The Jesus Movement: From Bust to Boom

By all immediate measures, Jesus’s ministry was a total failure. But it wasn’t for lack of effort or commitment.

At the prime of life, Jesus left his carpentry bench in Nazareth for the dusty roads of Palestine. For three years he promoted his brand, wowing crowds with miracles and captivating them with his teaching. On more than one occasion he drew thousands to a remote place to see him and hear him. He invested himself in the training of twelve handpicked men to carry his message to the world. But, despite all of his good intentions and effort, at the time of his death, his following numbered scarcely more than one hundred individuals.

Worse, at the end of his ministry, one of his trainees betrayed him, another vigorously denied him, and the rest abandoned him, leaving a handful of women to stand by and mourn as life oozed out of his scourged and nail-pierced body.

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When the stone was rolled over the mouth of the tomb, Jesus was just one more in the parade of misguided leaders whose visionary movements failed to outlive them. Or so it seemed. Within two months after his death, something extraordinary happened: the Jesus Movement didn’t wither and collapse; it flourished.

Numbers and Impact
Within the span of a few weeks, the small band of deserters regrouped and their ranks began to swell—first to 3,000, then to 5,000 (not including women)—despite sustained opposition from detractors. And for two thousand years their ranks have continued to increase, making Christianity the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion adherents and counting.

But it is more than numbers that make Christianity a singular phenomenon: Against every other movement, ideology, and belief system, the culture-shaping impact of Christianity is unequaled. In fact, Christianity is the seed from which Western civilization sprang up and blossomed.

It was the belief in an intelligible universe populated with intelligent beings whom the Creator entrusted to care for, manage, and enrich his handiwork that enabled the shift from astrology and alchemy to modern science. Christian notions about equality, freedom, and man as a divinely endowed being led to the Western rule of law. Sacrificial love, as taught and modeled by Jesus, inspired the establishment of the first hospitals, orphanages, and charities. And believers who took their faith into the public square, rather than leave it at the doorstep of the church, became the vanguard of the great social movements of abolition, suffrage, and civil rights.

If this doesn’t strike you as strange, it should.

Screaming for Explanation
The Macedonian Empire of Alexander the Great began splintering soon after his death. Within five centuries of the assassination of Julius Caesar (the “dictator in perpetuity”), his “Eternal City” was sacked, leading to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Scarcely one century after the death of Karl Marx, the Berlin Wall fell, the rest of the Iron Curtain came down, and the Eastern Bloc was dismantled.

Yet the kingdom inaugurated by a Galilean carpenter has not only endured for two millennia, it has grown numerically and influentially, despite being driven underground for the first 300 years of its existence, and being a target of persecution from its beginning to the present day.

How did Jesus accomplish what no other person in history ever accomplished? The phenomenon of the Church is a fact screaming for explanation.

It stems from the fact that the early Christians believed, really believed, that Jesus was more than a great moral teacher or charismatic leader; they believed that he was Lord and God. Their belief was based on the testimony of the Apostles who claimed to have seen something that defied scientific explanation, reason, and common sense: the risen Lord.

Singular and Unprecedented
When Jesus, three days dead, passed through the locked door of the upper room, the disciples became witnesses to a thing unprecedented in history.

Sure, there were cases of resuscitations by physicians and stories of “raisings” by metaphysicians. There were the biblical accounts of the Sidonian widow’s son raised by Elijah and the Shunammite’s son who was raised by Elisha, as well as Jesus’s raisings of Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus that the disciples were privileged to witness firsthand. But never before had the disciples (or anyone else) known of a dead person rising on their own power and in a reconstituted body. Only Jesus had done that.

Initially dazed and confused by what they had seen, the disciples soon realized that Jesus’s mastery over death only made sense if he was the God he had claimed to be. The disciples became so convinced about the Resurrection (and what it meant) that barely one month after they bailed on their crushed leader, they boldly entered Jerusalem to broadcast their news to the most unsympathetic audience on the planet.

The Turnabout
The shift from jellyfish to iron man was exemplified in Peter.

Shortly following his second imprisonment for preaching the Resurrection, Peter was brought before the Sanhedrin for repeatedly defying their gag order. After the robed masters rail against his intransigence, Peter responds bluntly: “We must obey God rather than men!” Then, continuing in his obduracy, Peter reprises his unwelcome testimony:

The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him. (My emphasis.)

Talk about chutzpah! Especially recalling that just a few weeks prior, Peter cursed at the suggestion that he even knew Jesus. The only rational explanation for Peter’s turnaround is that he really believed in the Resurrection, and the only rational explanation for his belief is that the Resurrection really occurred.

A Mistake or Ruse?
Could Peter and the other eyewitnesses have been mistaken about what they had seen? Hardly—considering that all of them remained steadfast in their belief, despite every motivation and opportunity to reconsider what had happened that Sunday morning and in the weeks that followed. This extended even to the point of martyrdom, an end which all but one of the Apostles suffered. None of the Apostles ever retracted or revised their testimony.

Could the disciples have hatched the whole Resurrection story for some personal gain? This was the explanation the robed masters leaked shortly after receiving the shocking news of the empty tomb, and it is what is commonly held today among critics who spin various Passover plot scenarios. But as has been competently argued by others, while people may die for what they believe to be true, they won’t die for what they know to be false.

The Test
It is not a little ironic that after Peter’s saucy response to the Sanhedrin, one of their number, Gamaliel, proposed a litmus to his colleagues:

Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.

Gamaliel was right. If Jesus was just another dead messianic leader, his following would have come to nothing—but it didn’t. Despite the suppressive forces of the cross, the stake, the coliseum, the gulag, and anti-religious legislation, law suits, speech codes, and political correctness, the kingdom has steadily advanced in the hearts of men and in man’s institutions.

Outside of the truth of the Resurrection, the phenomenon of the Church is inexplicable—a fact which itself is sufficient to establish that the “faith once given” was given by none other than God. By his own criterion Gamaliel would be compelled to agree, as would persons of any era who honestly consider the facts.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “Trial of the Apostle Paul” painted by Nikolai K. Bodarevski (1850-1921).


  • Regis Nicoll

    Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. He is the author of Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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