Lent is over, which means we’ve made it through yet another blitz of “Did Jesus Really Exist?”articles. There is perhaps no more predictable Internet cycle than this torrent of thinkpieces, which starts every year around Ash Wednesday, and continues unabated until the great Paschal liturgy.
It is noteworthy that nobody has ever been able to prove what is necessary to dispute the very existence of Christ: that the gospels are some sort of meta-hoax perpetrated on a gullible Middle Eastern peasantry and subsequently the world. Indeed, writing at the Guardian, Dr. Simon Gathercole points out that that evidence for Christ’s existence is “both long-established and widespread,” within and without Christianity—so much so that even atheist scholars heap scorn upon the idea of “the Jesus myth.” That said, Gathercole claims that the real crux of the matter is somewhat more thorny, so to speak:
These abundant historical references leave us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question – which goes beyond history and objective fact – is whether Jesus died and lived.
Gathercole is right that, having established the existence of Christ, it is far more interesting to wonder whether or not he “died and lived,” i.e. rose from the dead. But it is mystifying why he claims that Christ’s resurrection “goes beyond history and objective fact: “if Christ did indeed rise from the dead, as the Gospels assert, then surely such an event would constitute both objective and historical fact. Put another way, rendered tautologically: if Christ rose from the dead then he rose from the dead; if he didn’t, he didn’t. Only one of these can be true, but both are potential objective facts.”
The Evidence Matthew Provides For Christ’s Resurrection
So what evidence is there that Christ rose from his grave? There is plenty, chief among it the fact that the gospels tell us he did, and there is no real reason to doubt the historical accuracy of the gospels. But there is one detail within the gospel of Matthew worth looking at closely, a detail that points toward a risen and divine Christ instead of merely a dead and ordinary one.
Matthew claims that the chief priests sought a Roman guard from Pontius Pilate to watch over Jesus’s tomb, “otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away [and proclaim Him risen].” There is some dispute as to whether Pilate granted them a Roman guard or ordered the Jews to use their own. But Matthew’s account rather convincingly indicates that the guard was Roman: after Christ has risen, the guards are evidently fearful that the Roman government will execute them for claiming, at the behest of the chief priests, that they fell asleep on the job and allowed Jesus’s disciples to come, roll the stone away, and steal His body.
Well. The idea that a Roman guard—an entire Roman guard, the whole unit—would fall asleep on night watch is absurd: every one of them would have likely lost their lives if even one man fell asleep on watch. Moreover, the notion that Jesus’s disciples—a bunch of scared, cowardly goatherds and fishermen, broken and despondent over the loss of their leader—could somehow sneakily roll back an enormous stone slab and cart away a body while a bunch of Roman soldiers snoozed nearby is singularly implausible, if not impossible.
If we are to assume the historicity of the guards at the tomb—and we have every reason to assume as much, inasmuch the Jews in Matthew’s time clearly did—then we are also confronted with the intractable conclusion that, somehow, Christ’s body got by them: either as they slept, carried by his disciples (incredibly unlikely) or some other way (hmmm).
Suppose This Explanation Were Offered Today
The idea that the guard simply nodded off and slept through a noisy and difficult grave robbery beggars belief and is usefully illustrated by a modern theoretical analogy.
Imagine that, for whatever reason, the U.S. government wishes to keep something safe and secure—a dead body, say, the disappearance of which could create some domestic unrest within the heartland—and it is believed that the body is in danger of being stolen by a bunch of unarmed rednecks.
So until the danger passes, the government places the body in a walk-in cadaver cooler, behind a steel door that is then sealed with an absurdly strong padlock. The government then places a fire team of U.S. Marines in front, just to make sure nothing happens. Imagine, for a second, if the body were to mysteriously disappear. Imagine the unbelievability of the proffered explanation: “The Marines fell asleep on the job, and the unarmed rednecks came and busted the lock open and stole the body while they slept.” Ponder the absurdity. Then ponder whether it makes any less sense 2,000 years ago than it does today.
There’s Another Explanation Worth Considering
Some skeptics point out that, in Matthew’s account, a full day passes before the guards are placed at the tomb, giving Christ’s disciples a full 24 hours to steal the body before the guard arrived. The idea that the disciples would have stolen the body in either case—on the second or the third day—is already logically indefensible. But there is an additional problem to consider: however convincing the second-day-grave-robbery scenario sounds, it still requires the disciples to have returned to the tomb on the third day, creeping among an inexplicably sleeping guard unit, breaking the seal on the tomb, and rolling away the heavy stone without waking any of the soldiers.
In either case—a surreptitious grave robbery on the second day, or a far more dangerous one on the third—the skeptics would have us believe that the disciples were evidently master ninjas, capable of dropping themselves unseen and unheard amidst enemy agents to pull off the most daring shock-and-awe crime of all antiquity! Perhaps there is another explanation, one believed by billions throughout history and the world over.
This Easter season, if you are a believer, as I am, you will surely be celebrating what you know to be the truth: that Jesus did, in fact, “die and live.” If you are an unbeliever, however, it is worth asking yourself why—and considering whether your unbelief can stand up to historical and logical scrutiny.