Many conservative Christians assert that there is only one explanation for the “evidence” regarding the early Christian belief that Jesus was seen alive again after his crucifixion: a miraculous resurrection of his dead body by the power of Yahweh, the Hebrew/Christian God.
I disagree. I believe that there are numerous, much more probable, naturalistic explanations for the rise of the Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Here is one alternative, naturalistic explanation. I believe that it answers all the “evidence” and I challenge any Christian to prove that this explanation, or any detail therein, is “impossible”:
Jesus lived in first century Palestine. He got on the wrong side of the Jewish authorities; they asked the Romans to crucify him, which the Romans did.
Jesus body was left on the cross for days as a warning to other potential troublemakers, as was the Roman custom. At some point in time, the remains of his body were taken down and thrown into an unmarked, common dirt grave along with the remains of other executed criminals, as was the Roman custom. The site of the grave was known only to a few soldiers who quickly forgot about it.
Jesus’ small band of disciples were emotionally and psychologically devastated. They had expected to reign with Jesus in the New Kingdom after Jesus had driven out the hated Romans. Instead, their leader and friend was dead. All hope was lost. They returned to Galilee to take up their former jobs.
Days, weeks, or months later, a few of the female disciples of Jesus are sitting in a garden talking, they look up and see a man at the edge of the garden. “It’s Jesus!” they cry out. But the man quickly disappears into a crowd and they can not catch up to him. The man the women saw looked remarkably similar to Jesus. Was it Jesus or just someone who looked like Jesus? The women were sure it was Jesus, and run to tell the male disciples.
The male disciples at first do not believe, but when ALL the women swear it was Jesus, and describe the man’s physical appearance, they are overcome with joy. “He is risen!” Hope is restored in the small band of early Christians.
Days later Peter reports to the others that Jesus appeared to him (in a vision). Soon other disciples, and James the brother of Jesus, are having visions of Jesus or sightings of Jesus. The group is gripped with near hysteria. “The New Kingdom is near! We will soon reign on thrones with Jesus, as he promised!”
The once timid and spineless disciples are now courageous believers in the “Resurrected Jesus”, and begin preaching his message far and wide. The small band begins to grow as other (mostly) poor, hopeless, down-trodden peasants are told of the coming kingdom and of an afterlife living in mansions on streets lined with gold and rewarded for their faithfulness in this life with crowns studded with jewels. Christianity promises nothing but persecution and pain for a short time, but in the New Kingdom, and in the afterlife, which could come at any minute, they will be rich and forever happy!
A Jewish rabbi, Saul of Tarsus, also has a vision. In his vision, the Jesus whose followers he is persecuting, designates him as the most important of all Jesus’ apostles, and orders him to carry his message to all the world. Saul/Paul believes his vision is from God, and therefore obeys.
For a little over two centuries, Christianity grows, how much we cannot say for sure, but within a short time, there are Christian churches in almost every major city in the Roman world. Then, in circa 300 AD, the emperor of the Empire has his own vision of Jesus, and converts to the new faith. If he had had a vision of Mithras the world might be predominantly Mithrian today, but his vision was Christian…and the rest is history.
P.S. And just in case you believe that the empty tomb must be included in this story as indisputable evidence, as many conservative Christians claim, then you can make the following change to the above story and it will not alter the conclusion whatsoever:
The gospels’ account that Jesus was buried in the rock tomb of Jospeh of Aramathea did occur, but, the body was either moved or stolen, by someone, sometime before the women arrived Sunday morning…finding an empty tomb without any explanation. Then, the women see a man at the edge of the garden. “It’s Jesus!” …and the story above continues.