A number of atheists who haunt apologetic groups on Facebook commented on my Easter post regarding the The Five Most Common Objections to the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. I try not to argue with people on social media as it is rarely productive but I will try to respond to a few of the challenges here.
One skeptic asserted the disciples fabricated the New Testament to reinforce their “apocalyptic hopes.” In other words, this gentleman argued the disciples simply couldn’t let go of the hope they had placed in Jesus and that he would usher in a new age.
I certainly agree the disciples hoped Jesus would inaugurate the reign of God on earth. But this gent has failed to take a good look at ancient Judaism under the yoke of Rome.
The disciples, like nearly all Jews who weren’t cozying up to the empire, hoped and prayed for a military messiah who would lead them in a successful revolution just as Judas Maccabeus had done against Greece more than 150 years before the birth of Christ. One ancient Jewish author longed for a time when a new David would come and the Israelites would ‘rule over the Gentiles like Adam ruled over the animals.’
There is a reason the crowds, who applauded Jesus during his entry into Jerusalem (21:6-10) turned on him once he had been arrested (27:22-23)–he appeared to them to be a failure. 1st Century Jews wanted a liberator not a martyr. When Jesus gave himself over to the authorities, the disciples scattered (Matt. 25:56) (not a flattering portrait in an honor/shame culture) for the same reason. The actions of the disciples and the crowds were typical of that culture for Jesus was headed for the cross and, as historian N.T. Wright pointed out, “a dead messiah was a failed messiah.”
The disciples’ apocalyptic hopes would have certainly been crushed but they were no different than the other Jewish men of their day, so, even apart from Scripture, we can learn how they would have reacted from other early messianic movements.
Around 135 A.D., Simon Bar Kokhba died after leading a failed revolt against Rome. Kokhba had been declared the messiah by Rabbi Akiva. Israelites even minted coins declaring the beginning of Bar Kokhba’s rebellion “Year One.” To steal a phrase from Ron Burgandy, Bar Kokhba was a really big deal. Yet, after the war was over no one claimed Simon rose from the dead. We don’t see people wearing “What Would Bar Kokhba Do?” bracelets or flip by contemporary Bar Kokhba radio stations for a reason–dead messiahs were failed messiahs and their followers simply walked away.
Another skeptic argued the disciples fabricated the resurrection to create a new religion in order to control people. It is true that disturbed individuals throughout history have used religion for their own gain. Harlan Ellison swore his fellow sci-fi author L. Ron Hubbard became agitated at a convention and grumbled something along the lines of, “Heck with this! I’m going to start my own religion.” Hubbard then began picking off naive stars in Hollywood with “scientology.” But what the skeptic overlooked is that historically when a religion is invented to control others it is wholly the creation of a megalomaniacal individual not a group. Moreover, these groups become insular so that the individual leader can exercise greater control but the early church was exactly the opposite! It was scattered across the world away from the eyes of the founders with their blessing!
In the end, the disciples simply had no motive to fabricate the resurrection of Jesus. Their bold claims to witnessing the resurrected Christ cost them fellowship with fellow Jews and eventually their lives. Historically when those who lie about something are threatened they quickly confess to their attempted deception but that didn’t happen. All the evidence points to an empty tomb.