Many unbelievers have a phobia about the Bible. They won’t read it because they’re worried about what it’ll do to them if they did. Heaven forbid, it might turn them into one of those people! I’ve encountered folks who’ll ask the equivalent of “Tell me about the Resurrection but please don’t quote from the Bible because it’s a biased document.” While that restriction certainly puts severe limits on what I can reference it won’t prevent me from presenting a reasonable spiel using circumstantial evidence. I can employ common sense alone to prove beyond a reasonable doubt God brought His Son back to life. Court trials are decided by it all the time. For example, nobody saw Tim McVeigh fill up a rental truck with explosives, park it in front of the federal building in OKC and then detonate a bomb that killed 168. Yet despite a lack of eyewitnesses a jury found him guilty of one of the worst acts of domestic terror in U.S. history. By confirming irrefutable things like his leasing a Ryder truck, discussing his plan with others ahead of time, residue on his clothing matching the chemicals used in the explosion, etc. the truth of the matter was made obvious. Actually, if someone had seen him leave the truck and walk away his defense lawyer might’ve been able to poke holes in their recollection and thereby raise questions about its accuracy. But the large amount of circumstantial evidence (over 700 separate exhibits) couldn’t be summarily dismissed as being subject to one’s interpretation. McVeigh succeeded in avoiding detection but he failed to get away with mass murder.
In my last few essays I’ve shown eyewitness accounts alone prove conclusively that Jesus died, was entombed for 3 days, rose from the grave and was subsequently seen alive by hundreds. But if I’m not allowed to rely on God’s Holy Word when defending the Resurrection I must resort to letting the indirect evidence speak for itself. (I must assume the person I’m addressing respects logic else there’s no purpose in venturing further.) I find it beneficial to zero in on the undisputed facts involved. Foremost is that Jesus’ disciples died defending their belief in the risen Christ. It’s important to stress that following his cruel public execution their faith was in shatters. As Jews they’d been taught since childhood anyone crucified was cursed by God and that the promised Messiah wouldn’t suffer death so they collectively thought it’d all been for nothing. Yet a short time later they’ve ditched the occupations they’d briefly returned to, gotten the band back together and committed themselves to preaching that Jesus was, indeed, the Savior of mankind whom God the Father brought back to life. Why? They’d seen Him themselves. Not only that but they dedicated their lives to spending whatever time they had left on earth to spreading the Good News far and wide even though they knew it’d bring hardships and persecution. They knew they’d surely be hated, ridiculed, assaulted, thrown in jail and, for most of them, killed for their beliefs. What could possibly motivate them to do that? The only thing that makes sense is that they were absolutely convinced Jesus had not only defeated death but lived to tell about it. There’s no other logical explanation.
Your debater may say the disciples’ behavior isn’t unlike that of dedicated Muslims or Mormons. Or for unstable followers of a nut job like Jim Jones or David Koresh. All fanatics believe they’ve discovered the “real truth.” Dr. J.P. Moreland counters that accusation thusly: “Muslims might be willing to die for their belief that Allah revealed himself to Muhammad, but this revelation was not done in a publicly observable way. So they could be wrong about it. They may sincerely think it’s true, but they can’t know for a fact, because they didn’t witness it themselves. However, the apostles were willing to die for something they had seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands. They were in a unique position not to just believe Jesus rose from the dead but to know for sure. And when you’ve got 11 credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes you’ve got some difficulty explaining that away.” In other words, the disciples distinguished themselves from all those who adhere to other religious beliefs, no matter how fervently, because they weren’t relying simply on faith. They knew what they’d seen. No one in their right mind would risk torture and a horrible death for what they knew was a hoax. And nothing’s ever surfaced to indicate any of the 11 remaining apostles were off their rockers.
Another piece of circumstantial evidence is the fact that there were hardened skeptics who claimed Jesus was a phony and His followers gullible sheep that performed a 180-degree spin and converted to Christianity after the Resurrection. The only reasonable conclusion for their complete change of mind/heart is that they saw the risen Jesus for themselves. The most notable are James and Paul. The former was Jesus’ half-brother and it’s made clear he and his whole family were embarrassed by His claim of being the Messiah and actually confronted Him about it. For a rabbi’s family to do such a thing was looked upon as a shameful disgrace in Jewish culture so there was no incentive for the gospel writers to even bring it up. Yet it was the unbelieving historian Josephus who recorded that James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, was brutally stoned to death for his belief in Jesus. What could’ve caused this turnaround in James? According to Paul the main reason is that the post-resurrected Christ appeared before him. Up until then there’s no hint he didn’t steadfastly share his family’s dubious opinion.
However, Saul of Tarsus made James look like a little-leaguer in comparison. He despised Jesus and His flock so intensely that anything short of genocide wouldn’t satisfy his bloodlust and he hunted them down with a vengeance. Then, all of a sudden, he not only joins them but becomes one of their most vocal evangelists! It’s akin to an Ayatollah one day turning into a Pentecostal preacher. Paul (formerly Saul) said himself that not only did he meet the risen Christ in person but was appointed by Him to be an honorary apostle. Critics will say “So? Something similar happened to Muhammad.” A deeper investigation will show otherwise. Saul was instantly struck blind by his encounter. Muhammad said he met Allah in a cave where the Koran was revealed to him. Otherwise it was just another day at the office. Mortal man meeting the eternal God usually results in the human’s being physically altered in some way. And Paul demonstrated he was on the level by performing miracles. Muhammad didn’t. Plus it’s possible Muhammad had other motives for starting a new religion. Islam was spread principally through warfare and the alluring promise of a male-dominated theocracy. The inhabitants dwelling in villages the Muslims conquered were coerced by the threat of the sword to convert or die. Paul and the early church never employed tactics of force but proclaimed that belief in Jesus alone would allow any individual to become an adopted child of the Heavenly Father and an heir to His kingdom forevermore.
More corroborating evidence is found by looking at the remarkable changes that took place in the fundamental structure of civilized society following the Resurrection. This won’t be easy to explain to somebody who has little or no understanding of Jewish culture. But try we must. When Jesus arrived on the scene the Jews had, for 700 years, constantly been under the thumb of (in order) the Babylonians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans. The Israelites were scattered all over the place, living as alien “outsiders” in a variety of regions. Despite their subjugation, though, the Jews are still around while all those other dynasties mentioned are gone. What made the difference? It has to be the inviolate social structures that gave the Jews a well-defined national identity. They were of the utmost importance to them and they dutifully passed them on from generation to generation. Plus they believed their rituals and institutions were part of a covenant they’d made with God. To let them become moot would lead to their annihilation. Then, out of nowhere, a lowly rabbi named Jesus shows up, musters a sizeable following, rubs the Pharisees the wrong way and ends up crucified as a criminal. But a mere 5 weeks after the authorities assume they’ve gotten rid of Him over 10,000 Jews are siding with His disciples, claiming Jesus is the game-changing Messiah who initiated the new covenant that liberates God’s chosen from the five time-honored social and theological traditions the Jews considered sacred.
These are the five: (1) One’s annual sacrifice of an animal to atone for their sins was indispensable for receiving forgiveness. After Jesus’ death and resurrection the Christianized Jews stopped observing this rite. (2) It was imperative Jews strictly obey the laws God gave them through Moses. However, the born-again Israelites were insisting that stoic obedience wasn’t enough to honor God. One had to love one’s neighbor as oneself, forgive debtors, etc. (3) The Sabbath (Saturday) was the one day of the week devoted exclusively to worshiping God. By doing no work whatsoever one would retain God’s favor, keep one’s salvation intact and stay in good standing with one’s peers. After 1,500 years of upholding this tradition, though, the Christians come along and start worshiping the Lord on Sunday because that’s the day Jesus rose from His tomb. (4) Jews were monotheistic – one God. While Christians believed in one God, too, they espoused the concept of a three-in-one deity consisting of the Father, Son and Spirit. Thus Jesus was able to be both man and God at the same time. This idea was so radical it was branded an outright heresy by the Jewish leaders. (5) Jews fully expected the prophesized Messiah would be a superman-ish political/military hero who’d destroy the occupying Roman army with a wave of his hand. The Christian contingent cited prophets like Isaiah who’d predicted the Savior would be a humble servant who’d willingly lay down His life for the sins of the entire world. Huge difference.
The average modern-day Jane/Joe is likely to underappreciate the impact the abandonment of or changes made in these 5 key practices had on the Jewish establishment. That’s because in the 21st century too many people’s personal religious beliefs are flexible, to say the least. It’s often a casserole of Buddhism, New Age mysticism, secular philosophy and unrealistic idealism with a tiny splash of Christian charity blended in. To that person the 5 traditions listed will be deemed minutiae. The only way to get through to them would be to opine that, say, murdering an innocent child should no longer be labeled an immoral act. You could point out that the justifiable outrage they’d express over your crass suggestion approximates the indignant anger the orthodox Jews felt about what the Christian movement was doing to their way of life. The Jews who’d chosen to follow Jesus were risking nothing less than the damnation of their souls if they were mistaken about their Messiah. They weren’t rebelling against ancient Jewish traditions because they thought they were nonsensical. They were leaving them behind because they’d seen miracles no one could explain and they’d been shown a better, more fulfilling way to exist and interact with others – even their enemies. Truth is, a permanent split of gargantuan proportions occurred 2,000 years ago. It created a rift between the significantly more conservative faction of the Jewish community that believed the older a tradition the more truthful it was and those who firmly believed God had done what He said He’d do – incarnate in the flesh and pay the ultimate price for the sins of all. Dr. Moreland said, “This was nothing short of a social earthquake! And earthquakes don’t happen without a cause.”
Further relevant evidence appears in the sacraments of Communion and baptism observed in the early church. Unlike the boisterous ceremonies held in pagan religions, the church didn’t come together to celebrate the greatness of Jesus. Rather they gathered in solemn remembrance of His gruesome, humiliating death on the cross. That’d be like commemorating Martin Luther King, not because of what he accomplished in the civil rights struggle but to remember that a bigoted jerk assassinated him! The only way to properly explain why church members reenacted the Last Supper was due to their recognizing Jesus’ sacrifice was the only way a greater, more glorious spiritual victory could be achieved. That, by His death and resurrection, the opportunity to spend eternity with Him in heaven was made available to all men and women the world over. Similarly, baptism also became a symbolic reminder of the Messiah’s dying and being brought back to life by the Heavenly Father. Voluntarily being submerged in water celebrated Christ’s death while one’s subsequent reemergence celebrated His triumph over the curse of the grave. Baptism was actually a long-standing Jewish rite administered to Gentiles who desired to place themselves under the authority of the God of Abraham. But the church modified it to signify the new birth that comes with accepting Jesus Christ as one’s Lord and Savior.
The remarkable emergence of the Christian church can also be presented as strong circumstantial evidence of the Resurrection. It started up within weeks of Jesus’ crucifixion and proceeded to spread so rapidly it was at Caesar’s doorstep in Rome in less than two decades. In short order it overran the plethora of competing ideologies and became the accepted norm across the entire Roman realm. Now, if you’d been a bookie two millenniums ago what chance would you have given a bunch of everyday ragamuffins who believed a Galilean carpenter died for their sins to outlast the mighty Roman Empire? Slim to none, I suspect. Yet, as Dr. Moreland noted, “Today we name our children Peter and Paul and our dogs Caesar and Nero!” Cambridge scholar C.F.D. Moule wrote, “If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?” The bottom line is that if all this extra-biblical circumstantial evidence still fails to convince a closed-minded skeptic that God supernaturally raised His Son from the dead then the ball sits squarely in their court. There’s no question the facts presented are true. History can be manhandled but it doesn’t lie. What’s in question is how to explain what was behind all this unprecedented upheaval. In other words, they now have the heavy onus of producing an alternative explanation that’s within shouting distance of logic. They can try but they’ll never come up with a more definitive cause than the birth, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.
Taken as a whole, the circumstantial evidence for the risen Christ is astounding and massive. Consider the disciples’ uncompromised willingness to die for the One they knew for certain was the way, the truth and the life. Consider the complete and totally unexpected turnaround in the lives of stiff-necked skeptics like James and Saul of Tarsus. Consider the unimaginable revolution that took place in social structures that had been cherished, maintained and protected by Jews for ages. Consider the sudden appearance and significance of the profound, meaningful ceremony of Communion and the celebratory rite of baptism. And consider the improbable (but nevertheless amazing) exponential rise and growth of the church started by a ragtag group of everymen with nothing to tout but a simple, uncomplicated message of hope and redemption. Only a figuratively blind and deaf fool would dismiss the Resurrection as the only instigator that makes sense. No other logic-based explanation comes within a thousand light years of the obvious truth of the matter. Add to that the fact Christianity’s still changing the lives of people all over the planet in every culture. Transforming the hearts of folks with various backgrounds and personalities, the highly educated and the illiterate, the wealthy and the destitute, those free and those who aren’t. Every single one of those believers will readily testify that the only person who’s made a drastic difference in how they view themselves, their neighbors and eternity that stretches out before them is Jesus Christ. He lives in the hearts and minds of those who believe in Him and, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, nothing in the universe can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing.