Text: John 20 | Listen to Message
Isn’t It Just A Legend?
There are a number of reasons why people say they cannot believe in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some of these objections, at least on the surface, are rational barriers: “Hasn’t science proven that a dead person can’t come back to life after a few days?” Other objections stem from personal barriers: “If Jesus is alive, then why have I gone through such painful, traumatic experiences in my life?”
But many skeptics today have never really thought it through and reasoned it out. Most have never even attempted to put together an alternate explanation for what happened surrounding the death, burial, and subsequently empty tomb of the historic figure, Jesus of Nazareth. They simply say something like this: “Obviously, this is just a made-up legend. The disciples of Jesus invented this myth because they wanted to control people’s lives through a new religion they called Christianity.”
The second part of this is fairly absurd on its face. If a group of uneducated First Century Jews were making up a new religion, the Gospels are the very sort of thing they would never write! An accursed, crucified Messiah who genuinely seemed to prefer the weak, the broken, and the ostracized over those within the wealthy and powerful religious establishment? Never!
But what about the claim that the Resurrection story is simply a legend?
1. It’s too early to be legend.
Perhaps you can begin to misrepresent public, historic events 50 or 100 years after the fact – after all the eyewitnesses have died off. But 20 years later?
To put that in perspective, Princess Diana died 20 years ago – in 1997. Now imagine that someone today wrote a book claiming that hundreds of people saw her walking around Paris for weeks after her death. There would be an immediate backlash! Others would write about how ahistorical and absurd this is!
Yet immediately after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was an oral tradition going around that lots and lots of people were seeing him – the real, bodily him with scars and everything. Within about 20 years, the Gospel of Mark was written and distributed. Hundreds of eyewitnesses were still alive…yet none of them came forward to refute the claims of the early Christian Church that Jesus was alive.
2. It’s too detailed to be legend.
If you read the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection, you’ll encounter a lot of interesting details that add nothing to the essential storyline. For example, it’s not really all that important that one disciple outran the other on the way to the tomb (John 20:4), or that they had to stoop to look in (John 20:5), or that some of Jesus’ burial clothes were folded neatly instead of being crumpled up in a pile (John 20:7).
These details are important because no one in the ancient world wrote fictional literature like this. A former tax collector and fishermen certainly didn’t write fiction like this. The only thing written in this style were eyewitness accounts.
The highly esteemed British novelist C.S. Lewis put it like this: “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage…or else, some unknown [ancient] writer…without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative.” (“Fern-Seed and Elephants”)
3. It’s too counterproductive to be legend.
If the disciples were making this whole thing up to try to con people into believing and following them, they never would’ve written the Gospels the way they did. Consider just two things:
First, John 20:1 says that Mary Magdalene was the first eyewitness to the Resurrection. Now, in a patriarchal, misogynist society where women’s testimony was disregarded, what possible reason could there be for making Mary your star witness? But it gets worse! Luke 8:2 says Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven demons.
The Second Century Greek philosopher Celsus picked up on this in his scathing attack on Christianity, ridiculing the fact that “a hysterical female” was the first eyewitness to the Resurrection (apud Origen, Contra Celsum, 2.55.1). This is exactly the sort of thing you would never claim…unless, of course, it were true.
Secondly, consider the reaction of the disciples to the news of Jesus’ Resurrection. No one says, “Of course he’s risen, that’s exactly what he’s said would happen all along!” Not one of them reacts courageously or with anything that resembles childlike faith. They run and hide. Behind locked doors. Even after Jesus shows himself to ten of them, Thomas says, “I’ll never believe unless I see him for myself.”
Look, if you’re trying to write a believable story to get a new religion off the ground, and you’re trying to consolidate power and control for yourselves within that new religion, this is the very sort of thing you’d never admit: “Yeah, we didn’t believe either.” The Gospels are consistently way too counterproductive to be legend. A more plausible explanation is that they’re simply a record of what actually happened. And that’s why you get the embarrassingly bad anecdotes along with the good.
4. It’s too transformative to be legend.
This is the linchpin of the Resurrection for many people. How do you explain the complete, sudden transformation of all the disciples if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? How do you explain why, 7 weeks later, they’re boldly preaching the Gospel of Jesus in Jerusalem to many of the same Jews who demanded his crucifixion in the first place? How do you explain why 3,000 Orthodox Jews turned to faith in Jesus in a single day – in response to Peter claiming that they themselves had witnessed the death and Resurrection of Christ?
If the Jewish religious leaders or the Romans had stolen the body of Jesus, all they had to do to end this Christianity thing (which they despised!) was to produce his body and prove the disciples to be liars and frauds. If the disciples had gone Seal Team Six, slipped past the Roman guards, and stolen Jesus’ body from the tomb, how did the lies of a dead Jesus inspire them to go and change the world? [And why did they take the time to unwrap his body inside the tomb?] If Jesus himself was not raised, but was a dead body somewhere, why did they give their lives to be martyred for his demonstrably deceitful cause?
Japanese novelist Shūsaku Endō concludes, If you don’t believe in the Resurrection you’ll be “forced to believe that what did hit the disciples was some other amazing event different in kind yet of equal force in its electrifying intensity.” New Yorker Tim Keller agrees: “If we try to explain the changed lives of the early Christians, we may find ourselves making leaps of faith as great as if we believed in the resurrection itself.” (A Life of Jesus, quoted in Making Sense of God: An Invitation to The Skeptical, p. 244)
See, Christians don’t believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ contrary to the evidence. Many of us have wrestled long and hard with the evidence. And we’ve come to the conclusion that the most plausible explanation that accounts for all available facts and patterns is that the Gospels are true eyewitness accounts of what actually happened. Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and son of man, died on a cross for the forgiveness of our sins. 3 days later, the Father raised him back to life, proving once and for all that eternal life is found only in the name of Jesus.