A middle eastern bearded man who was a threat to the empire is summarily executed, while rumours quickly spread that the man did not really die.
Conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden’s death are already appearing days after it happened. Was he really killed? Where’s his body? Why won’t the president release the photograph? If this is the case days later, what will the stories be in a few decades time? In a couple of thousand years?
How does this situation compare to the aftermath of Jesus’ death and resurrection? Does it lend credibility to sceptics who would see the empty tomb and resurrection stories as the conspiracy theory of an extremist group?
I think the questions are valid ones for sceptics to ask. (Not that I’ve heard them asking them, but the sceptical side of my brain was weighing up the comparison this morning.) But I see a number of important differences.
1. The source of the conspiracy theory is not Bin Laden’s inner circle. It’s people who are much more removed, people without the facts, Americans who are used to seeing conspiracy theories in everything and Muslim extremists who don’t trust anything the West tells them.
2. Jesus’ execution was very public while Bin Laden’s was not. Jesus’ resurrection was also public, with many of his disciples testifying to seeing him in the days after the resurrection. (Of course, the sceptic will ask why only believers saw him, and insist that the empty tomb tradition of Mark is the earliest account, while the resurrection stories are a later fabrication.)
3. The early church responded in a way consistent with Jesus’ resurrection: they grew quickly, motivated by a deep love and hope and performing acts of service and compassion. They did not seek revenge and they did not go through a crisis. I expect both of these could be the outcome within Al-Qaeda. Of course, Al-Qaeda is a group with a very different ideology to the first Christians and they may go through a resurgence stirred up by Bin Laden’s martyrdom. I am not sure what I would make of such an event in relation to the early church.