For generations, books like David Strauss’s The Life of Jesus Critically Examined and A.N. Wilson’s Jesus: A Biography have assaulted the Gospels and convinced the public they are legendary—fabrications engineered by the church. In the age of CSI and murder trials broadcast on TV, the world has ceded its mind to these claims. We have developed a cultural unwillingness to trust eyewitnesses without a hair, a hard drive, or a half-eaten ham sandwich to support them.
While it may be true that people lie (for whatever purpose) and that we don’t have the nails from Jesus’s cross, the Gospels provide their own defense. The truth is in the text.
Only a terrible writer would think that the narrative of Jesus’s death and resurrection would make good propaganda. If the aim of the early church’s leaders was to gain power, they wouldn’t have spread the story that the Messiah had been hung on a wooden cross—a form of execution reserved for terrible criminals “accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23 NKJV), not the foretold king of scripture.
Likewise, no one would easily accept a savior whose followers “forsook Him and fled” at the moment of his capture (Mark 14:15). The man appointed to lead the early church, Simon Peter, is recorded as denying three times that he is a follower of Jesus (Luke 22:55-62), after which he recalls Jesus’s prediction of this betrayal (v. 34) and weeps with guilt. Why would the church devise a forgery that tarnishes its first leader? The earliest Gospel, Mark, was composed by a scribe loyal to Peter, under the direction of the apostle himself. Peter had no motive to carve a terrible lie about himself into the record; if anything, being a weaker man, he might have tried to conceal his failure. The only reason he would have insisted on that incident’s inclusion is if it was true.
Jesus’s resurrection produced another conflict for the first Christians. There were two camps in the Jewish establishment in Jesus’s day: the conservative Sadducees, who believed “there is no resurrection” (Mark 12:18), and the Pharisees, a group that in the last two centuries had formed a tentative belief in a future resurrection. Until Jesus came, however, no religion admitted that a man could be raised from the dead in the present day. That’s why the disciples “did not understand what He was saying, and were afraid to ask Him” when Jesus taught them that he would be killed and rise the third day following (Mark 9:31-32). Beyond Judaism, the Romans who ruled the Jews in the first century found the idea of a resurrection offensive because they considered the material world evil and the body a prison. The first Christians’ radical new theology endangered their lives by offending every major authority of their day. Nobody hoping to preserve his life, much less gather followers, would write the story this way.
These facts have persuaded some of the Gospels’ former critics. A.N. Wilson, the biographer mentioned before, converted to Christianity after decades of atheism. He writes a wonderful essay here about the doubts that led him to faith. The power of the Gospel to enact such a change in the human heart is a great testimony. But perhaps the greatest witness to the Gospel is the lives of the apostles. Peter, according to tradition, was executed by the Emperor Nero. The apostle Thomas, famous for his doubt, was killed while preaching in India. Paul was imprisoned in Rome for two years and executed. John, author of Revelation, was exiled to the island of Patmos. None of them received wealth or glory for their missionary work; indeed, their commitment cost them. That kind of testimony is unanswerable—because nobody is willing to die for a lie. We can either ignore that challenge, as millions do, or we can yield to the truth.
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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