How Easter Killed My Atheism

How serious study of the facts led an atheistic Chicago newspaper editor to lose his atheism.

By Lee Strobel Published on March 18, 2016

It was the worst news I could get as an atheist: my agnostic wife had decided to become a Christian. Two words shot through my mind. The first was an expletive; the second was “divorce.”

I thought she was going to turn into a self-righteous holy roller. But over the following months, I was intrigued by the positive changes in her character and values. Finally, I decided to take my journalism and legal training (I was legal editor of the Chicago Tribune) and systematically investigate whether there was any credibility to Christianity. Maybe, I figured, I could extricate her from this cult.

I quickly determined that the alleged resurrection of Jesus was the key. Anyone can claim to be divine, but if Jesus backed up his claim by returning from the dead, then that was awfully good evidence he was telling the truth.

For nearly two years, I explored the minutia of the historical data on whether Easter was myth or reality. I didn’t merely accept the New Testament at face value; I was determined only to consider facts that were well-supported historically. As my investigation unfolded, my atheism began to buckle.

Was Jesus really executed? The evidence is so strong that even atheist historian Gerd Lüdemann said his death by crucifixion is “indisputable.”

Is the resurrection a legend? Not a chance. A. N. Sherwin-White of Oxford said it took more than two generations of time in the ancient world for legend to develop and wipe out a solid core of historical truth. Yet we have a report of the resurrection – that Jesus appeared to named individuals and groups of eyewitnesses – which has been dated to within months of Jesus’ death.

Was Jesus’ tomb empty? Scholar William Lane Craig points out that its location was known to Christians and non-Christians alike. So if it hadn’t been empty, it would have been highly unlikely for a movement founded on the resurrection to have exploded into existence in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed just a few weeks before.

Besides, even Jesus’ opponents implicitly admitted the tomb was vacant by claiming that his body had been stolen. But nobody had a motive for taking the body, especially the disciples. And we have seven ancient sources that report they were willing to endure lives of deprivation and suffering as a result of their proclamation Jesus had risen. It’s unlikely they would have done that if they knew they were propagating a lie.

Did anyone see Jesus alive again? We have nine ancient sources, inside and outside the New Testament, that confirm the apostles’ conviction that they encountered the resurrected Christ. Repeatedly, these sources stood strong when I tried to discredit them.

Could these encounters have been hallucinations? No way, experts told me. Hallucinations occur in individual brains, like dreams, yet Jesus appeared to groups of people on three different occasions – including 500 at once!

Was this some other sort of vision, perhaps prompted by the apostles’ grief over their leader’s execution? This wouldn’t explain the dramatic conversion of Saul, an opponent of Christians, or James, the once-skeptical half-brother of Jesus. Neither was primed for a vision, yet each saw the risen Jesus and later died as a leader of the church. Besides, if these were visions, the body would still have been in the tomb.

Was the resurrection simply the recasting of ancient mythology, akin to the fanciful tales of Osiris or Mithras? If you want to see a historian laugh out loud, bring up that kind of pop-culture nonsense.

One by one, my objections evaporated. I read books by skeptics, but their counter-arguments crumbled under the weight of the historical data. No wonder atheists so often come up short in scholarly debates over the resurrection.

In the end, after I had thoroughly investigated the matter, I reached an unexpected conclusion: it would actually take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a follower of Jesus.

And that’s why I’m now celebrating my 34th Easter as a Christian. Not because of wishful thinking, the fear of death, or the need for a psychological crutch ­– but because of the facts.

 

This article is first in a series on reasons for confidence in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

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  • Thankful for his clarity of thought and depth of analysis here. Stories like this work to clarify the cloud of misconception created by the secular age in which we live. The more we speak in a compelling and winsome manner on the foundations of the christian faith, the more it unearths the fact that unbelief is a denial of the facts – a great hypocrisy on the part of a generation which prides itself in its empiricism and objectivity.

  • Michael Maier

    God bless everyone reading here. I hope these words shed light on the darkness of the world.

  • David Cloutman

    I’m not certain that gospel accounts written 60-100 years after the fact leave much credibility to the so called eye witness accounts. The fact of the matter is that there are huge dark spots in the church’s historical record, that the Bible itself points to a major schism in the first few years between the claimed visions of Paul and his followers and the people who knew the real Jesus. All that remains is an uncomfortable political compromise between these two early moments that were later actively filtered by the Roman state to produce what we recognize as orthodox doctrine. The Christianity we know is a transparent lie manufactured to create a more subdued population during the Great Migration period. One merely needs to carefully read the New Testament as a whole in its historical context to see this reality.

    I’m not sure how a thinking person gets from atheist to Christian under the pretense of “the Bible tells me so”. Mostly illiterate peasants under Roman occupation in the first century were not only capable if manufacturing an unrealistically cheery reality, they were highly motivated to do so. Human memory and oral traditions have an incredible capacity for rapid revision for the sake of expediency and psychological well being. Brutal realities are easily forgotten. But if believing otherwise truly makes you happy, so be it.

    • Timothy J. Corbitt

      Modern scholarship dates the 1st Gospel to within 20 years of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the last to within 50 years, but the secular accounts still talk of the body being stolen, so there is no question that it was missing. What you have is wishful thinking, because if you considered accepting the Gospel accounts, then you would have to take Christ’s moral teachings seriously, and perhaps obey them, which would put a crimp in your atheistic hedonism.

      • Tim Pemberton

        Source please?

      • Patrick V Hines

        References? Your post reeks of tribalism, not scholarship.

      • Really? Just what are the secular accounts that talk of the body being stolen?

        • Dylancaufield1

          Look for his book “Case for Christ”.

      • “What you have is wishful thinking, because if you considered accepting the Gospel accounts, then you would have to take Christ’s moral teachings seriously, and perhaps obey them, which would put a crimp in your atheistic hedonism.”

        Do you think atheists are hedonists? And what about the many ex-Christians like me who were happy in our faith communities but simply became unable to keep on believing because we saw the “evidence” crumble when we examined it more carefully? Beware of simply sweeping away troublesome facts such as the existence of atheists with your simple explanations.

        • Timothy J. Corbitt

          I don’t consider the existence of Atheists a troubling fact, simply a fact. Out of 7 billion humans, the fact that a significant minority are Atheists is no surprise. Now , if your beliefs about right and wrong come down to the transitory opinions that you have at any point in time, but you are confronted with the possibility that there may be an ultimate authority, and an unchanging moral code, I can see how that might be troubling to some. It could mean that just doing what you feel like doing at any given time might be wrong. That’s a thought that might make a person uncomfortable.

          • “Now, if your beliefs about right and wrong come down to the transitory opinions that you have at any point in time, but you are confronted with the possibility that there may be an ultimate authority, and an unchanging moral code, I can see how that might be troubling to some.”

            I doubt that many thoughtful humanist-atheists believe that right and wrong are based on transitory opinions, nor do people in general. I think most people have relatively fixed moral standards, whether or not they keep the standards. I don’t think an atheist just up and decides that theft will be OK for today since he needs a new car, or that torture is OK because his opinion has changed.

            Furthermore, people with religious morality have all kinds of disagreements on morality, and can change their points of view, even though they supposedly have an unchanging standard. Look at the history of slavery.

            Finally, that leaves the question of people like me who are quite happy to have an ultimate moral authority, if one exists. We did not leave Christianity because we wanted a more flexible morality — what would be the sense in that? — but because the evidence was not there. (“what would be the sense in that” because we know that morality is not based on what we want, or it is not morality but simply our desires.)

      • Tim Pemberton

        I don’t mean to butt in, but according to modern scholars (I would link below, but apparently this blog has a most moronic policy regarding links–I can’t use them; simply google the dates of their writing), the earliest gospel was written about 30-40 years (over a generation, depending on one’s preferred metrics for the term) after the time when Jesus is supposed to have died. The last is estimated to be from 60-80 years after the death. On top of that, the earliest manuscript that is available (we don’t have an original) is the Ryland’s Papyrus 52 which is estimated to have been copied circa 125. As good as that may sound, it is approximately the size of a credit card and contains fragments of a mere 5 verses in John–nowhere near a complete text. The first time a complete book (of the NT) is available comes in around 170 years after the death. However, if you have any other sources that (credibly) say otherwise, I am all for listening.

        After reading this article, I am unconvinced. If I had to do a TL;DR, it would say, “There’s so much proof out there! You guys should totally believe me when I say this is right!” It gives absolutely no links to this amazing evidence that seems to be everywhere, and ignores the fact that the only (worthwhile) texts we have of Jesus’ existence at all is the Bible and an offhand reference by the historian Josephus. I would challenge the author to provide this as it should be readily available to the reader.

        Finally, please learn what atheism (and secular humanism) is all about. It is quite removed from “atheistic hedonism.” Tossing out that statement just proves to me how little you know about David and are ready to label him (and myself, indirectly) as bad humans because we hold different beliefs.

        • Timothy J. Corbitt

          I know what you mean about links. I tried to post several links that argue for early dates for the Gospels and epistles, but the comment section would not allow any of the posts.

      • Doug Sinclair

        ” secular accounts still talk of the body being stolen”

        What secular accounts? As far as I can tell, there are no accounts outside the scriptures of ANY of the resurrection story.

  • disqus_DlZXTPZOe8

    I wish this post had all the appropriate citations.

    • drtonic

      Agreed. A big post about how you can’t refute all the evidence and then not provide any of the said evidence isn’t worth all that much.

      • truthful

        His book, “Case for Christ,” has all the details of Strobel’s investigation. Too much data to include in a brief article. Worth a read.

  • Ironic, because Easter was one of the ultimate things that killed my Christianity and turned me into an atheist. I had long looked to the Resurrection as a foundation for my faith, for if Jesus rose then he was the Lord and his words and gospel would be authenticated. I supported my belief with the reading of many apologetic works, from popular ones like Strobel’s to N. T. Wright’s voluminous “The Resurrection of the Son of God.”

    When I finally went beyond the apologists to see what skeptics and historians said, I saw the evidence begin to crumble. One of the turning points was when I made a detailed comparison, in a table, of the facts around the Resurrection according to the four Gospels and Acts. The results were not encouraging to belief.

    It would be fascinating to know more about Strobel’s journey. To what extent did he study the skeptics and primary sources, versus encountering them through the eyes of the apologists? Was he ever a skeptic himself, or was his atheism simply the usual secular American position that has never given much thought to the questions of faith. From what I’ve read, he doesn’t really touch on that.

    • truthful

      Check out “Case for Christ” where he documents his investigation.

    • MJ1966

      Any explanation needs to either dispense with (for good reasons), or explain, the minimum facts (per Habernas) that vast majority of scholars including non-believers accept: 1) Jesus lived and was crucified by the Romans 2) His body was buried and then missing from the tomb of Joseph of Arimethea 3) Many people experienced what they sincerely (to the point of death) believed were experiences of his resurrected body 4) The Christian faith exploded out of first century Israel – despite making claims that were contrary to the Jewish tradition and experience, dangerous to those espousing them, and easily countered by others around at the time if imaginary 5) Appearance to previously hostile Paul and James resulting in dramatic changes in belief.

      J. Warner Wallace, cold case detective, has a very nice approach to this as well in “Cold-Case Christianity”. He approached the Gospels as a non-believer, but found them to be compelling eyewitness accounts: imperfect as you’d expect but mutually reinforcing.

      It is of course impossible for observers to have remained ‘neutral’ if indeed they experienced a risen Christ. So non-believing eyewitnesses aren’t very likely. Most ‘skeptics’ start from the assumption that the supernatural is impossible and really have assumed the conclusion.

      I was myself a major skeptic and atheist for 48 years until I became convinced a little over a year ago by the evidence for both God and the resurrection.

      • Abraham Serafino

        As a believer in the resurrection (convinced because of the 5 points you mention – more so, even by the near-universal support for the historicity of #3 by non-Christian scholars), I’m not completely satisfied with your argument. It wouldn’t be difficult to discount belief in the resurrection based on the very naturalistic premise you’ve put forth – that science has shown, again and again, that people do not come back from the dead.

        1-2 are uncontested fact.

        Explanations for 3 among respected scholar vary (hallucination, wishful thinking, bandwagon, etc). Although no serious thought seems to have been put into the claim that Jesus’ body was actually stolen, it actually makes for a compelling conspiracy theory – until you look at the common elements of a conspiracy theory and realize that the resurrection is, itself, a conspiracy theory featuring supernatural, world-changing events accompanied by an elaborate cover-up by the “establishment.”

        #4 is easy – Christianity exploded in the Roman empire precisely because of how radically it departed from its Judaic context – in fact, the earliest form of Christianity has all the markings of a Mystery Cult (those were very fashionable at the time).

        #5 I’m not sure I buy into the “no motive” argument. These could have been two very forward-thinking men who knew which way the Jewish rebellion would go and decided to defect. For Paul as a former persecutor of the church, I’m sure he anticipated the “give me one good reason question-” and his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is a pretty good-sounding reason. I’m not trying to discredit said conversion (remember, I am a believer in the resurrection), just relating a potential alternative explanation which has actually gained significant traction among scholars. Its also quite likely that neither he nor James anticipated the alleged persecution they would have to endure as members of the Christian community; but, even in the face of such persecution, it is not unusual for even the most hypocritical religious leaders to stand strong, even to the point of sacrificing their lives for the sake of what they say they believe in. (And some people genuinely do experience grandiose hallucinations related to strong, obsessive delusions).

        All of that aside, let’s say the resurrection was considered factual by even a small majority of secular historians (incidentally, to your point about “facts” in the New Testament being contradicted by contemporaries – the Gnostics actually did contest Jesus’ existence, and actively engaged those writers in debate over it). Shouldn’t the fact that they remain “secular” historians tell you something?

        Well for most of us it doesn’t because we are conditioned to believe that the resurrection is the central proof of Christ’s divinity – when in fact it is no such thing. How does returning from the dead even work as evidence in favor of that person’s being the ontological equivalent of the particular God believed in by the Hebrews shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem? The Greeks and Romans would have interpreted immortality as evidence that Jesus had become *a* God; followers of Eastern religions would have seen Him as an average human turned “ascended master” (they actually have several of those). And even Jesus Himself is not recorded to have shared any details with us about the afterlife or His identity with the Father; in fact, if you look at one of the few recorded statements of Jesus after His resurrection in the context of what I’m saying here (John 20:17), it just might shake you to the core.

        Finally, I’d like to remind you one last time that I do, in fact believe in the resurrection and the divinity of Christ; however, I think it’s important for Christians to make strong arguments for their faith, rather than set up straw men that are easy for our opponents to tear down. That can only happen as we dialog and exchange ideas, so I’m thankful for your contribution and look forward to more discussions with you in the future.

        • Doug Sinclair

          “1-2 are uncontested fact.”

          Incorrect. There is a growing mythicist movement that is gradually debunking the supposed “universal acceptance” of Christ’s existence. See Dr. Richard Carrier, David Fitzegerald, etc.

          I do applaud, though, your insistence that theists must make strong arguments and not straw men.

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