With the general reliability of the Gospels established, we’re ready for the final step of our argument. What ultimately makes Christianity unique is its view of Jesus – while other belief systems may view Him as a prophet, a moral teacher, or one god among many, Christianity alone holds that He is the incarnation of the sole God of the universe. This view of Jesus is not just a belief of Christianity but the belief of Christianity; the entire religion is basically the implications and applications of Jesus’ divinity. Therefore, to prove Christianity, we merely need to prove that Jesus is God. I propose to do so by this simple argument:
- If Jesus rose from the dead, He is God.
- Jesus rose from the dead.
- Therefore, Jesus is God.
Why should we believe premise 1 – that if Jesus rose from the dead, He is God? It’s obviously not true in general; God could raise anyone He wanted from the dead and it would have no bearing on that person’s divinity. The key reason for this premise is that Jesus wasn’t just anyone, nor even just any moral teacher. Jesus was a man who made radical claims about Himself – including that He was divine. He forgave sins (Matthew 9:1-8, Mark 2:1-2) and called Himself Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5), both of which entailed divinity in the Jewish religious context. More directly, Jesus called Himself Son of Man after a divine figure in the prophecies of Jewish Scriptures (Matthew 26:64, Mark 14:62, Luke 21:27, Daniel 7:13); there is no mistaking that this was a claim of divinity in the Jewish context because it’s what finally got Jesus crucified for blasphemy. The gospel of John is conspicuously lacking from those proof texts, but that’s only because John skips the indirect stuff and goes straight for statements like “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) and “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus also tells a crowd “Before Abraham was, I AM” (John 8:58). Abraham was the father of all Jews and “I AM” is a reference to the Jewish name of God – our strong suspicion that this is a claim to divinity is confirmed by the Jews’ immediate attempt to stone Jesus to death for blasphemy.
Our knowledge of Jesus’ divine claims helps us better understand the significance of His resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus, if it occurred, would not be a random miracle but rather God’s vindication of Jesus’ claims about Himself. Thus, due to the unique context of Jesus’ life, teachings, and claims about Himself, premise 1 seems very plausible.
What about premise 2 – why should we think that Jesus rose from the dead? Enormous books have been filled with answers to that question (e.g. N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God), but for a short and memorable one, here are some of the reasons Jesus is ALIVE (courtesy of Dr. Timothy McGrew).
Appearances of the risen Jesus were reported
The gospels are pretty much unanimous that there were reports of the risen Jesus: Matthew, Luke, and John attest directly to these appearances, while Mark includes an angel saying that Jesus will appear to His disciples but does not narrate this event. The appearances occur to individuals as well as groups; perhaps most importantly, they occur to Christians and skeptics alike. James, one of Jesus’ half-brothers, was not a Christian until Jesus appeared to him after His crucifixion. Saul, an energetic and ruthless persecutor of Christians, also converted to Christianity after Jesus appeared to him; afterwards, he changed his name to Paul and wrote a large portion of the New Testament.
Low status of women
1st century Palestine was blatantly patriarchal; women were seen as emotional and unreliable, and as a result, a woman’s testimony was generally regarded as worthless. Yet, shockingly, all four gospels agree that a group of Jesus’ women followers discover the empty tomb while Jesus’ male disciples are hiding in terror as a result of His crucifixion. The inclusion of inconvenient or embarrassing facts is evidence of an authentic account and it doesn’t get much more embarrassing than that.
Immediate proclamation in Jerusalem
Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion, belief in His resurrection exploded with Jerusalem as its epicenter. This is notable for two reasons. First, the short window between Jesus’ death and the proclamation of His resurrection makes it very difficult to explain as a result of legendary development. Second, the fact that the miracle was proclaimed in the very city it was alleged to have happened means that everyone would’ve had access to all relevant public knowledge, eyewitnesses, and locations. This is especially important because of the presence of powerful and organized opposition to Christianity that would have been eager to use something like an occupied tomb of Jesus to quash the movement.
Voluntary sufferings undergone by first witnesses
Life for those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus wasn’t easy. Paul was a zealous and advantaged Jew who was on the fast track to being a well-respected and well-off leader; he gave it all up to preach and make tents because of his belief in the resurrection. He was beaten within an inch of his life multiple times for his passionate evangelism and was eventually martyred, as were several of the other apostles. This fact presents a crippling obstacle to explanations which accuse the disciples of deception or conspiracy; they may have been mistaken, but the idea that they lived and died (some very painfully) with an unwavering loyalty to a lie they themselves invented is preposterous.
Empty tomb where Jesus was buried
All four gospels attest that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus in a tomb and that the tomb was found empty three days later. This would be powerful in itself, but the gospels do more than directly assert the empty tomb – they also give us strong evidence that even the early opponents of Christianity conceded that the tomb was empty. In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn that the Jewish leaders paid one of the tomb’s guards to say that Jesus’ disciples had stolen His body – Matthew ends the account by saying “This story has been spread amongst the Jews to this day.” The key point for our purposes is that Matthew’s account of the bribed guard is aimed at explaining the origins of the then-contemporary accusation that the disciples had stolen the body, which implies that such an accusation was being made. But this accusation – made by the early opponents of Christianity – takes for granted that Jesus’ tomb was empty. If even the enemies of Christianity acknowledged that Jesus’ tomb was empty, it’s very likely that it was.
These five facts taken together are very challenging for the skeptic to explain. Every proposed naturalistic explanation (e.g. the hallucination hypothesis, the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis) deals with one or a few facts only to be strongly disconfirmed by the others. By contrast, the Christian has a concise, thorough, and simple explanation; Jesus actually rose from the dead. Unless the skeptic can produce a comparably plausible hypothesis, we’re rationally justified in accepting the resurrection of Jesus as the best explanation of the facts. No rival hypothesis has even come close; the situation is so desperate that even aliens (Dr. Michael Shermer) and secret twins (Dr. Robert Greg Cavin) have both seriously entered the discussion. Therefore, it is quite plausibly the case that Jesus did rise from the dead.
If both premises of my argument are true, the conclusion is inescapable – Jesus is God. This is an astounding conclusion with sweeping ramifications for every aspect of our lives, and I’d be remiss if I spent all this energy convincing you that Jesus is God and then just walked out of the room. If Jesus is God, what does that mean? Where do we go next? For starters, we ought to be extremely interested in what God had to say when He was among us – that is, we should read the Gospels and apply Jesus’ teachings to our lives. We may find that, in addition to teaching us Himself, Jesus displays a tremendous reverence for the Jewish Scriptures as a source of truth and that He passes His authority on to His apostles, promising that His Spirit will guide them into further truth. Being
lazy efficient, we may then wish that all these writings were collected for us – we’d be lucky, for the Bible is that collection. As we study it, we may come to learn more and more of a God who moved heaven and Earth to relate with us despite our sins and provide a way for us to be saved from destroying ourselves. We may respond by turning away from evil and accepting the life that He freely gives us. As good as all that is, we may additionally wish that there were a place where those following Jesus and those curious about Him could come and learn and encourage one another – we’d be lucky again, for the church is that place.
Out of the single truth that Jesus is God comes practically all of orthodox Christianity. If you’re persuaded that He is, I implore you to act on that knowledge. If you’re intrigued but not yet persuaded, keep reading! Keep thinking! Jesus was a brilliant teacher, but His teachings were not for the lazy learner; He often spoke in difficult parables and answered questions with questions. Nevertheless, He promised that “everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”