“What one question needs to be answered satisfactorily before you would be willing to commit your life to Christ?” For me, that was easy to pinpoint. Here’s how I responded to that inquiry.
When I read the Gospels for the first time in September 1975, it became immediately apparent to me that the Jesus pictured there towered over all other religious or philosophical luminaries I had ever studied or followed.
This was a major claim for me. By the age of 20 I had read major elements of Hindu and Buddhist texts, as well as the works of Lao-Tzu, Confucius and Mencius. I had learned the major tenets of Jainism, and of course was familiar with the teachings of Islam. At Stanford University I was majoring in philosophy and so had read representative texts of the formative thinkers of the West from the pre-Socratics up through the time of the Enlightenment period. Of course, I was no expert, but I was widely exposed to the leading philosophical thinkers and religious movements both East and West. No one compared favorably with the Jesus I encountered in the Gospels.
If he had been standing there in front of me at that time, I would have pleaded with him to let me be one of his students. Christians around me claimed that indeed he was and is alive in resurrection glory even now, and that I could know him. I had to find out if that was true.
The story of Thomas was particularly compelling to me. He had not been present with the other disciples when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them that first Easter evening. When he shows up later and the excited disciples try to convince him that Jesus indeed had risen from the grave, he refuses to believe their testimony. His hopes had already been crushed once. It would not happen a second time. Only if he could personally examine the crucifixion wounds on the body of a resurrected Jesus standing before him would he believe.
A week later, Jesus reappears before the gathered disciples, including Thomas. After greeting them with peace, Jesus turns immediately to Thomas and says, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; stop doubting, and believe.” Thomas is overwhelmed, and confesses before Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus responds to his awestruck follower with a promise that would become precious to me, “Have you believed because you’ve seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
My first reaction upon reading this resurrection account was, “How did Jesus know what tests Thomas had demanded the week before – unless he had somehow been present but not visible?” This and other resurrection accounts made it clear that the resurrected Jesus was not limited by our “laws of nature.” If indeed he conquered death and lives with an eternal nature beyond the reach of death, then, I reasoned, I could ask him today if he would take me as a disciple. He might not respond to me, but at least I could ask with a measure of confidence.
So for me the big question I needed to answer satisfactorily was whether it was reasonable to conclude the bodily resurrection of Jesus truly happened. What led the disciples to broadcast this stupendous claim, unless they were personally convinced by real-life experiences?
In researching and pondering, I discovered three main “alternate explanations” to counter the Gospel narratives. If any of these were compelling, then they would prove a more credible account than that of a miracle.
The first explanation was that Jesus did not really die on the cross, but merely “swooned.” He was so close to death that the soldiers tasked with carrying out execution by crucifixion were fooled into certifying his demise after thrusting a spear into his side. He was taken down from the cross and transported by followers to a stone tomb, where he was hastily wrapped in burial cloths and about a hundred pounds of spices before the start of the Sabbath. No one apparently noticed he was still alive. Departing the tomb, they rolled a “great stone” across the entrance to seal it. Jewish leaders, fearing some skullduggery from Jesus’ disciples, went to the Roman governor, Pilate, and asked for a unit of Roman soldiers to guard the tomb. Pilate agreed. However, in spite of all this, the almost-dead Jesus lying in the coolness of the tomb revived, shook himself free of the burial spices, silently rolled the stone away from the tomb entrance and then tiptoed unnoticed past the guards, who knew that failure to fulfill their orders could result in their own execution. After stealing away, Jesus then went and appeared to his disciples, convincing them that he was not a desperately weak man in need of rest and recuperation but rather the Lord of all who had conquered death and reigns supreme. Jesus hangs around for forty days or so, and then disappears from history, never to be seen again.
This account seemed to me to require so much more faith in utterly improbable occurrences than believing in the Gospel resurrection accounts that I dismissed it quickly.
The second explanation, an “intentional hoax,” indeed involves the skullduggery of the disciples. It goes like this: the disciples know that Jesus predicted his resurrection, but they also know it is not going to happen. Yet out of devotion to Jesus and his movement, they want to fabricate a miraculous story so as to bless people or make themselves feel better or justify their future vocations. So they plan and execute a raid on the tomb, either overcoming the Roman military unit stationed there (hardly likely for untrained disciples) or somehow avoiding detection (equally unlikely) and silently rolling away the stone, allowing them to carry off the spice-laden corpse of Jesus (again without detection) and disposing of the body secretly in a location no one else would ever find. After this, on the third day they go public with a rehearsed account of how Jesus indeed rose from the dead and appeared to them and commissioned them to preach a message of salvation in his name. They commit themselves to spreading this lie with the full knowledge that it will likely lead to their own martyrdoms, which in most cases it did.
The obvious objections to this explanation were 1) Why would followers of Jesus, who claimed followers of his way of righteousness, knowingly concoct a lie to foist upon the world? And 2) Why would they be willing to place themselves in harm’s way, even face martyrdom, to advance what they knew was a lie? This scenario hardly comports with the New Testament post-crucifixion evidence of a dispirited and fearful group of disciples cowering behind closed doors for fear of harm. Again, it seemed to me to require more faith to believe the fanciful depictions of the disciples and their mysterious abilities than to accept the straightforward, though miraculous, explanations of the biblical texts.
The third explanation is a “mass hallucination” theory. The disciples are so overwhelmed with despair after Jesus’ brutal death that they are desperate for something to hope in. They remember Jesus’ promise of resurrection and wish beyond wishing that it might happen. Suddenly, one disciple claims to see Jesus exalted beyond death in a vision. Another chimes in that he, too, sees Jesus alive. Soon, they all in a massive display of wish-fulfillment declare that Jesus is indeed risen. This hysteria spreads to disciples in other locations, who claim as well to have encounters with the risen Lord. Indeed, as the apostle Paul reports, on one occasion five hundred apparently suffered the same hallucination. These despair-induced delusions led the early Christians to preach with deep sincerity that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Unfortunately, though they were sincere, they were nonetheless deluded. The movement caught on, but it was based on imagination, not reality.
Explanation three suffers also from some fatal flaws. First, mass hallucinations are rare and limited to one location and place in time. They typically are short-lived and entail little communication between the vision and the observer. The Gospel accounts on the other hand are detailed, varied and highly interactive between Jesus and his followers. They occur in multiple contexts (indoors, outdoors, in a garden, at the beach, on the road, etc.). According to these accounts, Jesus actually does things that alter the physical reality around them: he breaks bread, he consumes food. After his departure, the bread remains broken, the consumed food is gone. Something more than a hallucination has just happened. Second, if indeed the message of Jesus’ resurrection was based on a delusion that had begun to spread among gullible people, the Jewish authorities could easily have asked Pilate to open the tomb of Jesus, exhume the corpse and parade it around Jerusalem. That would have quashed the sincere but false claims. Third, the sworn enemy of the fledgling church, Saul the Pharisee, who believed the message of the gospel was vile heresy against God, suddenly had a change of heart which led him to become the first century’s greatest missionary for Christ. What happened? According to him, he had a real encounter with the risen Christ which completely transformed his life course. Could such a change be the result of hallucination? Possible, I think, but hardly likely.
Back in 1975 when I placed these alternate explanations alongside the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, the believability of the Gospels was much more natural than the strained efforts of the skeptics. I concluded it was much more likely that things happened as reported by first century eye-witnesses and their listeners than by later critics trying to discount them with purely naturalistic hypotheses.
So on September 15th, 1975, believing that the resurrection of Jesus was likely a historical event, and that he was most probably alive and might listen to my request, and aware of the fact that this might be the most momentous decision of my life if Jesus should choose to respond to my plea, I bowed my head and asked that if he indeed were who the Gospels said he was, that he would show himself to me and accept me as a disciple. He did.
That was over forty years ago, and he has never given me any reason to doubt his claims or his love. No other person, no other way of life, can hold a candle to Jesus of Nazareth, God the Son incarnate, the risen Savior and Lord of all humanity.