Is the uniqueness of Christianity evidence of the truth of the resurrection?

On Sunday I gave as one piece of evidence for the resurrection the following claim:

The disciples’ belief in the resurrection could not have arisen so suddenly out of any “natural” developments in religion. It was in contradiction to the Messianic hopes of Palestinian Judaism and in contradiction to pagan cosmology. (And, therefore, not a conglomeration of Judaism and paganism.) The best explanation for the disciples’ belief, then, is the resurrection. This truth, along with its sudden acceptance among otherwise orthodox Jews, the post-resurrection appearances, and the evidence of the empty tomb, gives strong historical evidence to Jesus’ resurrection.

A friend of mine asked me how I would respond to the skeptic who asked about the similar claims of other religions. Here’s my attempt to do so:

The argument against this apologetic could be phrased in this way:

Apologist: Christianity appeared suddenly with a distinctive view of the world and some explanation of that worldview is required. The best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Skeptic: Other distinctive religions have arisen suddenly, doesn’t the same argument work for them?

Which religions? 

First, I would want to ask the skeptic which religions they are referring to. If they mean Judaism, then Christians would affirm the supernatural nature of Judaism’s origin, since Judaism forms the basis for Christianity. If they are referring to Buddhism or Hinduism then I would instruct them to do more study on those religions since Hinduism had a very slow and varied development over many centuries and Buddhism was originally an offshoot from Hinduism, without a sudden start. The list of religions that fir the skeptic’s claim is probably smaller than he assumes.

The closest similarities to Christianity in terms of distinctiveness and sudden acceptance are Islam, which arose suddenly during the 600’s and Mormonism in the 1800s.

A more precise argument

But at this point we should clarify the apologist’s argument more closely. He is not saying: Because Christianity is distinctive it is true. For, a belief’s distinctiveness has no bearing on its truth. Otherwise, the most bizarre beliefs would be seen as most likely to be true. The apologist is also not saying: Christianity is true because its distinctiveness arose suddenly. If they were, this would appear to apply to Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism of the major religions, but even so, it’s not the argument.

To say that a belief is true or false based on the origin of that belief is, in most instances, a case of the “genetic fallacy.” If a pluralist were to say to a Christian “you are a Christian because your parents are Christians, therefore your beliefs are not true” a Christian could respond, “you are a pluralist because you were raised in a culture where pluralism is the predominant worldview, therefore your beliefs are invalid.” Neither the pluralist nor/or the Christian is making a real argument for the truth or error of the other person’s beliefs.

Instead, the apologist’s argument is more subtle. He argues, instead, that if a belief arose suddenly then we need a historically plausible explanation for that new belief. If a friend of mine came up to me believing that aliens were about to invade the planet then I would want an explanation for this person’s new belief. Perhaps he had a deep-seated paranoia that finally bubbled to the surface. Perhaps he was on drugs and hallucinating. Perhaps he had an encounter with an alien! Regardless, this new belief would require some sort of explanation.

Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism

Here’s where we can bring Christianity back in. The earliest followers of Jesus burst onto the scene with the belief that a man Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be the Messiah and had been crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and should be worshiped and given reverence. We would want an explanation for that belief. And here Christians have a strong case that the best explanation for that belief is the historical resurrection of Jesus.[1]

Can a Muslim make the same case for the origin of Islam? Islam originated with Muhammad and the apparent revelations he received from an angel, teachings that are documented in the Koran. Like Christianity, historians would seek an explanation for Muhammad’s beliefs. Muslims argue that his beliefs came from actual encounters with an angel. Others would seek some other explanation.

There are at least two important distinctions between Christianity’s and Islam’s origins: First, it was a mass of early Christians who believed in the resurrection, not only the disciples, but hundreds who saw the resurrected Jesus. Second, there was corroborating evidence for the resurrection – the empty tomb. Whereas Muhammad’s visions were private, the disciples’ beliefs were public and falsifiable.

What about Mormonism? Like Islam, Mormonism originated from an apparent revelation, though in this case it was by means of physical objects: supposed golden plates discovered and translated – with the help of an angel – by Joseph Smith. Here, once again, the historian requires an explanation for the beliefs of Smith and other early Mormons, though again the case differs from the origin of Christianity. First, I would argue that Mormonism’s distinctives in relation to Christianity are not as distinctive as Christianity’s from its surrounding culture. The most significant distinction between Christianity and Mormonism is its rejection of Jesus’ divinity, which is really a very old and frequent heresy. Second, though, we have the supposed golden plates themselves. There were indeed a select group of people (intentionally limited) that testified to either seeing it in a vision or to even touching the physical objects themselves, but their future testimony is not uniform. Some changed their stories about the plates. This either points to a more subjective/visionary experience, or deliberate falsification. Of course, I am no expert on Mormonism, and will have to refer the reader to some other resource to explore the details, should they be interested.

And so, I think the apologists argument stands as a (relatively) unique argument for the truth of the resurrection. It is possible that other religions could make similar claims, and each would need to be evaluated on its own. And so, I wouldn’t hang my hat entirely on this single argument. It does fit nicely as one of many pieces of evidence which point to the truth of Christianity.

[1] I’m not going to make the case here, but instead refer the reader to several books including Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Craig’s On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision, and Dodson and Watson’s Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. I also gave a brief outline of alternative views in this post: Alternative theories to the resurrection.