In a previous post, I stated that I don’t think we have enough evidence to demonstrate the resurrection of Jesus. And I don’t think this is likely to change. I can’t imagine what additional evidence could surface that would overcome the uncertainty of such an extraordinary historical claim.
But what about if there was a way to demonstrate it, once and for all? Time travel, for example. Would you take it? And if so, what might you learn from it?
An Easter play
Around fifteen years ago, my church staged an Easter play on Easter Friday as part of our outreach effort (Easter was considered a good time as more people were interested in worship then, and it allowed us to talk about the historical reliability of the crucifixion and resurrection).
This particular play started with a Skeptic telling his Christian Friend that Jesus was just a myth. That brought in me, the Inventor, called on to introduce my Time Machine and give sufficiently meaningless technical explanations of the machine’s operation and its shortcomings (I suspect this required little acting ability on my part, other than having to remain serious rather than laughing at the ridiculousness of my lines).
Once the Time Machine was set up, the Skeptic travelled back to hear appropriate monologues from Mary Magdalene and from the Centurion who crucified Jesus. At the conclusion, he was visibly shaken, and acknowledged that Jesus was a historical character. But, while his Christian Friend encouraged him to consider the implications of Christianity on his life, not enough had been shown in the historical flashbacks to justify all the Christian claims. The most the Skeptic could say was “I need to think it through” (something we obviously hoped our audience would do as well).
I’m not sure we drew any visitors, so it probably didn’t have the effect we planned. But there is a deeper problem here. All of us involved in the production were committed Christians, and would have expected to stay that way (after all, the evidence we were presenting was so strong!)
However, if I remember the cast correctly the two playing the Christian Friend and the Skeptic are also now unbelievers. So much for the infallible witness of the resurrection story.
Some science fiction
As it turns out, quite a few science fiction writers have explored the idea of time travel and what it might tell us about Jesus. Wikipedia lists some of them here.
Some of these stories alter the gospel story: Making time travellers the ones who call for Barabbas rather than Jesus. Having someone take the place of Jesus. Trying to rescue Jesus from on the cross. Stealing his body to leave the empty tomb. And it’s not really surprising: once you permit time travellers to change the past, there are an almost unlimited number of ways any particular story can be remixed and altered.
What I found particularly interesting was the question of whether time travel could be used to prove the truth of the gospel records. Several of the stories suggest that the church would prevent this from happening, because they believe the truth of the records should be taken on faith and not investigated. One of the stories asks whether a time traveller should reveal what he has learned after discovering the Christian story was false.
In addition to these stories, there are also accounts floating around the internet of the Chronovisor: a machine which allegedly allowed viewers to view the past on a screen. Evidence for the story included a photograph of the crucifixion, and the Latin text of a lost Roman tragedy, Thyestes. And the machine itself is now supposed to be controlled by the Vatican.
But I think these stories raise an important question: If you had the opportunity to go back and verify the truth or falsehood of the Christian account, would you do it? If so, why? If not, why not? And this of course leads to the next question: Would you accept whatever answers you found?
Would I go back in time to find the truth of the crucifixion?
To me, the short answer is Yes. And it’s not the only historical event I’d like to know more about. I would love to surf through history and find out exactly what happened at various crucial moments.
But there’s a caveat: What type of time travel are we talking?
I’m looking for knowledge, not adventure. I want to observe history, not to be part of it or to change it. I’m not a Victorian hero with an interest in fighting off Romans or Jews (or Morlocks for that matter). So to me the Chronovisor sounds nearly perfect: being able to view history while sitting safely behind a screen. Even better if I could somehow be physically present with a 360° view, but with no-one there able to see me or interact with me.
I suspect if I could go back in time like that, I would be disappointed by the number of instances of petty human nature and squabbling. The great events of the past would not seem so great. And as for the Christian story, I might find some evidence of the crucifixion. I wouldn’t expect to find any evidence of the resurrection, and I certainly wouldn’t expect to find all the resurrection appearances recorded in the four competing gospels. Nor, going further back in time, would I expect to find evidence of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph, or of a sudden trip to Bethlehem on a donkey to register for a census.
It turns out that time travel, like fictional magic, is much easier to hand-wave than it is to deal with all the details. Consider some problems for our hypothetical time traveller:
- Is there automatic translation, or do they need to understand ancient Aramaic and Greek?
- Can they visit any place anywhere in the world? Or do they need to start at the place their machine is set up?
- How will they know which place to go to? The events around Jerusalem might not be too hard to find, but meetings by the Sea of Galilee or on a mountain in Galilee could be harder to trace.
- How will they know which time to go to? The gospels do not give us exact dates or even years to look at.
- Are they watching in real-time? If so, they would need to either be continually pausing the observation to take breaks, or to be watching the tomb for three days without any sleep.
- Can they see in the dark? Events like a possible theft of the body could happen at night.
- Can they enter places not open to the general public? Some of the events happened in a locked upper room with location unspecified.
- Can they be completely sure of what’s going on? For example, when considering Jesus’ death the best they may be able to do is verify that those involved in the execution thought he was dead. They certainly can’t interview witnesses or do a medical examination.
Apologetic explanations (if the search doesn’t find evidence)
If our time traveller finds a crucifixion of Jesus, but it is significantly different from the gospel records, this could suggest that the gospel records were myths that grew up around a historical event. But it could also show that we found the crucifixion of a different Jesus (the name - actually Joshua - was apparently common in New Testament Galilee). And the more differences there are from the gospel records, the more likely it is that this objection will come up.
Similarly, if our time traveller doesn’t find any evidence, that might suggest that there was no historical Jesus. But it might also suggest that they looked in the wrong places, or at the wrong times.
But one more option is to question the credibility of the witness or of the time travel procedure itself: Either our time traveller has an agenda and hasn’t reported accurately what happened, or there are flaws (deliberate or accidental) with the time machine.
Naturalistic explanations (if the search does find evidence)
If our time traveller does come back saying they have verified the resurrection, what then? Well, I freely acknowledge that I would be disconcerted if a few of my more skeptical friends used a time machine and came back committed Christians because of what they saw. But if a Christian committed to the truth of the resurrection came back with the story I would be less concerned.
Firstly, my last objection in the previous section applies here too: Maybe our time traveller made it up, or embellished the truth. Maybe they had a hallucination. Or maybe the time machine was just showing a carefully prepared video. After all, in the case of a Chronovisor-like time machine, it would be quite possible to prepare in advance. Even photos could be faked: In the case of the Chronovisor, photos were presented that were alleged to be of the crucifixion. Unfortunately, it turned out that there were very similar photos of a wood-carving of the scene.
In order to examine the claim, I would really want to know exactly what our time traveller verified, and how they know their verification is correct. It’s not enough just to corroborate a few details from the gospels, then assume the rest is reliable by induction. After all, part of the reason I am questioning the gospel accounts is because there are inconsistencies and difficulties reconciling them. However, even if they did the remarkable and somehow managed to convince me they had verified both the story of the birth in Bethlehem and the story of the death and resurrection in Jerusalem, it would still be difficult to establish that the baby in Bethlehem was the man on the cross.
Of course, not all of the gospel claims are equally significant. The area I would focus on examining is the resurrection of Jesus and his subsequent appearances to the disciples. Since these are the most remarkable claims, I’d like to know exactly what our time traveller did to verify them (to be fair, I’d also take events like “three hours of darkness in the middle of the day” as suggesting something strange was going on - though in a Chronovisor it might just show that the camera was faulty).
Ultimately, though, no amount of careful observation will change the prior probabilities: the most likely explanation for someone coming alive out of a grave shortly after being buried is that they never died. Particularly if, rather than showing a new resurrection body, that person retains all the same wounds (for example, nail holes partially healed). This is the swoon theory, and is usually dismissed out of hand by apologists (though they tend to rely on every single detail of the gospel records being historically accurate, which is easier asserted than proved). But even if our hypothetical time traveller observed all those details being accurate it wouldn’t do much to change those priors. Remember, all we have is an observer: it’s not even clear they would be able to tell the difference between a resurrected body and a weakened wreck crawling away from the tomb. And they certainly wouldn’t have been able to do a medical examination.
Of course, to really check out the claims I would want to try and replicate this time travel for myself. Perhaps even get several people to use it independently. But this has problems of its own. If each observer saw exactly the same thing, that would be consistent with it being a faked video. But if each observer was able to choose their own directions and their own path of exploration, we would probably end up with competing stories of what happened. In fact, it’s starting to sound like the different gospels.
Individual experiences might help convince individuals, but I’m struggling to see how they could ever influence anyone else. Stories, photos, videos - all of these would be able to be faked. What is there left?
I really didn’t intend it this way, but it turns out that this thought experiment doesn’t help us. In fact, time travel shows exactly the same problems as the original resurrection story. “Time travel” itself is a remarkable claim with better naturalistic explanations (false claims, faked photos or videos, hallucinations), there’s plenty of looseness in the gospel records for apologists to hide behind, and it wouldn’t be too surprising to have different and conflicting stories from multiple time travellers.
So I guess we’re left to take it on faith after all.
If you have any other interesting ways we could verify the truth or falsehood of the resurrection account, please comment below. Thought experiments welcome, even encouraged.