“The early Christians did things differently,” said Professor NT Wright when asked, “How convinced are you about the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ?”
The resurrection of Jesus took everybody by surprise. The disciples weren’t expecting it. They knew perfectly well that if you followed someone who you thought was the Messiah, and he got killed, then that was it.
We know of at least a dozen other messianic or prophetic movements, within a hundred years on either side of Jesus, and they routinely ended with the death of the founder. And if the movement wanted to continue, they didn’t say, “Oh he’s been raised from the dead.” They said, “Let’s find his brother or cousin or somebody who can carry on this movement.”
You can see how those Jewish groups did that. But the early Christians did it differently. They had James the brother of Jesus, as this great leader in the early church, but nobody said, “James is the Messiah.” They said, “Jesus is the Messiah.”
“Why? But he’s dead! They got him! Don’t you realise, they crucified him?”
“No,” they said. “He was raised from the dead.”
Raised from the dead
That’s the only way you can explain how Christianity began, and why it took the very precise shape it did. The disciples really did believe Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.
Why would they believe that? You can go through all the theories: that they found themselves forgiven; they had a fresh sense of the presence of God; that this was cognitive dissonance, etc. Then you bring all those theories to the actual facts that we know on the ground in the first century – and they just don’t fit.
The only way you can explain the rise of the early Christian belief that Jesus was raised, is that there really was an empty tomb. The disciples really did meet Jesus alive again, in a transformed body. And then the thing makes sense.
Of course, you don’t have to believe. When I wrote a book on this subject, my philosophy tutor from Oxford, who was an atheist, read it and said, “Great book! You really make the argument. I simply choose to believe that there must be some other explanation, even though I don’t know what it is.”
“Fine,” I said. “That’s as far as I can take you. I can’t bully you into believing. To do that requires a change of worldview.”
But, once you change your worldview, and say, maybe there really is a creator God, and maybe this creator God really is sorting out this sad old world at last… then everything else makes sense in a way that it doesn’t with any other possibility.