Encountering the Bible ought to be more than just a matter of factual absorption. It is important sometimes to go deeper into the meaning and background of the Biblical stories. To imaginatively enter the events and parables of the Bible means to reflect on them in ways that transcend the mere written word. Doing so does not have to be a high-level philosophical exercise. Nor does it even have to focus on the text itself. It is sometimes just as important to reflect on the second-order hymns, sermons, and films that have arisen out of the text and that have animated it through music and story.
Consider Risen, a 2016 film about the initial days after the resurrection of Jesus. The Roman soldier at the film’s center is tasked with disproving the resurrection. But he finds his worldview reeling when he encounters the actual testimonial evidence. How would one enter imaginatively into Risen? How would one reflect on the rationality of the events it describes? A good place to start is to think about the accuracy of the Biblical account. Risen is a work of stage and artistry, and as such it is not intended to be an exact rendering of the gospel texts. But the film does point us toward the empty tomb claim, which is central to the Christian worldview. With the film as our background, and as an illustrative reflection of a deeper investigation of the text, what are we to make of that claim?
For starters, as William Lane Craig has noted, there were numerous people who said they encountered Jesus after his death. Think about that for a moment. To say that one has seen a person who has died is to make an extraordinary assertion. So it ought to be met with a greater amount of scrutiny than other, more ordinary kinds of assertions. Are the gospel accounts accurate when they tell us that there were numerous people who encountered Jesus after his death? Suppose we think for a moment about the motives and stories of the gospel writers (I will leave for another day the question of whether the gospel writers were themselves deceived). It certainly is within the realm of possibility that they were fabricating the resurrection story; or, alternatively, that they were relating the fabricated stories of others. But on closer consideration, the dynamics of their authorship make such scenarios unlikely. For one thing, the sheer number of people who claimed to have encountered the resurrected Jesus was very great. Charles Colson, a Watergate conspirator, once noted that it is difficult for conspirators to keep secrets. After all, the temptation is very great for them to break ranks for the sake of money, notoriety, or fame. So while it might sometimes be possible for a handful of conspirators to keep their secrets for a short time, Colson believed that the secrets of conspiracies would inevitably leak out to the public. But the Christian resurrection story did not just involve a handful of people. Nor did the Christian resurrection claims collapse after a short period of time. The story in fact involved hundreds of people. Many of them are explicitly named in the texts and many of them at the time of the gospels would still have been accessible for fact-checking purposes. Far from breaking ranks and spilling their secrets, the story’s adherents stood by its veracity to the day of their deaths. Why would so many people have kept their lies for so long if they were the parties to a conspiracy? Would not the prospect of money, notoriety, or fame have tempted at least some of them to break ranks?
Again, consider the motives of the gospel authors. Could they have been anticipating cultural advantages that might have incentivized them to deceive their readers? As mentioned, it certainly is within the realm of possibility that they intended deception. But the truth also seems to be that a fabricated resurrection tale would not have benefited them in their lives and immediate surroundings. In fact the resurrection story exposed the gospel authors to numerous hardships and persecutions. The price that many of the early Christians paid was torture and death at the hands of the Romans. But up to the day of their deaths, by all accounts, they stood by the veracity of the resurrection story. When large numbers of persons are willing to die for the sake of their beliefs – including especially a belief as preposterous as someone’s bodily resurrection – it is unlikely that their intent is to deceive. So although it is possible that the gospel authors were themselves deceived, it is unlikely that they were intending to deceive others.
Again, as Craig also has noted, there is still further evidence that the gospel writers intended truth in their claim that the first persons to discover the empty tomb were women. Why would the gospel writers have noted this fact if their intent had been deception? After all, the ancients considered women to be unreliable witnesses – in courts of law and elsewhere. People who are fabricating their stories do not offer central roles to non-credible witnesses. So the most probable thing is just that the women were in fact the first to discover the empty tomb.
The upshot of this reflection is just that it is unlikely that the gospel writers were conspirators. Of course, to demonstrate that they did not intend to deceive their audiences is by no means to show that Jesus was in fact resurrected. But it does suggest at least that the motives of the gospel writers were honorable. I will leave for another day the question of whether or not they were themselves deceived.
Note: this blog post originally appeared in a shorter form at an earlier time on this blog. I have significantly expanded that earlier post here.