Recent events such as the national conversation around sexual assault against women, as well as the Victorian government’s response to the pandemic, give good grounds for trusting the resurrection narratives; they can also serve as talking points with sceptics for further investigation.
For the mainstream of our society today, the claim that Jesus rose again from the dead is absurd. Dead people do not just return to life. And yet, for 2,000 years this is precisely what Christians believe and celebrate not just on Easter Sunday but every Sunday.
This claim may appear to sceptics like wishful thinking, but the nature of the claim and the reasons behind it are anything but. Christians generally know that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical claim upon which everything rests. Like a hook in a wall upholding a frame, the resurrection of Jesus keeps the whole religion in place. Remove the hook and the whole thing falls. That Jesus rose from the dead is a falsifiable claim. It is not a mere wish.
The validity of the woman’s voice adds weight to the resurrection narrative
Contrary to some Christian apologists I do not think the resurrection can be proven absolutely from history. To come to believe that God physically raised Jesus from the dead is not a purely historical matter. History needs to be combined with philosophical arguments as well as existential commitments.
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So, my aim is not to offer undeniable proof of the resurrection or something you can share with your non-Christian relatives around the Easter get-together that will 100 per cent convert them.
Rather, my aim in this piece is to demonstrate how recent national events can bolster our confidence in the Gospels and the resurrection narratives. This comparison between the resurrection narratives and the recent events could potentially motivate your sceptical friends or relatives to investigate the possibility of the resurrection of Jesus further.
It will probably not convince committed atheists; but, for those who are at least open to the possibility that God may exist and be involved in the world, it could compel them to give this whole Christianity thing some serious thought.
The Gospels are historical writings, written at specific times and places in the first century, that claim that Jesus rose from the dead. I want to highlight two aspects of their historical setting: 1. This claim is staked upon the testimony of women; and 2. The four different Gospels portray remarkable unity around the basic facts of the claim. Both points have appeared in a lot of apologetic writings, but they deserve renewed consideration after some of the events that made our national headlines in the past few years.
One event is the reckoning our nation had to do with victims and survivors—particularly women—of sexual assault. This conversation was triggered by the rape of Brittany Higgins in Parliament.
In the immediate aftermath, Julia Baird wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald quoting the 1975 words of feminist Susan Brownmiller: “the reality of rape is that victimised women have always been reluctant to report the crime … because of the shame of public exposure, because of that complex double standard that makes a female feel culpable, even responsible, for any act of sexual aggression committed against her”. Brownmiller’s words from nearly 50 years ago could just as easily describe what many women face today.
Even though we live in a stable country where women enjoy rare privileges and freedoms compared to the Majority World, they all too often are not believed after experiencing sexual assault. 90 per cent of sexual assault victims do not report their abuse because they fear not being believed.
Why would the Evangelists stake their claims of the resurrection upon the testimony of women?
We are far from being a perfect society, but modern-day Australia is so much better for women than the first century. In Jesus’ day, a woman’s testimony was not admissible in court. The popular science of Greek philosophy regarded women as ‘deformed males.’
One prayer Jews prayed in the morning goes: “Blessed are you, O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” And female slaves who were used for sex against their will were not actually raped, since you cannot rape what society deems is merely property that breathes.
And when the rape of a woman was considered a crime, it was largely prosecuted on the grounds that it brought dishonour to the husband/slaveowner, not harm to the woman.
In this kind of world, why would the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) stake their claims of the resurrection upon the testimony of women? If the earliest Christians wanted their stories believed, why base it upon the voice of the one group that is voiceless?
Why herald the greatest news ever—that death is defeated—through the mouths of those who are silenced? In Luke’s Gospel we are even told that Jesus’ own first followers dismissed the womens’ claims about the resurrection as “silly tales” (Luke 24:11).
The past few years our nation had to confront the truth that women face many obstacles when it comes to reporting sexual assault. For so many, the obstacles are simply not worth the time and effort. If women still experience this during one of the most advanced and progressed stages of global history, just imagine what it was like for women in the first century; a world that looked a lot more like the one we see today at the border between Russia and Ukraine, and a lot less like Australia.
If you truly understand the patriarchal world of the first century, the idea that the earliest followers of Jesus simply made up the story and then made a few women its main heralds—well, that is almost as absurd as a resurrection from the dead in a random, materialistic universe.
To paraphrase a saying, this is so crazy it just might be true; or at least deserve further investigation before dismissal.
Witness accounts lack consistency in history and in the present
The second feature of the resurrection accounts, mentioned above, is the basic unity each of them shares with each other. Of course, there also are some differences.
Depending on which Gospel you read, the women either arrive at the tomb to find the stone rolled away (Mark 16:4), or it happens only after an angel descends and rolls it away himself (Matthew 28:2). According to Matthew and Mark, there was only one angel (Matthew 28:2; 16:5), but Luke and John record two (Luke 24:4; John 20:12) and so on.
I have read many sceptics dismiss the resurrection accounts, and the Gospels themselves, as unreliable for small differences just like these. Such differences however should not concern Christians, and certainly should not be the reason someone rejects the resurrection as at least a possibility. This should be so especially for Victorians who were “lucky” to suffer through the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown. This is because Victorians learnt that differences in testimonies do not actually prove that something did not happen.
The Victorian Inquiry into COVID-19 Quarantine Hotels – he said/she said
Two years ago, as Victoria endured the bitterness of the second lockdown, the million-dollar question in town was, “Who hired private security in the quarantine hotels?” After all, it was these security guards who caught COVID-19 and spread it into the community.
To answer this question, the Andrews Government set up the “Inquiry into COVID-19 Quarantine Hotels”. However, it was unable to provide an answer. Every senior MP and public servant involved with the state’s response to COVID-19 and who fronted the inquiry answered, “I don’t know”. This included the Chief Health Officer, the Health Minister, and even the Premier himself.
Still, the one thing we do know is that private security was hired.
When I think about the Inquiry into COVID-19 Quarantine Hotels, it just seems so strange that it was not able to discover which person or department made the decision to employ private security. It is strange because in today’s world, everyone is literate. And in the public sector every single email and text message is recorded and stored, and every decision goes through several stages of approval.
And yet, the Inquiry revealed that we still have disagreements, different accounts, and ignorance. Even a state-funded multi-million-dollar inquiry cannot sort through all the information to answer a basic question.
Still, the one thing we do know is that private security was hired. No matter how many different people may offer stories with different details, claim ignorance, or even conflicting testimonies, that in itself does not mean the fundamental event in question did not happen. Private security was hired.
The commonality of Gospel accounts of the resurrection
When we come to the Gospels and their accounts of the resurrection, it is remarkable how much agreement we do have between them even though each was written by a different author in a different setting.
Each account assumes some basic facts: One or more women visited the tomb on early Sunday morning but found it empty. One or more angels appeared to her/them, and in time Jesus himself. She/They informed the disciples, who eventually themselves saw the risen Jesus; or at least believe they did.
Some differences in the stories … does not mean the resurrection itself did not happen
This is all the more remarkable when we remember that the ancient world was largely illiterate, writing instruments and education were a privilege enjoyed by the elite, and that there were no databases to store information. And while there are some differences in the stories, that in itself does not mean the resurrection itself did not happen. In fact, the sort of small differences they have actually make it more believable. There is, after all, a story too polished to be true.
The Infinite Importance of the Resurrection
I mentioned at the start that this is not irrefutable proof that Jesus rose from the dead. It is impossible to prove from history alone that this happened. For that we need history plus philosophy. However, I do think that for those who are on the fence about God and the resurrection there is enough here to warrant further engagement. And there is every reason to do so.
Although it seems that we have escaped the pandemic, we obviously cannot escape death. Helicopters still crash, celebrities, politicians, and sports legends still die suddenly, and we are not promised anything beyond the present moment.
To paraphrase what C.S. Lewis once said, if the resurrection is false, it is of no importance, and if it is true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important. The resurrection of Jesus, if true, is the only hope against the cold clasp of death. It is worth investigating.
When we consider the resurrection accounts and the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, a claim staked upon the testimony of first century women, and which is retold by different authors in different contexts with remarkable unity, it just almost seems too crazy to be made up.
Sharing this with our friends and family could potentially get them to entertain the possibility of the resurrection further before they dismiss it entirely.
The Reverend Patrick Senn is an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Melbourne. He currently is part of the ministry team at Merri Creek Anglican Church in the inner-north of Melbourne.
 Michael Licona makes the same argument with the great fire of Rome. Just because different ancient historians report different causes of the fire, that does not mean it did not happen. See Michael Licona, ‘Fish Tales: Bart Ehrman’s Red Herrings and the Resurrection of Jesus’, in Come Let us Reason Together: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, eds. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012), chapter 9.