Reason #5 The Sudden Interest in the Topic of Resurrection Seen in History
History reveals that there was a sudden and sustained spike of interest in resurrection that can be traced directly back to the empty grave of Jesus.
For all of us living in the Western world the idea of resurrection is very familiar. Every Easter Sunday our popular culture is freshly reminded about the topic of Jesus’ resurrection, and many funeral services conducted around the world each day include references to the “sure and certain hope of resurrection,” etc.
Where did this enormous interest in resurrection ever come from, anyway? And when did it start?
History indicates that there was actually very little interest at all in resurrection until Jesus’ grave was discovered empty.
Even today, the third and fourth largest religions in the world, Hinduism and Buddhism, have no interest in the concept of resurrection. These ancient religions are occupied instead with reincarnation and the eventual transcendence of the soul and its absorption into the spiritual plain.
Similarly, Chinese, African, Native American, and South American folk religions have no recognizable doctrine of resurrection. And, historically, the pagan religions of Egypt, Babylon, Greece, Rome, and the Nordic and Germanic lands never displayed any interest in resurrection.
It was common in the late 1800s and early 1900s to hear academics claim that pagan religions included resurrection legends, and that Christianity actually borrowed its doctrine of resurrection from these pagan stories. That claim has been largely abandoned, however, upon further review.
Paganism has always been focused on the soul moving about in the underworld, and on invisible ancestors interacting with their descendants. These ideas actually tend to oppose resurrection. This probably explains why the pagans of the first century, after showing real interest in Paul’s sermon to them at Athens, began to mock when “they heard of the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 17:32). Evidently, resurrection was not in vogue in Athenian paganism.
Claims are still made from time to time about the Greek god Adonis being resurrected, but Adonis was actually only revived, not resurrected, and his myth has him dying and reviving each year with the planting seasons. This is far from the idea of being raised from death, never to die again. Osiris, as the story goes, was cut into 14 pieces, and the pieces were gathered up by his wife, Isis, and wrapped together in proper order, but it is not clear whether Osiris’ next exploits were done bodily, or just in the netherworld. Additionally, the tomb of Osiris, where his dead body was supposed to be hidden from Typhon, was a matter of keen interest to pagans, so resurrection was never really the point in his mythology.
The Da Vinci Code novel famously included a dialog about the god Mithras being buried and resurrected like Jesus, but real-life experts in Mithraism don’t find any Mithraic writings or artwork supporting that claim. And so it goes with all such claims. Resurrection, it seems, is actually a very unique teaching.
Of course, it was the relatively small Jewish religion of the Old Testament that introduced the concept of resurrection to the world. Job, Daniel, and Isaiah made overt references to resurrection (Job 19:26; Daniel 12:10; Isaiah 26:19). And a few less obvious references to resurrection may be seen in Psalms 16:10; 71:20, Isaiah 53:10, and Ezekiel 37:7-10.
But even in Judaism, the resurrection doctrine was surprisingly overlooked. By the time of Jesus’ arrival on earth, the most respected leaders in the Jewish nation, the Sadducees, were teaching that “there is no resurrection” (Acts 23:8; Mattew 22:29-31).
So, what caused the sudden spike of interest in resurrection that we see in the early centuries A.D.? Not paganism, because the pagans cared nothing about resurrection. Not Hinduism and Buddhism, for the same reason. Not Islam, because it didn’t even exist yet when resurrection first became an empire-wide topic of conversation. And not even Judaism, because resurrection was not a prominent feature of that faith in the early years of the first-century.
In fact, it’s nothing short of astonishing to realize that so many Jewish and formerly pagan people suddenly got so interested in resurrection that they began to proclaim it at every turn, even at great risk to themselves, until the idea of resurrection became the shared belief of the greater Roman world.
What, then, caused the world-wide spike of interest in resurrection after 30 A.D.—enough interest to invoke eight imperial persecutions of Christians from the 60s to the 300s A.D., and then the official Roman sanction of Christianity after 313 A.D.?
History reveals that this sudden and sustained spike of interest in resurrection can be traced directly back to the empty grave of Jesus.