Next to the existence of God, Christians hold the resurrection of Jesus as being its most sacred tenet. Paine professed belief in God, so that tenet was not in question. But he rejected just about everything else, concerning Christianity (as well as Islam, Judaism, and the other major religions of the world). Paine wrote:
"I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turk church, or by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.
"All institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."
What was Paine's Problem With Easter?
Why is Easter celebrated? Easter is Christianity's holiest day, in that it honors the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
**For an overview of the history of Easter, check out "The History of Easter" (courtesty of History.com)
**Trivia Question: Who was the first President to host an Easter Egg hunt at the White House? Hint: He was not a founding era President.
Not surprisingly, Paine rejected the resurrection of Jesus. Thus, while two billion plus people the world over will be celebrating Easter, you can bet that Thomas Paine did not. For Thomas Paine, Easter was just another day.
Paine Rejected the Resurrection
Historians (including non-Christian ones) almost universally concede that Jesus existed and that he was crucified at the hand of Pontius Pilate sometime between 26 and 36 A.D. (probably in 30 or 33 A.D.).
Paine himself conceded the probability of Jesus' life and death. In The Age of Reason, he wrote: "That such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution of that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability."
So, Paine generally accepts the historical outlines of Jesus' life and crucifixion. What came after Jesus' crucifixion is what is so hotly contested today, and it's also where Paine drew a line in the intellectual sand.
Paine's arguments against the resurrection boil down to the following two categories:
1) That the legends surrounding Jesus, including the resurrection, are based on "hearsay upon hearsay."
2) That the Christian church and many of its beliefs (including those about Jesus) "sprung out of the tail of...heathen mythology."
Did Christianity Stem from Mythology?
Paine begins his attempt at deconstructing Jesus by arguing that Christian beliefs in virgin birth, healing miracles, resurrection and ascension, etc. mirror those of "heathen mythology."
**For information on Christianity's ties with ancient mythology, read "Origins of Christianity" and "Is Christianity Based on Paganism?"
Let me first say that resemblance doesn't automatically prove dependent linkage. Moreover, the resurrection accounts in ancient mythology actually seem to POST-date Christianity.
**For more on how ancient religions appeared to have copied Christianity (rather than the other way around), watch the following video...
If the resurrection of Jesus didn't spring from mythology, then what did it spring from? Could it have actually happened?
Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul wrote: "If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain" (I Corinthians 15:14). For Paul, the resurrection was crucial to Christianity. If the resurrection didn't take place, then the entire Christian religion was empty, worthless, and fraudulent.
So, did Jesus rise from the dead? Did the resurrection happen?
In order to consider evidence for Jesus' resurrection, the person investigating it must agree to the following propositions:
1) Truth exists and it is best understood as that which corresponds to known facts.
2) At least SOME events in history (including ancient history) are knowable.
3) It is likely that God exists, thus miracles are possible.
If anyone rejects one or more of the above propositions, then he or she will automatically reject the resurrection of Jesus. As a product of the Enlightenment, Paine was a modernist (not a postmodernist), so he generally accepted the idea of truth. Indeed, his efforts to disprove Christianity are along modernist (not postmodern) lines. And, as we've already seen, Paine accepted God's existence.
If you're in the postmodern camp, however, then unfortunately, space and time will not allow me to argue in favor of the above propositions, but you're encouraged to follow the links for more information.
With the above propositions in mind (God exists, truth exists, and facts, including facts of history are knowable), then we proceed to the facts that we know from Jesus' death, burial, and reported resurrection.
What do we Know about Jesus?
Paine spends a lot of time in The Age of Reason attacking the credibility of the Gospel accounts. In so doing, he hopes to cast doubt on all of Christianity. For my own part, while I accept the entire Bible as divinely inspired, I do not approach evangelism that way. I prefer Gary Habermas' "minimal facts" approach, in which he takes only those documents and points of evidence that a majority of scholars (including NON-Christian scholars) accept. Taking that same approach, I don't need to base my case for Jesus' resurrection on the Gospels. I will instead turn simply to ancient history, and look at the Bible simply as a collection of ancient documents.
The following facts are generally conceded by scholars from various backgrounds and perspectives, based on examining a wide range of ancient sources (including but NOT limited to, and giving NO special weight to the books of the Bible):
1) Jesus died by crucifixion
2) He was buried in a contemporarily known location
3) Jesus' death caused the disciples to (at first) despair and lose hope
4) The tomb was discovered empty a few days later by some of Jesus' women followers
5) The disciples had experiences, in which they sincerely believed they had seen the risen Jesus
6) The disciples were transformed by these experiences
7) Some who, at first, didn't follow Jesus (like the apostle Paul and Jesus' own brothers, including James) became followers, as a result of these resurrection appearances
8) The message of the resurrection was the central doctrine of the early church
9) The message was first proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus had been buried (and where the message could have been debunked by the Romans or Jewish leaders simply exhuming Jesus and parading his corpse around for his followers to see that he was still dead)
10) As a result of the resurrection message (and the hope and inspiration it provided), the church grew and spread throughout the known world - even in the face of persecution
11) Sunday became the primary day of worship - a significant fact when one considers that Jewish Christians were never formally released from the Sabbath
There are others, but the above eleven are pretty well agreed to by most scholars (including non-Christian ones). These facts beg for some analysis and interpretation - some form of explanation.
The Likelihood of Jesus' Resurrection
All explanations (of the known facts) that deny the resurrection (such as the "swoon theory," which holds Jesus didn't die on the cross) have been largely debunked.
The best explanation for the known facts surrounding Jesus' death, burial, and purported resurrection is that Jesus, in fact, did rise from the dead.
**For more evidence on the resurrection of Jesus, read The Resurrection of the Son of God by Norman T. Wright and The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ by Gary Habermas.
**For a systematic, step-by-step analysis of the evidence for Jesus' resurrection, watch Gary Habermas teaching a class on Jesus' resurrection. Start with the video below, and then watch its subsequent parts -- all over at YouTube.
Let me be clear...as an American citizen and as a human being in general (who appreciates living in a civilized society), I support the fundamental right of every person to choose his or her faith (or lack thereof). I believe in religious freedom.
However, along with religious freedom should come the freedom to discuss the circumstances, tenets, and sources of inspiration for the religious systems available to us. And I sincerely believe that Christianity holds up quite well in such a discussion and examination.
Let me also freely acknowledge that the only way to scientifically prove Jesus' resurrection would be to directly observe it. This, we cannot do, so some level of faith is required. But the faith Christians are called to is NOT a "blind faith." Rather, it's a reasonable faith that is consistent with known facts.
I regret that Mr. Paine didn't see it that way.