An Atheist Investigates Jesus to Disprove the Resurrection

Paper cutout illustration of a man examining a book, surrounded by stacks of books
Gail Armstrong

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I didn't become an atheist overnight. When I was growing up, my teachers and the leaders at church wouldn't answer my questions about God, like why He didn't wipe out evil or stop people's suffering. My parents went to church on Sundays but rarely talked about God at home.

My relationship with my father was terrible. During one argument, he looked at me and said, "I don't have enough love for you to fill my little finger." It can be difficult to accept the idea of a loving heavenly Father when you've been rejected by the earthly version.

And was God even there? In high school and college, I was taught that God isn't necessary for the origin of life and that we can't trust the biblical accounts of Jesus' ministry. After college, I started my career and got married. Atheism fit the self-centered life I was living.

But then my wife became a Christian, and for the first time, I began to seriously investigate the claims of Christianity, if for no other reason than to liberate her from her faith. And I knew that my debunking of Christianity had to start with its bold, central claim: that Jesus Christ died and came back to life.

The Christian faith rises or falls on that claim. It's the whole ballgame. I had investigated lots of deaths in my career as a journalist, and none of those corpses ever regained life. Dead people just don't come back to life — unless that person truly is the Son of God.

To investigate the Resurrection, I approached the topic with four questions in mind. And no one was more surprised by what I found than I was!

As Easter approaches, I hope the answers to these questions help your family have confidence in the Bible's account of Jesus Christ's resurrection.

Was Jesus really dead?

Skeptics insist that Jesus never died on the Cross as the Bible claims. One of the first things I discovered, to my surprise, is that historians consider Jesus Christ's death on a cross to be a noncontroversial fact. As the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded: "The historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted."

We have multiple independent reports of His death in the documents that make up the New Testament, and we have at least five ancient sources outside the Bible that corroborate that He died on a cross. Even the Jewish Talmud admits that Jesus was executed. One New Testament scholar, atheist Gerd Lüdemann of Vanderbilt University, calls Jesus' death on the Cross an "indisputable" fact.

Did believers invent this story?

I used to think the Resurrection was a legend — maybe 100 years after Jesus' life, people started believing a myth. As I investigated the historical roots of ancient legends, I learned that it took a long time in the ancient world — more than two generations — for legends to develop and wipe out a solid core of historical facts. Yet we have a report of the Resurrection, preserved later by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, that was written much too quickly after Jesus' death to be considered a legend. Prominent New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn is convinced this report was formulated within months after Jesus' death. Add to that the four Gospels, which contain reports that date within just a generation of Jesus' life.

There is no huge time gap between the death of Jesus and the later development of a legend that He rose from the dead. We've got a news flash that goes right back to the beginning.

Was the tomb actually empty?

Perhaps the tomb was never empty, some skeptics say. But even the opponents of Jesus implicitly conceded the tomb was empty that first Easter morning. In fact, so sure they were of the empty tomb that they claimed that Christ's disciples stole His body.

And Jesus' body was almost certainly put into that tomb, despite arguments that victims of crucifixion were never buried. The Digesta, a summary of ancient Roman law compiled by the Emperor Justinian, says: "The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purposes of burial." In fact, in 1968, archaeologists found the buried remains of a crucifixion victim with the spike still through his anklebone.

But how was the tomb emptied? Romans didn't have a motive for stealing the body. They wanted Jesus dead. Jewish leaders of the day didn't have a motive. They wanted Jesus to stay dead. Disciples didn't have the means or the opportunity to steal the body. The most plausible explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Did people actually see Jesus alive?

We have nine ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament that corroborate the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus. This is an avalanche of historical evidence! What's more, the earliest report of the Resurrection says 500 people saw Him at the same time.

"OK," skeptics say, "so people saw something. Could they have been hallucinating?" But that sort of shared hallucination doesn't happen, according to the psychology experts I talked with. Hallucinations happen in individual minds.

What's more, Saul of Tarsus, who for years lived as a persecutor of Christians, encountered the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:1-6). Saul was not psychologically primed to have a vision of the risen Jesus — and he had no motive to claim such an encounter if it had never occurred.

What I had to conclude

Disproving the Resurrection wasn't easy! In fact, it was impossible. My research caused me to realize: The case for the resurrection of Jesus is powerful and persuasive. That evidence led me to my own faith in Christ, and in the years since that investigation, I've been helping other Christians understand how we can have confidence in the biblical accounts of the Resurrection.

At Easter, we're not just celebrating a holiday of chocolate eggs, ham dinners and time with our families. No, we are recognizing that Christ's resurrection authenticates His claim that He is the Son of God.

You see, anyone can make claims, and Jesus certainly made transcendent, messianic and divine claims about himself. He claimed He was the Son of God. But if He actually came back from death, that affirms His divine identity. As the apostle Paul said, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17).

If the resurrection of Jesus is true, then His teachings are not just wise words from an old, dead sage. They are the very words of God. We're compelled to follow these teachings and help our children understand that Jesus deserves our worship and our allegiance.

His resurrection means that He is still alive, and we can encounter Him today. And because of His atoning death on the Cross, all those who follow Him have received forgiveness for their sins, and heaven is open for all of us.

The Resurrection truly changes everything.

Lee Strobel is an award-winning author and former investigative journalist. His most recent book is The Case for Christ.
This article first appeared in the April/May 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "An Atheist Investigates Jesus." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2019 by Lee Strobel. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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