Modern people commonly assume that pre-modern people were stupid, inhabiting a primitive fantasy world detached from reality, unenlightened by science and awash in superstition. Such gullible minds, some modern “realists” claim, merely imagined the resurrection of Christ.
This is a largely baseless prejudice. Pre-modern people knew death intimately, in a way that most of us today don’t. For them, death occurred at home, in battle, through accidents or as a result of plague, not in a sterile hospital staffed by cool, efficient professionals. It was up close, personal and very visible. Family or friends typically disposed of the bodies of their dead. They couldn’t delegate that final service to others.
Thus, to suggest that the first Christians believed that Jesus rose from the tomb because they didn’t grasp the nature of death is to speak flat nonsense. Nobody knew better than they did that dead bodies don’t return to life.
When, on Easter morning, Mary Magdalene and the other women reported their encounter with the angels at the empty tomb to the apostles, “their words seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11). Even after Peter himself had gone to the sepulcher, seeing it vacant and Jesus’ burial shroud neatly folded within, he “departed, wondering in himself at that which was come to pass” (Luke 24:12; John 20:7). He didn’t naively rush to believe.
Jesus appeared to 10 of the remaining 11 apostles that evening, but Thomas wasn’t there with them. And then, despite their collective testimony that “We have seen the Lord,” he insisted, “Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hands into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
The New Testament accounts suggest not gullibility on the part of the first Christian disciples but skepticism — the skepticism that some imagine is reserved for enlightened moderns. In the ancient world, as in ours, the dead don’t commonly return.
But skepticism maintained too long is foolishness, and the disciples’ incredulity was shattered by their experience with the risen Lord. The seeming defeat of the cross was swallowed up in the fact of the resurrection. The disciples were transformed. On the Saturday of Passover weekend, while the Lord’s body lay in his tomb — though, unannounced to mortals, he was at work organizing the proclamation of the gospel among the spirits of the dead (1 Peter 3:18-20; 4:6; Doctrine and Covenants 138) — the disciples, fearing further arrests and executions, literally discouraged at the apparent failure of their leader, were in hiding.
And yet, the four gospels testify that, with the exception of Thomas, they saw Jesus alive again the next day. “My Lord and my God,” said Thomas to Jesus when he too had actually seen the risen Savior (John 20:28).
Jesus trained them for 40 subsequent days and then commanded that they await the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them before acting further (Acts 1:3-4). That descent occurred at Pentecost, 50 days after the crucifixion. Instantly, the remaining apostles were out on the streets of Jerusalem, boldly testifying, at great personal risk, of Christ’s resurrection (see Acts 2-4).
Soon thereafter, this small band of Galilean peasants was carrying that revolutionary message across the Mediterranean, witnessing of “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life” (1 John 1:1). And this seemingly failed little Jewish messianic movement proceeded to change world history.
But what of those who haven’t directly met the resurrected Jesus? “Thomas,” said the Savior, “because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).
“Did not our heart burn within us,” reflected Cleopas and his companion along the road to Emmaus after they realized the identity of the third man who had walked with them “while he talked with us by the way?” (Luke 24:32).
Even today, many can bear similar testimony. Someday I hope to demonstrate at book length that Christians have sound historical reason to do so. “We have not followed cunningly devised fables,” insisted Peter, “when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).
Daniel C. Peterson, a BYU professor of Islamic studies and Arabic, is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org and chairman of "Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture." His views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.