Did the witnesses lie?If the witnesses to the resurrected Christ weren’t mistaken, perhaps they were lying. Maybe they just flat made the story up.
I’ve written before that the resurrection is a story no one in that period would make up, but let’s take the accusation seriously for the time being.
Why would someone lie about the resurrection of Jesus?
For personal gain
Various people have suggested that the apostles would have had good reason to make up a religion around a resurrected Christ – it would have made them money and given them loyal followers.
The problem with that explanation is that they were poor. Oh, there were certainly more affluent Christians, and they did reportedly share their possessions with the poor – presumably with the apostles, too, if need be – but there is nothing in any record that would suggest that the apostles got wealthy at the expense of their followers.
Given Paul’s emphasis on his not letting people support him as other apostles did, and his repeated mention of taking care of the poor, you would expect some mention of the apostles living a life of ease at someone else’s expense. There is no evidence; this is fantasy and slander.
The second problem with the notion that they would lie for personal gain is that they suffered for their preaching.
Truth be told, we don’t have much historical support for the idea that the apostles were martyred for the faith. There is no particular reason to doubt the church traditions regarding the apostle’s deaths, but the evidence isn’t very strong.
What we do have, though, is a trustworthy, relatively contemporaneous record of the persecution that the first generation of the church faced shortly after its birth. On at least four occasions – after the arrest and flogging of the apostles (Acts 5:17-42), the stoning of Stephen (7:54-60) and the resulting persecution (8:1-3), and the death of James (12:1-4) – it is reasonable to expect liars to stop and ask if they really wanted to continue a charade that was likely to cost them their lives.
For the mission
But maybe the apostles were willing to suffer for a lie because they believed in their mission. Maybe the whole story was designed to help them spread a message of peace and love that would change the world – something worth giving your life for.
There are two problems with that theory.
First, do you teach an ethical system based on a lie? The ethical system they taught was pretty demanding. And everything we have about them, limited though it is, suggests that they were truly sold out to that ethical system. They were the real deal. And they based it all on a fraud? That’s very hard to believe.
Of course, the second, and greater, problem with this theory is that they didn’t teach a message of “peace and love.” They taught a radical reliance upon and allegiance to Jesus. Yes, they taught about love and reconciliation and holy living, but it was always in the context of responding to and being empowered by the Spirit of the God who raised Christ from the dead. That’s why I think this “theory” is based on a misunderstanding – or rather the popular mischaracterization – of the teaching of Christ and the apostles.
One last thing
Last of all, if the apostles were lying, there was still that darn body. Whatever questions there may be, one thing we do know with some certainty is that the Christians became unpopular with both the Jews and Romans fairly quickly. Anyone basing their preaching on a risen Christ whose body was still in the ground would be found out pretty quickly.
What if the resurrection they preached didn’t involve an empty tomb, though? Maybe they were preaching a spiritual or metaphorical resurrection. We’ll look at that next time.
Do We Have Evidence?
Does Christianity Argue from Silence?