Here is the brick wall that I ran into when, as a devout, conservative Christian, I started investigating the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus:
The Apostle Paul never claims to have been an eyewitness to the Resurrection. His claim of seeing “the Christ” was based on a “heavenly vision”, as he describes it, in Acts chapter 26, in which he briefly sees a bright light that speaks to him on the Road to Damascus. Many thousands of people, over the last 2,000 years, have had visions of Jesus appearing to them and speaking to them. If you talk to these people they will swear on a stack of Bibles that their experience was not a dream or hallucination; Jesus really did appear, in person, in a body, to them.
Do we believe that these thousands of people have really seen “the Christ’? So why if we doubt these people do we believe Paul? Just because he had a radical conversion? There is an orthodox, Jewish rabbi and settler in Israel today who recently converted to ISLAM and became a very conservative Muslim imam! Strange conversions do happen. Radical conversions do not prove that your vision of seeing a god is true. (Hint, hint, Mohammad and Joseph Smith)
Therefore, if we go looking for evidence for the Resurrection, it seems that all of Christianity’s “eye-witness” evidence is based on the writings of the authors of the Gospels.
But, who wrote the Gospels? Where were they written? For whom were they written? And most importantly, for what PURPOSE were they written? Three of the Gospels seem to use the first gospel written, “Mark”, as a template. So what is more likely:
1. A first century Jewish prophet lies dead in his grave for three days and then miraculously walks out of his grave with a transformed (superman-like) body, appears to his friends, and levitates into space forty days later…
2. After the crucifixion, the Romans dump the corpse of Jesus into an unmarked, common grave with other criminals, as was the Roman custom. No one but these soldiers will ever know the final resting place of Jesus.
Jesus’ disciples are devastated. They had expected to rule with Jesus in the New Kingdom. Their hopes and dreams are completely shattered. Depressed and without hope, they return to their lives as fishermen in Galilee. Then, days or weeks or months or several years later, someone, or maybe a group of women, “see” Jesus in the distance or in a crowd for a brief few moments. They return and tell the disciples…”Jesus is risen just as he said he would! We saw him with our own eyes!” The disciples’ hearts leap for joy! Some of them begin to “see” Jesus too, in visions, or in “sightings”. Within a very short period of time, all of Jesus disciples believe that Jesus has risen and has appeared to THEM.
Over the next 35-45 years, the story grows, each time it is retold, in each new city, and in each new country. One day, a Greek-speaking Christian in Rome, in approximately 70 AD, a professional writer by trade, decides to write down the version of the Jesus story that is circulating in Rome (or Antioch, or wherever the author of “Mark” lived). His book includes stories of Jesus baptism, his miracles, his betrayal, his crucifixion, and an empty tomb…but no post-resurrection appearances or birth narrative.
Over the next few years, this book finds its way into the hands of other Christians who make hand-written copies of it. At about the same time, someone else has written down another version of the story. This version is “Q”. So “Mark” and “Q” are being copied and circulated among the Christians of the Roman world in the 70’s and 80’s AD. By this time, Jerusalem is in ruins. It was sacked and destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Any witnesses are dead or taken away by the Romans into slavery. So once these hand copied books finally make their way from Rome or Antioch or wherever they were written, to Palestine, who is going to be around to say, “Hey. That didn’t happen! There was no tomb!”
Then in the 70’s or 80’s, someone else writes a “gospel”. But this author uses 70% of Mark, many times word for word, in his book, and also uses “Q” as a source. This book we will call “M”. And a few years after that, someone writes another gospel, this time using “Mark” and “Q” again. We will call this gospel, “L”.
Then, near the end of the century, another gospel appears that seems loosely framed on “Mark” but with Jesus doing and saying things he never says in the three earlier gospels.
Remember, Paul tells us only that “the Christ” was crucified, buried, and rose on the third day and that he was born of a woman. Paul also recounts the Words of Institution for the Lord’s Supper. But that is really all that Paul tells us about Jesus. It is as if Paul knows nothing about the historical Jesus. No mention of his birth in Bethlehem, no mention of his miracles, no details of the crucifixion or resurrection, other than a list of “witnesses” that seems oddly incorrect (Cephas was not the first male disciple to see Jesus).
Papias, whom Eusebius considered to be a dimwit, makes a brief reference in circa 130 AD that a “presbyter John” had told him that John Mark, Peter’s companion, had written a gospel, but Papias makes no reference to any specifics of this gospel to clearly identify it as one and the same as the gospel later ascribed to John Mark.
Then, in 180 AD, Irenaeus, a heretic-hunting bishop in France, declares to the world that “Matthew”, “Mark”, “Luke”, and “John”—two of the original Twelve, one associate of Peter, and one associate of Paul, are the authors of these works, and declares them to be the inspired Word of God.
Is that really “evidence”??