If it wasn’t so sad, you’d have to laugh at the Italian trial in which a Catholic priest is being sued by an atheist for deceiving people into thinking Jesus was an actual historical figure.

Of course, there is far more reason to believe Jesus actually walked the face of the Earth than there is to believe Socrates did. We not only have the biblical accounts of His life, but, for those who require them, extra-biblical ones from Roman historians Tacitus and Josephus.

But that really misses the point.

Simon Greenleaf, one of the principal founders of the Harvard Law School, was a skeptic like the Italian atheist. He set out from a scholarly and legal perspective to make a much narrower point – disprove Jesus was the Son of God and that He rose from the dead through a careful investigation of the Gospel witnesses.

But he came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and that the Resurrection actually happened.

“The great truths which the apostles declared, were that Christ had risen from the dead, and that only through repentance from sin, and faith in him, could men hope for salvation,” wrote Greenleaf.

This doctrine they asserted with one voice, everywhere, not only under the greatest discouragements, but in the face of the most appalling terrors that can be presented to the mind of man. Their master had recently perished as a malefactor, by the sentence of a public tribunal. His religion sought to overthrow the religions of the whole world.

The laws of every country were against the teaching of his disciples. The interests and passions of all the rulers and great men in the world were against them. The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes imprisonments, torments and cruel deaths.

Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they endured undismayed, nay, rejoicing. As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience and unflinching courage.

They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually rose from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.

If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error. To have persisted in so gross a falsehood, after it was known to them, was not only to encounter, for life, all the evils which man could inflict, from without, but to endure also the pangs of inward and conscious guilt; with no hope of future peace, no testimony of a good conscience, no expectation of honor or esteem among men, no hope of happiness in this life, or in the world to come.

Greenleaf explained that the apostles had absolutely no motive for fabrication – and every human motive to recant their stories. But they did not.

“It would also have been irreconcilable with the fact that they were good men,” Greenleaf continued.

But it is impossible to read their writings, and not feel that we are conversing with men eminently holy, and of tender consciences, with men acting under an abiding sense of the presence and omniscience of God, and of their accountability to him, living in his fear, and walking in his ways. Now, though, in a single instance, a good man may fall, when under strong temptations, yet he is not found persisting, for years, in deliberated falsehood, asserted with the most solemn appeals to God, without the slightest temptation or motive, and against all the opposing interests which reign in the human breast.

If, on the contrary, they are supposed to have been bad men, it is incredible that such men should have chosen this form of imposture; enjoining, as it does, unfeigned repentance, the utter forsaking and abhorrence of all falsehood and of every other sin, the practice of daily self-denial, self-abasement and self-sacrifice, the crucifixion of the flesh with all its earthly appetites and desires, indifference to the honors, and hearty contempt of the vanities of the world; and inculcating perfect purity of heart and life, and intercourse of the soul with heaven. It is incredible, that bad men should invent falsehoods, to promote the religion of the God of truth. The supposition is suicidal.

If they did believe in a future state of retribution, a heaven and a hell hereafter, they took the most certain course, if false witnesses, to secure the latter for their portion. And if, still being bad men, they did not believe in future punishment, how came they to invent [that] which was to destroy all their prospects of worldly honor and happiness, and to ensure their misery in this life? From these absurdities there is no escape, but in the perfect conviction and admission that they were good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.

Greenleaf concluded: “Either the men of Galilee were men of superlative wisdom, and extensive knowledge and experience, and of deeper skill in the arts of deception, than any and all others, before or after them, or they have truly stated the astonishing things which they saw and heard.”

I agree.

Yet it seems the more learned we supposedly become, the more difficult it is for some to see the Truth.

What do you think? Were the apostles ordinary men who witnessed the extraordinary? Or were they extraordinary men who gave their own lives for the strange purpose of deceiving others?

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.