Dr. Michael J. Murray of Franklin and Marshall University has posted an essay originally written for "God and the Philosophers" entitled Seek and You Will Find. The essay contains a really nice summary of the argument for a belief in Jesus based on the accounts of the resurrection found in the Gospels. Dr. Murray writes:
There is virtual unanimity amongst historical scholars, Christian and non-Christian alike, about at least the following: that there was a man by the name of Jesus who lived in first-century Palestine, that during a short period of time he preached a message about the coming kingdom of God, that he attracted a small band of followers, that he was crucified by the Roman authorities, and that the same followers later claimed to have witnessed his resurrected body. Nothing is particularly surprising or noteworthy here until we consider that neither the prevailing civil or religious authorities of the time were particularly pleased with the upstart Christian movement, for obvious reasons. The Jews realized that all of the early converts to Christianity came from among their ranks, and the Romans feared political rebellion and were disconcerted by the early Christians’ failure to proclaim allegiance to the Caeser as a divinity. In light of the fact that the Christian faith was centrally grounded in the resurrection, the easiest way for the authorities to derail the early movement would have been to produce the dead body of Jesus. But the historical record is conspicuous in the fact that no one ever claimed to have been able to do just this. As a result, it appears that we must conclude that the tomb was empty. For if it had not been, it would have been easy for the church’s early critics to refute their claims. How then is the empty tomb to be explained?
More than one explanation has been offered and my brief treatment here does not permit an examination of all of the proposed alternatives. It will suffice to say that the only alternative that has any historical plausibility is the first explanation ever proposed. It is recorded in Matthew 28:11-15:While they were going, some of the guards went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, "You must say, 'His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.' If this comes to the governors ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is told amongst the Jews until this day.
Of course, Matthew here represents the theory as fiction, but the critic might well regard the explanation as the most plausible rendering of the historical facts. On further consideration, however, this explanation seems to have little if any merit. The reason for this is that many of the early witnesses of the resurrection were martyred for their failure to renounce their faith. What is surprising about this, of course, is that while it is easy to imagine someone who would willingly die for what they believe to be true, as evidenced by the recent events in Waco or, earlier, in Guyana, it is virtually impossible to believe that someone would die for what they
know to be false.
Charles Colson, White House Special Counsel to Richard Nixon during his first term of office, noted this fact in his comparison of the situation of the early followers of Christ and those involved in the Watergate cover-up. Colson saysWith the most powerful office in the world at stake, a small band of hand-picked loyalists, no more than ten of us, could not hold a conspiracy together for more than two weeks. Think of what was at stake . . . Yet even the prospects of jeapordizing the President we’d worked so hard to elect, of losing the prestige, power and personal luxury of our offices was not enough incentive to make this group of men contain a lie. Nor as I reflect today, was the pressure really all that great; at that point there had certainly been some moral failures, criminal violations, even perjury by some. . . . But no one was in grave danger; no one’s life was at stake. . . . This is why the Watergate experience is so intructive for me. If John Dean and the rest of us were so panic-striken, not by the prospect of beatings and execution, but by political disgrace and a possible prison term, one can only speculate about the emotions of the disciples. . . .they clung tenaciously to their enormously offensive story that their leader had risen from his ignoble death and was alive. . . . Is it really likely then, that a deliberate cover-up, a plot to perpetuate a lie about the Resurrection, could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of early church councils, the horrendous purge of first-century believers who were cast by the thousands to the lions for refusing to denounce the Lordship of Christ?
Long before Colson, Pascal similarly observed just how unlikely it is that the disciples would continue in such a conspiracy when faced with the penalties asscoiated with it:"The hypotheses that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonments, torture and death, and they would all have been lost.
We are left to decide, then, what the most plausible explanation is for these historical realities. If one rules out miracles from the realm of logically possibility, or maybe takes the weaker Humean line that we are never in an epistemic position which justifiably permits the belief that a miracle has occurred, no amount of historical stage-setting will make this argument plausible, much less compelling. But if one does not find arguments for those conclusions sound, and I believe one should not, the competing explanations must be judged on their merits. By my lights, it is simply impossible to believe that the early disciples, who clearly were not anticipating the resurrection, could have been so resolutely emboldened by their belief in the resurrection that they would remain firm in their conviction in the face of death, unless they had been actual witnesses of the resurrected Christ.