Easter, a famous scholar once wrote, is "not primarily a comfort, but a challenge. Its message is either the supreme fact in history or else a gigantic hoax".
Those words were penned by the late Professor Sir Norman Anderson in his seminal booklet "The Evidence for the Resurrection".
He was right, of course. And the first Christians realised it too. As the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." He concludes: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."
I had a teacher at school who said on at least one occasion, paraphrasing Bertrand Russell: "Most people would rather die than think – and many of them probably will." Russell himself, of course, said Christ was "certainly not superlatively wise" and considered Him to have "a vindictive fury against those people who would not listen to His preaching" – surprising perspectives.
Yet one wonders how much he ever really considered the evidence for the resurrection. As Dr Peter May of the Christian Medical Fellowship has written: "Bertrand Russell, for instance, in his book 'Why I am Not a Christian', ducked the issue completely, while Richard Dawkins feels the matter is beneath him." Yet for anyone thinking about the Christian faith, it is vital.
The evidence for the resurrection is considerable. We might list, for example, the fact that the Christian church suddenly sprang from nowhere and took Jerusalem by storm; that frightened disciples were transformed into fearless witnesses prepared to lay down their lives for their faith. We might ponder the fact that all the reports we have suggest the tomb was empty – and that no-one ever pointed to a grave with Jesus' body in it. We could point to the vast number of early New Testament manuscripts and their proximity to the events described – compared with other, secular ancient documents which are widely accepted. We might think about the fact that the first witnesses to the resurrection are said to be women – something that, sadly, in the culture of the time, no-one making up an account would ever think to do.
Attempts to explain the resurrection away have proved largely fruitless. One series of popular alternatives – that the story of Jesus is just a re-telling of more ancient accounts of Mithras, or indeed Horas or Osiris – is dealt with on the website pleaseconvinceme.com, for example. Some have suggested that Jesus merely swooned on the cross, but quite how he managed to convince his disciples in his half-dead state that he was the Lord of all remains unexplained.
More recently, Dr Bart Ehrman has suggested family members coming to re-bury the body were killed by Roman soldiers, and their bodies – along with that of Jesus – thrown into an unmarked grave. But there are all sorts of problems with this – not least that Jesus seems to have made several attempts before his death to explain to his completely baffled disciples that He would rise, and that Jesus' brother James was a prominent leader in the early church.
Ultimately, however, it is best to "taste and see that the Lord is good" first hand. Arguing for the delights of a recipe is nothing like experiencing the actual meal itself. And the Lord – the risen Lord – is, as one psalm puts it, "near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth".