Why is this even a question? Everyone dies. Death has a 100% success rate. Of course when we ask this question, we’re usually not asking “Did Jesus Really Die?” but, “Did Jesus Really Die at the hands of the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate on the day that we celebrate as Good Friday? Even then, one might say, why ask this question? After all, we have multiple early accounts of some of the most accurate and respected historians of the ancient world that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified during the reign of Tiberius under Pontius Pilate.
Generally speaking, when we have multiple, credible, consistent sources bearing witness to a fact such as the time and place and manner of a persons death, we tend to accept those sources unless there is significant reason to doubt the evidence. So why is the death of Jesus even in question?
The record of Jesus’ death is doubted by some because of two historical facts that have aroused great interest from nearly all who probe into the life of Jesus. The first is that Jesus’ body is never found, even by those who would have had knowledge of its location and motive to find it. And the second is that multiple people, both those who were followers of him during his life and those who were opposed to him during his life, claim to have had vivid encounters with him after he was supposed to have died; some of these encounters occurring in groups settings with multiple witnesses. Now obviously, the Christian explanation of these two facts is that Jesus really did die, really was buried, and then, to everyone’s astonishment, really and truly rose from the dead, leaving the empty tomb behind and revealing himself to a select group of people. Obviously, for many people, the idea that Jesus actually raised from the dead is so unbelievable that in searching for a more reasonable explanation, some find that the most plausible explanation is that Jesus did not in fact die at all, but that people only thought that he had died, which would explain not only the empty tomb, but also the appearances. So how do we go about establishing that Jesus’ death really occurred?
Did Jesus Really Claim to be God? This question flows out of the question we asked last week, because some people will grant that Jesus the man really lived, but that he perhaps lived as a itinerant teacher or a social trouble-maker, but that was it, and only decades after his death the myth of Jesus’ deity grew. It is sometimes claimed that Jesus would roll over in his grave if he found out that people were worshipping him as God. And so that is the next important question - did Jesus himself, really claim to be God? This is important, as one New Testament and ancient Judaism scholar, Brant Pitre, suggests:
The answer to this question has enormous historical and theological implications. If Jesus did not think he was God, then one of the central claims of Christianity, indeed, argueably the central claim - that the one true God became man in Jesus of Nazareth - comes crashing to the ground. But if Jesus did speak and act as if he were the one God, then we are forced to make a decision. Either he was a liar who knew he was just a man but spoke as if he were divine; or he was a lunatic who thought he was God but was grossly mistaken; or he was who he claimed to be - the one true God come in person. (“Case for Jesus: the Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ”, Pitre, 119)
I was listening to a podcast this week which featured Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed’s tech division who had just written a pretty dark piece featuring a term that might be new to many of us: ‘’reality apathy”. The idea is that the internet is moving beyond “fake news” to a place in which already Artificial Intelligence of certain tech is to the point that someone can edit video of anyone saying or doing anything with a level of realness that can easily fool our senses. The fear is that we will be so continually “Beset by a torrent of constant misinformation, people simply start to give up.” (https://www.buzzfeed.com/charliewarzel/the-terrifying-future-of-fake-news?) That as a society we will just simply stop investigating, stop thinking, stop reading, stop searching for truth. What happens when everything is fake news?
While it can be easy to get cynical about this, there is an opportunity here. As Christians we believe in things that we are not subject to modern manipulation. Where the modern news cycle deals in days, even hours, we deal in centuries. I believe that there is a bedrock of truthfulness about the Christian faith that can be easily investigated, and thus provide an anchor post of truth in this world of fake news. Perhaps now more than ever we need to train ourselves to think soberly and critically about the historical evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. That’s what I hope to do in this series. Todays exploration: Did Jesus Really Live?