to the tomb to see for themselves; a tomb which had been sealed by Roman decree and protected by Roman guard. Unexplainably, the great stone set in front of the tomb had been rolled away, the seal broken, and the Roman guard, who had only been present at the request of the Jewish authorities (who had understood Jesus’ prediction that he would rise from the dead), missing.
The consequence of that seal being broken on any authority other than Caesar’s would be sentence to death; not only for those who broke it, but also for those who allowed it to be broken. It was manifestly against the Roman guards’ best interests to permit anything to happen to that body.
If you are minded to accept any alternative explanation for the disappearance of the body other than Resurrection by supernatural power, you have to explain how either a disparate band of brothers who had recently witnessed the execution of their leader were able to forcibly overcome the Roman guard and roll back the stone; or why the Roman guard were so intensely relaxed about the value of their own lives as to negligently allow the body to be stolen from behind their backs.
Bar Jesus having been raised from the dead in the way described in Scripture, only two reasonable explanations remain for where his very publicly executed body went: it was either with the Roman and Jewish authorities available to be produced and so dispel the ‘mischievous superstition’ that he had risen from the grave (which they resolutely failed to do – and so the myth remained unchecked), or it was with his disciples, many of whom went to their death still believing and confessing that they had witnessed Yeshua return to life.
Neither of these propositions bear much scrutiny.
The Roman and Jewish authorities already had the body in custody under Roman seal in the tomb where it was common knowledge Jesus was laid; why move it from a known place to an unknown one and so literally ‘open the door’ for rumours of Resurrection to start swirling round the city of Jerusalem?
The idea that Jesus’ closest followers took the body in order to promulgate the myth that he had come back from the dead fundamentally misunderstands the context in which the disciples operated. Living under both Roman occupation and the Jewish Sanhedrin, who were seen to have formed an unhealthy alliance with the Empire, albeit a marriage of convenience, Jesus’ followers were looking for a Messiah who would lead a forcible rebellion and achieve genuine freedom for the nation of Israel. They weren’t looking for someone to save them from their sins.
We know with near certainty that the reason Pontius Pilate executed Jesus was to prevent an uprising by the Jewish people who were apparently baying for his blood, crying “crucify him”. We also know with near certainty that the reason the Jewish authorities wanted Jesus executed was because he had blasphemed by claiming to be the Son of God.
Anyone connected with Yeshua of Nazareth was tainted by association. Why else did Peter, apparently the lead member among the disciples, deny knowing Jesus after he was betrayed, unless to save his own skin? Why did the disciples melt away in the middle of the night instead of coming to Jesus’ aid and rescuing him before he was executed? What possible benefit could be gainsaid from rescuing a corpse?
The reasoned critic may argue the conspiracy to steal the body and claim resurrection was in order to immortalise the leader and so galvanise a revolution. This argument cannot sensibly carry any weight. The disciples were expecting Jesus to lead a rebellion in this lifetime, not the next. Standing by and watching his death with a view to then claiming the impossible after it is wholly illogical. It hardly engenders confidence in a revolutionary leader to witness his being mercilessly and agonisingly tortured to death on a cross.
There was little reference amongst contemporary Jewish scholarship to a Messiah who would face death in the middle of his prime; even less so among the common men who bandied around Jesus. To suggest that the limited, fractious and hesitating popular movement that sprung up during Jesus’ lifetime could somehow be enhanced by stealing and hiding his body following his very public ostracism and execution is a nonsense.
If you wanted to salvage the popular movement following its recent and unforeseen decapitation you would quickly anoint another leader in its stead – one that was still very much alive – and leave the body in the grave as a martyr to the cause; a memorial to the brutality and illegality of the regime you are seeking to depose.
You would not, on any account, remove the body and try to claim the impossible – that he had risen from the dead. Jesus might have taught about an intangible Kingdom that went way beyond human hegemony and the limits of mortality, but his followers clearly anticipated the immediate overthrow of a political dynasty – fashioning a lie that a shadowy leader would now continue to lead this rebellion from beyond the grave would only serve as a distraction from the cause.
In short, fabricating a fanciful and incredulous story about life after death would be a complete waste of time and energy.
Worse still, it would likely undermine the (misunderstood) purpose of Jesus’ mission – to end the Roman occupation – because it would introduce the concept that life continues after death, and risk softening the resolve of adherents of the Way. If life is eternal, it matters far less if the Romans rule over us during our three score years and ten; we can lay down our arms and await freedom in the life beyond.
Neither the disciples, or the Roman-Jewish alliance, had anything to gain from moving the body.
What of the other explanation – that the tomb was empty because something previously unknown and otherwise unheard of had happened?
The women who visited the tomb on the morning after the Sabbath went to attend to a dead body. They didn’t anticipate finding a living man there, least of all the man they had seen crucified several days previously.
There are two general objections raised to the Resurrection account. One is experiential, the other philosophical.
The first is quite easy to appreciate; dead people do not return to life. That is our common experience as humanity. That was the experience of the women who went to the tomb that morning. Against the statistical reality that 1 out of every 1 person who dies stays dead, we are hard pressed conceptually to believe that Jesus beat these odds.
The second is a deeper objection, held in the mind, born partially out of our experience of death – that there is nothing beyond death, because we have yet to taste and see such an existence. Why trust in a make believe fairy-tale if we have no tangible evidence of a reality beyond? I share that view.
I share that view, except that, on the balance of probabilities, I consider in the account of what happened to Jesus Christ after his death we do have the first evidential glimpse of a life beyond.
There need be no scientific objection to the possibility of Resurrection. Biological life, the electrical animation of cellular particles, is reconstituted all the time. We all share both atomic matter and genetic material with many of our historical predecessors. Feeling like a literary genius? Chances are there’s a small part of you somewhere that once belonged to Shakespeare.
More than that: the cells of your body are in perpetual change. If you’re older than 7, there’s a very good chance that no part of the original ‘you’ remains. Approaching 70? Every part of you has died and been regenerated at least 10 times. In fact, it’s only the flow of information from cell to cell, the copy and paste job that messenger RNA performs, that keeps you looking like you and communicates your memories from one day to the next.
If ‘you’ is limited to the handful of living cells inscribed with your unique DNA signature, there need be no scientific objection to the principle of Resurrection as described in the Gospels. Bringing a human body back to life may generally be beyond the bounds of medical practice, but it certainly isn’t a physical impossibility. Neither is walking through walls; we just don’t yet know how to do it.
It’s more a question of how it happened, not whether or not theoretically it could. In that regard I subscribe to the C.S. Lewis view of Miracle – a miracle, or supernatural event, need not require the flouting of universal physical laws, but simply be the result of supplying novel extraneous information into a natural system so as to produce an otherwise wholly unusual, yet providential, event.
The greater objection many have to the Resurrection account is less about the concept of returning to life post mortem, and more about the implication this has on the relationships we hold with one another, and, if you will, an eternal God.
Let me quite clear, it is at least superficially feasible to accept the veracity of the Resurrection account without importing all of the Christian theology that accompanies it. You might be persuaded that Jesus fortuitously, and against all the odds, returned to life after death, but reject the notion that his death was a necessary sacrifice for the sin of humanity or the idea that because he returned to life, so might anyone else who believes in him.
But, if Yeshua of Nazereth went to his death accepting the charge of claiming to be the Son of God, and then returned to life afterwards, something which he appears to have predicted before his execution, surely this goes a long way to validating his divine identity, or at the very least, forcing the reasonable man to make a serious enquiry of the other claims he made during his lifetime?
The proximity of these two events, death by crucifixion on the condemnation of the Jewish Sanhedrin for his claim to deity, followed three days later by a miraculous rebirth to life witnessed by scores of men and testified to by a broken seal and an empty grave, must have lead Pontius Pilate to re-examine the question he asked of the man Jesus just days earlier, “What is truth?”, and to explore for himself the ultimate reality of the Kingdom to which Jesus claimed to be King.
We might do likewise.