How do we explain the rise of Christianity? Was it a hoax perpetrated by the disciples or the persuasive charms of a charismatic leader?
One cannot hope to explain away the Resurrection without also explaining the sudden rise of the Christian movement. The two go hand in hand. Likewise, one cannot examine the sudden rise of Christianity without assessing its cultural context.
Critics have explained the rise of Christianity in several ways. Was it a hoax perpetrated by the disciples or did the disciples really believe it? Perhaps whether they believed it or not was inconsequential, what mattered was that they shared the information of their leader’s supposed resurrection and it spread like wildfire. We may anticipate an argument along the lines of this,
“You only need one charismatic person to start a following that can then expand into a religion. We saw the same thing happening with cult leaders like Charles Manson and Jim Jones. Christianity probably started the same way, with one charismatic leader who stole the hearts of his followers, resulting in them believing he was God, thus denying reality and proclaiming that he had risen from the dead. They were convined he rose and then convinced others of the same.”
This is an easy explanation to default to as we have many examples of this happening today and in recent history. Why can’t the rise of Christianity be explained the same way? After all, people often idolize celebrity figures after they’ve passed away. We’re always looking outside of ourselves for someone we can look up to. Does Christianity succumb to the same error of thinking?
Once again this picture is missing something crucial. You guessed it: the cultural context. Were the ancients the type of people who were persuaded by a simple word? Were the Jews, at the time of Jesus in particular, searching for a figure to idolize and look up to? Were even open to the possibility? It will do no good to merely assume they were, considering we have good reasons to believe just the opposite. Let’s retread our steps and quote two lines from previous posts in this series.
It isn’t reasonable to assume that the thief would be a Jew, either, since Jews of the first century saw themselves as those who were in some ways exiled in their homeland. As a result, they committed themselves to follow the law. This was the reason groups like the Pharisees formed; they got so lost in their well-meaning pursuit of redemption that their hearts became hardened. (From the Empty Tomb: The Stolen Body Theory)
I believe the reason this sort of progression is assumed by skeptics today is because a physical resurrection from the dead is much too surreal and unbelievable. On the other hand, we can easier explain a spiritual resurrection appearance as a product of mental delusion. If we think that way, surely the ancients did too. The problem is that the ancients did not share that same view. We should not anachronistically impose our modern perception onto them for to the ancients it was all about doctrine. (From How Do We Define The Resurrection? Pt. 2 Paul and 1 Corinthians 15)
Would the Jews be ready and willing to jump onto the bandwagon of a charismatic leader when such an action directly violated their law? (Exodus 20:3) Or would they believe the word of the disciples when it had first appeared blasphemous, especially when their leader now bore the mark of shame following His death and burial? Skeptics all too readily assume that the ancients were given to any and every superstition under the sun if it sounded good. But therein lies the problem: Christianity did not sound good. It offended every ideal the ancients held. We cannot simply stop at the assumption that Christianity began much like the cults of today. When given its due weight, the social climate surrounding the Christian movement must be addressed and critics must provide a probable and evidentially based reason-apart from Jesus having actually risen from the dead-that it would be believed at all. The argument above may be an interesting story, but it merely assumes what is yet to be proven.
This is why we find a lot of meaning in the martyrdom of the early apostles. This popular apologetic is best summed up by this quote from Charles Colson.
“I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.”
This is a sound and valuable apologetic but we have a few things to add. By itself, it doesn’t prove that the Resurrection actually happened, but this isn’t much of a problem since that isn’t our main focus anyway. The immediate response to this apologetic often goes like this,
“Even if someone believes something to be true it does not necessarily mean that it really is true. Look at the Islamist terrorists who sacrifice themselves for Allah. They believe their religion is true, but that doesn’t mean it is.”
This is a response we’d agree with. Even if the disciples believed with every fibre of their being that Jesus had risen from the dead it could still be possible, perhaps even plausible, that it wasn’t true. But how they believed it is not what interests us. It is the why we are interested in. The why is what illuminates the difference between the Muslims and the Christians. The how gets us caught in the similarities.
When Islamic terrorists sacrifice their lives for their religion they do it because they believe what they’ve been told (we mustn’t simply assume gullibility here for there is also an extreme social pressure in the Middle East to believe in Allah and the Quran. Rejecting it can, and has, resulted in death). The Jews didn’t start from a place of non-belief, they had their foundation rooted in Judaism and a law written down in the Torah. This is why it is important to note that Christianity wasn’t a new religion. It was a fulfillment and revision of the old; a revelation of God’s true plan and purpose. Nothing can explain this sudden change apart from the actual fulfillment of God’s plan: God becoming man incarnate, giving His life for the atonement of our sins thus fulfilling the Old Covenant, and defeating death and its curse in His resurrection. Jesus’ death and resurrection was a complete upheaval of the Jewish faith (hence the formation of the New Covenant) and a shock that spread throughout the world. On the other hand Islamic terrorists are established very early on and those beliefs remain the same. There is simply no comparison between the two. The how is the same but the why is completely at odds.
Turning back to Colson’s apologetic we note that it also somewhat overstates the occurrence of martyrdom. The thought remains the same but emphasis should instead be placed on the extensive social persecution Christianity’s followers would have had to endure. The threat of both social and physical persecution would have been enough to scare anyone away (as we saw with Peter in the Sanhedrin’s court).
Furthermore, since the disciples were persons of Jewish heritage, the stakes were far higher for them, as Paul articulates in 1 Corinthians 15:16,
Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.
If the Resurrection was a lie they would have been bearing false witness to others and particularly to YHWH. The disciples would have known that proclaiming a lie, even if done with good intentions (to restore their rabbi’s reputation), meant eternal damnation for an abhorrent blasphemy.
This is all an extremely brief summary of why the social climate surrounding the rise of Christianity is such an important aspect of our investigation. Alternative arguments cannot merely assume that the people of the past lived and thought the same way we do. We have no shortage of examples regarding dangerous cults, charismatic leaders, and their followers today, but fitting them onto the people of the first century is like trying to fit a square through a round hole.