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An (Unbiased) Examination of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Vol. 1)

By Ben Love ~

Auditur et altera pars. (The other side shall be heard as well.)”

― Seneca, Medea
Christianity is a world religion that rests solely upon one event: the (alleged) resurrection of Jesus Christ. Why do I say it rests only on this event? Well, assuming that everything else really is true but the story ended with Jesus’s death on the cross, what would we really have? We would have a tale of some dude speaking deluded ramblings about being God in the flesh and saving humanity through his death. The story needs the resurrection finish, otherwise Jesus becomes just another crackpot who got himself killed for getting too big for his britches. Thus, without the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christianity would possess nothing unique and would most likely not have become what it has become.

Now, you might be thinking, “Well, that right there is strong proof that this resurrection really did occur. After all, how else do you explain how Christianity has spread all over the world?”

This poses an interesting question: if a fantastical story is true, it spreads and gains momentum because it is both fantastical and true, right? I mean, stories like this spread like wildfire. However, what about a story that is fantastical and false, but is told as if it is true? Wouldn’t this story spread in the same way? After all, it is being retold in much the same manner a legitimately true story would be retold. Thus, we cannot necessarily look to Christianity’s success over the last two millennia as strong evidence for its truth. If we did, we would have to contrast Islam’s 1.6 billion adherents to Christianity’s 2.4 billion, and note that Islam is much younger than Christianity. It therefore makes little difference how successful a particular religion is in the world because, as history has shown, people are capable of believing just about anything. Besides, lies can be just as compelling, seductive, and encompassing as truths can be—maybe even more so.

I therefore want to thoroughly review all of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Granted, this is an event that the believer has to accept with a measure of faith, but I submit that without a good reason for putting your faith in a certain object, you are therefore justified in putting your faith in any object. That, to me, is dangerous. So, we must ask if there is legitimate evidence, beyond a reasonable doubt, that warrants putting our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If we can do so, we must all bow down and serve the God of Christianity. If we cannot do so, we should be responsible enough to walk away from the God of Christianity and seek other answers.

That said, I want to state very clearly at the beginning that I am not writing this article as an atheist. Yes, I am an atheist, but I am putting that aside for moment. I am suspending my personal views on this matter and I have resolved to approach the following material as judiciously and as unbiased as I possibly can, being neither a believer nor a nonbeliever but rather an interested, impartial party. Perhaps you, as you read this, can do the same? Good. (Perhaps it would also be apropos to review the resurrection story in the gospels before proceeding.)

The Regularity of History

Now, the first thing we must observe about the resurrection (and this should be just as obvious to the Christian as to the nonbeliever) is that it violates the Regularity of History. What is the Regularity of History? I shall describe it in this manner…

MAN A: “Do fish speak English?”

MAN B: “No, they don’t.”

MAN A: “How do you know?”

MAN B: “Because no one has ever seen a fish talk, and we’re pretty sure that they cannot do so anatomically.”

MAN A: “Okay, well, how do you know fish weren’t speaking Latin in the year 50 BCE?

MAN B: “They don’t speak now; therefore I am certain they could not speak then.”

That is the Regularity of History. History has, well, a history of not including the supernatural, the empirically impossible, or the miraculous. Because history is regular (thus the name of the concept), we can be absolutely certain that there was never a time when pots of gold were to be found at the ends of rainbows, when chickens sat around solving advanced mathematical theorems, when humans soared around in the sky on the backs of fiery dragons, or when witches could turn little boys into toads. We all know what the fantastical is because it is separated from the regular. We all also know that the regular is regular precisely because our reality is bound to the laws of physics. We can be certain little boys were never turned into toads because such an event would violate the Regularity of History. Do you see? Good.

Regarding the resurrection, then, we must observe the most basic piece of evidence we have, which is also, therefore, the place we must begin our investigation. The question is this: do people rise from the dead today? No, they do not. Has anyone ever seen a person rise from the dead? No, they have not. Now, granted, modern medicine frequently enables doctors to revive those who have been briefly dead, but what we are asking here is whether a corpse, after a few days or more of decay, can be reanimated. No, this does not occur today. Hence, just as with the talking fish, we can be pretty certain resurrections did not occur in Palestine in the first century either. Why? They are empirically impossible. Now, this is not to say that a certain deity, if he existed and was so motivated, could not reanimate a corpse—but that, at this point, is only mere conjecture. From an evidential standpoint, we must first observe that the Regularity of History is compelling evidence against an empirical acceptance of Jesus’s resurrection. Thus, we can already put one checkmark under the heading “unlikely.” At this point, it becomes that much more incumbent on the believer to provide not only basic evidence, but also outrageous evidence of the most compelling kind—compelling enough to override the Regularity of History. After all, as it has been observed, outrageous claims require outrageous proof.

(Now, remember, we are attempting to be unbiased here. There is therefore no agenda in our marking a check under “unlikely.” This evidence is what it is—and there is nothing we can do about that. Also, just because we are being unbiased does not mean we are not justified in observing that outrageous claims require outrageous proof. For instance, if I were to call the local news stations and claim that a warp in space-time is occurring in my basement, this would qualify as an outrageous claim. Why? Because no human being in the history of forever has ever witnessed a warp in space-time. If, however, I permitted no one into my basement to verify this claim and instead requested that the world take my word for it on faith, people might have a harder time believing me on this than if my claim had merely been that I found a mutant freak-bug in my basement. The latter is easier to believe because we could see it being theoretically possible. Thus, the more outrageous the claim, the more outrageous the proof must be. That is just the way it is. And I submit that a man returning to life after 48 hours of death and decay is an outrageous claim.)

The Question of Scientific Possibility

Once we have observed that the Regularity of History has cast serious (if not damning) doubt on this claim of a resurrection, we must inquire whether it is scientifically feasible, even if it has never otherwise occurred. In other words, just because it is historically irregular, could it still be scientifically (and thus theoretically) possible? To this end, we must remember that Jesus died sometime in the late afternoon or early evening of day one, was in the (alleged) sepulcher for the whole of day two, and ostensibly returned to life early in the morning of day three. (We already have a problem here, because according to this chronology, which is straight from the New Testament, Jesus wasn’t dead for three days—it hadn’t even been 48 hours. Thus, when Jesus said he would be three days and three nights in the Earth just as Jonah was in the fish [see Matthew 12:40], he did not, according to the New Testament’s own chronology, fulfill this prophecy.) However, just to make it easy (since we do not have specific times, only approximate ones), let’s at least round it up to 48 hours and use that as the measuring stick for how long Jesus’s body was dead. Assuming, then, that he did rise from the dead, he rose as a body that had undergone at least 48 hours’ worth of deterioration.

Therefore, what do we know about a corpse that has been dead for 48 hours? Anyone who wants to do so can research the stages of human decomposition in any anatomical book currently available. I have done so, and this is what I found:

After 30 minutes:

  • The skin gets purple and waxy
  • The lips, fingernails, and toenails fade to a pale color or turn white as the blood leaves
  • Blood pools at the lowest parts of the body leaving a dark purple-black stain called lividity
  • The hands and feet turn blue
  • The eyes start to sink into the skull

After 4 hours:

  • Rigor mortis starts to set in
  • The purpling of the skin and pooling of blood continue

After 12 hours:

  • The body is in full rigor mortis

After 24 hours:

  • The head and neck are now a greenish-blue color
  • The greenish-blue color continues to spread to the rest of the body
  • There is the strong smell of rotting meat
  • The face of the person is essentially no longer recognizable

After 72 hours:

  • The gases in the body tissues form large blisters on the skin
  • The whole body begins to bloat and swell grotesquely. This process is speeded up if victim is in a hot environment, or in water
  • Fluids leak from the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, rectum and urinary opening

Now, if we allow that Jesus rose from the dead approximately 48 hours after the moment of his death, his corpse would be in the stages between what is listed under 24 hours and under 72 hours. Thus, his face was no longer recognizable. His body was essentially black, blue, and green. His skin was beginning to cover itself with gaseous blisters. He was starting to leak out of his orifices. And he smelled like rot. If you add the fact that Palestine is a warm climate, we can perhaps allow that this process was even speedier than one might think. That, then, would have been the exact condition of Jesus’s corpse at the alleged moment of resurrection. Unless we allow for some kind of supernatural act of God that either kept his corpse from decaying or somehow reversed the decay at the moment of resurrection (which, of course, is the very claim being made here but which, at this stage, is still mere conjecture), we have to assume that if Jesus resurrected, his reanimated body was unrecognizable, grotesque, bloating, rotting, and yet somehow alive in the face of such advanced deterioration. If you remove the miracle-element (and, again, at this stage of our investigation, we have no reason to assume anything miraculous took place here), we find that it was scientifically impossible for the corpse of Jesus Christ to be reanimated after 48 hours of death and decay. This, then, means we must add another checkmark under the heading “unlikely.” So far, our unbiased investigation is not looking too favorable for the believer.

The Miraculous: Our Only Alternative

If the resurrection of Jesus Christ violates the Regularity of History and is deemed to be empirically and scientifically impossible, then our only alternative at this point is to finally assess the possibility of a miracle. As you may know, a miracle is something that either suspends or in some other way violates the laws of physics. In other words, in order for an event to qualify as a miracle it must supersede the limits of the natural world. Granted, the reanimation of a deteriorated corpse would fall into that category quite nicely. Moreover, assuming that this is indeed what happened, we would have no choice but to conclude that the miracle was and could only have been wrought by an intelligence powerful enough to so violate the natural world. Thus, the event would truly be supernatural, and would invariably point to a deity. This would also further substantiate Jesus’s claims, because not only was his body resurrected just as he himself said it would be, but he must also have been connected to a deity in a way that no other human being has ever been; strong evidence, in other words, that he really was the “Son of God.”

However, a few things must be observed regarding claims of the miraculous. If one person witnesses something miraculous and then goes out and reports it, the claim has, at that moment, become second-hand hearsay. No one is obliged to believe this person’s report unless… unless he has strong evidence to back up his claim. Remember, an outrageous claim requires outrageous proof. If two people witness something miraculous, this is slightly stronger than the claim of only one person, but sufficient proof is still required. We are still being unbiased here. We are not demanding too much; we aren’t even demanding more than we should. The nature of a miracle is such that hearsay simply isn’t good enough. If a miracle is defined as that which suspends or violates the natural world, then those who weren’t there to see this event themselves are perfectly justified to say, “Well, that doesn’t usually happen. In fact, that never happens. For this reason alone, I need hard proof to override what I otherwise know about the natural world. Yes, I need miraculous proof of the miraculous.” No, this is not asking too much. It is merely being responsible, fair, judicious, and accountable. In other words, we are treating any miraculous claim in the exact same manner would treat the claim of a fairy sighting among the rosebushes of an English garden—and we are right to do so.

Therefore, if we are going to allow that the only possible way the resurrection of Jesus Christ could have realistically occurred is by way of a divine miracle, we must also ask whether or not there is suitable evidence to justify a belief in such a claim. To do so is not an example of us losing our impartiality. We are still being unbiased here. Indeed, we are merely being responsible to inquire whether or not there is any evidence to substantiate the claim of this alleged miraculous event. Anyone would be well within his or her rights to so inquire. In fact, to not do so would be the height of both foolishness and recklessness. After all, matters of this nature ought to be approached and treated with great care.

Now, the believer contends that, yes, evidence of a suitable nature does indeed exist. The atheist, after reviewing this supposed evidence, says otherwise. Which answer is correct? This is an important question because here we truly have an instance where one camp must be right and the other camp must be wrong. Both cannot be right, nor can both be wrong. Either Jesus rose from the dead, or he didn’t. If he did rise from the dead and left suitable evidence to confirm this fact, we should be able to find it and review it right here and now. If he did rise from the dead but left no suitable evidence for us here in the 21st century, one has to wonder why God would deny us this evidence when the destination of our immortal souls apparently depends on the issue. If he did not rise from the dead, one has to wonder why billions of people have been conned into believing otherwise by “evidence” that clearly does not warrant approval whatsoever. Whether you are an atheist or a believer or some kind of undecided mutant occupying the middle ground, these are all important questions. And we must continue to address them without bias and thus as impartially as we can.

With that in mind, we will thus review the evidence for the resurrection in Volume Two—evidence that for the believer apparently constitutes solid proof and which for the atheist proves nothing. (And remember, we have already surmised by this point that the resurrection requires a miraculous element in order to have theoretically occurred because we have demonstrated historically, empirically, and scientifically that it could not have occurred without a miracle.)

(Volume Two to follow soon.)