The Impossible Faith by James Patrick Holding
No doubt you’ll read here a lot of arguments that Christianity is true because Jesus rose from the dead, historically. I agree with those sentiments, and also know many of the standard critical responses (e.g, “the body of Jesus was stolen,” “the apostles hallucinated,” “aliens hoaxed the Resurrection”) and the answers to them.
But here I want to offer my unique perspective on why Christianity is true: I believe that the social world of the first century was, on a large number of counts, ideologically in opposition to Christianity. Response to Christian claims would have been so overwhelmingly negative that the only way anyone outside of an original, dedicated core of Jesus’ followers would have become Christians would have been if they had been able to present sufficient evidence to convince others that the Resurrection actually happened. What kind of evidence? I could discuss that in more words, but since my space is limited, I will only briefly note a few examples: The empty tomb; the miracles wrought by Jesus and the Apostles; the nature miracles at the time of the crucifixion; the testimony of those who guarded the tomb; the unwavering testimony under pressure of those who saw Jesus alive after death. (MP3 Audio | RSS | iTunes)
Our main subject, however: Why would they need this sure witness for people to believe?
The social world of the Bible was a lot different than ours. Values that are virtually unknown or unimportant in America were considered very important in the Biblical world (and also in much of the rest of the world, even today). The foremost of these values was personal honor, or put another way, your reputation with others. One reason why the Christians needed a sure witness to Jesus’ Resurrection to convince people is that Jesus was crucified. Today we look at a picture of Jesus on the cross and feel sorry for him, but in the Biblical world, people would have looked at Jesus in disgust. Being crucified damaged your personal honor in the most complete and brutal way imaginable. Pagan critics of Christianity said that if Jesus were really deity, he would never allow himself to be crucified. So Christians would have needed to convince others that Jesus was resurrected and that the stain of dishonor caused by the crucifixion had been reversed.
Another important value was a person’s heritage. People of the Biblical world judged others based on where they were from. In this regard, Jesus had three strikes against him: He was Jewish (and in that time, anti-Semitism was very prevalent); he was from Galilee (which was a place associated with rebellion), and he was from Nazareth (a very small town – and being from a small town meant you had very little personal honor). On this account it would be impossible to convince someone that Jesus had been honored by God by being resurrected, unless you had sufficient evidence that he had.
Yet another factor: The process of resurrection itself. Claiming that Jesus physically rose from the dead would have been contrary to all that was believed about resurrection. Jews believed that no one would be resurrected until the end of the current age – and then, it would be everyone, not just one person. Pagans didn’t believe resurrection was possible at all – and even if it had been, it would have been regarded as undesirable, letting yourself be imprisoned in a miserable body.
There are many more examples I could give: The use of women as witnesses to the empty tomb; the fact that Christianity was a “new” religion; Christian intolerance of other faiths on the one hand, and Christian disdain for the system of classes in their society on the other; the offensive nature of many of Jesus’ teachings – there was so much that ancient people would have found offensive about Christianity that anything good about it would be substantially overridden by howls of protest. You can see a more complete outline here.
In closing, I should note that yes, there have been critics of these arguments – one atheist even paid another atheist over five thousand dollars for a rebuttal to them! But yes – I’ve answered them all. I have also applied the same tests to other faiths – Islam, Mormonism, and the ancient religion of Mithraism – and none of them pass the test on even a single count.
The case in sum: The fact of the Resurrection is the only suitable historical explanation for why Christianity gained even a single convert beyond Jesus’ original circle of disciples.
See also J.P. Holding's book The Impossible Faith.