The Bible says that, three days after Jesus died on the cross and was laid in the tomb, God resurrected him from the dead. He appeared to many, he spoke with them and let them touch him, he prepared food for them, and he taught the disciples for 40 days about the kingdom of God. Then he was bodily lifted up into heaven.
These statements about Jesus’ bodily resurrection are thoroughly documented in Scripture. The question, for many, is whether they are credible.
The question is important for several reasons
There are two viewpoints from which one can look at this question. One is what I will call the materialist/humanist viewpoint. This says that our only source of knowledge is our own minds, our own five senses, and what we can detect by scientific instruments. It says that the universe either existed always or came into being by chance, and that it runs by a set of immutable laws which cannot be violated. Because the resurrection of Jesus does not fit those laws it cannot have occurred. This is the viewpoint which I held for much of my life.
The other is the Christian viewpoint. This says that there is a God who created the universe and keeps it running. He is able to do things that are outside what men call the normal rules; we call these supernatural occurrences. He acts in people’s lives. He is able to reveal to people supernaturally things which they could not discover by their own resources. This is the viewpoint I now hold.
We tend to associate what we call the “scientific method” with the materialist/humanist viewpoint. This has not always been the case. Newton, Galileo and many other early scientists believed in a God with supernatural power. They considered the task of science to be that of discovering how that God had set up the universe. Today, as when these men lived, it is perfectly possible to be a scientist, who seeks to discover and understand the normal rules by which the universe operates, and still to recognize that there is a God with supernatural power who is not bound by the “rules” that men have identified. To say that there is a supernatural God is not contrary to science; it merely recognizes that, valuable as science is, there are some things it cannot explain.
Under this viewpoint, God’s supernatural actions do not violate the “laws of nature.” What we call the “laws of nature” are not laws; they are the best effort of scientists, based on the information and understanding available to them, to describe how God’s creation seems to operate. Since man’s ability to observe and his understanding are both limited, these descriptions (which we call laws) are also limited, as is evidenced by the fact that they change from time to time as men achieve new observations or understandings. God does not change and his actions are always consistent with his own nature. His supernatural actions simply show that our scientific understanding of how the universe operates is incomplete, and that there are sometimes occurrences which the “laws” that our scientists have formulated cannot adequately explain.
If you start with an unshakeable assumption that nothing like the resurrection could have occurred, then no amount of evidence is apt to get you to change your mind. But if you are willing, at the start, to set aside your assumption that supernatural events never occur and to look at the evidence objectively, then I believe you will find the evidence quite convincing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ did occur.
If you deny that supernatural events ever occur, then, I believe, you are denying that God exists and you are saying that you do not believe in Jesus Christ. The God of Scripture is a supernatural God. Jesus’ incarnation was a supernatural event. Jesus did supernatural things (miracles) and he said we can do them too. If you try, as some German scholars did early in the 20th century, to take the supernatural out of the Bible, you are left with nothing. Some today say that the resurrection of Jesus has great significance, but it was not a historical event. This is treating the resurrection like a placebo.
Another way of looking at this is to say that we can read the Scriptures from the point of view of their authors, who believed in a supernatural God who acts supernaturally, or we can read them through the filter of our current materialistic/humanistic mindsets and edit out or ignore everything that does not go through that filter. In Romans 12:2 Paul admonished believers, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world.” What justification have we for distorting the plain meaning of Scripture to try to make it conform to the materialist/humanist pattern of 19th and 20th century Western thinking?
In the following pages one of the things I want to show how intimately the resurrection of Jesus is bound to many of the doctrines of Christianity. Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). (All Scripture quotations are from the New International Version unless otherwise indicated.) Paul declared, and I believe he was right, that the physical resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian gospel, and that without it the gospel does not make sense. If the gospel account ends with Jesus a corpse lying in a tomb then there is no victory and no hope; the hope of the gospel is because the tomb could not hold Jesus and he rose out of it. Those who profess to follow Paul’s teachings cannot ignore this and other statements by Paul as to what his teachings were based on.
THE HISTORICAL RECORD
In order to determine whether a historical fact occurred we look at available writings, archeological discoveries and other data. We examine those data to see whether they are authentic and internally consistent and whether their source is credible. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have a remarkably large number of fairly contemporaneous writings, originally written as separate documents by different authors over a period of some years, and later compiled into what we call the Scriptures. We have, so far as I am aware, no documentary or other evidence to contradict them. When we examine these documents objectively, without any philosophical preconceptions as to whether such an event could have occurred, I believe we must conclude that the historical documentation for the resurrection is remarkably strong and convincing. In this section I shall review what the available documents tell us. In a subsequent section I shall examine some questions that have been raised about the credibility of those documents. I believe that Scripture is a divine revelation of spiritual truth, but in this paper I shall look at it simply from the point of view of a historical record of events that occurred and words that were spoken.
To avoid encumbering this paper with Scriptural references I have listed, in an appendix, all the Scriptural references I could find to the resurrection of Jesus. I have also included references, far fewer in number, to the closely related teaching about the future resurrection of believers. As 1 Corinthians chapter 15 makes clear, the latter teaching rests explicitly on the fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection.
Let me start by commenting on how extraordinarily numerous the references to resurrection are. Six whole chapters of the New Testament deal almost exclusively with resurrection, and I have listed 84 other direct references to resurrection in the Appendix. (I may have missed some.) Resurrection is mentioned in 17 of the 27 books of the New Testament, including all the major ones. The whole teaching of the New Testament is that, in spite of his physical death on the cross, Jesus is still alive and it is because of that fact that we can have hope. So pervasive is the concept that I think it fair to say that to reject the fact of Jesus’ resurrection is to reject the New Testament and to reject any form of Christianity that is based on the Bible.
A fair reading of all these references will show that the New Testament account is remarkably coherent and consistent. Jesus expected to be resurrected; he was resurrected and appeared to many; the fact of his resurrection was seen by the disciples as the conclusive proof of who he was and was a primary emphasis of their teaching and preaching; and it was central to the teaching in the epistles. Once you are willing to accept the premise that a supernatural God was capable of resurrecting Jesus from the dead, everything in the Biblical record fits together quite logically. Those who do not accept that premise try to find flaws in the historical record, but their arguments, by ordinary standards of historical verification, are quite unconvincing.
Jesus Knew He Would
Scripture tells us that, as Jesus approached his crucifixion, he knew “all that was going to happen to him” (John 18:4). One of the things he knew was that he would be resurrected. Some time before Jesus entered Jerusalem in the final week of his life, Matthew records that “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21). It sounds as if he said this to the disciples many times. Scripture records at least five. (See the Appendix, paragraph 2.)
Jesus alluded to his resurrection on at least three earlier occasions. John records that at the beginning of his ministry he told the priests, “destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” John explains that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” and that “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:19-21). Matthew records that, fairly early in his ministry, the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked him for a miraculous sign. He replied that “as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man [his term for himself] will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40). John records that he said, “I lay down my life, only to take it up again…I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). It would seem that Jesus knew, from the start of his ministry, that he would be crucified and resurrected.
Scripture says that Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:14). Perhaps part of the joy he anticipated, and that enabled him to endure the shame and agony of the cross, was the knowledge that he would be resurrected. At any rate, he made it clear that he went to his death voluntarily. Jesus said “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). Luke records that “As the time approached for him to be taken up into heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). He knew that Judas would betray him but did nothing to stop him. On the night he was arrested he even went to his accustomed place so that Judas could find him easily. At the Garden of Gethsemane he prayed repeatedly, “If it is possible let this cup be taken from me. Yet, not as I will but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). When Peter struck out with his sword at Jesus’ arrest, Jesus told him, “Put your sword back in its place… Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54). During six hours of agony on the cross, Jesus could at any time have asked his Father to end his suffering, but he did not!
Some may ask, “how could Jesus have known ahead of time what would happen?” The short answer is that Scripture is very clear in saying that he did. Whether we can understand it or not, that is the historical fact. A historian (or a scientist) has no right to ignore a fact because he cannot explain it. But the statement can be understood in at least two ways. Scripture makes it very clear that Jesus was sent to earth by God and would return to God (see e.g. John 13:3). I believe he knew, before he came to earth, what he would be called on to do and what would happen to him. It was all part of a plan, which was carried out as it was planned. But also, God has given to some the gift of prophecy, and has said that he never does anything “without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). If ordinary mortals are told in advance what God plans to do, why should it surprise us that Jesus, the Son of God, had such advance knowledge?
Other References by Jesus
Three of the gospels record a discussion by Jesus of what will happen at the “resurrection of the dead” (Matthew 22:23-32, Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-40). Jesus told Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies” (John 11:25). (In numerous other places he said that those who believe in him will have eternal life, e.g. John 3:16; 17:2.) He said, “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it” (John 5:21). He said that God had given him the power to judge all men, and went on to say, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [Jesus’] voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).
The Resurrection Accounts
We have four accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, one in each of the four gospels. The beginning of Acts adds further information, and there is an account in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians summarizing the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. (See references in the Appendix.) The first three gospels were probably written about the same time; they often duplicate each other. John’s gospel was written some time later; he tends, as would be expected, not to repeat material in the other gospels but to add additional material which they do not contain.
None of these accounts describe the actual resurrection. No one was there to see it. They do tell of Jesus’ followers coming on Sunday morning and finding the tomb empty, and then of various times when Jesus, in his resurrection body, appeared to one or more of them.
These accounts vary somewhat in detail. I think we can expect that of any accounts of an event. (Indeed if the accounts were identical, the sceptics would probably argue that that was proof that the disciples cooked up a false story.) But the same basic elements are present in all of them.
These accounts are striking in their detail. They are wholly unlike the usual accounts of ghostly apparitions. It is hard to imagine that all this detail of the persons present, their actions, and the words spoken, could have been invented. If you can put aside the preconception that the resurrection could not have happened, and look at them objectively, they ring true.
THE EMPTY TOMB —Jesus died on the cross on Friday and was buried in a cave, with a large stone rolled across the mouth. Mark’s account makes it clear that the stone would have been too heavy for the women to roll away (Mark 16:3). A Roman guard was set over the tomb. I think there can be no doubt that Jesus died. John’s gospel tells us that the soldiers went to break the legs of the victims (which would cause them to suffocate), but when they came to Jesus they found he was already dead (John 19:31-34). The Roman soldiers had officiated at hundreds of crucifixions; they were experts in knowing when a crucified man was dead.
On Sunday morning some women among Jesus’ followers went to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. (All four accounts mention Mary Magdalene and all but John mention an “other Mary,” perhaps the mother of Jesus.) Three accounts say (and Matthew implies) that when they got there they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. All four accounts record that one or two angels appeared; three record that the angel(s) said, “He is not here. He is risen.”1 Both Luke and John say that Peter went into the empty tomb and saw the burial cloths folded up; John’s gospel says that John also entered the tomb.2
(Some may question these references to angels. Scripture records many appearances of angels and tells us quite a bit about them, and some people today report seeing angels. I think there can be little doubt that angels exist although few have seen them, just as there is little doubt that atomic particles exist although few have ever seen them.)
If this were all we had it would be a compelling account. But there is much more.
THE APPEARANCES OF THE RESURRECTED JESUS —Scripture records a number of occasions when the resurrected Jesus appeared to various people. As might be expected, different gospels record different appearances. Putting them all together we have a very extensive list. Some of the accounts are quite detailed, as to the circumstances and as to what Jesus said and did.3
THE NATURE OF JESUS’ RESURRECTION BODY —In 1 Corinthians 15:35-54 Paul says that a resurrection body differs from a usual physical body in a number of ways; it is imperishable, has no weakness, and is a spiritual body. Jesus’ body as seen in these resurrection accounts was not the same as the body he had before his death.
It looked like an ordinary body. Mary Magdalene thought it was the gardener (John 20:15). On the way to Emmaus the two men walked and talked with him for a long time before they realized it was he. Thomas apparently put his finger in the wounds at Jesus’ hands and side. Luke tells us that Jesus ate a piece of fish; John says he broiled some fish, and gave the disciples bread and fish; Acts says that he ate with them. Luke also says he broke bread and gave it to the men on the way to Emmaus. He clearly had a physical body. As he told the disciples, “A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have” (Luke 24:39).
But this was not just an ordinary physical body. He appeared suddenly in their midst, or disappeared. Matthew records that “suddenly” Jesus met the women. Luke records that at Emmaus, after the two men recognized him, “he disappeared from their sight.” John says that he twice came through locked doors. And Matthew records that the angels rolled the stone away from the tomb, which would indicate that Jesus had come out through the stone.5
WHAT THE RESURRECTED JESUS SAID —A remarkable feature of these accounts is the extended conversations they report, sometimes in considerable detail, between Jesus and his disciples. A number of important sayings and teachings of Jesus are contained in these resurrection accounts. Jesus, characteristically, used these resurrection appearances to continue his teaching and his preparation of the disciples for what they would be called on to do. They are a continuation and culmination of the ministry which he had before the crucifixion.
On two occasions, both reported by John, Jesus ministered to one of his disciples. Thomas, who had shown great boldness at the time of Lazarus’ death (see John 11:16), doubted the resurrection. Jesus did not rebuke Thomas. He let him touch his wounded hands and side, at which Thomas cried out “My Lord and my God,” and Jesus replied, “Because you have seen me you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus gently and lovingly brought Thomas from a state of doubt to a state of unshakeable belief, and spoke a blessing over future believers. Then he ministered beautifully to Peter, who had been devastated by the fact that, after Jesus’ arrest, he had denied Jesus three times. Three times Jesus asked him “Do you love me?,” and when Peter said “yes,” he commissioned him to “take care of my sheep”-—in other words he gave him pastoral responsibility. This is the last in a series of actions in which Jesus ministered personally to Peter, to prepare him for the responsibilities he would have.
Above all, Jesus used this time to prepare the disciples and to commission them for the task they would have after he was taken up to heaven. He was with them for forty days, teaching about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). Before his death he had said that he would send the Holy Spirit to them. John reports that after his resurrection he “breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” Then Acts says that he told them to wait in Jerusalem and “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” And finally he gave them what is called the Great Commission, in Matthew’s words, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This commission, in varying forms, is reported in all four gospels and the Book of Acts. Just as Jesus sent the disciples out by twos early in his ministry, now he was commissioning them for a much greater task, on whose success the effectiveness of his entire earthly ministry would depend. It was for this moment that he had been preparing his disciples for three years. And the final two steps in this process, the empowering with the Holy Spirit and the giving of the Great Commission, occurred after his resurrection. Those who deny the resurrection must also, presumably, deny that these steps occurred.
THE DISCIPLES’ REACTION TO THESE APPEARANCES —Although Jesus had told them many times that he would be resurrected, the disciples were confused and unbelieving when it occurred. Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. The disciples doubted the women’s account. The men on the road to Emmaus walked with Jesus for a long time without recognizing him. The disciples feared and thought Jesus was a ghost—so much so that Jesus rebuked them for their lack of faith. Thomas refused to believe unless he could see and touch Jesus’ wounds. Only then did he make the stunning declaration, “My Lord and my God.”
This reaction was quite understandable. Despite the careful way Jesus had prepared them for it over and over, what occurred was so far removed from their normal experience that their minds could not handle it. But, as we shall see, once they became convinced that it had truly happened they asserted it boldly on every occasion.
The fact that the gospel accounts record this confusion and lack of understanding by the disciples tends to confirm the honesty and authenticity of these accounts.
THE APOSTOLIC PREACHING
The Book of Acts is our primary historical record of the early church. Its author, Luke, focuses his attention on two men, Peter and Paul. He gives summaries of sermons and speeches by both. All of Peter’s speeches, and a number of Paul’s, assert and emphasize the resurrection of Jesus. I think we can assume that most of the early apostolic teaching had a similar emphasis. This historical record of the early church shows over and over the importance which the disciples gave to the fact of the resurrection which they had witnessed. Jesus had given them “many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3), and on the basis of that conviction they all went forth boldly proclaiming the gospel.
The first thing the disciples did after the ascension of Jesus was to choose a twelfth disciple to take the place of Judas Iscariot. Peter insisted that he must be one who was with them when “Jesus was taken up from us” so that he could be “a witness with us of his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). From the very start, the disciples stressed the importance of their witness to the resurrection.
Ten days after Jesus was taken up into heaven, on the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came on the disciples in power. There was a sound of a mighty rushing wind, tongues of fire appeared on the disciples’ heads, and they spoke in other tongues. A large crowd gathered and Peter addressed them in the first sermon recorded in the Book of Acts. In his sermon Peter relied heavily on the resurrection to demonstrate that Jesus was indeed Lord and King. He said to the people of Israel, “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead.” He pointed out that David is dead and in his tomb, but “God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact.” “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Following this sermon, 3,000 were added to the body of believers in Jesus Christ (Acts chapter 2).
Some days later, Peter and John, going to the Temple, met a beggar who had been crippled from birth. Peter commanded him to walk, in the name of Jesus; the man was completely healed and went about “walking and jumping and praising God.” Peter then preached another sermon, in which he pointed out “you killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.” As a result, 5,000 more were added to the body of believers. The priests and Sadducees “were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead.” They put Peter and John in jail and summoned them before “the rulers, elders and teachers of the law” to say by what authority they had done this. Peter replied, “It is by the name of Jesus, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” The Jewish leaders “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” but Peter and John refused, saying, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” After this, Acts records, “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts, chapters 3 and 4).
The apostles “performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.” The high priests and Sadducees, “filled with jealousy” arrested them again and put them in jail. An angel released them, but they voluntarily appeared before the Sanhedrin (the ruling religious and civil body of the Jews). The Jewish leaders again told them not to speak in the name of Jesus. Again Peter and the others said, “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging 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…” “When they heard this [the Sanhedrin] were furious and wanted to put them to death” but they had them flogged and let them go, ordering them not to speak in the name of Jesus. And the disciples left, “rejoicing that they had been found worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts, chapter 5).
Somewhat later Stephen was stoned to death and “a great persecution broke out.” Christians were put in prison and Saul (Paul) threatened to kill them (Acts 7-9). Paul tells us that, before his conversion, he “persecuted” the church intensely and “tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).
Peter preached about Jesus to the household of a centurion named Cornelius, saying, among other things, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him up from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts, chapter 10).
In every sermon or speech by Peter of which we have record, the resurrection of Jesus, and the fact that the disciples were witnesses to it, played a major part in Peter’s presentation.
Paul also preached about the resurrection of Jesus. He said of his preaching, “we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:15). On his first missionary journey (about 47-48 A.D., some 15 years after Jesus’ death) Paul preached that Jesus was crucified and buried, “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.” He pointed out that David was buried and his body decayed, “but the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay” (Acts 13:31-37). In Thessalonica, Luke reports, “As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” At Athens “Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.” At the Areopagus Paul said, “He has given proof of this to all men by raising [Jesus] from the dead” (Acts 17:18). For Paul, also, the resurrection was of primary importance, as we shall see even more clearly when we come to his epistles.
When Paul was attacked by a mob in Jerusalem and taken into custody by the Romans, he spoke of the resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent hoped-for resurrection of all men. When brought before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem he said, “I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead” (Acts 23:6). In his trial before Felix he said “I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked” (Acts 24:15). In his hearing before King Agrippa he said, “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” and “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and the Gentiles” (Acts 26:8, 23).
Some final comments about this early history of the church:
We find references to the resurrection in 11 of the epistles, some written as early as 48 and 50 A.D., less than 20 years after Jesus’ death. (See the Appendix.) Many of these refer to the resurrection of Jesus as a fact that had been well-accepted and understood, and a teaching that had been consistently taught, for some time before the epistle was written. They show not only that the resurrection of Jesus was accepted as a fact and taught as a standard teaching of the church, but that it was seen as the essential basis for a number of basic teachings by the early church.
Peter based his life as a Christian on the fact of the resurrection. “[God] has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).
Paul, echoing Peter’s preaching, declares that Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4). For Paul, the resurrection is the conclusive and irrefutable proof of who Jesus is.
In a letter written in 48 A.D., 15 to 18 years after Jesus’ death, Paul identifies himself as “an apostle, sent not from man nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead” (Galatians 1:1). From the way this is phrased it would seem that the fact of Jesus’ resurrection was well-known and well-understood at the time Paul wrote. In another letter written in 50 A.D. Paul referred to Jesus “whom [God] raised from the dead” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). To the Corinthians he declared, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:20), and “We know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus” (2 Corinthians 4:14). He told the Corinthians that they “should no longer live for themselves, but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:14). To the Romans he declared, “Christ died and returned to life, so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9).
Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “For what I received, I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to” many (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). He wrote his protege Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (2 Timothy 2:8-9). The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an essential part of the gospel which Paul consistently preached. It is of “first importance”; indeed, it is his gospel.
Paul wrote that his greatest desire was “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10). And he wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14).
The author of Hebrews prayed, “May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Hebrews 13:20-21).
In Hebrews 6 the author says he wants to take his readers beyond the “elementary teachings about Christ” to a place of greater maturity. One of these “elementary teachings” is “the resurrection of the dead” (Hebrews 6:1-3). I think we can assume from this that the resurrection of the dead was one of the standard teachings of the early church.
If the only evidence we had of the resurrection of Jesus consisted of these and other references in the epistles, that much alone would, I submit, be persuasive evidence that it did occur.
Let us look at how these early writers related the resurrection of Jesus to other aspects of church teaching.
Paul wrote, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). Peter wrote that water baptism “saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:21-22). Paul declared that God will credit righteousness “for us who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:24-25). (Also see Romans 5:10.) The resurrection of Jesus, and our belief in it, are essential to salvation and justification.
Peter wrote that God “has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Our new birth and our hope depend on the resurrection.
Paul wrote, “we also believe and therefore speak, because we know that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you in his presence” (2 Corinthians 4:14). Peter wrote, “Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:21).
Scripture makes it clear that, when we become saved, we should become a new creation, we should put off the old self and put on a new self, we should be transformed (metamorphosed) by the renewing of our mind (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:22-24; Romans 12:2). Paul, in Romans, chapters 6 through 8, discusses this at length and makes it clear that our ability to change in this way depends on the resurrection of Jesus and the power which it gives us. He says, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4). (Also see Romans 6:8-10 and 7:4.) “If Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies, through his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:10-11). (Also see 2 Corinthians 4:11; Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13; 2 Timothy 2:4; John 3:14.)
The key to being able to live this new life, Paul says, is to “set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
Paul often wrote about the power (denims) that comes to those who believe. He emphasized that his gospel “came to you not simply with words, but also with power” (1 Thessalonians 1:5). He told us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). He said that God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20). He said that he will boast about his own weaknesses “so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). He said. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). And he made it clear that this power is directly related to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He prayed that the Ephesians might know God’s “incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 1:19-20). In another letter he spoke of a time when he almost despaired, and says “But this happened so that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Corinthians 1:9).
The source of this power is the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Jesus told us that anyone who has faith in him will do the things he did, and greater things, “because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). He said “It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go I will send him to you” (John 16:7). The sequence was this: Jesus died. He was resurrected. He ascended to heaven. He sent the Holy Spirit in power. It was because Jesus was resurrected and taken up into heaven that we could receive the Holy Spirit’s denims power.
A big part of what sustains us in our Christian walk is that Jesus Christ is always making intercession for us. This, too, rests on the resurrection. “Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). “Because Jesus lives forever…he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:24-25).
The Second Coming
Before his crucifixion Jesus told us that he will come again in glory (e.g. Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Luke 18:24). This is possible because of his resurrection and ascension. When he was taken up into heaven the angels said, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Paul, describing this second coming, said, “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). Because Jesus died and rose again, he is able both to come and to resurrect those believers who have died.
Resurrection of All Mankind
Scripture teaches that all mankind will be resurrected,, some to eternal life and some to eternal condemnation. This was prophesied by Daniel (Daniel 12:12) and by Jesus (John 5:28-29). Hebrews 6:1-3 refers to it as an “elementary teaching.” Paul devotes an entire chapter to it. In 1 Corinthians 15:12-28 Paul makes it absolutely clear that the resurrection of other humans depends on the resurrection of Jesus. (Also see 1 Corinthians 6:14.)
Jesus Is Exalted
Paul tells us that Jesus was obedient to death on the cross, and that then “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Philippians 2:8-11). God “raised him [Jesus] from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet” (Ephesians 1:20-22). It was the resurrected Jesus who declared, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). It was because of the resurrection that Jesus could take his exalted place, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given.”
An essential part of the teaching of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ lives forever. He is the living one, who was dead and is alive for ever and ever (Revelation 1:18). He lives because of the resurrection. “Since Christ was raised from the dead he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God” (Romans 6:9-10). Jesus “has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10. He is “the eternal life which was with the Father and has appeared to us” (1 John 1:2). It is the living Christ who keeps everything going; “In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17), he sustains all things (Hebrews 1:3). He is the “living stone” on which our spiritual habitation is based (1 Peter 2:4). “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9). ”He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).
Jesus, anticipating his resurrection, said, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19). It is because he lives that we can abide in him and he in us, which is the essential precondition for all fruitfulness (John 15:5). It is because he lives that we can “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). It is because he lives that the resurrected Jesus could promise, “Surely I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). It is because he lives that we can know the “mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27. It is because he lives that Paul could say “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). It is because of the empty tomb, and the resurrection of Jesus, that all this can be true.
Peter wrote that the prophets predicted “the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:11). It was because the sufferings of Christ on the cross were followed by the glories of the resurrection and ascension that the early disciples had the faith, hope and conviction that enabled them to stand firm against persecution and proclaim the gospel of the risen Lord. They had witnessed these glories, and, as Peter said, “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
John’s first epistle begins, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1-3). Part of what John saw and touched was the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus. It is because of the resurrection that John could call him “the word of Life” and could proclaim “the eternal life.” The whole gospel rests on the premise that Jesus’ death on the cross was only temporary, that he was resurrected, and that he now lives. Because of the resurrection, because the tomb could not hold him, Jesus is the victor, he is triumphant, he has defeated the enemy, and we can have hope and confidence.
Paul wrote the Galatians to express his horror that they were “turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all”; he said anyone who preaches such a “different gospel” should be “eternally condemned” (Galatians 1:6-9). He warned the Corinthians against receiving a different Jesus or a “different gospel” (2 Corinthians 11:4). A fair reading of all of Paul’s epistles (and of his teachings as reported in Acts) compels the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus is such a central theme in Paul’s teaching and thinking, and is so fully interwoven into everything he says, that he would regard any teaching that denied the resurrection of Jesus as a “different gospel” which he would vehemently reject. If the resurrection of Jesus is one of three elements in the gospel which Paul considered to be “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:34), how could Paul possibly accept a “gospel” which denies or ignores the resurrection? Indeed, resurrection is such an integral part of the teaching of the early apostles that it is historically inconceivable to think of a gospel that does not include it and rest upon it.
I believe the Scriptural record is remarkably extensive and remarkably consistent. It tells us that:
I want to emphasize one thing. Some have tried to explain away the resurrection appearances as ghostly apparitions, things imagined by emotionally upset people, etc; or to spiritualize the resurrection as a symbolic or metaphorical event; or to psychologize it as an inner change of attitude in the disciples. A fair reading of all of the Scriptural passages shows beyond any possible question that they are talking about a physical resurrection—a very specific, definite, dramatic physical occurrence whose nature was unmistakable. They are not talking the language of apparition, metaphor, symbolism, inner awareness, spiritualized meaning, or anything like that. When Jesus, before the crucifixion, said “that he must be killed and on the third day raised to life,” “destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days,” and “I lay down my life, only to take it up again,” he was talking about a physical resurrection. When the gospels and Acts report that Jesus appeared, walked with them, broke bread, broiled some fish, ate some fish and ate with them they are talking about a physical resurrection. Thomas put his finger in Jesus’ wounds; it was this very physical action that changed him from doubt to triumphant belief. Jesus said, “Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself. Touch me and see. A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” How could anything be more clear? “Touch me and see.” It was because the disciples could touch and see that they became convinced that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead, and that they went out proclaiming that astonishing fact at every opportunity.
The disciples had witnessed an extraordinary and unmistakable physical event. They simply could not “help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
When the disciples wanted to choose another who could be “a witness with us of his resurrection,” they were talking about witnessing to a very definite, physical event. When Peter said, “God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact” he was talking about a very definite physical fact that he and others had seen and observed. Both Peter and Paul contrast Jesus and David. Although David’s memory and influence live on, his body decayed, but, in Paul’s words, “the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.” When Paul wrote “Christ died and returned to life” (Romans 14:9) he was talking about a return to physical life. When he declared that Jesus “was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4) he is referring to an incontrovertible physical event as proof of who Jesus is.
To be true to the Biblical accounts we must say that the resurrection was a very definite, specific physical event which the disciples witnessed and testified to.
We have four accounts of finding the empty tomb. We have 10 accounts of resurrection appearances, the statement in Acts 1 that he appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days, and Paul’s statement that the resurrected Jesus appeared to over 500 people, many of whom were still living. We have references to the resurrection in 17 different documents by 7 different authors, including one written about 15 years after the event. And we have no hard evidence that contradicts these accounts. If this were any other kind of fact in ancient history, historians would consider it established by overwhelming evidence. By the ordinary standards of historical research and documentation, it would be hard to find any fact of ancient history that was as thoroughly and convincingly proved by the available documents as is the resurrection of Jesus. Nevertheless, there are many who assert that it did not occur. In the next section I shall look briefly at the reasons they give.
THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST
To deny the historical validity of this mass of evidence two main arguments are made: (1) that the whole resurrection story was a deliberate fabrication, and (2) that the historical documents are not trustworthy. In considering both it is important to keep in mind that, for either of them to succeed, it is necessary to show, not only that the resurrection accounts in each of the four gospels and the Book of Acts are false, but that Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection are false, the accounts of the apostles’ preaching and encounters with the Sanhedrin are false, and the apostles’ doctrine as revealed in the epistles rested on a false premise. To put it another way, those who would edit the resurrection out of the Scriptures must not only delete the final chapters of the four gospels and the beginning of the Book of Acts, but they must also delete all the other Scriptures listed in the Appendix.
If we believe what we like in Scripture, and reject what we don’t like, then our confidence is in ourselves—not in Scripture. We are leaning on our own understanding instead of trusting the Lord. (See Proverbs 3:5-7.)
The Argument That the Resurrection
Paul addressed this very issue. He wrote, “If Christ has not been raised…we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.” He went on, “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 20). Paul put his own credibility on the line on this issue. Are we to say that Paul is a false witness about God?
No shred of evidence has been produced that any of the disciples said “let’s make up a story” or “this is the story we all must agree on.” There is no evidence of a fabrication; the fabrication argument is simply an inference. It says, “The story could not have been true; therefore it must have been fabricated.”
The Jewish religious leaders—the Sanhedrin, the High Priest, the Pharisees, Sadducees and teachers of the law—must have wanted desperately to disprove the resurrection. Matthew tells us that they tried to bribe the Roman guards to tell a false story (Matthew 28:11-15). For many years they put heavy pressure on the disciples—arrests, imprisonments, beatings, threats. Acts speaks of “persecution.” Some, like Stephen and James (the brother of John), were killed. But we are asked to assume that, over a period of years, none of the disciples cracked under this pressure and admitted that the supposed fabrication was false. Paul wrote, “If there is no resurrection, …why do we endanger ourselves every hour?” (1 Corinthians 15:29-30). Is it credible that Paul would have endured everything he did for the sake of a fabrication and a lie?
Chuck Colson has an interesting comment on this. He was part of a conspiracy to tell a false story of what happened in the Watergate incident during Nixon’s presidency. The conspirators had all the power of the White House behind them, and were subjected to none of the kinds of pressures mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Yet the conspiracy held together for only a few weeks, and then one of its members admitted it. Colson comments that it is very difficult to conceal a conspiracy to tell a lie.
The disciples loved, admired and worshiped Jesus. They devoted their lives to his teachings, giving up their families and normal livelihoods. Church tradition and history tell us that ten of the disciples suffered martyrdom, often very painfully, and that John was boiled in oil and exiled. Paul was flogged five times, beaten with rods, stoned and left for dead, imprisoned, shipwrecked, set upon by highwaymen, and endured many other hardships for the sake of the gospel. Is it credible that they would have endured all this for what they knew to be a fabrication?
If we assume the fabrication theory, is it credible that hundreds, even thousands, of Christians would endure this suffering and see their fellows suffer and not one of them would break and reveal the fabrication?
Jesus said that he is the truth, that it is the truth that sets men free, and that the devil is the father of lies (John 14:6, 8:32, 44-45). He and the apostles warned against deceivers (Matthew 24:4,24; 2 Corinthians 11:13-15; 1 Timothy 4:1). The apostles taught that they must “put off falsehood and speak truthfully” (Ephesians 5:25). (Also see Ephesians 5:15 and Colossians 3:9.) They taught that liars will be sent to a fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21:8). Is it credible that they would have so far departed from the teachings of Jesus, and their own teachings, as to rest their gospel on a deliberate lie? Jesus also said that we show our love for him by obeying his commandments (John 14:15, 21). Is it credible that the disciples would have thought they were showing their love for Jesus by putting forward a lie in the name of the one who is the truth? The answer to all these questions is clearly, “No!”
The Argument That the Historical
The argument of untrustworthiness focusses on the gospel accounts. It asserts that by the time they were written recollections of what Jesus said and did would have become inaccurate, and colored by a body of myths or wishful thinking that would have built up.
The dates when the gospels were written have been the subject of much discussion. One common view is that the first three gospels were written in the early 70s A.D., about 40 years after Jesus’ death,6 and that the gospel of John was written about 90 A.D. A good argument can be made that the first three gospels were written somewhat earlier than this, in the late 50s or early 60s A.D.7 Whichever dates are adopted, the first three gospels were written at a time when many were still alive who had seen and participated in the events which they record.
I think we can take all four gospels as based on eyewitness accounts. Matthew is generally believed to have been written by Matthew the tax collector, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, a participant in the events he records. John claims (John 21:24) to have been written by the disciple John, whom Jesus called “the beloved disciple.” If not actually written by him it was based on his recollections. Mark was written by John Mark, at whose mother’s house the disciples met for an important time of prayer not long after the crucifixion (Acts 12:12). (John Mark may well have been the “young man” referred to in Mark 14:51, which would place him at Jesus’ arrest.) John Mark was a close associate of Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and the tradition of the early church was that his gospel was based on Peter’s teaching. We know that he was active in the early church, was a traveling companion of Paul on his first missionary journey (47-48 A.D.), and was with Paul near the end of Paul’s life (Col 4:10, 2 Tim 4:11). Luke tells us that his gospel was based on the accounts of “eyewitnesses,” which he collected and carefully investigated (Luke 1:3-4). As a companion of Paul during his journeys and his two-year imprisonment in Palestine, Luke would have had ample opportunity to speak to those who were eyewitnesses. As already noted, the early apostolic preaching emphasized that they were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. This same emphasis on eyewitness testimony is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7; 2 Peter 1:16-18, and 1 John 1:1-4.
Luke begins his gospel with the following statement, “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they have been handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things which you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke took “many” existing eyewitness accounts (his wording suggests that some of these may have been written), investigated them carefully, and wrote an orderly account so that the one to whom he addressed it could “know the certainty” of the things reported. Luke’s stated purpose was to investigate carefully and be as factually accurate as possible. That purpose extended to his second volume, which we know as the Book of Acts. Sir William Ramsey, a British archeologist and historian, who started by assuming that Acts had no historical value, after comparing Luke’s record with every archeological artifact and historical document he could find, concluded that Luke was a “historian of the first rank.” Those who doubt the accuracy of the gospels are asking us to believe, either that Luke was a fabricator, or that he allowed his factual record to become corrupted by a large mass of myths or wishful thinking.
Some have gone to great lengths to construct hypotheses as to how the genuine facts might have become corrupted. Such as I have seen are pure speculation, with no objective evidence that what they suppose to have happened in the writing of these accounts actually occurred. C.S. Lewis makes an interesting comment about this kind of reconstruction after the fact. He says that critics who have applied similar techniques to his own writings have been 100% wrong. He asks why we should believe that a methodology which doesn’t work when applied to contemporary writings coming out of the same culture, would nevertheless be valid when applied to 2,000 year old writings coming out of a very different culture. It seems to me that we are on much safer ground to accept the historical documents on their own terms, rather than rely on speculative reconstructions, most of which are evidently colored by their authors’ difficulty in fitting the reported facts into their 19th or 20th century Western mindsets.
As noted, Luke’s statement suggests that there may have been earlier written accounts, now lost, which he used. Others of the gospel writers could also have used such accounts to verify the accuracy of their own recollection. Moreover, in the Near East of that time it was not uncommon to carry considerable bodies of fact by oral tradition. Jesus deliberately cast much of his teaching in forms that would be easily remembered. Events of this magnitude and extraordinary character would fix themselves indelibly in a person’s memory. Common experience tells us that equally powerful, and indeed much lesser, events can be remembered accurately after a number of years. For example, I remember quite clearly the time, place, circumstances and details of the occasion when I proposed to my wife, and she accepted, over 63 years ago. Not long ago, our daily newspaper published a very detailed account of the landing at Omaha Beach in June 1945, as experienced by one Army Reserve unit. The account, written by a news reporter who, like Luke, had consulted with eyewitnesses who survived the landing, rang true. No one suggested that this account, of events which occurred 55 years earlier, must necessarily have been faulty, unreliable, encrusted with mythology, etc. No one suggested that the survivors could not possibly have recalled accurately the events of the most terrifying days of their lives, or that the compiler could not have been motivated by the desire to give the most accurate account possible. I see no reason to assume that the historical records we have of Jesus’ resurrection, most of them written about 30 to 40 years after the event, could not have been factually accurate.8
Scripture itself addresses this precise issue. Peter, one of Jesus’ closest companions, wrote, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18). Anyone who reads the account of the Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13) can well believe that the details of it would still have been clear in Peter’s mind some 30 years later when he wrote this letter.
John also emphasized that his teaching was based on eyewitness experience: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared, we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:1-3). (Also see John 1:14, 21:24.) “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard”—I think this statement fairly characterizes the whole of the gospel record.
The gospel accounts and the Book of Acts are historical records. They are not “cleverly invented stories” nor are they to be dismissed as an accumulation of inaccuracies, wishful thinking and myths that grew up over many years. Some are eyewitness accounts and the others are based on eyewitness accounts, written by men of proven character who had every incentive to report accurately and who wrote when many were still alive who had been there. As historical documents they are entitled to be believed and trusted.
I am trained as a lawyer; I came to Jesus Christ late in life (in my 60s), and the more I study the Scriptures the more impressed I become with how internally consistent they are and how believable the accounts are, once you overcome the initial skepticism that God is capable of acting supernaturally.
But we do not have to stop there. We have references to Jesus’ resurrection in letters by Paul written in 48 and 50 A.D., less than 20 years after Jesus’ death, and they treat the fact as one that is well-established and understood. In 1 Corinthians 15:6, written about 55 A.D. Paul says that Jesus’ resurrection was seen by over 500 people “most of whom are still alive.” This does not sound like a mythical distortion of the historical record.
The historical record in Acts, going back to the Day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ death, records the disciples’ in-your-face preaching of resurrection, and the attempts of the Jewish leaders to suppress it. These accounts do not read like mythical accounts someone made up many years later. They have a ring of authenticity about them. And even using a late dating of Acts, they were written when many would still have been alive who were present at these events.
Some emphasize the differences in the resurrection accounts as evidence of untrustworthiness. Many of these so-called differences arise because different writers chose to report different ones of a considerable number of occurrences. There is no inconsistency is saying that Jesus appeared at the tomb, on the road to Emmaus, in Jerusalem, at Lake Galilee and at a mountain in Galilee; he could perfectly well have appeared at all of these places and at many others which were not reported. Jesus appeared to the disciples over a period of forty days; there could well have been a large number of separate appearances at various locations. Without attempting a detailed analysis of these asserted differences, let me simply say that if you approach the issue with an open mind I believe you will conclude that they are the kind of differences in detail that one would normally expect from eyewitness accounts and that they do not detract from the basic agreement of all the accounts on the essentials of the occurrences.
By the ordinary standards of historical writing all of these resurrection accounts have a ring of authenticity about them. I submit that the attempt to deny their authenticity stems, not from any defect in the accounts themselves, but from a mindset that insists that nothing like this could possibly have occurred, which causes one to reject the very credible evidence that it did in fact occur.
J.B. Phillips reminds us that “The modern intelligent mind has got to be shocked afresh by the audacious central fact that as a sober matter of history God became one of us.” The same can be said about the resurrection. The modern intelligent mind has got to be shocked afresh by the audacious central fact that as a sober matter of history, after Jesus died and was buried, God raised him from the dead and he lives today. The disciples were shocked by it. They could not take it in, despite the fact that Jesus had told them repeatedly that it would happen. But when they were finally convinced that it had happened, it turned them around. They used that conviction as proof to themselves and others that Jesus was indeed God who came to earth for us, and they based their preaching and teaching on that conviction. It is not surprising that, to many today, the assertion that Jesus was resurrected from the dead is shocking and seems incredible. But that is no ground for rejecting it.
Scripture tells us that God’s thoughts are far higher than ours, and his ways are far higher than ours (Isaiah 55:8-9). This is the very nature of God. If God’s thoughts were limited to the level of our thoughts, and if God could only do what we can do, he would not be God, and we would all be in very sad shape! It should not surprise us that God does things that are totally beyond anything we have ever experienced or seen. Scripture tells us that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). The God who created the entire physical universe out of nothing and sustains it with his word is capable of raising Jesus from the dead. Once we can accept the idea that the resurrection could have happened, then I think we must conclude that the available record gives compelling evidence that it did happen.
SCRIPTURAL REFERENCES TO RESURRECTION
Old Testament Suggestions
Jesus’ Predictions of
(Note: Where different gospels refer to the same event, I shall list all but the first in parentheses.)
The Resurrection Accounts
Other References in the Gospels
Apostolic Preaching and Teaching
Other References in the Book of Acts
(Dates preceding each epistle indicate approximately when it was written. For Paul’s epistles I have used the dates in F.F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, Eerdman’s. 1980. For other epistles I have used those in Robert H. Gundry, Survey of the New Testament, Zondervan, 1970.)
The Book of Revelation
1. Mark and Luke do not use the term angel; Mark speaks of “a young man dressed in a white robe,” and Luke of “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning.” Scripture not infrequently uses the term “man” to describe what is clearly an angel. See, for example, Daniel 10:5-6 (referring to a “man” whose appearance glowed with light and who identified himself as a messenger sent from God); Genesis 18:2 (referring to two “men” who are later called “angels” (Genesis 19:1); Joshua 5:13 (referring to a “man” who later identified himself as the “commander of the army of the Lord,” and Acts 10:30 in which Cornelius refers to an angel (Acts 10:3) as a “man in shining clothes”).
2. There is no inconsistency in these accounts. Assume that several people went to the tomb on Sunday morning. If one account chooses to focus on one of those people, another account mentions two of them, and another mentions three or more, the accounts are not inconsistent; one is merely more complete than another in naming those present.
3. I include in this discussion the material in Mark 16:9-20, which some reject as unauthentic. These verses are not found in the earliest documents, but they are in some quite early documents and have long been accepted in the canon of Scripture. Whether you accept them or not makes very little difference to the argument I am making.
4. Jesus predicted his Ascension (John 6:62 and 20:17) and the epistles often refer to it (Ephesians 4:8-10; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 4:14). (Also see Hebrews 1:13 and 10:12.)
5. Scripture records several instances in which dead people were brought back to life. But they were restored to life in an ordinary human body and presumably died later, whereas Jesus was raised up in a resurrected body and lives forever.
6. Jesus began his ministry when he was about 30 years old (Luke 3:23). His ministry lasted about three years. This would place his death in 33 A.D. (Some argue for a slightly earlier date, such as 30 A.D. because they believe he was born a few years earlier than the date on which we have based our calendar.)
7. The argument runs like this:. The account in the Book of Acts stops with Paul in Rome in about 62 A.D. Acts focuses primarily on two people, Peter and Paul. Both are believed to have been martyred in Rome in about 65 A.D., but Acts makes no mention of these events. It does not mention the great persecution in Rome during the reign of Nero. Nor does it mention the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Hence it is reasonable to date the writing of Acts before all these events. Luke’s gospel was written earlier than Acts (Acts 1:1). Mark’s gospel is generally thought to be the first one written, while Matthew’s is thought to be approximately contemporaneous with Luke’s. This would give us dates for the first three gospels in the early 60s or late 50s. Note also that Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as an event to occur in the future. If these gospels had been written after the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. one would expect some reference to the occurrence of that event as a fulfillment of the prophecy. The absence of any such reference is a strong indication that they were written before 70 A.D.
8. Some people, as they grow older, lose their memory; others do not. There is nothing in the documents to suggest that the authors of the gospels, the Book of Acts and the epistles were suffering from senility, memory loss, or any other form of mental impairment.