Okay, so if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, what caused Christianity to spread the way it did? Or, as Christians like to put it, why would early Christians be prepared to die for something that didn’t happen? For the same reason they were ready to die for things that did happen; they were religious fanatics and people have died for a lot less. In any case, we have little evidence the earliest Christians did die prematurely for their faith, but they had plenty of reasons, other than a resurrection that didn’t happen, to give their lives to the cause:
1. Many of them seemed to think that, after his death, they’d had a vision of their leader. This was persuasive enough for the Pharisee Paul to become a follower ‘unto death’ – so why not for others? Still today, believers claim they’ve seen Jesus – it’s often how new cults get started – and those who lived in the first century were even more fanatical and superstitious. According to the gospels they –
- believed in reincarnation (Jesus and John the Baptist are taken to be reincarnated versions of long dead prophets in Mark 6.14-15 and Matthew 16.14);
- thought that the dead could return to life (Mark 6.16; Matthew 27.52) and
- accepted that angels walked the Earth performing miracles (John 5.4).
It’s not much of step for them to have believed that the visions they were having or hearing about were of a resurrected Jesus. It doesn’t matter they weren’t; it was enough that early converts believed they were.
2. Jesus promised his original disciples and hangers-on that the Kingdom of God on earth was not far off. It would happen, he promised, in their lifetime; the ‘Son of Man’ would come down from heaven through the clouds with a battalion of angels and would take charge of the Earth on God’s behalf (Matthew 16:27-28; Matthew 24:27, 30-31, 34; Luke 21:27-28, 33-34). It’s not clear whether Jesus regarded himself as this mythical figure from the book of Daniel but nonetheless Jesus’ first followers were convinced the end was nigh – God was soon to intervene in history to transform the Earth, remodelling it in their favour (Matthew 5.5-12). They were privileged to have this information direct from Jesus himself – this was his Good News, his gospel – and they set about making it known. Even Paul, who changed the Jesus he’d never met into a cosmic super-hero, believed this (1 Corinthians 15:23-26). A brave new world was a cause worth living for and, if necessary, dying for.
3. The very first Jesus-followers, the disciples, believed that when all of this happened – when God’s Kingdom was on the Earth as it was in Heaven – they would rule it with him. Hadn’t Jesus himself told them that they would? He surely had – it’s recorded in Luke 22:28-30. So not only was God going to renew the Earth and its political systems, he was going to put them in charge! Who wouldn’t want to hang on to a promise like that? It was, surely, one worth living and dying for. We know, because Paul tells us in Galatians 2 and elsewhere that the disciples holed themselves up in Jerusalem to await God’s intervention; for them this meant the return of their Master who would carve up the transformed world and put them in charge of it.
So there we are, three good reasons why Christianity caught on:
- Visions of Jesus, which meant that, even if his body had died, he had miraculously gone beyond death and would be returning soon;
- The promise of God’s Kingdom on Earth, when the underdogs would become top dogs;
- The susceptibility and gullibility of those at whom the message was aimed.
This is why the new movement spread rapidly, particularly among the susceptible, gullible under-class. No resurrection was necessary. Over time those visions, like Jesus’ message, would morph into something quite different, giving us the myth of a physical resurrection, a church he never intended founding and, eventually, the ‘promise’ of heaven. These were never part of the original ‘Good News’.
Happy Easter, y’all.