The resurrection is either the greatest hope of all history or the greatest hoax. It has either inspired the greatest number of people for the longest amount of time or it is a masterpiece of deception. The way I see it, there are only three possible explanations for the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
- it really happened
- it was a deceitful fabrication or
- the historical events themselves were grossly misinterpreted by those who were there, i.e. it wasn’t willful deceit but they naively misunderstood what had happened.
For the purpose and length of this article, we will deal with only the first two.[i]
The exciting fact of the resurrection
First of all, if the resurrection truly happened, then it is entirely appropriate to be excited about it, completely right to be dedicated to it, and fully expected that Christians would seek to convert others to believe it.
No cancer researcher would ever keep the cure to himself should he discover it, so why should we keep quiet about the cure for sin, death and our alienation from God?
Pulling off a hoax
Let us deal with the hoax explanation of the resurrection first. In the early 2000’s, Charles and Diana Ingram attempted to pull off a scam in front of thousands of viewers on the English version of hit game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Charles sat in the hot seat while Diana, his wife, watched from the sidelines.
The method of their ingenious scandal was to rely on their brilliant collaborator in the scam, Tecwen Whittock, who was seated in the studio audience, who would relay to Charles the correct answer.
The way Tecwen indicted the correct answer was to cough at the right time while Charles was reciting the answers, one by one. Little did they know, the producers of the show have 21 microphones interspersed throughout the audience that pick up every sound going on in the studio.
Later on, it was proven in a court of law that Tecwen Whittock coughed on more than a dozen occasions signalling the right answer to Charles. Needless to say, the couple was convicted of fraud and their million dollar prize was revoked.
The resurrection a terrible hoax
That’s how it is for major scams. They have to be well thought out, flow seamlessly, and make sense in order to proceed undetected. But when we examine the account of the resurrection, we find the exact opposite to be true. That is to say, as a hoax it contains several faux-pas that the people groups of ancient times would have found entirely unacceptable.
As a hoax the resurrection should have been a miserable failure, promoting several incongruities that not only Jews, but Romans and Greeks as well, would have found entirely resentful, even repulsive.
First of all, if you are going to design a hoax slick enough to deceive the world, starting with the Jews, would you choose to present your Messiah as divine? It is well known that the Jews are fiercely monotheistic, who thought it sacrilege to set up even an image of God in their Temple. Theirs was an image-less, invisible, transcendent and monotheistic God.
How and why would you get them to believe that a Man from Nazareth was the eternal God in a human body? Why not just ask them to believe Jesus was a superlative prophet and call it a day? No wonder the Jews ended up calling for His execution as a blasphemer (John 19:7).
Apart from the miraculous, no pun intended, nothing could have overturned the Jews’ staunch, stubborn belief in the one, image-less, transcendent God. But if it wasn’t true, why promote such outlandish, unpalatable claims to Jews?
The Romans would not have been impressed with this “work of fiction” either. Hungry for power and brutally cruel, the bloodthirsty Romans would not have been impressed by a weak and gentle Messiah, a “lamb” who had come to rule. The hierarchical society of Rome respected only power, prowess and privilege.
Furthermore, what Roman citizen would revere a convicted felon, the symbol of whose death they would have found most despicable and terrifying? The statesman Cicero stated that “the very word ‘cross’ should be removed from the eyes, ears and thoughts of Roman citizens.”
To get a Roman to believe that a “slave’s death” on a cross was the means of his salvation was tantamount to telling a member of the fortune 500 list that a homeless man convicted of fraud was the reason for his or her success.
The Greeks would have a hard time accepting this message, too. Viewing death as the release of the soul from the prison of the body, a Greek would not have considered the physical, bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead a promotion in existence. The Greeks regarded the flesh as inferior to the spirit.
To win over the Greeks, the Apostles should have presented Him as raised in a spiritual body, much like our modern concept of a ghost. But instead they presented Him as eating a piece of fish after His resurrection. This surely would have spoiled the story for any Greek.
The power of the resurrection
As far as brilliantly conceived hoaxes go, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is pretty much the worst. It is far too confusing, contrary and complicated to even pass for fiction. The message and Messiah presented in the gospels should have ended up convincing no one in the ancient world. But this backwards, outlandish, ridiculous message ended up toppling the entire Roman Empire in just a few hundred years!
Truth really is stranger than fiction – and more powerful. The Apostles couldn’t exactly change the story because that was the story. Their Messiah was divine. Their Messiah was crucified in weakness.
Jesus Christ rose from the dead and He did it in a physical, tangible body. A better explanation, and one that fits all the known facts, is that Jesus Christ is alive. This, of all history, is our greatest hope.
[i] The research for this article comes mainly from N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God.