(…continued) Stephen: So you spoke with archaeologists, biologists, historians, theologians, lawyers. As this story unfolded it became a crusade. What was happening?
Lee: Well, I was taken aback. I thought this could be resolved very quickly, but every time I would poke at Christianity, it would poke back. It would have an answer. I’d ask a tough question, I’d find an answer, and I’d say, “Huh. Okay, well what about this? What about that?”
I was intrigued, but also getting increasingly angry and frustrated because I wanted to end this. At the same time, I tried to approach it with an open mind, as I did articles as a journalist. Even though my hope was I would free Leslie from this cult, I tried to keep an open mind when I did the investigation, and, as they say, “call them as I see them.”
And I think that served me well because had I gone out merely with the intention of building a case against Christianity, (or for Christianity), I think I would not have come to a satisfying conclusion. But because I tried to be honest about it– conceding when an answer was given that made sense, and challenging answers that didn’t make sense– I felt more confident in the conclusions I was reaching.
Stephen: So you engage in debate and discussion with these great minds, and you bring to them bits of evidence. For instance, you go to one theologian, you say, “Okay, Jesus calls himself the son of man. He never says he’s the son of God. He never says he is God.” And the answer that comes to that question has an impact on you.
Lee: Yes. I was told that if you look in Daniel “the son of man” is a reference to a character that had divine characteristics. So the claim in the Gospels when Jesus is referred to as a son of man is, in effect, a divine claim. And that is counterintuitive. The intuitive response is, “Oh, son of man, he’s just claiming to be human.” But when you realize he’s applying this Old Testament passage to himself, it becomes something much more different. It becomes a more divine and supernatural claim.
Stephen: Then came the central claims of the gospel: the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the eyewitness accounts. Talk to me about the process by which you came to gather evidence about whether Jesus did die, whether he rose again, and whether the accounts of that are true.
Lee: I was surprised that there is virtual unanimity among scholars in the field of Jesus’s death– that he was killed, and was dead when he was crucified. Much of what we know from ancient history comes from only one or two sources. But for the death of Jesus on the cross, we not only have multiple early first-century accounts in the documents that make up the New Testament; and we also have five ancient sources outside the Bible, confirming and corroborating his death.
Stephen: So, convinced that Jesus did die, you then tried to prosecute the case for the resurrection. That’s the biggest claim of all. How did you go about that?
Lee: I assumed that the resurrection was a legend, and I knew it took some time for a legend to develop in the ancient world. In fact, Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White of the University of Oxford said that in the ancient world, the passage of two generations of time was not even enough for a legend to grow up and wipe out a solid core of historical truth. So, it became important to establish when these reports of the resurrection originated.
We have preserved for us a creed, a statement of conviction of the earliest Christians. This creed says that Jesus died for our sins, he was buried, and the third day he rose from the dead, and then it mentions some specific names of eyewitnesses and groups of eyewitnesses to whom he appeared. What is important about this creed, which is essentially a report of the resurrection, is how immediately it developed after the death of Jesus. Indeed, this creed has been dated by scholars to originate within months of the death of Jesus.
That is way too early to write it off as merely being a legend. And that’s not the only early report we have. We’ve got others in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the Book of Acts– all of which date back very early. They were already circulating during the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries, many who would have been all too happy to point out the errors if someone had been making it up.
Stephen: As a legal affairs journalist, you’re dealing with and writing about evidence all the time. So what is going through your mind as you see this evidence building up, and you realize that these eyewitness accounts are verifiable, and that they are close to the event, and that they’re from some different sources?
Lee: What shocked me was that the creed is only one of nine ancient sources that we have inside and outside the New Testament that confirm and corroborate the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus. That is an avalanche of historical data. I am stunned by this. The earliest biography of Alexander the Great by Plutarch was written 400 years after his life, and it’s considered reliable. But here we’ve got fresh, close-to-the-scene reports of the resurrection that are rooted in eyewitness testimony and accounts. This is an extraordinary amount of historical evidence. And when you add it to the fact that even the opponents of Jesus implicitly admitted that the tomb of Jesus was empty (and so much more), you’ve got a really good case that Jesus not only claimed to be the son of God, but he backed up that claim by returning from the dead.
Stephen: So you confronted with evidence that is compelling. Was there a moment when you realized that this was a truth that had to be taken seriously?
Lee: I remember it clearly. It was two o’clock in the afternoon on Sunday, November 8, 1981. I sat down with all the evidence I’d collected over this almost two-year investigation, reviewed it all, and wrote down notes to summarize it and get my arms around it. A good jury reaches a verdict. The evidence was in, and there was plenty of it. I needed to reach a verdict. In light of the avalanche of evidence that points so powerfully toward the truth of Christianity, I realized it would take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian. In other words, the scales tipped decisively in the direction of Christianity being true. (continued…)