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Book Review: Body of Proof

In 2018 Easter Sunday fell on April 1st - April Fools’ Day. Lawrence Krauss, physicist and anti-theist (one who actively opposes belief in God) tweeted, “Can't help thinking on those years when Easter lands on April 1, how appropriate that seems to be”1


Krauss’s comment reflects his view that the Resurrection is a matter of blind faith, lacking supporting evidence and believed only by fools. By contrast, in his book Body of Proof, Jeremiah J. Johnston makes the case that, “The evidence leads me to believe that, yes, Jesus physically, bodily, rose from the dead.”2 Johnston’s book seeks to be a wake-up call, both to Christians who “have never moved beyond their Sunday school understanding”3 of the Resurrection, and sceptics who have dismissed the Resurrection as a piece of religious fiction. What unites many in both groups is their failure to engage with the Resurrection as an evidence-based, historical event. Johnston therefore presents, what he believes, to be the seven strongest pieces of evidence in favour of the Resurrection, in an effort to strengthen Christians and challenge sceptics.


Johnston begins by presenting two introductory chapters. The first of these evaluates evidence against the Resurrection. Johnston divides such evidence into two groups: misconception theories (that Jesus either did not really die or that his followers got the wrong tomb) and deceit theories (that Jesus’ followers fabricated the Resurrection narrative). The second introductory chapter considers the context in which the Resurrection occurred, including evidence surrounding what Jesus believed about himself and a defence for the earliest records (the canonical Gospels) of Jesus’ life. These chapters were helpful in addressing, and perhaps pre-empting, some of the counter-objections that may have been raised against Johnston’s later arguments.


The bulk of Johnston’s book surrounds his seven pieces of evidence for, or ‘reasons to believe’ in, the Resurrection. Although some of the ‘traditional’ arguments are considered (for example the discovery of the empty tomb by women in chapter 8, Reason #5), and the changed lives of Jesus’ enemies (chapter 9, Reason #6), others are more novel. Chapter 4 (reason #1) contends that Christianity is the greatest ever transformer of society, bringing with it higher morals, greater freedoms, advances in the sciences and our overall quality of life. Chapter 5 (Reason #2) explores the significance of Jesus’ foretelling his resurrection and the significance of the ‘third day’ motif as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (notably Hosea 6:2). Other ‘reasons’ include: Jesus’ demonstration of resurrection power (Reason #3); a lack of motivation to invent the Resurrection narrative (Reason #4); the evidence from archaeology (Reason #5); and the importance of the Resurrection in making sense of suffering (Reason #7). Johnston thus makes a cumulative case for the Resurrection, not only in terms of historical evidence (as is often the case) but also in terms of its transformational effect on society and its ability to make sense of the human condition. This approach lends depth to Johnston’s position and strengthens the case that the Resurrection is relevant to the present day. Such relevance is essential because, if Jesus is who he claimed to be, we should surely expect the events of his death and resurrection to impact our contemporary world. Johnston writes with an engaging clarity which makes Body of Proof, not only readable but something of a page-turner. One can sense his passion for the subject as the book progresses which is infectious and enthuses the reader.


All this having been said, I found a couple of things about the book slightly frustrating. The brevity of the chapters was, at times, a little disappointing. Chapter 2, which addresses objections to the Resurrection, was a mere seven pages. Johnston’s criticisms of the swoon theory comprised but half a page. He also considers possible conspiracies in which Jesus’ death was faked and simply says that “No credible historian has embraced theories of this type”.4 One is left wondering why historians reject such theories. Johnston’s aim is to equip the Christian and challenge the sceptic. At times one simply feels that more could have been said.


Furthermore, concerning the seven arguments themselves, Johnston’s case could have been strengthened by giving more space to consider counter arguments. For example, chapter 2 (Reason #1), asserts that Christianity has changed the world for the good in many significant ways. This, Johnston says, is evidence for the Resurrection. Whatever one thinks about this claim, an obvious objection might be to ask why society could not also be changed by a false belief. What role does ‘truth’ play if an idea is to effect change? Is it necessary? Could one not look at other religions, and atheistic ideologies, and see societies that have been changed through them? What makes the Resurrection any different? These are important questions, but Johnston does not address them.


Another slight difficulty is that Johnston appears at times to lose his focus a little. His chapter about how the cross makes sense of suffering was fascinating in and of itself, but the extent to which it serves as evidence for the truth of the Resurrection is less clear. One wonders why we should make a logical leap from ‘this story makes sense of suffering’ to ‘this story must be true’. Chapter 12 argues that, if the Resurrection was invented, the disciples did a really awful job. Johnston’s approach is to present the objections of first century critics (Celsus and Porphyry) and to show how the ‘Gospel of Peter’ is an apologetic attempt to defend against their objections. Once again, although this was a truly fascinating chapter, it began to feel more like an exposition of the ‘Gospel of Peter’ than an attempt at giving evidence for the Resurrection.


Despite these difficulties, there is much to commend in Johnston’s book. To give just two examples, his presentation of the archaeological evidence for Jewish burial customs gives great insight into the authenticity of the Gospel narratives and his study on the conversion of Saul of Tarsus brings home the significance of such an event. Johnston’s book is filled with nuggets that bolster the case for the Resurrection and which should interest both sceptic and believer alike.


Body of Proof is an immensely engaging book that presents a wide range of angles from which to assess the Resurrection. It is highly readable and accessible for the layperson, even if its brevity and occasional lack of focus can be a touch frustrating. Readers who would like to go deeper into the evidence for the Resurrection may find it helpful to look elsewhere. For those who are thinking questions about the Resurrection through for the first time, however, Body of Proof will serve as an excellent introduction.


References

2. Johnstons, Jeremiah J. (2023), Body of Proof Minnesota Bethany House, p. 29

(emphasis mine)

3. Ibid. p. 31

4. Ibid. p. 38

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