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  • Writer's pictureDan Mueller

Doubting to believe — is Jesus legend, liar, lunatic, or Lord?

Updated: Apr 18

Do you ever doubt the resurrection of Jesus? Did it really happen? You’re in good company! Thomas, one of Jesus’ followers, had questions too. This blog post briefly explores some common approaches to understanding the resurrection event, with resources for further learning at the end.


The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.

John, a collector of early eyewitness testimony concerning the life of Jesus, gives an account of one of Jesus’ followers: Thomas. You can read this account in John 20:24–29. Thomas is sometimes given the nickname “Doubting Thomas.” I feel this name is a little harsh, because by the end of the story he believes, so maybe we should call him “Believing Thomas”?!


Let’s recap the story. Jesus’ friends, somewhat disoriented and afraid after his crucifixion at the hands of the Romans, have gathered behind locked doors. They have sheltered in place, in “lockdown” as it were.Then, amazingly, the risen Jesus appears among them! Being in lockdown means nothing to Jesus, he can and does appear to his followers no matter the circumstances.


But, for whatever reason, Thomas isn’t with the others during this appearance. So the others tell Thomas they’ve experienced the risen Jesus. But Thomas won’t believe. Thomas hears this impossible, crazy claim and says: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25).


His response sounds reasonable to me. We wouldn’t believe any old fairy tale someone tells us down at the pub. We don’t believe every crockpot blog post we read on the internet (hopefully!). We want to investigate and experience the truth ourselves. Likewise, Thomas sets out to investigate the resurrected Jesus. In fact, the resurrection of Jesus is the core of Christian faith, and worth investigating. St Paul agrees, saying, ‘If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.’ (1 Corinthians 15:14). So let’s investigate the resurrection of Jesus, along with Thomas.


Now we don’t have access to the risen body of Jesus, to touch and feel as Thomas did (Jesus has ascended, Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:6–11). But we still have many options to thoroughly investigate the resurrection. Author C S Lewis, an atheist turned Christian, suggested there are three options concerning Jesus and his resurrection. Another author (Peter Kreeft) added a fourth. Rather nicely all four options start with a letter “L”: legend, liar, lunatic, Lord. Let’s investigate the resurrection using these four topics as a guide.


(1) Legend. Perhaps Jesus, and his resurrection, is just a legend? A myth? A made up story, like the Easter bunny, something that makes “children” feel nice? The problem with this option is that there is historical evidence that confirms Jesus of Nazareth existed as a person, was killed by the Romans, and his followers reported seeing him alive again. Excluding the Bible, there are more than 10 historic sources that confirm the basic story of the Gospel accounts. (By the way, a “Gospel” is an account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus; there are four included in Christian scripture: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Josephus, a Jewish historian working for the Romans, gives a brief description of Jesus and his mission (about 94AD): ‘At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good and [he] was known to be virtuous. Many people from among the Jews and other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive.’ (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.3). Lucian of Samosata, a Greek writer in the second century (about 165AD) who critiqued Christianity, wrote: ‘The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account.’ (Lucian of Samosata, “DP,” 11–13). Other non-biblical sources make various references to Jesus’ life, death, and supposed resurrection.


So it’s not reasonable to surmise that Jesus is simply a legend.


(2) Liar. Perhaps Jesus, or his followers, are liars? Is the whole thing is a big fraud or scam?


(a) Maybe Jesus didn't actually die? (This is often called “swoon theory”). Perhaps he just looked dead, and when they buried him the cool of the tomb revived him? The problem is that the Romans were experts at killing people. Their military culture is perhaps the most efficient killing machine in all of human history. If you want someone dead, ask the Romans. So, it's more likely that Jesus was actually killed, as the Gospels and historic reports suggest.


(b) Maybe Jesus’ followers stole his body? In fact the Gospel of Matthew acknowledges this option, so this rumour was probably already circulating just a decade or two after the resurrection (see Matthew 28:11–15). But Matthew writes elsewhere: ‘The chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember something that liar said while he was still alive. He claimed, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order to make the tomb secure until the third day. If you don’t, his disciples might come and steal the body. Then they will tell the people that Jesus has been raised from the dead. This last lie will be worse than the first.” “Take some guards with you,” Pilate answered. “Go. Make the tomb as secure as you can.” So they went and made the tomb secure. They put a seal on the stone and placed some guards on duty.’ (Matthew 27:62–66). So Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ tomb was heavily guarded. So again we have a problem: how could Jesus’ followers (a bunch of fishermen, tax collectors, and other misfits), overpower a crack team of Roman soldiers to steal the body? On top of this, later in life the followers of Jesus were persecuted, some to death — it doesn’t make sense for someone to go to their death for a lie.


So it’s also not likely that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie.


(3) Lunatic. Perhaps Jesus and his followers were crazy? Maybe they wanted to believe it so much, that they hallucinated the whole thing? But there are a few problems with this proposal.


(a) First, Jesus did what he said he would do. In the Gospels, it’s recorded that Jesus said he would die and rise again. And this is apparently what happened! A lunatic says crazy things that don't happen. But if they happen, well, then they’re not a lunatic but a prophet.


(b) Secondly, the risen Jesus wasn't just seen by a handful of people. Matthew reports that Jesus appeared to a group of women (Matthew 28:1–10). In John, there are more than just the Eleven in the locked room (John 20:19–23). Luke reports the two disciples walking on the road to Emmaus — he even names one of them, Cleopas, so that the first readers of his account could check with him directly (Luke 24:13–35). And St Paul reports that the risen Jesus was seen by more than 500 eyewitnesses (1 Corinthians 15:6). If his followers were crazy, then these hundreds of people all had mass hallucinations at the same time!


So it also doesn’t make sense that Jesus’ followers were lunatics and had hallucinations.


(4) Lord. That just leaves one remaining possibility: Jesus is who he said. Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, the Lord of life. We’re told that after investigating the risen Jesus, Thomas exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). We can imagine him dropping to his knees in worship and praise as he realises that Jesus is his Lord and Master. If Jesus is who he said, then this changes everything! This realisation should be like an earthquake in your life, disrupting everything. The world has changed with the resurrection. God has come to you in the risen Jesu Christ. He freely offers you forgiveness, peace, and new life with purpose and meaning. And nothing that happens in this life can take away this peace with God.


One aspect that strikes me in this whole account is that neither the other disciples, nor Jesus, chastise Thomas for his investigation. They don’t say, “Oh come on now Thomas, just take us at our word!” No, both the disciples, and Jesus in particular, accept and welcome his enquiries. I think there’s a lesson for us here: it’s is okay for our family, our friends, us, to doubt. It’s okay to ask questions and explore the foundation of our faith. It’s okay to investigate the resurrection of Jesus with all the human resources at our disposal (logic, history, experience, etc).


Yet after his investigation, Thomas importantly makes a response: “My Lord and my God.” How will you respond today to our investigation into the resurrection of Jesus?


(a) If you're not yet a follower of Jesus, then I encourage you to continue your investigation into the risen Jesus. Thomas sought to have an encounter with the risen Jesus. You too can seek Jesus’ presence. Jesus is present in his Word — the Bible. Read it. Google “read the Bible.” Read one of the Gospel accounts. Mark is short. Or perhaps try John. Immanuel Church would be happy to arrange someone to read a gospel with you (in person or via video call) — contact our Church Office. City Bible Forum has a great reading guide called “Fact or fiction: Resurrection Reading Guide (citybibleforum.org/city/episode/fact-or-fiction). There are also heaps of other resources giving convincing evidence for the resurrection (see below).


Jesus is also present inside believers (this is one reason the church is sometimes called “the body of Christ”). When Jesus breathed on to his disciples, he gave them his Spirit (John 20:21–23). Jesus lives inside his disciples and followers. So, when you talk to a trusted Christian, you are also having an encounter with the risen Jesus, just like Thomas. Why not chat with a Christian?


(b) If you are already a follower of Jesus, then I encourage you to continue exploring the resurrection yourself, so that you are ready to give a reason for the hope that you have (1 Peter 3:15). Try the City Bible Forum Resurrection Reading Guide yourself. There are heaps of other wonderful resources to strengthen your faith (see list below). The other disciples kept telling Thomas what they had experienced. “We have seen the Lord!” they say to him (John 20:25). So tell someone else about the risen Jesus. Tell someone what you are reading, and invite them to read along with you. Keep walking with them as you investigate the resurrection together. If someone asks you a question you don't know, be honest, say that you don't know, but then ask if they want to seek out an answer together with you.


After his investigation, Thomas confessed his faith. He exclaimed “My Lord and my God.” Who do you believe Jesus is? Is he a legend or myth? But this fails to address the historic evidence that records Jesus of Nazareth was crucified by the Romans and seen alive by his followers. Is Jesus a liar and the whole resurrection a fraud? This too seems implausible — the tomb was guarded and his followers would not die for a lie. Is Jesus a lunatic and his disciples crazy? But Jesus did what he said and there are hundreds of eyewitnesses who claim to have seen Jesus alive. The gospel of John, “this Word of God,” was written so that you might believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ and Son of God (John 20:31). So, as you continue investigating the resurrection, may you boldly confess your faith with Thomas that Jesus is your Lord and your God. Amen!


Resources for further learning:



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