Faced with the prospect of raising another human being when my wife was pregnant with our first child 13 years ago, I felt compelled to revisit the decision I made much earlier as an adult to abandon my Christian faith. I thought to myself the same thing I suspect a lot of other new parents think: it would sure make things easier if I were Christian. I would have more certain answers for my son when he asked life's most profound questions about where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. We would fit in much better with the majority Christian culture, making things more socially comfortable. I would circumvent my fear that maybe people were right who said that kids growing up without religious values are morally deficient.
However, I knew down deep that my decision to rejoin the Christian faith could not be based on what was easiest. For me, my decision had to be based on whether I really believed Christianity's foundational claim -- that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. I was curious: what were the actual arguments for and against Jesus' resurrection?
As I dug into this question, what I found was a battlefield. At one end of the spectrum I found people like investigative reporter and best-selling author Lee Strobel, backed by dozens of evangelical scholars, affirming the historical reliability of the gospels and saying of the evidence for Jesus' resurrection, "I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!" On the other end of the spectrum I found people like former Bishop of Newark John Spong, also a best-selling author, rejecting the gospel accounts of Jesus' burial and concluding that his body "was probably dumped unceremoniously into a common grave." The idea that such key stories in the gospels as Jesus' burial could be legends is also backed by dozens of scholars, one example being those of the Jesus Seminar, who conclude, "The original story of the empty tomb was a Markan fiction." These radically different takes on Christian origins proliferate Internet discussions where the two sides trade swipes in unequivocal ways. For example, one blogger says, "The evidence is simply overwhelming. If you believe in gravity, you have to believe that Christianity is also true." Another blogger says in a book review, "Christianity is made up of a series of fantastic and contradictory stories backed by no evidence whatsoever."
Notice, however, that none of the statements above has anything to do with faith. Each side of this issue is laying claim to evidence and reason. I think this is a positive thing, for evidence and reason is a place where everyone can meet. It is also a place from which I think more people are becoming interested in examining religion.
As I navigated the arguments above, what I discovered about myself was that my doubt in Jesus' resurrection was an impossible hurdle to clear by those arguing with disputable 2,000-year-old evidence. This same level of doubt is shared by many other people, including two of our nation's founding fathers, both of whom believed in God. Thomas Paine, in his book The Age of Reason, declared:
[Jesus' disciple] Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say [in the gospels], would not believe, without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me and for every other person, as for Thomas.
Thomas Jefferson went so far as to take scissors to the Bible and then paste together his own Jefferson Bible -- without the resurrection in it.
But if the common meeting place of believer and non-believer is evidence and reason, a pressing question emerges for the non-believer: what, then, happened 2,000 years ago to give rise to the belief that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? A good starting point is to ask what normally would have happened to the body of a crucified criminal from the lower classes that was allowed to be removed from a Roman cross. When I study the evidence, the answer seems to be just what Bishop Spong suggested -- a ground burial, probably in the Kidron or Hinnom valley, with nobody attending except for an indifferent burial crew who only cared to mark the site with chalk or a pile of loose rocks to warn of uncleanness. As Jesus' dejected followers made the journey back to their homes in Galilee, instead of a discovered empty tomb, the founding event of Christianity may have simply been "the discovery of a new and positive way in which to speak of Jesus' death and of Jesus after his death, that is, a new way of perceiving Jesus."* This may have been the event of Easter.
For those interested in the answers to more contemporary questions, I can report that 13 years after deciding Christianity was not for me, my kids are doing just fine. They are comfortable with the mystery of life's most profound questions, and their mix of virtue and mischief is about the same as their Christian friends.
1. Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1998), pg. 356.
2. John Shelby Spong, Resurrection: Myth or Reality? (NewYork, NY: HarperCollins, 1994), pg. 225.
3. The Jesus Seminar, The Acts of Jesus (New York, NY: Polebridge, 1998), pg. 266.
* Paul M. van Buren, According to the Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pg. 21.
Kris Komarnitsky is the author of Doubting Jesus' Resurrection: What Happened in the Black Box?