Paul’s Conversion: Evidence for the Truth of Christianity

Conversion of St Paul

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“And here let me pause to say that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of St. Paul’s conversion as one of the evidences of Christianity. That he should have passed, by one flash of conviction, not only from darkness to light, but from one direction of life to the very opposite, is not only characteristic of the man, but evidential of the power and significance of Christianity. That the same man who, just before, was persecuting Christianity with the most violent hatred, should come all at once to believe in Him whose followers he had been seeking to destroy, and that in this faith he should become a “new creature”—what is this but a victory which Christianity owed to nothing but the spell of its own inherent power? Of all who have been converted to the faith of Christ, there is not one in whose case the Christian principle broke so immediately through everything opposed to it, and asserted so absolutely its triumphant superiority. Henceforth to Paul Christianity was summed up in the one word Christ.

And to what does he testify respecting Jesus? To almost every single primarily important fact respecting His Incarnation, Life, Sufferings, Betrayal, Last Supper, Trial, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Heavenly Exaltation. We complain that nearly two thousand years have passed away, and that the brightness of historical events is apt to fade, and even their very outline to be obliterated, as they sink into the “dark backward and abysm of time.” Well, but are we more keen-sighted, more hostile, more eager to disprove the evidence, than the consummate legalist, the admired rabbi, the commissioner of the Sanhedrin, the leading intellect in the schools—learned as Hillel, patriotic as Judas of Gaulon, burning with zeal for the Law as intense as that of Shammai?

He was not separated from the events, as we are, by centuries of time. He was not liable to be blinded, as we are, by the dazzling glamour of a victorious Christendom. He had mingled daily with men who had watched from Bethlehem to Golgotha the life of the Crucified,—not only with His simple-hearted followers, but with His learned and powerful enemies. He had talked with the priests who had consigned Him to the cross; he had put to death the followers who had wept beside His tomb. He had to face the unutterable horror which, to any orthodox Jew, was involved in the thought of a Messiah who “had hung upon a tree.”

He had heard again and again the proofs which satisfied an Annas and a Gamaliel that Jesus was a deceiver of the people. The events on which the Apostles relied, in proof of His divinity, had taken place in the full blaze of contemporary knowledge. He had not to deal with uncertainties of criticism or assaults on authenticity. He could question, not ancient documents, but living men; he could analyse, not fragmentary records, but existing evidence. He had thousands of means close at hand whereby to test the reality or unreality of the Resurrection in which, unto this time, he had so passionately and contemptuously disbelieved. In accepting this half-crushed and wholly execrated faith he had everything in the world to lose—he had nothing conceivable to gain; and yet, in spite of all—overwhelmed by a conviction which he felt to be irresistible—Saul, the Pharisee, became a witness of the Resurrection, a preacher of the Cross.”

-The life and work of St. Paul, Volume 1, By Frederic William Farrar pp 114-115

The Very Idea of a Resurrection Part 2

Caravaggio Doubting Thomas

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Not long  ago, I shared some of the evidences that point to the historicity of the resurrection. I recommend you to read my original post before you continue on if you haven’t already.  In a nutshell, the case for the resurrection is built on a few historical facts that nearly all of modern scholarship accepts, even some of the more skeptical critics.

As a friendly reminder: This is not an argument for the general reliability of the New Testament, but rather these facts come from historians who treat the Bible like any other ancient historical document.  (I’ll point out that I do personally believe in the inspiration of scripture, but that’s not what I’m arguing for now). With that in mind, here are a few of the facts they accept about what happened shortly after the crucifixion for review:

  1. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by several of his followers.
  2. His followers believed they experienced appearances of the risen Jesus. Paul persecuted the church, and James was a skeptic. Both were converted because of postmortem appearances of Jesus.
  3. The origin of the Christian movement.

The resurrection hypothesis fits all these facts nicely, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been any objections made to the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead. Obviously, if Jesus really did rise from the dead by a divine miracle, the implications are…well…pretty huge, and for many that’s an unwelcome thought.

Critics driven by an earlier commitment to naturalism – that is the view that nothing but natural laws work in the world -  have suggested different naturalistic hypotheses to fit the evidence over the years. However, due to a lack of overall cogency of these alternative explanations, most of these opposing theories have been set aside.

For the sake of time, I’ll list out the major ones here and address why they don’t really work in a rather terse way. If you’d like me to discuss any of these more in greater detail, just ask in the comments and I’d be happy to oblige.

Jesus wasn’t really dead, AKA “the Swoon Theory”

  • The Journal of American Medical Association helped put this to bed. The Roman executioners knew their job and performed it well.
  • A half-dead Jesus isn’t going to convince his own followers he’s the triumphant Lord over death. And he certainly wouldn’t convince skeptics like Paul or James. They wouldn’t have seen him as the risen Lord, but as someone in desperate need of medical aid.

The Resurrection is just a parabolic legend not meant to be taken literally

  • Most scholars agree that the gospels are written in a historical genre.
  • The Jesus leaders took the disciple’s belief in the resurrection seriously enough that they claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body in response to the movement. That presupposes an empty tomb, which this theory doesn’t explain.
  • Parabolic legends wouldn’t have convinced the church persecutor Paul or the skeptic James.
  • It seems strange to die for something that you essentially know is a lie or a fanciful parable. The disciples were willing to suffer and die for what they saw.
  • The resurrection was preached from the outset. (e.g. the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, the sermon summaries in the Book of Acts). The story is too early to allow for legend.

The appearances were hallucinations

  • Appearances were to individuals, skeptics and most notably groups. Group hallucinations aren’t possible.
  • Hallucinations can’t account for the empty tomb.

The disciples stole the body

  • Liars make terrible martyrs. What did they gain out of it? Persecution, affliction, torture.
  • Paul and James’ faith was based on appearances.

The disciples went to the wrong tomb

  • The burial story is well established. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb would have been a well-known site.
  • The disciples faith – including the converted skeptics – were based on appearances, not the empty tomb.

Could any of these stories be joined to account for the evidence? I suppose they could, but when you have to combine extraneous hypotheses to your theory to save it from being falsified, you’re usually not doing yourself any favors. Also, when you assign a certain percentage of chance to a theory and then have to combine it to another, the probability of the various theories all being true goes down, not up.  For example:

  • The women and disciples went to the wrong tomb – 60% likelihood.
  • The disciples later hallucinated appearances – 60%
  • Paul suffered some sort of conversion disorder – 60%

(.6 x .6 x .6) =21.6% likelihood. So combining different theories to fit the evidence doesn’t help.

The existential value

Some say that faith is a blind leap in the dark, but  in light of the historical evidence, it seems pretty rational to accept the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. I remember being a skeptic and reading 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the resurrection appearances years ago and thinking how different these sorts of claims were when compared to other religions. I mean, citing that nearly 500 living witnesses who could be questioned upon request wasn’t the typical “just have faith” type of response I may have heard.

Part of me didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t really want to rearrange my lifestyle or view of the world. But part of me this was wildly appealing. If Jesus was resurrected, then there was hope in this life and in the one hereafter. Quoting Paul

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

If Christianity was true, then there was meaning to life and life beyond death. This was in stark contrast to some of the nihilistic rap music from the likes of 2pac I was baptizing my mind with as a teenager.

I see death around the corner, any day
Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway
Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die
Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes
In a ball of confusion, I think about my daddy
Madder than a ****, they never shoulda had me

Rather than facing the absurdity of life without God and embracing its “unyielding despair” as the famed atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, the man from Galilee called himself the Resurrection and the Life and then backed it up. If Christianity has any chance of being true – and there is plenty of justification in believing that to be the case – then I believe it is worth accepting, or at the very least, taking a hard look at.  Hopefully what I’ve shared helps remove a few intellectual barriers that one might have.

In a future posts, I hope to discuss objections to miracles and the exclusivity of Christianity.

The very idea of a resurrection

Not Jesus' tomb, but a tomb none the less.

Image by callmetim via Flickr

I’ll be the first to admit it – the very idea of a resurrection, naturally speaking, is a pretty zany idea. (Yes, I said zany) It’s seen an affront on our modern sensibilities. Dead people simply do not come back to life after three days. So it seems crazy to some that Christians hang their faith on such an improbable event that supposedly happened in history.

But really, that is actually just a philosophical objection to miracles. It’s one I used to have, and I believe it’s worth answering. I’ll attempt to do so in a future post. But for now, believe it or not, regardless of what one thinks philosophically about miracles, there is actually some very solid historical evidence that backs up the claim of Jesus’ resurrection without appealing to Biblical inerrancy or special revelation. Rather historians approach the bible as any other work of ancient antiquity. Contemporary historical scholarship – liberal, moderate and conservative – share in common the acceptance of some bare facts about what happened after Jesus was crucified that might surprise you.  So what are these facts? There are actually several, but for now I’ll give just three.

1. The empty tomb

This fact is a little more contested, but Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University has compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. 75% agree to the empty tomb of Jesus. There are many reasons why they do, I’ll lay out three here.

  1. Christianity started and spread like wildfire in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was buried. The Jews and Romans both did not appreciate this young, new movement at all, which is exactly why they crucified Jesus. All they needed to do was produce a body and it would’ve ended it right there, or at the very least, ended it for the majority of Christians who would then begin to doubt the apostles claim of seeing the tomb empty.
  2. Stronger still, the enemies of Jesus did not contest that the tomb was empty. In fact, Matthew 28:15 tells us that the earliest Jewish response was to accuse the disciples of stealing the body.  Think about that for a second. Rather than just pointing to where Jesus was buried and just have a good laugh at the disciples’ expense, their opponents themselves admit the tomb was empty by saying the disciples stole the body.
  3. Women, of all people, were the first to report the empty tomb to the disciples and written in the gospels. In that day making up such a story would actually hurt their case, because women were second class citizens and were treated more like property than people. Take for instance such rabbinic sayings found in the Talmud, such as “blessed is he whose children are male, but cursed is he whose children are female”, or “sooner let the words of the Law be burnt, then to be delivered to the hands of women”. The famous Jewish historian Josephus notes that women’s testimony was not accepted in court. If the story was made up, the disciples would’ve reported themselves as the first witnesses of the empty tomb, and not damage their own case with this embarrassing admission.

2. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.

On multiple occasions and under different circumstances, people and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This fact is virtually undisputed among contemporary scholarship, even from among the most skeptical of scholars such as Gerd Lüdemann.

For one, we have Paul, who became a convert to Christianity after persecuting the church based on an experience with the risen Christ. He claimed the disciples saw the risen Christ.  Secondly, we have extremely early evidence of an oral tradition being passed along from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 which says:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

Scholars believe this is a creed because of its style and non-Pauline language.  Paul converted around 1-3 years after the crucifixion.  This creed probably goes back at least to Paul’s fact-finding visit to Jerusalem around AD 36, when he spent two weeks with Peter and James (see Galatians 1:18-2:9).  At the very latest, he could have had it no later than when he visited the Corinthians in 51 AD. So this is extremely early source data, stuff historians geek over. It’s definitely far too early for legendary development.

Finally, no matter what critics think of the gospels, we also have them as source data of what the disciples believed they had saw written within 25-60 years after the fact.

Most importantly, we know they believed it. We have several ancient sources that show the disciples willingness to suffer and die for their claim. While people convert to different religions all the time, and may indeed be willing to die for their beliefs, the disciples would have known what they were suffering for was a lie or not. And liars tend to make bad martyrs.

3. The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent several alterations that are unexplainable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

These mostly come from historian N.T. Wright, and they are listed as follows.

  1. Jews had a long-going debate of the nature of the afterlife and resurrection. You can see this reflected in Jesus’ own time. The Sadducees believed there was no resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection (and Jesus sided with them) and that it would happen on the last day. There was no debate within the Christian community after the resurrection: You go to heaven when you die and then get a body identical to Jesus’ resurrection body on Judgment Day.
  2. Resurrection goes from a peripheral issue in Judaism to a central one in Christianity.
  3. There is also a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being ‘born again’. The spirit of a person is already resurrected upon believing upon Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11). The body one day will be resurrected.
  4. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. The Jewish Messiah was not thought to ever die, which is why they all abandoned Jesus, and why Peter went so far as to deny him.
  5. The idea of a single man resurrecting from the dead before the ‘last day’ was an entirely new idea.  Now Jesus is the “firstfruits” of those who rise.
  6. The Christians had a new eschatology which centered around the return of Christ.
  7. The concept of a suffering Messiah, bearing the sins of the world becomes part of the central message. This was a foreign idea before.

All told, these facts are rather inexplicable and naturalistic explanations don’t offer a full explanatory scope for them. In fact, most naturalistic explanations that have been contrived over the years have fallen by the wayside. The inference to the best explanation, whether we like it or not, is that the resurrection actually happened. The reason those who deny it does not seem to based on historical information, but because of their own presuppositions.

In future posts I’ll discuss some of the competing explanations and then we’ll deal with the so-called problem of miracles.