Jesus’ Improbable Power Over Death

By Ryan Sanders

There is something terrifying and unifying about death — it is the one enemy we all share. It’s final and irreversible. It’s universal: everybody dies. It’s personal: many cultures have regarded the manner of one’s death as a reflection of one’s life. Death is the one common and insurmountable adversary of humankind. It is the one enemy that unites all people in hopeless opposition. None of us wants death. All of us fight against death. And yet all of us know we will lose that struggle. Death is the most powerful and poignant emblem of what’s wrong with our world. It is the stamp of brokenness; the shadow that follows all of our most noble endeavors whispering that this isn’t the way the world was supposed to be. If there is one ultimate limitation to be removed, one final step toward human actualization to be taken, one last postmodern progressive hill to conquer — more than poverty or hunger or equality or disease — it is death. It has always been so.  
  
On Easter, Christians around the world gather to announce the biggest news in history — a victory over humanity’s enemy. As Pastor Andy explained at IBC's Easter services, it is an improbable claim. 

Its improbability is elucidated well by Bart Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina who, ironically, campaigns against belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Ehrman speaks and writes often about this idea. Here’s an expert from a speech at College of the Holy Cross in 2006: 

I’m just going to say that miracles are so highly improbable that they’re the least possible occurrence in any given instance. They violate the way nature naturally works. They are so highly improbable, their probability is infinitesimally remote, that we call them miracles. No one on the face of this Earth can walk on lukewarm water. What are the chances that one of us could do it? Well, none of us can, so let’s say the chances are one in ten billion. Well, suppose somebody can. Well, given the chances are one in ten billion, but, in fact, none of us can.
 
What about the resurrection of Jesus? I’m not saying it didn’t happen; but if it did happen, it would be a miracle. The resurrection claims are claims that not only that Jesus’ body came back alive; it came back alive never to die again. That’s a violation of what naturally happens, every day, time after time, millions of times a year. What are the chances of that happening? Well, it’d be a miracle. In other words, it’d be so highly improbable that we can’t account for it by natural means. A theologian may claim that it’s true, and to argue with the theologian we’d have to argue on theological grounds because there are no historical grounds to argue on. Historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and by definition a miracle is the least probable occurrence. And so, by the very nature of the canons of historical research, we can’t claim historically that a miracle probably happened. By definition, it probably didn’t. And history can only establish what probably did. 

Ehrman and I see the same evidence against the likelihood of the resurrection but come to opposing conclusions. He thinks, “What an unlikely story! Pity the poor people who believe it.” And I think, “What an unlikely story! Pity the people who don’t have anything this good to believe in!" 
  
Ehrman is right in saying that a miracle is, by definition, the least likely scenario to be true in any situation. That’s what makes it a miracle! And so the religion whose most fundamental tenants are most dependent on the miraculous is, logically defined, the least likely religion to be true. Everyone who has lost someone knows the longing to get them back, so every culture in history has imagined a power that could accomplish that. Resurrection is a deeply human longing, and taken at face value, it appears to be a foolhardy one.

A few years ago, the internet treated us all to a clever meme that sought to sum up Christian beliefs in plain language. It said this: 

Christianity is the belief that a jewish Zombie can make you live forever in paradise if you symbolically eat his flesh and telepathically tell him you accept him as your master, so he can remove an evil force from your soul that is present in humanity because a rib-woman was convinced by a talking snake to eat from a magical tree.

Many Christians were offended by that, but many of us also identified — kind-of nodded and grinned and said, “Yeah, that sounds about right. We believe some pretty audacious things." 
  
So why, if the Christian story is that hard to believe, do so many people believe it? Why do so many people actually stake their lives on that one resurrected Jew? There are actually many reasons and not all of them historical. But let’s consider just a few of those directly related to Jesus.  

Historical Jesus

At least five existing texts written by Jesus’ contemporaries attest to his resurrection. Many more testaments have been lost to history, the earliest dating to within twenty years of his death. If you extend the range of sources to historians beyond Jesus’ immediate contemporaries, the number of sources faithful to the gospel accounts grows dramatically. And if you relax the criteria to include sources that affirm the existence of Jesus but are silent as to his resurrection, the number skyrockets. Archeologists have discovered more than five thousand New Testament manuscripts. This is an astonishingly high number in the annals of textual criticism. By comparison, only forty-nine documents exist that give first-hand witness to the existence of Aristotle. Socrates, likewise, left us with zero texts from his own hand and only four from his students. Historian F. F. Bruce wrote, "The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.” Even that bastion of scholarly rigor Wikipedia confirms, "There is near unanimity among scholars that Jesus existed historically.”  

Once you agree the Jesus walked the earth, it becomes really difficult to parse out the parts of the historical record to take as truthful (wise teachings and crucifixion?) and the parts to take as fable (healings and resurrection?). Jesus was a real person who lived, died, and rose again in the flesh. The resurrection was tangible and documented.  

Missing Denials

Let’s be fair here: absence of evidence to the contrary doesn’t count as proof for any thesis. If I claim to be movie star and no one denies it, that doesn’t make me a movie star. It only makes me delusional. But absence of argument from an opponent who stands to lose power, credibility, or even his life should make us raise our eyebrows. We're in the middle of election season. Imagine a particularly contentious political debate in which one candidate accuses another of criminal activity, and the accused candidate doesn’t deny it. Journalists and political operatives would scramble at warp speed to find the truth.
No credible ancient source denies the resurrection claims of Jesus' followers. This is remarkable. Even those ancient sources most combative to the new and growing religion (Roman writers such as Tacitus were fond of calling it a superstition) didn’t refute or offer alternate explanations for the resurrection. They called it a fable or scoffed at its patent unlikelihood (a fact we just acknowledged) but no ancient history offers a denial or a plausible explanation beyond, “That’s just crazy."

Faithful Eyewitnesses

Hundreds of people witnessed the resurrected Jesus. The Apostle Paul, who had himself interviewed eyewitnesses, recorded that more than five hundred people saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion. This, coupled with the lack of witnesses to the negative, forms a remarkable testament.

Of the eleven disciples Jesus is said to have visited after his resurrection, ten died torturous martyrs' deaths for their insistence that Jesus was divine. Hundreds more chose to die under brutal Roman religious oppression rather than recant their stories. If Jesus’ resurrection was a hoax cooked up by his followers, surely one of them would have broken. Surely someone would have spilled the beans to save their neck. But none did. 

Reliable Texts

At this point, a skeptical reader might argue that the ancient texts used most often (though not exclusively) to affirm the resurrection of Jesus appear in the Bible. The reasoning goes that those accounts included in the Bible must be dismissed as propaganda because they appear in a religious text. But this logic misunderstands the nature of these accounts. None of these were written to be part of the Bible, which didn’t coalesce into its modern form until near the end of the fourth century. At the time these contemporaries of Jesus (some of them friends of Jesus) wrote their stories, there was no such thing as a Bible. Indeed, there was no such thing as Christian religious text, and much of their writing indicates that they had no expectation that there ever would be. They were just writing their stories. And many of them expected Jesus to return and usher in the end of the world before their letters even reached their addressees. The idea that people would be dissecting their letters two millennia later as part of a collection of sacred texts would have seemed laughable to them.   

Moreover, the process by which these accounts came to be part of what is now called the Bible is one of scholarly research and textual criticism. The people who canonized (made sacred) these letters did so for precisely the reason that they were reliable. To claim that a book isn’t reliable because it’s in the Bible is like asking a jury to dismiss testimony because it comes from an eyewitness. 

Resurrection is impossible. Dead people stay dead. As Christians in a secular society, we have to acknowledge that it is unlikely that anyone has ever risen from the dead. But having acknowledged that, a serious thinker would also investigate the possibility that the unlikely happened, especially given so many witnesses that it did happen. We mustn't dismiss dubiety of the resurrection out of hand; but neither should we dismiss its evidences.  

What makes detractors so eager to dismiss the resurrection is what made the Romans scoff at it as superstition in the first place. It’s unlikely. Radically unlikely. And the resurrection draws an extra measure of skepticism because it claims the ultimate measure of power. The resurrection of Jesus claims something larger than the virgin birth of Jesus or all the healing miracles of Jesus. It claims the one thing we all want — the ultimate religious trump card — the deepest human hope — the one thing all people yearn for so deeply they refuse to let themselves be disappointed in finding it.   

Power Over Death

I have attended more funerals in the five years since I became a pastor than I did in all my years before, and I can tell you there is something universal and instinctive to all people who mourn. They seek God. They ask big questions. And not just Christians. Not long ago, I officiated a memorial service in a back yard for a family of unbelievers. It was a touching and emotional remembrance — 30 people at a backyard barbecue remembering their family matriarch with tears and hugs. I didn’t know this family. None of them are Christ-followers, but all of them were reaching out for reassurance in matters of faith. They invited a pastor to speak. They organized and observed a holy moment in the wake of death. When eternity breaks in on our tiny, transient lives we can’t help but open up to bigger questions.  

  
It is not Christian tradition or social conditioning that draw us to church for funerals. When death arrives, we know, instinctively, that we are dealing with matters beyond our understanding. In those moments when we stand at the graveside of a loved one under one of those temporary green tents that remind us of our own impermanent nature, it is precisely because Christianity makes such an audacious claim that it can offer audacious hope. After all, if the Christian story is true — if Almighty God has conquered death on our behalf — then no matter how dire and threatening death may seem — no matter how unlikely resurrection may sound — death is defeated, Jesus is alive, funerals are a temporary goodbye, and Easter is worth celebrating.

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