James Patrick Holding is the creator of tektonics.org, a popular Christian apologetics site that I highly recommend. In his short book, The Impossible Faith, Holding puts one of his most well-known articles into book form.
Holding contends that Christianity so upset social norms and violated the sensibilities of the ancients that, if it were false, it would certainly have died out. Instead, the record of history shows that Christianity managed to survive and thrive in the first century despite having almost every conceivable disadvantage.
One such major disadvantage was the very fact of the crucifixion itself, upon which the entire message of Christianity depended. In ancient culture, honor was of primary importance. Crucifixion, in addition to being a painful and cruel form of tortuous execution, was also explicitly designed to shame the victim. This is why Josephus called crucifixion ‘the most wretched of deaths.’ The very fact of the crucifixion should have meant the end of the Christian faith.
Unless, of course, there was a resurrection, and Jesus reversed the stigma of shame by rising from the dead and restoring his honor. Without such an incredible witness, however, Christianity would have been destined to the trash heap of history, lucky to gain a mere footnote in any historical text.
This is the main thrust of Holding’s argument, and it is an exceptionally powerful one. He then goes to show that other religions, such as Mithraism, Islam, and Mormonism do not meet the criterion of ‘the impossible faith’, and thus their success is entirely explicable by natural means. The resurrection is the best explanation for why Christianity succeeded when it should have failed.
At the end of the book, Holding discusses some naturalistic explanations, including the idea that the disciples hallucinated Jesus, the theory that Jesus never died on the cross, and the possibility of thieves taking Jesus’ body.
My only complaint with this book is its brevity. Holding does not gloss over details or make assertions without support, but I would have liked to see a more detailed defense of the impossible faith thesis. Nevertheless, The Impossible Faith is a great book that nonbelievers will have a great deal of trouble answering.