Are There Rational Reasons to Believe Jesus Rose From the Dead? #203
Hello friends, and happy Saturday. Today we have finally reached a major milestone – today is day #200 of the year – perhaps a year that will live in infamy – but we are 200 days through the year, and this is the 200th episode of the podcast, even though it says it is episode #203. I’d explain why, but it is tedious and boring, and our topic today is anything but tedious and boring. Today we discuss my favorite topic – literally – in the Bible. The resurrection of Jesus! And today we are discussing a question that we have visited before, but can’t revisit enough. Is it rational, or merely religious to believe Jesus rose from the dead? I believe that a strong look at the historic evidence – yes, I said evidence – makes the case that it is rational and reasonable to believe in the resurrection. Can I prove it with evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt? No, of course not – our belief is based on faith, and not 10,000 pieces of irrefutable evidence, but that does not mean that faith in the resurrection of Jesus is irrational. Far from it. In fact, I firmly believe that when one examines the testimony of history about Jesus of Nazareth and the movement that followed Him, that the factual happening of the resurrection is the most plausible and reasonable explanation for all that happened. Before we discuss why, let me open with one of my favorite Tim Keller quotes:
“The resurrection of Jesus was a major historical problem, no matter how you looked at it. Most modern historians made the philosophical assumption that miracles simply cannot happen, and that made the claim of the resurrection highly problematic. However, if you disbelieved the resurrection you then had the difficulty of explaining how the Christian church got started at all. “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like his teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything. Most people think that, when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the burden of proof is on believers to give evidence that it happened. That is not completely the case. The resurrection also puts a burden of proof on its nonbelievers. It is not enough to simply believe Jesus did not rise from the dead. You must then come up with a historically feasible alternate explanation for the birth of the church. You have to provide some other plausible account for how things began. -Tim Keller”
And now, let us read Matthew 28.
Here is an excerpt from my book Easter: Fact or Fiction, which is available on Amazon for less than what it costs to send a crew of 8 people to Mars for a few years. A bargain! That book contains 20 reasons to believe Jesus rose from the dead. Put another way, it contains 20 rational (in my opinion) arguments for the factual resurrection of Jesus. One of those arguments is what I call the Lithuanian argument. Can you name (without Googling) which countries border Lithuania? Could you locate Lithuania on a globe without country names? What about the capital of Lithuania? Most Americans, at least, know very, very little about Lithuania. I know this for a fact, because I have asked over one thousand college students in my various classes (World History, New Testament and Old Testament) what the capital of Lithuania was, and I cannot recall a single student ever getting the correct answer. This is actually kind of sad, because Lithuania is a lovely country that is, for the purposes of this discussion, approximately 3 times larger than the country of Israel. Consider this: The Roman Empire at its height was roughly 51 percent the size of America in square miles Therefore, Lithuania to America in 2020 very roughly corresponds to the size and influence of Israel to the Roman Empire in the first century. In fact, Lithuania is actually a little bit larger proportionally, compared to the U.S., than Israel was to the Roman Empire in the first century. At least from a mathematical perspective, we can perhaps get a vague understanding of how citizens in The Roman Empire viewed Israel by thinking about how Americans presently view the country of Lithuania. You might, of course, argue that Lithuania is significantly farther away from the United States vs the distance of Israel to Rome, and you’d be correct, but remember that it would take the average American about 8 hours to fly to Lithuania in the present time, while a journey from Israel to Rome in antiquity would likely take two weeks, possibly more. Though the U.S. is further on the globe away from Lithuania, in practical terms, that country is far closer to the States than Rome was to Israel in the first century. Imagine then that a teacher of a new and radically different religion arose in Lithuania in the 1700s. Imagine that this particular teacher had no television shows, no operas, no compositions, no music, no books, art, or anything. He didn’t even have any famous and important followers, and yet, within about 200 years of his ignominious death, his followers would be well on their way to dominating the religious landscape of America. Can you imagine it? Americans suddenly worshipping and telling others about this amazing Lithuanian teacher? This is, euphemistically speaking, what Jesus and His followers did. Historically and factually – a teacher and His followers from a largely unknown, small and unimportant country came to dominate an entire empire within a short time after the death of that teacher. People MUST have a rational theory to explain how Christianity spread so far and wide in such a short amount of time without military power or economic riches! Such a thing has never happened before in history and hasn’t happened since. Keep in mind that the Jesus movement from the first few centuries spread across all cultures and languages, gaining adherents from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, many of whom were openly hostile to the Jewish people. Remember also that there were dozens of claimants to the title of messiah around the time of Jesus, and none of them ever amounted to anything historically significant except Jesus. I propose that a public, bodily resurrection of Jesus is a plausible answer to how Christianity came to dominate the greatest civilization in world history. In fact, I am honestly not sure that there is another answer that could be proposed to explain the cross-cultural dominance and appeal of Christianity in the first five centuries A.D. Skeptical theories (i.e. that Jesus never existed – which no almost no peer reviewed scholar, atheist or otherwise, believes…or that an impostor took His place, or that the resurrection was invented by His followers, or that they hallucinated Him, or even that Jesus was simply a good teacher who had his reputation greatly enhanced by legendary exaggeration decades after his death.) don’t account very well at all for the explosion of Jesus’ followers all across the world – permeating multiple cultures and languages. FYI, the countries that border Lithuania are: Latvia, Poland, and Belarus. The capital city of Lithuania is Vilnius. And a world conquering king coming out of a small town in Lithuania is about as likely as one coming out of a small town in Israel. And yet, it happened. Tiny, insignificant (at the time) Israel produced the most famous and influential person the world has ever known, an indisputable fact that only makes sense in light of the resurrection. Perhaps you’ve heard skeptics raise objections about the supposed fact that nobody (other than ALL of the writers of the various books eventually collated into the New Testament) ever mentioned Jesus in writing during His lifetime, or shortly after? First, as you will read shortly, that is quite an exaggeration, there are extant documents from over 40 people that wrote about Jesus within 150 years of His death and resurrection. If that number seems small to you, then consider that there are only extant works from 10 people who wrote about Tiberius Caesar within 150 years of his lifetime, and He was the emperor of Rome for over 20 years at the height of its impact! Very likely, there were many more people than 43 who actually wrote about Jesus, but many, many books and writings from 2000 years ago have disappeared for a wide variety of reasons. In keeping with our Lithuanian thought experiment, consider this: If a worker of miracles and great teacher really did arise in Lithuania in the 1700s, even if that man were to also genuinely come back from the dead, how many Americans do you think would write about him within 100 years of his lifetime? Of those that did, how many of those writings would survive almost 2000 years? If the Bible accounts of how Jesus lived His life are exactly true – and I believe they are – then there is very little reason nor means that the Romans (or Greeks) would have known about Jesus during His lifetime, or even decades afterwards. In the same way that an 18th century American would be highly unlikely to write about a Lithuanian holy man – even one that legitimately did miracles – a first century Greek/Roman would also be highly unlikely to write about a Jewish Messiah.
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