There’s a great line in the new Jesus movie. It explains why I am a Christian. Pilate is relaxing after the sentencing of Jesus to the cross. His wife who had had a dream warning her about the sentence complains to Pilate about the potential cost. Pilate responds, “Why worry. No one will remember who he was in three weeks time.” This is one of the few lines not taken from the Gospel account; but is true and powerful regardless.
If you block off the time of Christ in a century block, 50 years past and 50 years future (say 57 BCE and 83 CE) you had hundreds of men who claimed to be the Messiah. Hundreds. Each of these men have the same story. They came on the scene, They were said to perform miracles. They prophesied. They cajoled. They acted. They collected followers and a movement began. Eventually the movement became large enough to cause ripples in the tense Jerusalem atmosphere. These ripples attracted the attention of men like Pilate.
You take a history class and you here this time referred to as that of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. But no one tells you how this happened. The Romans were as shrewd as they were vicious. They conquered a land and allowed it to maintain its rituals, religion, and culture; unless (and this is important) these instruments began to cause problems. The Romans knew that any turmoil in the local environment could inevitably led to a much larger and wider reaction. So at any sign of havoc, regardless of the cause, they came down hard and fast. No shooting or needles for them. Troublemakers were not just killed; but killed in a way that was slow, cruel, and incredibly painful. All of this was done in public so that everyone knew this was the end result of causing problems for Rome.
And this is how the story of these hundreds of Messiahs ended. Rome reacted. People died. Messiahs were crucified as an example. The followers saw this, and scattered never to be heard from again. Rome got its peace; at a price, on those crosses. Think of it as a gigantic game of whack-a-mole only a lot more bloody.
We may know many of these Messiahs names. We know about their teachings. We know about their following. What we don’t know are their followers. They don’t exist. To quote Pilate their groups didn’t last three weeks post-Crucifixion.
Yet 2000 years later I and a billion of my closest friends still take the name of Christ. In fact tomorrow we will begin a 2 month process of remembering and celebrating his death. So I ask you, “why was Jesus different?” Following 1st Century scholar N.T. Wright’s magnificent Surprised By Hope as well as Evil and Victory of God, allow me to postulate this:
The Resurrection actually happened. Many will say that the first century Christians made up a nice story to keep the followers going. Or that some sort of group hallucinatory experience created a mob effect. But I think Wright is right. If you study pre-Christian Judaism there is nothing to prepare you for, create the expectation of, or anything within it to allow for such a novel creation myth. Many Jews did not even believe in the afterlife; much less have an expectation that Messiah would die, be resurrected, and start a spiritual movement. Others will point at that on a rare occasion or two such stories where postulated by other Messianic groups (in much the same way that say Elvis is remembered today).
Yet can you name one of these two figures? You can’t because… well… see my previous paragraph about Rome and how it handled dissent. After the rumors people got lippy and Rome got pissy and well recantations followed. Scourging has that effect on you. After the first of those wet leather straps with bits of bone and metal tied in hit your back, you start to think about what in life is important and what is not. If you are living a lie; then you have to decide is this pain worth promulgating said lie.
You recant quickly. And fully.
And yet Apostle after Apostle felt the whip. They felt the lash. With the exception of John, everyone of them died a death worthy of a Stephen King novel. It was not pretty. Within said 50 year time frame, Christians were being used as torches by Nero. They became fodder for the wild animals of the gladiatorial games. Why would this band of scared men go out this way? Why would they allow their followers to go this way? Judas committed suicide. Peter denied Christ and fled. Only John showed his face at Golgatha. The movement of Christ was in shambles and destined to go the way of the other hundreds. So what changed?
Why the change in the story? I argue that the story changed. The unthinkable happened. On the 3rd day, Mary and the rest of Jerusalem really discovered an empty tomb. The Jewish leaders really couldn’t find a body to quiet the rumors. And the Romans found that their old bag of tricks did not work against a people not scared to die.
I know how I answer this historical question. It’s why I am a follower of Christ. It’s why I do not fear death.
Because I know that death has been defeated. So tomorrow I will spend time reminding myself that ashes to ashes; and in roughly 40 days I will spend time reminding myself that beauty can come from ashes.