My sister Angie died in January 2004. I believe this to be the case. In fact, I am so convicted of the veracity of her death, I say without hesitation that I am certain that she died. No, no . . . not in a mathematically certain sense. No, not in an infallible sense. For cases such as these are not like mathematics, and I am not infallible. Therefore, by definition, I could be wrong. But I am not. Angie is indeed dead.
(Please forgive the rather morbid illustration that I use here. I only include it because of its relevance to the issue at hand. I love and miss my sister more than you know.)
Let me tell you a bit of the story:
I got a phone call from the medical examiner while on Hwy 635 in Dallas, TX. I did not recognize the phone number, but I answered it anyway.
“Is this Michael Patton?” the voice said.
“Yes, it is,” I responded with curiosity to this heavily-accented country voice.
“Are you in your car?”
“Yes, I am,” I said, with an increasing amount of curiosity and a growing degree of fear.
“Is your family with you?” he asked.
“Yes, they are,” I said, this time with more fear than curiosity.
“Could you pull over, please?” he requested.
By this point, I knew what was next.
Let me pause for a moment and let you in on something: I have never in my life had some random unidentified person call me and ask these questions while driving down the road. Neither have I received such a phone call since. And I hope I never do again. Just think about it. My cell phone rings in my car and an unfamiliar, heavily-accented voice that sounds like Brooks, Dunn, or Haggard asks me to pull over. What was I to think of that? Pull over? Why? There was a fleeting thought that popped in my mind. In retrospect, it was more hopeful than fleeting. I remember this thought because right after the request to pull over, I looked into the rear-view mirror to see if there was a police car behind me. But why would a policeman call on my cell phone to ask me to pull over? Normally they just turn on their lights. However, I knew better. I hoped for different (even the police!), but I knew better.
Back to the conversation:
“Why?” I responded to his request to pull over. “It’s my sister, isn’t it?” My overwhelming fear did not give him time to answer. I preempted him with another question. “She is dead, isn’t she?”
After a long pause, the medical examiner responded, “Yes, sir.”
I knew she was dead. Although I did not have any “hard” evidence, I was sure of what had happened. Angie, my sister, had committed suicide. I did not go to see the body. Though he told me where they found her (at a hotel in Denton, TX), I did not need to go there to examine the scene. Without hesitation or doubt, I immediately made the hardest phone call I have ever had to make: I called my mother and told her what happened. After I talked to my mom, I stopped by my house in Frisco, TX, to get some clothes, then began the three-hour drive back to our hometown, Oklahoma City, to mourn with my family. All of this I did because I implicitly trusted the unknown random voice on the other end of my cell phone that Wednesday evening.
Two days later, I headed back to Texas with my wife to pick up Angie’s car and her cremated remains. As we pulled up to the medical examiner’s office, my wife was gracious enough to go inside and do what needed to be done. I was too scared. When she came back, I anxiously asked her what she saw. She told me that they had pictures of the scene of Angie’s death. She said that though there were many, she could not look at any of them but one. It was a picture of Angie’s hand on a gun. She saw no face, no body, and no blood. Only her hand still gripping the gun.
“Are you sure it was her hand?” Now, you must understand, this was a question of desperation. I knew it was. “Yes, it was hers,” my wife said, with a look on her face as if she felt she was taking away my last bit of hope. But I thought I might need more closure. So I immediately called the medical examiner from the parking lot and asked, “Can I come in and see the pictures myself?” I am sure he was thinking very carefully about how to respond and that is why he paused for a bit before answering. “Yes, you can come see them. But I don’t think you want to.” My heart sank with those words, knowing what they implied. “Remember her as she was,” he continued. “Don’t do this to yourself.” I remember almost getting out of the car, but then sinking back into my seat. I conceded to his counsel.
Kristie had brought out a plain white cardboard box. It is supposed to have Angie’s ashes in them. Even today, they sit at my mom’s house on a shelf, twelve feet high in her living room. I have never looked at them.
I believe Angie is dead. I never saw her body. I never saw the “crime scene.” I never saw any pictures. I never saw the gun she used. I never saw any fingerprint evidence. I never even saw the medical examiner. And I have never looked into that white cardboard box. But based on one conversation with a guy I don’t know, and the testimony of my wife who only saw her hand, my conviction that Angie is dead is very strong. Every once in a while, I have this fleeting irrational hope that shows up in a dream that Angie is alive. She normally appears in some random place and we find out that it was all a big mistake. But those are dreams. The reality is that Angie died on January 4, 2004. I believe this.
Evidence and the Resurrection of Christ
The central truth claim for Christianity is the resurrection of Christ. Paul tells the Corinthians that if Christ has not been raised from the grave, we should all just pack our bags and go home (or something like that).
1 Cor. 15:13-19
But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; 14 and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. 15 Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we testified against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; 17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.19 If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.
While our faith is “worthless” without Christ’s resurrection, conversely, we believe that if Christ did rise from the grave, our faith is the opposite of worthless. It is the paradigm of all history. It demands all our allegiance and devotion. If Christ has risen from the grave, the implications are beyond tremendous.
However, none of us were there when Christ rose and, I assume, none of us have personally seen the risen Christ (1 Pet. 1:8). You cannot search YouTube for official or rogue footage of Christ’s resurrection. Therefore, we have to look beyond first-hand evidence to substantiate our convictions. This is the way it is when we believe all matters of ancient history. It is important for us, then, to look for the fingerprints of the resurrection so that we can add forensic conviction to our belief.
The Resurrection of Christ and the Death of My Sister
As I said before, I believe my sister died in 2004. I have a strong conviction about this and I believe this conviction is warranted. In fact, I believe that it is so warranted that if I did not accept it as the truth, I would need to be assigned to a therapist for treatment. Granted, my conviction could be stronger. If I had gone into the medical examiner’s office and seen the pictures myself I would have even more conviction. If I had been there when she died, I would be even more convicted. But I do not need these things to be secure in my belief that Angie died.
You see, Angie was living with me for many months prior to her suicide. Her life had taken many unfortunate turns. She had become severely depressed. About a year before her death, she had attempted suicide. I know this because I found her motionless in her bed. I carried her limp body out to my car, took her to the hospital, and watched as they treated her. Since that time she was on “suicide watch” in our family. In fact, the night I got the call from the medical examiner, my family and I believed that something was not right. No one could get ahold of her. I was actually out looking for her at the time I got the call, already fearing the worst. Therefore, I trusted that medical examiner without much question. I believed my wife when she said it was Angie’s hand in the picture. I trust that the ashes at my mother’s house are Angie’s ashes. The fact that I have not seen Angie since that day further confirms my conviction. This is what we call circumstantial and corroborating evidence. There are certain things that we would expect to find if said truth claim were really true.
While you and I will not be able to have first-hand evidence, or even photographs, of Christ’s resurrection, this does not mean that our conviction about Christ’s resurrection has to suffer much. We simply look to the “footprints” of history. When it comes to Christ’s resurrection, there are certain evidences which we should expect to find.
Let me list a few:
Contemporary documented evidence:
My conversation with the medical examiner that night, and with my wife in the medical examiner’s parking lot, combined to give me much-needed contemporary evidence. Along with this comes my own testimony and understanding of Angie’s volatile condition. I, a contemporary of the event (though not an eyewitness), have written about it many times on my blog. It had an incredible impact on my life. And here I am, many years later, still giving testimony to its reality.
If Christ rose from the grave, we would expect to find the same sort of accounting of the event and its immediate impact. Think about if an event such as this is claimed to have occurred and there was absolutely no record of it until hundreds of years later. For something as epic as someone claiming to be God’s son dying and rising from the grave, it would be very hard to believe if contemporary testimony was not present. I would probably not believe it.
In the Bible, there are four accounts of Christ’s life and death written within a generation of the event. These are called the “Gospels,” meaning “good news.” Each of these Gospels tells the same story, but are different enough for us to assume that there was no plot or collaboration to fabricate the event. As well, there is much evidence to believe that two of the Gospels (Matthew and John) were written by eyewitnesses. The other two, Mark and Luke, were written by contemporaries of the event. Luke even claims to have investigated everything closely (Luke 1:1-3). This would make him a key historical witness. This is what we would expect if Christ rose from the grave.
Near-contemporary collaboration and impact:
Since Angie’s death, I have had many conversations with people who knew her, both friends and family. They all account for her absence with a belief in her death. In other words, no one has seen her or talked to her since that day. These individuals’ knowledge of her past depression and present absence provides collaborating evidence. This is exactly what you would expect if Angie died.
Just as when you drop a boulder into a pond you get a ripple of waves, so also we would expect there to be ripples—indeed tidal waves—of residual impact from an event so monumental as the resurrection of someone who was the Son of God. Not only do we have contemporary testimony through the four Gospels, but we also have many more first-century documents which give account of or assume the resurrection of Christ. In the collection of documents we call the New Testament, we have twenty-two personal and public letters that give testimony to the impact of the resurrection on the near-contemporary society. Even outside of the New Testament, there are dozens of first and early-second century documents which assume the reality of the resurrection of Christ. These are from early believers, historians, pastors, philosophers, and even antagonists. Again, this is exactly what you would expect if Christ really rose from the grave.
Chronological and geographical information:
When I gave an account for Angie’s death, I included places and times with a fair amount of detail. I said it happened on January 4, 2004. I talked about being on 635 in Dallas when I got the call from the medical examiner. I said they found her in a hotel in Denton. I talked about making the three-hour drive back to my hometown, Oklahoma City. In doing so, I opened the door for you to test one aspect of the veracity of my claim. If I were making this story up, I might have left those details out or replaced them with obscure places and times. That way you could not test my truth claim about Angie.
When a monumental event is claimed, it is very hard to believe if it was done in secret. Providing information about cities for which there is no record, kings who never ruled, and geographical sites that have no grounding in history is a sure way to ensure your story is labeled as myth. That is what you would do if you were making something up. That is what you would do if you were writing myth. However, if the testimony is true, one would expect the inclusion of details. Why? Because the one who is giving the account would not be afraid that his or her testimony would be debunked. When someone is fabricating a story, they can’t provide these types of details, since there is a good chance others will check up on their accuracy. Surrounding the claims of the resurrection are an abundance of details. There are names of cities, of people involved, and of rulers; there are details regarding the timing of the event, and other pieces of information one would expect from a truthful testimony.
Lack of motive for fabrication:
Neither you nor I have any evidence to believe that the story of Angie’s death is being fabricated. I have no reason to believe that someone would call me and claim to be a medical examiner and tell me my sister had died when she had not. Further, there is no reason to believe my wife made up the story about seeing Angie’s hand. It would be hard for you to make the case that I am making this story up right now. I suppose that you could say that I am creating this to use it as an illustration, but that would require a greater leap of faith than believing that it is true.
Everyone knows that motive provides a great deal of circumstantial evidence for things. When it comes to the resurrection of Christ, to claim that those who testified about the resurrection made it up, we would have to propose some sort of motive for fabrication. This begs the question, Why would they make up such a story? Almost always, motives for fabrication involve some sort of personal gain. But it is very difficult to find a motive for fabrication among those who claimed Christ rose. They did not become rich. We don’t know of any issues of prideful revenge. And, in their lives, they did not win any popularity contests. In fact, it would seem that most of them died a martyr’s death. Even the Gospel writers did not include their names in their Gospels, showing us that they were not seeking fame. I am sure that we could come up with some theories for fabrication, but these theories require a great deal of blind faith to believe.
Incidental and obscure details:
When I told the story about Angie, I provided many details that were unnecessary. I told you about the conversation I had with the medical examiner word-for-word as I remember it. I told you that I was on Hwy 635. I told you a rather irrelevant story about how I thought it might have been a police officer calling me to pull me over. I told you that Angie’s remains were in a plain white cardboard box. And I told you about how I almost went into the medical examiner’s office to look at the pictures until he advised me not to.
A good indication that a story is true is when there are details told that are not necessarily relevant to the big picture. Sometimes these details will be confusing for the listener, but make sense for the one who is telling the story. When people are making stories up, they normally only include what is relevant to ensure the substance of the fabrication. In the accounts of Christ’s life and resurrection, the Gospel writers include many details that are somewhat irrelevant from the standpoint of the hearer. For example, in John’s Gospel, we are told that “the one whom Jesus loved” (John the writer of the book) outran Peter to the tomb (John 20:4). This information is completely irrelevant from the standpoint of the bigger story, but is a mark of the historicity of the events.
An example of a confusing detail is when Christ talked about the “unforgivable sin” (Matt. 12:32). Outside of Matthew and Luke, this idea is not spoken of again. It is not a theme of the Gospels and does not get explained later on. All of church history has been confused about what the “unforgivable sin” is. Most, like myself, would say that it amounts to a rejection of the Gospel. Either way, this is a mark of genuineness due to its obscure nature. When people are making stuff up, they normally make sure that every detail fits into the big picture of the fabrication and is easily understood.
I have just scratched the surface of the evidences for Christ’s resurrection. My hopes are that by reading this small bit of evidence for the resurrection and comparing it to the evidence for my sister’s death, you will see that we have valid reasons to believe both.
Let me ask you a question: Based on what you have read here, do you believe my sister Angie died in 2004? I imagine you do. Why? Because you, on autopilot, did not even need for me to explain the reasons why you were convicted that I was telling the truth. You were automatically filtering this through your already existing ability to test truth claims. In the end, you trust my testimony.
But you know what? While I think that the evidence here is substantial for us to believe that my sister died, I think that it is even more substantial for a belief in the resurrection of Christ. The reason why we don’t often see it as such is because of the miraculous nature of the resurrection. People die every day. We experience it. People don’t rise from the grave every day. I imagine none of you have experienced a resurrection. I understand this, but we must be careful. Our conviction cannot be forced through a presupposition that people cannot rise from the dead because we have not personally experienced it. That is what we call “question begging.” It is assuming the conclusion (people cannot rise) and basing the way we look at the evidence upon this assumption (therefore, whatever the evidence says, it cannot say that Christ rose). We have to let the evidence itself produce a conclusion, not the other way around.
For some people this type of evidence will not be so important. I encourage you, whether this is what you think you need or not, to explore and examine the evidence for Christianity, specifically Christ’s resurrection. I think you will find that while your belief that my sister died in 2004 can be strong, a belief in Christ’s resurrection can be even stronger.