Recently, during the week leading up to Easter, our ministry engaged in a special evangelism focus around campus. One leading component of this outreach was hosting a book table where we gave away various Christian-related titles. One book in particular that we offered to many skeptics and seekers was the classic Josh McDowell apologetic text More than a carpenter. I personally gave copies of this book to two of my friends who are not Christians, in the hopes we can discuss it together. Reading through McDowell’s book in the last few weeks has made me ponder anew a question that I believe is perhaps among the most significant that any Christian can ask themselves. Did the Resurrection of Jesus Christ really happen?? Unlike some of the different posts I have added to this blog over the last several years, the question of the Resurrection’s occurrence is not simply a theological detail. Whether or not it literally occurred as a historical event is a question that should be of central importance to all Christians, and anyone who is investigating the truth of the Christian faith. Because, simply put, the entire validity of the life and claims of Jesus Christ, and hence Christianity itself, stand and fall on the question of whether the Resurrection actually took place. Paul states as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-17—“If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!” The Resurrection is not only of paramount importance from a theological standpoint as the centerpiece of the Christian faith, but its acceptance often constitutes a stumbling block for many would-be believers. There have been very many men and women throughout history who were comfortable regarding Jesus as a good moral teacher, an enlightened man whose teachings offer many positive lessons for how we can better live among our fellow humans. And such individuals may even be willing to accept that Jesus could have somehow been able to have a calming, even a healing effect on people who were sick and diseased. They can identify with His preferential love for the marginalized in His society, and can recognize Him as a positive force for spiritual renewal and progress in the Jewish tradition. But many would still stop short of believing that this same Jesus, great teacher though He was, could actually have pulled off the greatest miracle of all—cheating death itself and rising again to life following a brutal and bloody death on the cross. The Bible itself recounts similar reactions from those who heard the story. In Acts 17, when Paul preaches in Athens at the Mars Hill, he is given an attentive audience by the various philosophers and intellectuals who populated that great city of the ancient world. And yet we are told in Acts 17:32—“When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, ‘we will hear you again on this matter.”
For myself, as a minister of the Gospel, and someone who is regularly engaged in trying to share the Good News with non-believers, this question of the Resurrection’s historical validity is a very personal one. And while there are a number of different ways that I could go about addressing it, I’m going to use a theological methodology that is among my favorite ways of analyzing the faith norms and traditions of the Christian life—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is something I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog post, and the basic idea, borrowed from the work of John Wesley, founder of Methodism, is that there are four main sources from which we can draw theological conclusions, and which govern our Christian belief and practice: Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. As a Baptist, and someone who has been profoundly shaped by the theological legacy of the Protestant Reformation, I would agree with Wesley that Scripture is paramount as the ultimate source of authority in my spiritual life. But these other three categories—reason, tradition, and experience, can also be of value in helping us to interpret and apply the truths of Scripture into our lives. With this in mind, I’d like to use these four paradigms from the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to investigate the Resurrection, and to make my personal case for why I believe it to be true, not just in my heart, and as a spiritual occurrence, although that is certainly important, but also as a historical event.
So first, what is the evidence of the Resurrection from Scripture itself?? Now some people might immediately ask, why even bother citing Scriptural evidence for the Resurrection?? After all, wouldn’t we expect the Bible to support this event, and weren’t the very people who were most responsible for spreading the teaching about Christ’s triumph over death (the apostles and Paul) the ones who wrote these accounts? In other words, aren’t they all biased witnesses?? Well, from the standpoint of a skeptic, yes. But seeing as the Bible is the main source of written information we have for even basing a claim that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, we should at least consider the nature of the arguments there. First, it is important to establish that the Resurrection is not simply referenced in one particular verse or passage. There are many, many different Scriptural references to Jesus rising from the dead, too many, in fact, for me to recount in detail here. Biblical critics often refer to Scripture “contradicting” itself or to significant “textual variants” that might somehow cast doubt on the reliability of the Bible. But the Resurrection is one of those events in the life of Jesus that is clearly attested to by all four Gospel writers. Also of great significance is the fact that the story of the Resurrection doesn’t begin with Jesus coming back from death. For in fact, long before this occurs Christ repeatedly predicts that He will one day triumph over the grave. In Matthew 20:18-19, Jesus proclaims: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.” Virtually identical predictions are made by Christ in Mark 10:33-34, and Luke 18:31-33. Then in John 11, we find the account of what is perhaps Jesus’ most famous miracle, the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This miraculous event of course foreshadows Christ’s own rise, and proves that He has power over death itself as Jesus tells Martha just before her brother Lazarus is raised—“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” Another interesting detail related to the Resurrection, as recounted in all four Gospels, is that the first people to discover the empty tomb and the reality of the risen Christ are a group of women who had arrived there early on a Sunday morning for the purpose of finishing the embalming of the body. What is significant about this detail, as many Christian apologists have noted over the years, is that in the ancient world, women would not have been considered reliable sources. Their word certainly would not have been held as valid testimony in any official record, or court of law, given their relatively low standing in society. But this fact actually adds credibility to the Gospel account. Because if the writers had really wanted to fabricate evidence surrounding the events of the Resurrection, there would have been no reason for them to include this particular detail since it would have actually weakened the validity of Christ’s claim for their audience.
There are a few other passages in Scripture which shed further light on the fact and nature of the Resurrection, but these relate to how Jesus’ rising from the dead was actually a reasonable occurrence, which brings us to the next point of the quadrilateral. Now on the surface, it might seem absurd to call the Resurrection “reasonable.” After all, such an event surely is something that is mostly appreciated through the lens of faith, and something that happened counter to all logical information about our usual expectations for someone dying, and remaining dead. In other words, far from prompting any sort of belief, the account of something so fantastical as the Resurrection should invite our natural distrust and skepticism. But in its own unique way, Scripture seems to both expect and even invite our skepticism when it comes to the question of the Resurrection’s validity. There are several examples of this. For instance, some critics might allege that the Resurrection of Jesus was but a ghostly vision, or hallucination that was experienced by followers of Jesus who were in denial about his death, and wished so badly to see Him again that they had imagined experiences brought on by their pain and trauma. But the Bible responds to such an objection in a couple of different ways. First, it makes it clear that Jesus didn’t just appear to a few women, or even to the Apostles in isolated circumstances. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:5, that not only did Christ appear repeatedly to different groups of people, but 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.” Note in the last part of this verse the special emphasis on the fact that many of these witnesses are still alive at the time Paul is writing. So he is effectively inviting the skeptic to go find one of these people and ask them about what they saw. It would certainly seem plausible that it less likely for a crowd of 500 people all to experience the same hallucination.
But Scripture also speaks to the individual skepticism and doubt that some of Jesus’ closer followers, His 12 Apostles, experienced upon first encountering the risen Christ. In Luke 24:36-43, Jesus appears to His disciples, and His actions demonstrate that He is well-aware of their potential skepticism. “Now as they said these things, Jesus Himself stood in the midst of them, and said to them, “Peace to you.” But they were terrified and frightened, and supposed they had seen a spirit. And He said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts? Behold My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself. Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His feet. But while they still did not believe for joy, and marveled, He said to them, “Have you any food here?” So they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish and some honeycomb. And He took it and ate in their presence.” So Luke’s Gospel makes it very clear that the risen Christ was a corporeal presence, and not merely a spirit or vision. This point is further driven home in John 20. Here we have the story of the most famous of all Resurrection skeptics—the Apostle Thomas, “doubting Thomas” as he has come to be known through the ages. John 20:24-29—“ Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing. And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Again, isn’t it fascinating how the Scriptures seem to allow for our skepticism towards the Resurrection, and provide proofs to that end? Jesus could have easily upbraided Thomas for his disbelief, and yet He almost seems to expect it, allowing for Thomas to satisfy his doubt with tangible evidence, and yet at the same time praising the characteristics of faith which would allow countless followers of Jesus from that time on to believe in His Resurrection despite not having witnessed it personally. The Book of Acts, which is really the story of how the Christian faith and the early church grows after Jesus, begins with a statement that also seems designed to quell some of the natural doubt which might exist concerning the Resurrection’s validity. Acts 1:1-3—“The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” The phrase “infallible proofs” would seem to suggest that rather than simply accepting the Resurrection as an article of faith, Luke, the author of Acts, is anxious that his readers know that this was a reasonable event, supported by logical evidence.
Whether one accepts the truth of the Resurrection or not, it would certainly seem fairly clear to conclude that the belief in Christ’s rise had an immediate and galvanizing effect on His followers. The first sermon recorded in Scripture after the time of Jesus was given by the Apostle Peter in Acts 2. Here, speaking to a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles, Peter attests to the reality of the Risen Jesus, even quoting from Psalm 16 as a foreshadowing of Christ’s defeat of death, a message which leads to many in the audience seeking to be baptized as Christ followers. What else could have logically transformed Peter and his fellow disciples, who just a short time before had been meeting in secret and hiding for fear from the Jewish and Roman authorities, short of the knowledge that their leader and teacher, Jesus, was not just another dead martyr, but lived again?? British theologian Michael Green says that confidence in the Resurrection “was the belief that turned heartbroken followers of a crucified rabbi into the courageous witnesses and martyrs of the early church. This was the one belief that separated the followers of Jesus from the Jews and turned them into the community of the resurrection. You could imprison them, flog them, kill them, but you could not make them deny their conviction that “on the third day He rose again”
But of course many critics can allege that either these early followers of Jesus were simply deluded as to the truth of the Resurrection, or that they knowingly concocted a false story in order to keep the religion going. C.S. Lewis has famously proposed in Mere Christianity that we have three options, his “trilemma” in regards to how we view Jesus—a liar, a lunatic, or Lord. I would argue by way of extension that these are similarly the choices we have for how to view the Resurrection, and the claims to it as given by eyewitnesses such as the Apostles. It could that the Apostles were lunatics, or to put a bit less strongly, at the least traumatized individuals who imagined they saw a risen Jesus. We have already dealt with the arguments against the contention that Jesus reappeared merely as a ghost or spirit. Furthermore, it’s a bit difficult to imagine these same disciples to be mentally unhinged, who were so instrumental in the spread of the Christian church, and in further propagating the teachings of Jesus which have had such a profound impact on Western society and the world as a whole. As Paul Little writes in Know why you believe—“Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars, or deluded madmen? These alternatives are harder to believe than the fact of the Resurrection, and there is no shred of evidence to support them.” Little’s quote also addresses the second possibility, that the Apostles knew perfectly well that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and yet decided to perpetuate this hoax for whatever reasons, and then managed to successfully spread it to posterity. But what would their reasons and motivations be for doing so?? Of course one could say that they had a vested interest in trying to continue the work and ministry of a man they had devoted their lives to following, and what better way to seal the credibility and authority of Jesus’ teaching by claiming that even death itself could not conquer Him?? But such a theory is severely tested when we take into account the eventual fate of these men. Eleven of the twelve Apostles would eventually meet a martyr’s death, as would Paul—their painful deaths directly connected to their insistence that Jesus had risen from the dead, and should be followed and worshipped as God.
Thus the question is raised—who would be willing to die for a lie?? As Josh McDowell perceptively points out in his wonderfully concise apologetic text, More than a Carpenter, many people in history have died for things that turned out to be false, but we would be hard-pressed to find many people in their right minds who have died for something they knew was a lie. And even if some of the Apostles, or possibly all of them as a group had been initially tempted to keep the legacy of Jesus alive by exaggerating a claim He had survived death, surely the temptation to give up the truth in exchange for their own personal safety would have been hard for them to resist. It would have only required one person to have betrayed the secret for the whole conspiracy, so to speak, to crumble. This was certainly the opinion of the eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal, who once wrote, “The allegation that the Apostles were imposters is quite absurd. Let us follow the charge to its logical conclusion: Let us picture those twelve men, meeting after the death of Jesus Christ, and entertaining into conspiracy to say that He has risen. That would have constituted an attack upon both the civil and the religious authorities. The heart of man is strangely given to fickleness and change; it is swayed by promises, tempted by material things. If any one of those men had yielded to temptations so alluring, or given way to the more compelling arguments of prison, torture, they would have all been lost.” But in response to Lewis’ trilemma, noted Biblical scholar and Christian skeptic Bart Ehrman has added a fourth potential option—legend. Perhaps the Apostles were sincere in their mistaken belief that Jesus had risen, and then over time, those men who wrote the books of the New Testament were influenced by stories of Jesus which gradually became more exaggerated over time to eventually incorporate such fantastic events as the Resurrection. Ehrman believes that Jesus could have been just an ordinary, moral teacher who was elevated to the status of a God by His later followers. And part of the strength of such an argument might lie in saying that the more time which passes between an individual’s death, and the records pertaining to their life and work, the more opportunity there could be for a possible distortion of details, and even the invention of information. But if we take the widely accepted date for the death of Christ to be around 33 AD, we find that the first Gospel, Mark could have been written as early as 65 AD, just about thirty years later. The last Gospel, John, was probably written around 90 AD. Thus we are talking about a period of only about 60 years between the death of Christ and the last of the firsthand accounts of His life. Especially by the standards of antiquity, that is not a long time-lapse. The Gospels were written within a timeframe that could easily have encompassed the lifespan of someone who knew Jesus and walked alongside Him. Therefore it makes it less likely that wild fabrications or outright legends would be concocted during a time when eyewitnesses to Jesus’ time still would have been living.
The chart pictured above provides a nice response to people who would try and cast doubt on the authenticity of the New Testament, while refraining from similar critiques on other widely accepted works of antiquity. As you can see, both in terms of the number of extant manuscripts and the gap between the creation of the original and the oldest surviving copies, the New Testament has much stronger evidence for its textual integrity and existence than the works of Homer, Caesar, Aristotle, and many other famous figures from antiquity.
So it is reasonable, I believe for us to have to entertain the possibility that the Resurrection of Jesus, as witnessed by the Apostles, really did occur as a historical event. Moving on to the next category in the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, tradition, we needn’t give as detailed an inquiry. St. Vincent of Lerins was an early Christian bishop from France who lived in the 5th century AD. He came up with a famous maxim for determining what constituted widespread Christian belief, or orthodoxy—“that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all” This so-called Vincentian Canon could surely contain no more instrumental truth than a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus. The vast majority of Christians, Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, across numerous different denominations, cultures, and periods of history have held this truth in common. So as much as both critics, and those within Christianity have focused on the differences in belief and practice amongst various branches of Christianity, the fact of the matter is that there is more that unites the vast majority of Christian than divides them, a belief in the Resurrection being paramount among such unifying factors. Every time a group of Christians gather to worship on Sunday, they are paying tribute to the honoring of the day when Christ rose from the dead, and also to the rich legacy of Scriptural and then ecclesial tradition which has passed down this truth as being both essential to, and inseparable from, Christian orthodoxy.
Finally, what about the evidence for the Resurrection from experience?? Well here I must draw primarily from my own faith background, although I do wish to cite one Scripture at the outset. One of my favorite verses is John 21:25—“And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.” I love this verse because it suggests that a large part of the story of Jesus is not simply the historical account of His life and ministry, although of course that is significant. But the story of Jesus has also been written on countless human hearts down through the ages of history, and is measured in the multitude of lives that have been changed by belief in Him, a belief which for so many has centered on the reality of the Resurrection. Such personal assurances of the Resurrection’s significance have long been celebrated in Christian hymns. One of my favorite examples, and a hymn that I grew up singing as a Southern Baptist is “I serve a risen Savior”. In the chorus the words go: “He lives, he lives/Christ Jesus lives today!/He walks with me and talks with me along life’s narrow way/He lives, he lives, salvation to impart!/You ask me how I know he lives?/He lives within my heart.” This hymn succinctly captures as well as any I know the importance of the Resurrection not just as an historical event, or an article of Christian doctrine, but as a living truth that is felt, and gives meaning and purpose to individual believers. The wonderful Bill Gaither hymn “Because He lives” celebrates in a similar manner the way in which belief in the Resurrection can offer daily hope and sustenance. As the chorus proclaims: “Because he lives, I can face tomorrow/Because he lives, all fear is gone/Because I know, He holds the future/And life is worth the living, just because he lives” New York City pastor and author Tim Keller is a noted current-day apologist for Christianity, and I was once watching a video of him discussing faith questions with a room full of Christian skeptics. One of them asked Keller–if they made a solid or convincing argument against some aspect of the Christian faith, would he be open to possibly changing his views or beliefs? Keller responded that while he might be very willing to concede the validity of an argument that could challenge or even change some aspect of his belief, this could only really occur on an intellectual level. For one another, more heartfelt level, his personal experience of Christianity was something so unique to his life, that by its very nature it couldn’t really be challenged with a logical argument. And I must say I agree with him. If I have felt the reality of Jesus as a living presence, the Resurrected Lord, in my life through a personal faith relationship, then no amount of scholarly or logical arguments against the validity of the Resurrection should be able to shake that aspect of my belief. In much the same way, we could compare the intensely personal nature of romantic love between two people. An outsider could look in upon a relationship and say that there was no rational or logical grounds for why these two persons should be attracted to and committed to one another, but their opinion ultimately has very little bearing on the situation, because the two people in question have found through their personal experience, which is completely unique to them, that they love one another. I wanted to talk about experience last, because I think that in many ways this is the trickiest of the four categories of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to negotiate. Certainly due to its high degree of subjectivity, personal experience should be measured through these other lenses of Scripture, reason and tradition. But we also should not be too quick to discount its validity either. In my experience in campus ministry so far, not so many skeptics that I’ve talked to who’ve later become Christians have cited intellectual, or logically-based arguments as the deciding factor. More often than not, they have mentioned emotional conversion experiences, or a gradual awakening to the reality of God and His love through the actions of others. That is to say, experiential factors often play a critical role in someone’s coming to faith in Jesus.
As I reflect back on why I believe in the Resurrection, I think it all can be summed up in one word for me—hope. I believe in a God of hope, and that hope is symbolized most powerfully by the fact that even the bleakest and seemingly most insurmountable of enemies, death, could not thwart the redemptive plans of God for all humanity in Christ. The Resurrection for me is Jesus’ twin triumph over death and the power of sin. And what is most amazing about this last miracle of Christ, is that its implications extend to all who believe in Him. As Jesus says in John 5:28—“Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth–those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation”. As I conclude this blog post, it is my hope of course that someone may have the chance to read it, and learn more about how they can be confident in believing in Jesus’ Resurrection as an actual historical event, supported by evidence drawn from Scripture and church tradition, as well as their own reason and experience. But an even greater hope, and prayer would be that someone will see my life—the choices I make, the way I treat others, and the witness that I share, and see in it a reflection of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ. The hope that the Risen Christ has brought me, and continues to bring, has been shared by billions of men and women through history, and I refuse to believe that such a powerful current of love, faith, and life-changing confidence can be based on falsehood. Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed…and He Lives!