Mission Impossible: Defending the Resurrection

“...Christian preaching is empty...”

Careful, thorough study of Christianity’s ancient context provides an “Ah ha!” or “Uh oh” moment, depending on your perspective. For those who don’t accept Christian claims about its holy origins, it’s the former; for the devout, it’s the latter. The problem, of course, is that reality-based thinking about Christian origins doesn’t commonly trickle down to the folks in the pews, so they haven’t caught up with the news: the idea that Easter morning proves Christianity has been fatally wounded. Richard Carrier’s comprehensive essay, Dying-and-Rising Gods: It’s Pagan Guys. Get Over It provides the “Ah ha!’ moment for skeptics: dying-and-rising gods were celebrated by other cults in the ancient world. As Carrier has said, “Jesus was late to the party.”


That should settle the matter, right? Christian apologists will have none of it. They are convinced that the gospel resurrection stories prove Jesus is the one and only risen lord. But, alas, it’s no secret that those stories don’t bear close scrutiny; they’re a mess. Hence apologists have written endlessly to reconcile the four gospel accounts, Mark 16:1-8 [16:9-20 is the fake ending], Matthew 28, Luke 24, and John 20-21—and to defend them as plausible historical writings. It’s almost as if the Holy Spirit didn’t foresee a time—centuries down the road—when professional historians would notice that the resurrection stories fail as history, and explain exactly why. But centuries ago these stories got the job done, convincing folks that Jesus was the one-true-rising-god. Now Christian apologists are stuck with mission impossible.


Of course devout non-Christian theists dismiss the stories, and secular historians have risen to the challenge of answering what Robert Conner has called ERIC: “The Evangelical Resurrection Industrial Complex (ERIC) has churned out scores of scholarly tomes, hundreds of erudite disquisitions in professional journals, dissertations and commentaries, as well as debates and conferences beyond numbering, and the tsunami of dishonest verbiage shows no sign of receding.” (DCB, 6 September 2017) 


Apologists continue to defend, and secular scholars come right back at them. The most recent clobbering of the resurrection stories is the 2021 book by Jonathan MS Pearce, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story. He states the blunt truth as to why Christian apologists can’t let go of their cherished dying-and-rising god:


“…there is no doubt about the centrality that the death and Resurrection narrative has to the theology, and indeed the existence, of Christianity. Therefore, if one can show that the historical claims of the Easter story are highly dubious, that the most probable hypothesis is that it did not take place, then there are serious threats to Christianity as a worldview. Christian preaching is empty, the apostles are liars, there is no divine forgiveness for sin, there is no hope for those dying in belief in Christ, and we should pity Christians. And Jesus was probably just a man. That’s a pretty damning state of affairs. Christians really need the Resurrection to be true; they have a lot to lose.” (Kindle, loc 702)


Both the apostle Paul, who was sure that belief in the resurrection was a key to salvation (Romans 10:9), and the author of John’s gospel, who gave us the famous text, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” (John 1:19) helped secure the bedrock belief that Jesus Christ died to rescue us from the dire consequences of sin. But neither of these authors settled the issue of how that works, which has left Christian theologians to speculate endlessly.


Near the beginning of the book, Pearce has a 20-page chapter titled, “The Atonement: Why Bother?” He provides a tour of theological creativity: guesswork on why and how this human sacrifice did the trick, because, as Pearce states, “The theological problems involved with the atonement are legion. . .” (Kindle, loc 911) So theologians have stewed and fretted, trying to make a human sacrifice look respectable, but Pearce also raises the issue of why in the world resurrection should be taken seriously at all: 


“What is the prior probability of a god-figure being resurrected after dying, and of dead saints rising and parading around a city? Well, since no Christian, let alone skeptic believes any previous similar examples in those categories, then the probability of such a new claim being true, before evidence is evaluated, is exceptionally small indeed.” (Kindle loc 1297)


“But how can the Bible be wrong?” Apologists are obsessed with the idea that their god-inspired text tells a true story, so Pearce’s chapter “The Gospels: An Overview” is a solid introduction to the problems that these texts present. He describes the drawbacks of all four gospels, how they all fail—by a wide mark—to meet the standards of history. After this survey he states:


“The above points invalidate the four Gospels from being labelled reliable sources, and they are certainly not, by any stretch of the imagination, extraordinarily good evidence. We are starting now to understand why believing in the historical veracity of the Easter story is a thoroughly problematic enterprise.” (Kindle loc 1898)


Nor is there any comfort to be derived from the writings of the apostle Paul. Pearce has a 12-page chapter (9-The Silence of Paul) dealing with Paul’s unawareness of the cherished gospel stories about Jesus appearing alive on Easter morning. Of course, Paul bragged in Galatians 1:11-12 that he didn’t learn anything about Jesus from any human source, so we shouldn’t be surprised that he makes no mention whatever of an empty tomb, or the coming and going on Easter morning reported in the gospels. Paul received all his resurrected-lord insights directly from Jesus, reaching out to him from the spiritual realm. If Jesus planned to “inspire” the later gospel writers to write accurate stories about Easter morning, it seems strange that Jesus—during one of his private revelation visits to Paul—didn’t tell him exactly what happened on Eastern morning. But there is nothing whatever like that in Paul’s letters, a curious omission, as Pearce notes:


“Paul goes to length in persuading the reader of how important the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus was. Surely, then, to help persuade as the Gospel writers do, then mentioning the ‘facts’ about this event would have been vital.” (Kindle loc 2606) Pearce also quotes British theologian Geoffrey Lampe: “Had [Paul] known that the tomb was found empty it seems inconceivable that he should not have adduced this here as a telling piece of objective evidence.”


Later in the book, Pearce has a section titled Arguments for a Spiritual Resurrection, and here we have a perfectly sound explanation for why Paul and the gospels are so out of sync. It’s hard to make the case that Paul would have endorsed the idea that a revived body had walked out of a tomb on Easter morning. Christian apologists are stuck with Mission Impossible because of I Corinthians 15, which the gospel writers ignored:  


“...flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality.” (I Corinthians 15:50-53)


We suspect that the author of John’s gospel invented the story of Doubting Thomas—it’s not in the earlier gospels—to make the point that belief without evidence is superior. He presents Jesus standing in front of Thomas, inviting him to stick his finger in the sword wound: a brutalized body—perishable indeed—had come back to life. Pearce points to another contradiction:


“Luke 24:39 (“See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”) flatly and explicitly contradicts Paul’s claims that our raised bodies are glorious, indestructible and not made of flesh...” (Kindle loc 6022)


In the longest chapter of the book (at 43 pages: 10—The Events Leading Up to the Crucifixion) Pearce provides massive evidence that Christian apologists do indeed face Mission Impossible. There is no way to make sense of the Last Supper and the capture and trial of Jesus, as depicted differently in the four gospels. Pearce demonstrates the problems with these accounts, then proceeds to dissect twelve more features of the narratives that fail to make sense—and fail dismally as historical writing.  


An insight into resurrection superstition is provided unintentionally by Matthew—and what a big mistake he made, namely this odd tale in Matthew 27: 

“Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”  (Matthew 27:50-53)


How is it remotely possible to take the Jesus resurrection seriously given this level of credulity? As Pearce points out, this text also is a major theological mistake. He notes a verse in Acts 26, in the story of the apostle Paul presenting his case before King Agrippa:


“To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place: that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”


The author of Acts may here be trying to put down the competition, i.e., the other dying-and-rising god cults: he wants his readers to know that Jesus Christ is the first god who actually did this trick. But he may also be correcting the text in Matthew 27, which depicts a lot of dead people coming back to life before Jesus did.


Pearce reflects on the problems of this text in his section, 8—Earthquakes, Saints and an Absence of Evidence. You would think that apologists would acknowledge that Matthew 27:50-53 isn’t worth defending—so why even try? As Pearce puts it,  “Let it be stated that the fact that no other Gospel thought to mention this incredible set of details helps to cast serious doubt on Matthew’s claims. There is no other corroboration of this massive claim inside or outside of the Christian Bible. Let that reality sink in.” (Kindle loc 2355)


But apologists can be a stubborn, vengeful bunch. Pearce notes that scholar Mike Licona lost his job at Southern Evangelical Seminary in 2011 because he couldn’t accept Matthew 27:50-53 as history. In fact, Licona poked a bit of fun at the text: “If the tombs opened and the saints being raised upon Jesus’ death was not strange enough, Matthew adds that they did not come out of their tombs until after Jesus’ resurrection. What were they doing between Friday afternoon and early Sunday morning? Were they standing in the now open doorways of their tombs and waiting?” 


Pearce’s book is comprehensive; cast a glance over the Table of Contents—and dive right in. He discusses many issues that deserve close examination: was there even a tomb at all? Is it more likely that Jesus would have been stoned to death? How would the “last words of Jesus” have been heard and recorded? Is the story about Joseph of Arimathea believable? Above all, why are we taking any of this seriously? He quotes atheist philosopher Keith Parsons: “The postmortem ‘sightings’ of Jesus are no more remarkable than similar reports about Elvis Presley and Jimmy Hoffa.” Pearce adds, “When we talk about people sighting Elvis, we dismiss it out of hand as being ridiculous: just the sort of thing that huge, cultish fans wanted to happen. And then I realised that this is precisely the point.”  (Kindle loc 6170)


Pearce’s book is an important addition to the bibliography of works on the Christian resurrection claim; be sure to explore the substantial bibliography that he provides. 


But why do we have to keep doing this? If someone wants to defend the reality of the spiritual realm because thousands of mediums can’t be wrong—they know that their séances work—we wouldn’t for a moment be bothered with such nonsense. But with Christianity we’re dealing with a huge, influential bureaucracy. As Pearce observed, “Christians really need the Resurrection to be true; they have a lot to lose.” Namely, eternal life. That promise has kept the Ancient Jesus Mystery Cult going for centuries, and contemporary devotees—our determined apologists—aren’t about to let it go. 


Reality calls, however. Hence serious thinkers continue to tighten the case—as Pearce does in this book—that this ghoulish Christian superstition has been falsified.



David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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