Why I (Still) Believe: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Resurrection of Jesus

Without a doubt, Easter is a weird one.

Not only does it arguably have the worst color palette of any national holiday, but the celebration’s pagan roots are also so nakedly apparent it’s almost shocking they aren’t challenged more often by the people who perpetually claim there’s a “War on Christmas.”

Our word “Easter” is derived from the diety Eostre, a Germanic goddess of fertility and spring. For many European cultures, the vernal equinox marked the end of the dark winter months and the beginning of the planting season. Some communities even held “sunrise services” to praise the dawn goddess for the gift of more sunlight.

Associated with fertility, the symbol of a rabbit was prominently linked with the Festival of Eostre, and practitioners would exchange decorated eggs on feast days. Today, many children in America awake to find a gift basket left behind by the Easter bunny and participate in Easter Egg hunts hosted by their local church or Chamber of Commerce.

As Christianity spread across Western Europe during the third and fourth centuries, missionaries slowly began to integrate pagan seasonal festivals into the Christian calendar (see, also, Christmas).  As a result, the pagan roots of Easter have largely been obscured by commercialism and secularism in the United States.

Easter Bunny photo-ops and pastel dresses notwithstanding, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon following the Vernal Equinox (yes, that’s still how we determine which day Easter is on) is quintessentially a celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus.

According to the Gospels, Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and ascended to Heaven after being executed by the Roman Empire sometime around A.D. 30. From that revolutionary account, a splinter sect of Judaism grew into the largest religious belief system in the world.

But how does one reconcile such a fantastical claim in the modern world? Didn’t people believe all sorts of crazy stuff back then? What about all the contradictions in the Biblical accounts of the resurrection? Even the apostle Paul says without the resurrection, our faith is meaningless.

I support marriage equality, I believe in evolution, and I think bombing our enemies is a terrible way to love them. So, why do I, a seemingly rational person who appears a skip and a hop away from secular humanism, believe that the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is probably a real historical event?

My reasons won’t satisfy the most ardent skeptic (and they’re not designed to), and some of my observations will undoubtedly rattle and/or disturb many of my more conservative readers.

However, the course of everyone’s faith journey is unique, and I hope the detours and pit stops of my travels can be encouraging and helpful to anyone following my trajectory.


The Resurrection as Whodunnit Detective Story

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Take a seat.
Are you comfortable?

Good. Now, let’s rip off this band-aid nice and quick:

Some sections of the Bible rely on overlapping historical narratives written by different people at different time periods, and, as a result, some of those narratives contain textual inconsistencies and contradictions. 

For many people, this sounds outright blasphemous (and, truth be told, heretics have been burned at the stake for suggesting less). But, unless you’re willing to incorporate the multi-verse hypotheses into your Biblical hermeneutic, it’s near-impossible to reconcile some of the discrepancies revealed by a careful reading.

A vast majority of these inconsistencies are inconsequential. Like when 1 Kings 4:26 says Solomon had 40,000 horses, and 2 Chronicles 9:25 says Solomon had only 4,000 horses (a classic example of a copyist’s transcription error).

And a few are a bit more puzzling. Like when 2 Samuel 24:1 says God inspired David to take a census of Israel, and 1 Chronicles 21:1 says it was Satan who inspired David to conduct the census.

And, yes, some of these idiosyncrasies are present in the Gospels. During the Last Supper, Jesus breaks bread and then offers the wine in Matthew and Mark; In the Gospel of Luke, wine comes before the bread. And according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper occurred during the observance of Passover; But, in John, the death of Jesus occurs before Passover.

Also, none of the Gospels seem to agree upon who or what went down at Jesus’s tomb on Sunday morning – a pretty large oversight if your entire religion literally hinges on this moment.

  • In Matthew, it’s Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (not the mother of Jesus); there’s an earthquake, they see the stone roll away, one angel, and they run into Jesus on their way to tell the disciples.
  • In Mark, it’s Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus, and Salome; there’s one angel inside the tomb, no Jesus, and they run away in fear and tell no one.
  • In Luke, it’s Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Joanna; there are two angels, no Jesus, and they run to tell the disciples.
  • In the John, it’s only Mary Magdalene; there are two angels in the tomb, she runs to get Peter and John, and Mary converses with Jesus outside the tomb whom she initially mistakes for the cemetery’s gardener. 

However, contrary to what one might expect, the acknowledgment of textual contradictions in the Bible’s Resurrection narratives doesn’t impede my ability to believe the event itself actually happened. And that’s not blind fanaticism talking.

It’s important to note, prior to the Enlightenment, people recorded and processed history much differently than they do today.

In Zealot, religious historian Reza Aslan writes,

“Most people in the ancient world did not make a sharp distinction between myth and reality. The two were intimately tied together in their spiritual experience. That is to say, they were less interested in what actually happened, than in what it meant.”

In other words, we shouldn’t approach the Gospels – including accounts of the Resurrection – as we would a modern true-crime documentary (though it may be helpful to keep in mind that even documentary filmmakers have agendas).

Additionally, eyewitness testimonies are notoriously unreliable. The fallibility of human memory is well documented, and conservative estimates place the writings of the Gospels between 30 and 60 years after the events of the resurrection. The stories of the resurrection were probably passed down by oral tradition for decades before someone jotted them down.

Therefore, in the Gospels, we have four different compilations of eyewitness accounts and historical narratives of the same event written down decades later. And, within those four compilations, we have exactly what we’d expect to find.

In What Is the Bible?, Rob Bell writes,

“If someone did rise from the dead, how would the story be told? In a calm and collected and polished manner, or in a slightly haphazard way that buzzed and hummed and rattled with the electricity that comes from experiencing something so unexpected and extraordinary that you don’t really have categories for it?

The fractured narrative inconsistencies of the resurrection are prime examples of the excitement and bewilderment you’d expect to see following an unprecedented event. It’d be far more suspicious if every account was perfectly synced with zero conflicting details – you’d naturally assume someone tampered with the official record.

And here’s another wrinkle: Regardless if the resurrection happened or not, Jesus’s original disciples really believed it happened. They dedicated their lives to spreading the news of Jesus’s resurrection to the ends of the known world, and many of them paid for it – dearly.

Andrew was crucified. Peter was crucified upside down. Philip was crucified “spread eagle.” Thomas was impaled by four spears. James was stoned and clubbed to death. Matthias was burned alive. Bartholomew was flayed and beheaded. John was possibly boiled in oil and buried alive. Paul was beheaded.

Of course, dying for a belief doesn’t validate a belief. Throughout history, millions of people have died for beliefs in gods, rulers, and nations that have long since been forgotten.

However, there’s a marked difference between dying for a belief and dying for a belief you had a hand in falsifying. And there’s not a single account of any of the original disciples recounting their faith at the hands of their torturers or executioners.


The Resurrection as Critical Feminist Theory

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The Talmud – a vast collection of ancient Jewish laws and traditions – said it’s better to “burn the Torah than it was to teach it to a woman.” “Lord, thank you for not making me a woman” was a common rabbinic prayer that originated in the first century.

But gender discrimination wasn’t exclusive to first-century Judaism. In the Roman world, women were viewed as weaker vessels designed solely to be penetrated and impregnated by men and manage the household. They could not own property, run a business, or receive an education. A woman could not be called as a witness in a court of law because a woman’s testimony was considered untrustworthy.

But then, with all of this taken into account, why would a group of first-century Jewish fishermen living under the shadow of the Roman Empire fabricate a story in which women were the first ones to encounter the risen Jesus?

And, yet, in each of the four Gospels, that’s exactly how it played out: Women found out first and brought the news to the men. To be the first to receive news of this magnitude would’ve been considered an immense honor and sign of respect. Despite the discrepancies in the accounts, all four Gospels align on a fact that would’ve severely damaged the story’s credibility for its Jewish and Roman audiences.

We even see this discrimination at play in the Bible. In Luke, when the women brought the news of the empty tomb to the disciples, the men initially dismissed the women’s claims as hysteria. And Paul probably scrubs the presence of women from his retelling of the resurrection in his first letter to the Corinthians for the same reason.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to imply the New Testament is a feminist manifesto for gender equality. Even with Jesus’s radically liberating treatment of women, we still have to contend with verses like Paul’s cringeworthy statement in 1st Timothy where he says, “woman shouldn’t have authority over a man” because “it was the woman [Eve] who was deceived and became a sinner,” or his comment in 1st Corinthians that “woman was created for man.”

But change is incremental. And throwing judgment on the past is an easy way to ignore the problems of the present.

Even today, we’re a long way off from gender equality, and it’s likely our children and our children’s children will look back on some of our cultural norms in disgust and embarrassment – as we do with our parents and grandparents.

In most churches in America, the highest station a woman can aspire to is an elementary Sunday school teacher (or office secretary). If Jesus trusted women with sharing the Gospel with men, maybe it’s time for us to do the same.


The Resurrection as Inciting Incident

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No matter where you go in the Western world, you cannot escape the influence of Christianity. And I’m not talking about the number of steeples that dot our cityscapes.

In Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, secular historian Tom Holland writes,

“To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions. This is no less true for Jews or Muslims than it is for Catholics or Protestants. Two thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable – indeed the inescapable – influence of Christianity.

The Roman Empire, the military superpower in Jesus’s day, held fast to a cultural ethic that can roughly be described as dominance: men over women, masters over slaves, emperors over citizens, the healthy over the sick, and the rich over the poor. It was simply the accepted order of things.

However, with its emphasis on service, enemy love, and dignity for all people, the early Church radically turned preconceived notions of power, dominance, and submission over on their heads.

In Homo Deus, atheist social anthropologist Yuval Harari writes,

“Christianity…spread the hitherto heretical notion that all humans are equal before God, thereby changing human political structures, social hierarchies and even gender relations. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went further, insisting that the meek and oppressed are God’s favorite people, thus turning the pyramid of power on its head, and providing ammunition for generations of revolutionaries.”

It was Christians who helped institute the first public and private hospitals, charities, universities, and orphanages. Christians also helped formulate and lead the first human rights campaigns – from abolition to woman’s suffrage.

In The Triumph of Christianity, agnostic historian Bart Ehrman writes,

“The very idea that society should serve the poor, the sick, and the marginalized became a distinctly Christian concern. Without the conquest of Christianity, we may well never have had institionalized welfare for the poor or organized health care for the sick. Billions of people may never have embraced the idea that society should serve the marginalized or be concerned with the well-being of the needy.”

And the influence of Christianity wasn’t limited to social work. Christian scientists like Galileo, Francis Bacon, Issac Newton, Gregor Mendel, and Louis Pasteur changed the way we understood the natural world, and Christian artists like Johann Bach, Michelangelo, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Flannery O’ Connor transformed the ways we look, listen, and process the nature of our existence.

But we shouldn’t get too far ahead of ourselves.

As soon as Christianity became seduced by the same false promises of power, dominance, and submission it once sought to subvert, we begin to see theological justifications for violence, war, and oppression. And instead of spearheading innovations in science, technology, art, economics, academia, and societal progress, the Christian establishment is far more likely to be known for defending outdated cultural biases and nonsensical scientific worldviews.

And herein lies the tragedy: The same beautiful spark that built the first hospitals, launched civil rights campaigns, guided the chisel along Michelangelo’s David, inspired Dostoyevsky to write The Brothers Karamazov, and drove Bacon to develop the scientific method is alight within all of us, but we’ve been trained to assume our default posture toward to the world should be defensive and reactionary.

It’s not too late for Christianity to once again be known as a nonviolent, scientifically literate, artistically creative, and socially liberating cultural force.


The Resurrection as Twist Ending

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We have the benefit of reading the Bible in hindsight. Like watching a murder mystery film after viewing the final scene, it’s easier for us to detect foreshadowing and ignore red herrings.

But our over-familiarity with the Biblical narrative has its drawbacks. For one, the revelation of Jesus as the murdered Son of God loses its ability to shock.

In Surprised by Hope, theologian N.T. Wright writes,

“Crucifixion meant that the kingdom hadn’t come, not that it had. Crucixion of a would-be Messiah meant that he wasn’t the Messiah, not that he was. When Jesus was crucified, every single disciple knew what it meant: We backed the wrong horse. The game is over.”

In contrast to the Greek and Roman religious cults and mythologies, the line between humanity and the Divine was clearly defined for first-century Jews. The mere thought of Yahwah inhabiting the flesh of an ordinary man was jaw-droppingly offensive. And the Romans reserved demigod status for their Emperors and Caesars.

In Dominion, historian Tom Holland writes,

“That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque. The ultimate offensiveness, though, was to one particular people: Jesus’s own. No more shocking a reversal of [the Jewish people’s] most devoutly held assumptions could possibly have been imagined. Not mere blashpemey, it was madness.”

If you were going to write about a resurrection, an easier pill for everyone to swallow would be a spiritual resurrection – with your diety shedding the stifling confines of flesh. But, once again that’s not what happens. In Jesus’s encounter the doubtful disciple Thomas, the Gospel of John makes it clear that Jesus’s resurrection is physical – complete with scars and wounds from his crucifixion.

Judaism and Roman religious beliefs simply didn’t have a paradigm for a tortured, murdered, and resurrected deity. No one was waiting for a servant King in human form. And the Old Testament isn’t exactly “clear” how it’d go down either. The Messiah was supposed to be a military leader in the vein of King David who threw off the yoke of Roman oppression.

Even Reza Aslan, the religious historian who wrote Zealot, admits,

“Despite two millennia of Christian apologetics, the fact is that belief in a dying and rising Messiah simply did not exist in Judaism.”

And, if you were going to tell a story about a resurrected Savior, you’d probably punch up the ending a bit. But one of the most surprising aspects of the resurrection narrative is just how ordinary it all seems.

Excluding Matthew’s bizarre asides about solar eclipses, earthquakes, and the Walking Dead (which some Biblical scholars believe are “artistic apocalyptical flourishes”), the Gospels’ depictions of Jesus’s death and resurrection are profoundly mundane.

Jesus appears to two followers out on a walk.
Mary confuses Jesus for a gardener.
Jesus cooks breakfast for the disciples on a beach.

If someone was going to fabricate a story and attempt to pass it off as truth, why would they create a story at odds with so many cultural norms and expectations? Of all the problems with the resurrection narrative, this is the one that’s the most baffling to me.

If one were to “properly” retell the resurrection story to make it palpable to the intended audience, you’d say men were the first ones to the empty tomb. You’d smooth out the narrative inconsistencies and contradictions. You’d have a “spiritual” resurrection, not a bodily resurrection. And you’d probably render Jesus’s resurrection much more badass.


The Resurrection as Wishful Thinking

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Back in high school and college, I used to read a lot of apologetics books. Apologetics is a branch of Christian academia that seeks to make a rational defense of Biblical claims that are rooted in science, logic, and history.

Apologetics has always been a part of the Christian faith, but it really hit its stride in the early 20th-Century when advances in biology, archaeology, paleontology, and geology began to corrode the Biblical worldview.

As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t read or study apologetics anymore. I began to find the rhetorical strategies intellectually dishonest, and the problem with hinging one’s faith on the opinions of “experts” is that there’ll always be a more convincing and informed “expert” on the other side.

I wish I could end this article with a slam-dunk piece of evidence or irrefutable cultural observation. But I can’t.

Let me be upfront: It’s hard for me to believe the Easter story. The resurrection of Jesus may be a personal victory for the one tortured and crucified, but it’s difficult for me to apply that victory to the rest of our shattered and broken world.

But I was raised in this story. It’s a part of me. And I desperately want this story to be true.

In The Jesus I Never Knew, Christian journalist Philip Yancey writes,

“One reason I am open to belief, I admit, is that at a very deep level I want the Easter story to be true. Faith grows out of a subsoil of yearning, and something primal in human beings cries out against the regin of death. I suppose you could say I want to believe in fairy tales.”

The desire for a belief to be true is a powerful force, indeed. We want to believe our beliefs, and that desire can lead us to irrational convictions and illogical conclusions.

But.

It’s equally true that a desire for a belief doesn’t negate the validity of that belief.

In On the Road with Saint Augustine, theologian James K.A. Smith writes,

“If you come to the end of yourself and wonder if there’s help and are surprised to find yourself at times hoping for a grace from beyond, it’s a sign that grace is already at work. Keep asking. You don’t have to believe in order to ask. Here’s the thing: You can ask for help believing too.

Throughout his career, writer J.R.R. Tolkien fought off criticisms that the fantasy world he was creating in his Lord of the Rings masterwork wasn’t “real literature” because it was fantastical “escapism.” Tolkien responded that it all depends on what one is escaping from – we judge a soldier deserting his platoon much differently than we would a man fleeing from a concentration camp.

I find myself investing in this mythic tale of death and resurrection not because of a persuasive historical case, but because if there is a God, I hope it’d be a God willing to immerse itself in the tyranny and muck of human existence, and I wish to cling to the fairy-tale truth that though the “light shines in the darkness, the darkness will not overcome it.”

But, in the meantime, I’ll continue asking for help to believe it’s true.


Style Note: I’m totally indebted to Carmen Machado’s terrific (and terrifying) memoir In the Dream House for the stylistic structure of this post. Pick yourself up a copy and prepare to have your mind blown.

One thought on “Why I (Still) Believe: A Skeptic’s Guide to the Resurrection of Jesus

  1. The gospel readings you identify as including Mary the mother of Jesus in the resurrection narrative actually name “Mary the mother of James.” Doesn’t this argue for the possibility that this “Mary the mother of James” is actually synonymous with “the other Mary” in Matthew, and not Mary the mother of Jesus? Because if it had been Mary the mother of Jesus it would be nonsensical not to say so explicitly in such a context. This also then might be evidence that “James the brother of the Lord” is not his blood brother by Mary, wife of Joseph but a very close relative, son of “the other Mary.” It just makes no sense to me that the gospel writers would have failed to name the second Mary as “Mary, his mother” if it was she.

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