Isn’t Christianity Just Wishful Thinking?

The following excerpt is adapted from a book I’m releasing on February 1, Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in Ten Words. Here’s what Molly Worthen, professor of history at UNC and New York Times columnist, wrote about the book: “J.D. Greear has a rare gift for really getting into the mind of the modern skeptic. He gets out in front of every key question and objection to Christianity and answers each one with compassion, honesty, and a great sense of humor. I bet even the surliest and most self-assured atheist wouldn’t mind sitting next to Greear on a plane—and would never be quite the same after their conversation.”

Order your copy today! 


I’ve often found that after hearing the details of the gospel, people are intrigued—but still skeptical. Often they’ll say something like this:

Sure, the gospel sounds amazing—having God as my Father, the assurance that my sins are forgiven, and the promise that I will be resurrected to eternal bliss forever. This sounds wonderful! But so do stories about Iron Man, Wakanda, Neverland, and Santa Claus. The problem with fairy tales is not that they’re not great stories but that they’re not true. So, yes, maybe the whole “Jesus” story is good—but how can we know that this stuff actually happened and that it’s not just wishful thinking?

Great question. Let’s rewind back to the opening words of the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he explains to us why he not only believes the Christian gospel but has staked his life on it. 

The first time Paul mentions the word “gospel” in Romans, he says it concerns Jesus, “…who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power … by his resurrection from the dead…” (Romans 1:1, 3–4 ESV). 

Paul points to an event, the Resurrection, that he claims occurred in actual history, according to specific prophecies and in the presence of a number of eyewitnesses (see 1 Corinthians 15:1–9). He, the other apostles, and the earliest Christians staked their lives on the claim that it actually happened.

In one of his other letters, Paul tells a group of Christians in the city of Corinth that if Jesus rose from the dead, it’s all true, and if he didn’t, this was a hoax and they were free to seek their spiritual “fix” somewhere else (1 Corinthians 15:19). So, the crucial question is, did Jesus actually rise from the dead?

Paul doesn’t spend much time in Romans arguing for the fact of the Resurrection, but here’s how he puts it in his first letter to the Corinthians, written a few years before Romans: 

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (15:3–8)

Paul points to two pieces of evidence crucial to early Christian testimony to substantiate his claim—the empty tomb and a significant number of eyewitnesses, most of whom were still alive at the time of Paul’s writings.

Oxford scholar N.T. Wright notes that these facts together—the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses—are crucial parts of the case for the Resurrection. If we only had an empty tomb but no eyewitnesses, skeptics would have concluded that the body was stolen. If there were only eyewitnesses but no empty tomb, skeptics would have concluded that the witnesses were deluded. The two together, however, make for convincing evidence.

More recently, some critics have speculated that the earliest believers didn’t actually believe in Jesus’ physical resurrection—that “the Resurrection” was a legend that grew up over time as early Christians felt the need to “beef up” their authority. A good miracle, after all, helps anybody’s credibility. The message, they speculate, began with “Jesus lives on in our hearts,” but little by little it morphed into “Jesus physically rose from the dead, left an empty tomb, and appeared to eyewitnesses.” 

The trouble with this line of thinking is simple: Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (quoted above) was written in A.D. 53, only 20 years after Jesus’ death. (Note: Not even secular scholars dispute that date for Paul’s letter to the Corinthians or Paul’s authorship of it!) And in this extremely early letter, Paul not only indicates that there is widespread belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus; he actually quotes a hymn commonly sung in the early church about the Resurrection. That means belief in the Resurrection was so common they’d come up with songs about it that they sang in churches. Even the uber-skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann says that the writing of this hymn quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3 likely dates to within two years of the crucifixion. 

What’s the significance of that? Well, that’s simply too early for a legend to grow up. Too many people were still alive who had been present during the actual events for a fantasy story to emerge uncontested. 

Think of it like this: You may remember when NASCAR great Dale Earnhardt Sr. died in the final turn of the Daytona 500. That was in 2001. Maybe you watched it as it happened. Maybe me bringing it up makes you want to pause for a moment of silence. But just imagine if a friend started telling everyone he knew, “Dale actually resurrected that day. Yup, right on the track. He stepped out of the car, ran around the track a few times, pumped his fist to the crowd, held up the immortal number three, and then the number three car lifted miraculously up off the ground and flew straight up to glory.” 

Even if we didn’t have the video footage available to refute that, you might say, “That’s not true. I stayed glued to the TV for three hours that day, watching the story unfold, and that never happened.” Or, you might say, “I know a guy who knows a guy who was there. He says no such thing occurred. Ask any of the 150,000 people who were there. They all say that’s not true.” You might find a few gullible loons willing to go along with the “flying number three” theory. But the vast majority would say, “That’s not what happened.”

In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul essentially says, Guys, if you doubt what I’m saying, go ask the people who were there. There were lots of them. They are still around. They saw him. A bunch of us saw him together

I point this out because it’s become popular among skeptics to say that Christianity’s miraculous claims emerged imperceptibly, as one generation repeated the stories about Jesus to the next, the story growing slightly each time it was retold. The New Testament skeptic Bart Ehrman says the myth of the Resurrection developed in the same way that facts get distorted in the “telephone game,” which you may have played at a party. It’s the game where everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers some secret set of facts to another, and then that person attempts to whisper those same facts to the person next to them, and then that person to the next, and on and on until the whispers make it all the way back to the original person. The big reveal is always humorous. Something that started out like, “I asked the pretty girl by the punch bowl if she would like to dance,” transmogrifies into “I told the girl at the bowling alley that she looked fat in those pants, and she punched me.” 

In essence, Ehrman says, generations of Christians did the same thing with the stories of Jesus: Each repetition shifted the narrative a little in the direction of the supernatural, until what was written down years later was fundamentally different from what the apostles had first said.

But the dating of 1 Corinthians alone demonstrates that the time gap is not sufficient for that kind of message corruption. All of the original apostles and eyewitnesses to the Resurrection, Paul said, were still around to verify his version of it. To stay with the telephone game analogy, it would be as if no one whispered, and the original secret-teller could hear what one person was saying to the next, and was allowed to correct each deviation in real time. By the time the set of facts got back to them, it would likely be very close to the original transmission.

The point to take away from all of this is that Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Corinthians demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that belief in a physical resurrection was part of the early church’s testimony from the beginning. Which means if it’s not true, they had to be hallucinating or lying.

Perhaps the skeptic says, “Maybe this group of premodern people experienced some kind of group hysteria that grew out of wishful thinking.” Paul’s answer: Five hundred people don’t typically hallucinate at once, hearing and seeing the same things and all corroborating the same story. 

“But maybe,” our skeptical friend objects, “these apparent witnesses were so preconditioned to believe in the Resurrection that they were gullible and superstitious, ready to accept the flimsiest of ‘evidence.’” The problem with this is that religious Jews in the first century were not preconditioned to believe in a resurrection. N.T. Wright amply demonstrates that first-century Jews had no category for a rescuer-king, a “Messiah,” who would die and rise again. They were looking for a Messiah—but not a humiliated, executed one. What Jesus did went against all of their expectations, to the point that even those who wanted to believe in him found it difficult to do so (see the story of Thomas in John 20:24–29). Jesus’ resurrection did not fulfill their expectations, but overturned them. The apostle Paul, himself an ardently religious Jew, had built his whole life around Jesus being an impostor. God’s Messiah would not shamefully die at the hands of the Romans. It was only when he was confronted with irrefutable evidence of the Resurrection that he changed his mind (1 Corinthians 15:8; see Acts 9:1–9).

“Well,” the skeptic continues, “maybe those ‘witnesses’ were just flat-out lying. After all, lots of people live for lies—many even die for them. The earliest Christians needed the ‘miracle’ stuff to get people to believe them. It was an ‘the ends justify the means’ thing in their minds.” 

The problem with that theory is this: What would motivate them to propagate that lie? Sure, lots of people die for a lie, but when you propagate something you know is a lie, you’re seeking to gain something—money, safety, political power, prestige, sex, or so on. But the apostles’ claims—that they had seen the risen Jesus and he was Lord—brought them none of those things. In fact, their testimony earned them the opposite. Most owned nothing, taking on second jobs to support themselves. They emphasized chastity in deed and thought, and pointed to their lives as examples of that—in other words, they weren’t claiming apostolic power to build a harem like other cult leaders throughout history have done. Far from obtaining political power or prestige, they were persecuted severely. Eleven of the 12 of them were executed for refusal to back off from their testimony, with the twelfth (John) being plunged into hot oil and then living out his days in exile on a remote island. All went to their deaths joyfully, claiming that it was worth it because they had seen Jesus risen from the dead and they knew eternity with him was better than anything they had given up for him. Does that sound to you like a group who has conspired together to lie? Does it really make sense to think that they all were willing to give up so much, and then to be killed, for something that they knew was a lie?

This rag-tag group of poor, uneducated men and their early followers went on to convince half the Roman Empire to believe in Christ’s resurrection. Something happened that overturned an empire, shook the world, and redirected the course of history. 

Along with many other scholars, I find that alternative explanations for how Christianity got started seem far less compelling than the one the earliest Christians themselves provided as the reason for their behavior: Jesus actually rose from the dead. 

The Real and the Counterfeit

It may help to contrast the evidence for the Resurrection with the miraculous claims of another religion, so you can see how truly unique early Christian testimony was. 

Religious leaders using claims of miraculous powers to beef up their authority is, as you might imagine, quite common in religious history. But the Christian claims for the Resurrection are of a different nature, and sometimes it’s easier to see the quality of the genuine by looking at a counterfeit.

For example, consider the claims of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. He claimed, in September of 1823, to have found a set of golden plates, with the assistance of an angel, which revealed the essential truths of Mormon doctrine. He later translated what he’d seen, which became, in essence, the Book of Mormon. Eight others claimed to have seen Joseph with the plates, even signing legal affidavits to that effect. Their claims made them quite unpopular in parts of America, and they had to flee for their lives.

On the surface, this seems similar to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead—multiple witnesses, testifying to something at great personal cost to themselves. But let’s dig just a bit. 

The eight witnesses claimed to have seen the golden plates in a vision, not physically. Three of them—Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris—who couldn’t see the plates were told that it was only by faith that they would obtain a view. When they finally did “see” them, these three witnesses were not in the room where Smith had supposedly been translating the plates but out in the woods alone, fasting and waiting for the vision. There, they asked God for a vision of the plates through fervent and humble prayer. When praying did not result in the manifestation of the plates, one man, Martin Harris, excused himself (he assumed he was the problem), and the three remaining men continued to pray. Eventually they saw an angel holding the plates.

Later on, Joseph Smith held a special prayer session for Harris, who finally “saw” the plates. And sometime later, eight other men, through similar processes, said they saw the plates—again, only in a vision. 

This bears virtually no similarity to the apostles’ claims to have seen Jesus. They claimed to have seen Jesus not in a vision but in the flesh, and to have touched him physically and eaten with him. Unlike the Mormon brethren, most were not seeking this revelation, and many did not believe when they first saw him! Most were on their way somewhere, or fleeing for their lives, or hiding together in a room not looking for Jesus when he surprised them. Some of Jesus’ appearances happened unexpectedly to large groups at once. 

One final distinction between the apostles’ claims of the Resurrection and Mormon claims of the golden plates: Many, if not all, of the original Mormon witnesses, except Joseph Smith, left the Mormon religion. Some were excommunicated. Others left the faith voluntarily, claiming they had produced their stories under pressure (which is exactly what you might suspect if a miracle claim was exaggerated or fabricated). Joseph Smith’s claims brought great personal benefit to him—he was a demigod in the Mormon community, and he used divine “authority” to introduce the practice of polygamy for his own pleasure.

There’s an old saying attributed to the seventeenth-century philosopher Blaise Pascal: “I believe witnesses who get their throats cut.” This is where Jesus’ apostles and the founders of Mormonism part ways. The latter abandoned their faith. The former remained faithful to the end—and the end for them was nearly always that of a violent, shameful death. 

A Truth to Stake Your Life On

Other books lay out the evidence for the Resurrection in far more thorough and compelling ways than I have been able to do in this short interlude. If you want to read more, the research is out there. My goal here is simply to point out how central the belief that Jesus physically rose from the dead is to Christianity—that from the beginning, Christians have based their hope on historical fact and not hopeful wishes—and to show you that the evidence for the Resurrection is stronger than you might have realized. 

For now, let me just say that I think the German historian and theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg hit the nail on the head when he said, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.” 

For many people, it’s that last thing—if it’s true you’d have to change the way that you live—that holds them up. Some people don’t look deeply at the evidence for the Resurrection because they don’t care if it’s true. In fact, truth be told, they don’t want it to be true.

But for those open to the existence of God and his work in history, and ready to follow him, the evidence is there, and it is very compelling.

Jesus is alive—literally, physically, actually alive. And because of that, Paul says in Romans, we know he is “the Son of God with power … Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:4). If he rose from the dead, then he is who he says he is, did what he said he did, and can do for you and me what he says he can do.