So, it wasn’t that long ago that I got into it with Nsangoma about the evidence of Jesus’ existence. I won’t repeat that topic so soon, though I would like to point you to some great material on the very reliable historical evidence of Jesus’ existence (knowledge I didn’t have logged away to fire at Nsangoma at the time). Not only did a number of noted historians confirm his existence, some of them even confirm or support that he worked miracles (even if they didn’t think his powers came from a divine source).
Now, I say that as preamble because with the historical existence of Jesus pretty much a given, one has to pretty much admit to the existence of the 12 apostles, who are also mentioned in the historical record and some of whom penned gospels and other material in the New Testament.
So, with a supposition that Jesus and his apostles existed, let me tell you that the only logical reason for the 11 surviving apostles to have so courageously promoted what would later be called Christianity is that they knew Jesus had risen from the dead. They didn’t assume it. They didn’t convince themselves of it. And they damned well didn’t make up the resurrection.
The only reason all 11 of them would have done what they did was because they knew Jesus to be divine and had seen him alive and well following his execution on the cross at Calvary.
Why? Simple human nature.
The gospels are brutally honest about the weaknesses and failings of the apostles. They cut themselves no slack in telling people where they had doubted and failed Jesus. So let’s take one of the darkest hours in the apostles’ lives, in the days following Jesus’ crucifixion. Where were they at that time? Hiding in a house, fearing for their lives.
They had thrown in their lot with Jesus thinking he was the son of God, and then he died on the cross. He didn’t come down from it. He didn’t hurl lightning against his accusers. He died. Hardly inspiring, is it?
Certainly, these 11 remaining men from Jesus’ inner circle (Judas Iscariot having hung himself for betraying Jesus) were sad over Jesus’ death. Whatever their feelings about his divinity after the crucifixion, he had been their friend and teacher. But, make no mistake about it, first and foremost they were scared shitless and weren’t thinking he was the son of God at that point. Would you?
Now, imagine that you’ve been running around with a guy who has been preaching a new covenant with God and rousing the masses and undercutting the overbearing religious intolerance and hypocrisy of the Jewish priesthood. Now imagine that he has been very publicly executed and the Jewish religious leaders want your head. So do a lot of the masses that Jesus riled up with his teachings who now feel betrayed. Oh, and the Romans aren’t too thrilled with things either.
Faced with this, which of the following three options would you choose if you were in any one of the apostles’ shoes:
- Wait until things die down a bit and then run away as far as you can, as fast as you can
- Wait until things die down a bit and then tell everyone how sorry you are that you were duped by this blasphemous sorcerer who convinced you he was the Messiah and subsequently renounce him and hope no one kills you
- Go out when everyone is still mad at you and say he was indeed the son of God and he rose from the dead, and we should reverence him as the Messiah
Any normal human being would choose one of the first two. A few zealous or deluded individuals might choose number 3. But how on earth can you believe that 11 men would choose to take that third option? And not only those 11 men but later Paul, who was a learned and devout Jewish man charged with hunting down Jesus’ followers and who was both very successful and very well-liked for doing so.
The answer is that it doesn’t make sense, unless Jesus appeared to them (and to many others, since 11 guys hooting and hollering that Jesus rose from the dead isn’t going to convince very many people). For these core people to continue to stick by Jesus, and for Christianity to survive and flourish in those early days against all reason and logic and under serious persecution, you would have to have something as serious as a dude rising from the grave.
I’ve heard it argued that the apostles were just trying to save their necks by continuing to preach Jesus and say that he had risen from the dead and ascended into Heaven. But this ignores a couple major facts. If he didn’t rise, why would I support and promote him? Damn it, I’d be pissed as hell at his crucified ass for lying to me, and I would sell out his memory in a heartbeat. Unless, of course, I had proof positive that he had come back and was in a position to restore the lost connection between God and humans. Also, who would believe that spreading lies about Jesus’ resurrection would actually save them? It would seem to be a sure path to getting stoned to death to me.
I’ve also heard it argued that they were in it for personal gain. That somehow by forming a new religion based on Jesus they would get power and money and influence. A ridiculous notion, since the public was pretty much against them at this point and so was the political and religious leadership around them. Hardly an ideal environment for creating a prosperous new religion. Also, it completely ignores that fact that the apostles and early church leaders didn’t enrich themselves but instead lived simply and shared what they had with others, encouraging everyone else to do so as well.
Again, those arguments above might hold water if only a couple apostles had continued forward. But 10 of those original apostles spread the faith boldly and even martyred themselves in the end. John survived to live a long life, but was ultimately exiled to an island for his teachings. Paul, who came to the party late but went beyond the Jews to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, was imprisoned multiple times and ultimately martyred.
Furthermore, how did something as unlikely-to-believe-in as Christianity manage to take hold? How were the apostles and the other early evangelists and teachers able to survive long enough to get Christianity a foothold? People, the only thing that explains that is some serious protection from God. He didn’t keep them from all harm but he gave them sufficient backing that they would be able to survive what should have been a death sentence for all of them out of the starting gate: Preaching Jesus as the risen son of God.