Sunday, January 15, 2017

Evidence for the Resurrection

“How do you know Jesus rose from the dead?” This is the central question of the truthfulness of Christianity. As the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, “if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile.” Without the resurrection of Christ, there is no basis for Christianity. However, if Christ is risen, then Christianity is validated as true. Jesus Christ taught that He would rise from the dead, and in so doing would demonstrate that He was the Son of God. The question for us is, how can we know that He really did rise from the dead since we are two-thousand years removed from the event in question?

Our primary historical resources for the resurrection are the accounts we find in the New Testament. We have the eyewitness accounts found in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the epistles of Paul and the other apostles. While skeptics may argue that these are biased sources, we must be prepared to accept that these are the earliest accounts, and represent those closest to the events in question. To toss them out merely on the basis that they side with the truthfulness of the resurrection is to show bias in favor of skepticism. If we are to do an honest investigation into the facts, we must investigate these sources, and then see if the accounts demonstrate authenticity.

Though exact dates are uncertain, the consensus of scholars is that the earliest account of the resurrection is given in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, which was written by Paul to the church in Corinth within 25 years of the resurrection. Here, Paul quotes an early creed of the Christian Church that was handed down to him, thus suggesting that it had been formulated many years before then. A majority of critics agree that this creed was likely received by Paul from Peter and James in Jerusalem in approximately 35 A.D., just a few years after the event in question. Therefore the details contained within it show that the Christian Church, from its beginning, proclaimed the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The theory that the resurrection was a myth that Christians developed well after the event is shown to be false, which is why even skeptical scholars wholeheartedly reject this explanation.

This raises an important question: if the Church was preaching the resurrection within a few years of Jesus' death by crucifixion, couldn't the claim have been easily refuted? All that would have to be done would be to produce the body, and in so doing, Christianity dies in infancy. This would have been an easy task for the Roman authorities or the Jewish leaders who had brought charges against Him. Instead, we find in Matthew 28:11-15 that they had conspired together to claim that the disciples had stolen the body. Why would they do this if they knew where the body was located, and could produce it? We must then conclude that there was no body to produce. Just as the gospels tell us, the tomb was empty.

Now, is it possible that the disciples did steal the body? They were preaching the resurrection, but could it be that they didn't really believe it, but were involved in a conspiracy? This is an interesting theory, but it fails on a number of counts. First of all, the disciples could not have been prepared to pull off such a remarkable hoax. They had just seen their Messiah crucified, and were no doubt extremely distraught and dejected. It seems unreasonable to imagine that in their time of mourning, they could have regrouped and refocused their energies on starting a new religion based on their leader, who they knew to really be dead. Also, if they were simply trying to start up a new religion, they wouldn't have appealed to the testimony of women, whom the gospels record as being the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Given that women at that time and in that culture were regarded as untrustworthy witnesses, the disciples would have certainly sought credibility by appealing to male witnesses only, unless this is how it really happened. What ultimately demonstrates this theory to be false is the willingness of these eyewitnesses to die for what they claimed to see. Liars do not make martyrs, and all of the disciples, with the exception of John, died as martyrs for their faith. This is why most critics of the resurrection are willing to grant that the disciples believed they had seen the risen Christ.

So now we have established that the gospel accounts of the empty tomb are accurate, and that the disciples of Jesus really did believe they saw Him risen from the dead. This leads us to a couple more potential objections. First, what if Jesus didn't really die on the cross? Either someone else was crucified in His place by mistake or He was taken down and buried before He died. This is an objection that is found in Islamic teaching, but is universally rejected amongst non-Islamic scholars. It is not taken seriously because we have enough knowledge of Roman crucifixion to know that the Romans were efficient in their execution methods. They made sure to get the job done right. Besides, had Jesus survived the crucifixion, He would have been in no shape on day three to rise up from His grave, roll away a giant stone from the entrance of the tomb, overpower the Roman guards waiting outside of it, and then appear to the women and His disciples as someone who was fully revived. If He managed to escape the tomb, He would have been in need of immediate medical attention.

The second, more common objection, is that the eyewitnesses to a risen Jesus hallucinated. Because they all desired to see their Master risen, their subconscious desires produced the image of a risen Christ. Mass hallucinations are extremely rare, but they are possible. However, the appearances of Christ do not fit with what has been seen in any other case. For starters, the sheer number of those reported to have had appearances is extraordinary. Going back to the early creed in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul states, “after that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.” This is significant because it makes an appeal to a great number of witnesses who are still living at the time of this letter. Had this been claimed many years later, it could not have been challenged, because there would be no witnesses to produce. Yet, there were in the early Church a great number of these witnesses who could still be called upon to give their testimony. It seems most reasonable to believe that Paul would not quote what could easily be refuted, but is making reference to real people who bore witness to the same event. Now, if these witnesses had all shared the same subconscious desire to see a risen Christ, that would still seem to be a possible, though highly unlikely, explanation for a mass hallucination. However, we also have the appearances to James and Paul. James, the half-brother of Jesus, was not a follower at the time of His crucifixion. Meanwhile, Paul was actively persecuting Christians. Neither of these two had any subconscious desire or expectation to see Him risen, and Paul in particular had every reason to desire not to see Him. These exceptions therefore invalidate the remote possibility of mass hallucination. We could go on in some depth to describe why such appearances do not meet the criteria of hallucinations, but at this point, it seems most reasonable to conclude that the reason why the eyewitnesses believed they saw a risen Christ is because they really did.

As we can see, the truth of the resurrection is the only explanation that makes sense of all of the evidence. It is evidenced in the lives of those who bore witness to it. The disciples were transformed from ordinary men like Peter, who denied that he knew Jesus three times, into people who boldly preached the gospel in hostile environments, facing imprisonment, beatings, and death. Paul was transformed from an enemy of the Church to a fearless missionary. As a result, Christianity grew outwardly and exponentially in the first three centuries amidst heavy persecution within the Roman Empire. It was not easy to be a Christian in those days, but for those who had come face-to-face with the truth, nothing else mattered. The emergence of Christianity in such a context would almost be a miracle in itself if it weren't for the miraculous event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

It may not be easy to believe in miracles in an age of skepticism, but there are times when we must become equally skeptical of our presuppositions. We must allow the facts to speak for themselves, and the facts surrounding the resurrection of Christ have been speaking for two-thousand years now. No other event in history has so profoundly changed the world. Something significant happened in Jerusalem. I believe that Jesus Christ rose from the grave on the third day, and I believe an honest investigation into the evidence will lead you to the same conclusion.

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