The Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Category: Bible/Christian Worldview 84 3

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the most important event in history. It is so important that it is the only way a person can be saved. Romans 10:9 says, “That 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.” The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:14, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” Verses 17-18 continue, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.” This is a strong proclamation. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then we are still in our sins and will go to hell when we die.

The Bible proclaims that Jesus was resurrected on the third day and appeared to his followers. Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and some of the other women (Matthew 28:8-10; Mark 16:9-11; John 20:14-18), appeared to two believers while they were travelling along the road (Mark 16:12-13; Luke 24:13-35), and he appeared to Peter and the other disciples behind locked doors (Mark 16:14; Luke 24:34-43; John 20:19-31). Jesus would also appear to the disciples in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20; John 21:1-25), to five hundred individuals at the same time, and then to James, his own brother. After these appearances, Jesus ascended into heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-53). Finally, Jesus appeared to Paul (Acts 9).

During these appearances, it is clear that he was in bodily form (except for the appearance to Paul), and not just some kind of ghost or spirit. He broke bread with the two disciples on the road (Luke 24:30), he appeared to the disciples and showed them his hands and feet, and even told them to touch him and said “a ghost does not have flesh and bones.” He also ate with them (Luke 24:36-42). John 20:17 suggests that Mary Magdalene clung to him. The Bible is clear that Jesus had a bodily resurrection.

However, the biblical account of the resurrection is constantly being attacked as untrustworthy and unhistorical. Accusations such as 1) Jesus’ body was stolen; 2) the body was moved; 3) Joseph of Arimathea (who buried Jesus) was not a real person; 4) the disciples hallucinated Jesus appearing to them; plus many other “problems” that appear quite frequently in articles, books, and documentaries. What is a Christian to do? Many of these arguments seem very convincing to someone who has not studied the issue in-depth. In this weekly series, I will examine the many different criticisms that are thrown at the resurrection.

First, in this article, I will examine the basic argument in favor of the resurrection being a historical event.

James

James was the brother of Jesus. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:7 says that Jesus made a resurrection appearance to James. Before this, James did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. In fact, none of Jesus’ brothers believed in Him early on (John 7:5), and they even tried to prevent Jesus from teaching, thinking that He was out of His mind (Mark 3:20–21). However, not long after the resurrection the family of Jesus was counted among His followers (Acts 1:14). In Acts 15, we find James as one of the leading figures at the church in Jerusalem. Flavius Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived during the first century, says that James was killed by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.[1] I’ll let Tim Chaffey summarize the argument about James:

“What could compel a man who had grown up with Jesus to suddenly change his mind about his older brother? James likely remained in his unbelief until after Christ’s death. After all, while He was on the Cross, Jesus entrusted the care of His mother to the Apostle John (John 19:26–27). If one of his brothers had been a believer at this point, it would have been their responsibility to care for Mary. Although Scripture does not describe the conversion of James for us, it does provide the most likely cause for his drastic change of heart…Paul wrote, “After that He was seen by James” (1 Corinthians 15:7).”[2]

Paul

The Apostle Paul is considered to be the greatest missionary in history, and he wrote at least 13 books of the New Testament. However, he was not always a follower of Jesus Christ. He first appears in Acts 7 where he is seen approving the stoning of Stephen. Just a few verses later we read that Paul (at that time he was called Saul) “made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison” (Acts 8:3). He later would tell a crowd in Jerusalem that he persecuted Christians “to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women” (Acts 22:4). He also wrote that he “persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).

Acts 9:1-2 continues, “Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:1–2). As Paul was coming up on Damascus, Jesus appeared to him (Acts 9:4). Upon seeing the risen Lord, Paul converted to the Christian faith and began preaching the gospel until he was put to death many years later. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, Paul speaks about his hardships for Christ:

“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.”

“What could possibly explain such a drastic change of heart? This was not a foolish man who could be swayed by poor argumentation, nor was he prone to changing his views based on shifting public opinion. Paul was a scholar and a well-respected Pharisee. But he was suddenly transformed into a fearless evangelist and church planter who suffered greatly for preaching the gospel before Jews and Gentiles, kings, civil leaders, and commoners.”[3]

“The only reasonable explanation for this change of heart is precisely what Paul said it was: ‘Then last of all [Jesus] was seen by me also’ (1 Corinthians 15:8). Paul was so committed to serving Christ that he was beheaded in Rome during Nero’s reign. His treatise on the absolute necessity of the Resurrection for the Christian faith in 1 Corinthians 15 demonstrates this former Pharisee’s undying commitment to the gospel of Christ.”[4]

The Price of Following

When Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled in fear (Mark 14:50), and Peter ended up denying Christ multiple times (Matthew 26:69–75). However, within a short time, Peter was standing in front of many Jews in Jerusalem declaring Jesus had rose from the grave. The disciples were arrested and, even in front of the religious leaders, boldly proclaimed that Jesus had risen (Acts 4:5–6, 10, and 12). They were commanded by the authorities to stop preaching about Jesus (Acts 4:18), but they refused the authorities.

In the very next chapter of Acts, the disciples were again arrested and imprisoned. They refused to stop preaching and told the religious authorities, “We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree” (Acts 5:30). These passages show the change that the disciples went through immediately after the crucifixion. They ran away and even denied their Lord. However, shortly afterwards they were proclaiming that Jesus was Lord and were being persecuted for doing so. James, the brother of John, was put to death (Acts 12:2), and early Church tradition says that all of the Apostles, except for John, were put to death for their belief in Jesus.

However, it wasn’t just death that the Apostles had to deal with. J.P. Holding, founder of Tektonics.org, says:

“Beyond action by authorities, Christians could expect social ostracization if they stuck by their faith, and that is where much of the persecution…- rejection by family and society, relegation to outcast status. It didn’t need to be martyrdom – it was enough that you would suffer socially and otherwise, even if still alive.”[5]

These Christians would find themselves subject to insult, reproach, physical abuse, disgrace, confiscation of property, etc. Holding sums it up well:

“So it is: The Jews would dislike you, the Romans would dislike you, your family would disown you, everyone would avoid or make sport of you. Furthermore, men like Paul and Matthew, and even Peter and John, gave up lucrative trades for the sake of a mission that was all too obviously going to be nothing but trouble for them. It is quite unlikely that anyone would have gone the distance for the Christian faith at any time – unless it had something tangible behind it.”[6]

Why would the disciples go through all that persecution for something that they knew was false? The only logical answer was that something had happened that was worth giving up everything. And that, according to the Apostles, was that Jesus had resurrected and promised them eternal life.

The Challenge to Refute

One of the best evidences for the resurrection is the fact that we find the Apostles telling their listeners and opponents to check out their claims. 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:6, said that Jesus had appeared to five hundred believers at the same time. Paul added that many of them were still alive at the time he was writing 1 Corinthians. To add to this, the Apostles were proclaiming that Jesus had rose from the dead right in the middle of Jerusalem, the very city in which Jesus was killed and buried. Why would the Apostles tell others to check out what they were teaching if they knew their claims were false?

Holding makes a great analogy:

“Suppose you are starting a new UFO cult, and proclaim that the faithful will be taken up into a UFO that is waiting for them. Such a cultist would usually make sure the UFO is somewhere where people can’t go and check up on it (e.g., assert that the UFO is behind the moon). But suppose you ignored this advice, and instead assert that the UFO was waiting in a cave not far from the city. The last thing you would do is encourage people to go to the cave and check out your claim – thereby discouraging the very gullibility that your cult’s survival depends on. If you wanted to attract people to join your cult, you’d have to discourage your potential recruits from checking it out (perhaps by throwing in a clause ‘If anyone goes to the cave before their time, they will not be taken’ or ‘If anyone goes, they will not see the UFO, they use shielding to hide themselves’).”[7]

Popular defenders of the resurrection, Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, note that it would have been impossible for the Church to start in the very city where Jesus was killed and buried. All critics would have had to do is go to the tomb and check out the Apostles’ claims.[8] Apparently, they didn’t find the body.

Women

The last piece of evidence that I wish to go over is that women are given a very important place in the resurrection narratives. In the first century, especially among the Jews, women were on the bottom of the social ladder. In the ancient world women were looked down upon as eyewitnesses to absolutely anything. Josephus said:

“But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex, nor let servants be admitted to give testimony on account of the ignobility of their soul; since it is probable that they may not speak truth, either out of hope of gain, or fear of punishment.”[9]

“Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of law.”[10] In the Greco-Roman world women were regarded as “gullible,” “especially prone to superstitious fantasy,”[11] and “were considered so untrustworthy that they were not even allowed to be witnesses to the rising of the moon as a sign of the beginning of festivals!”[12] It would have been much better for a band of men creating a religion to exclude women rather than include them.

If the disciples were creating their own religion, why not list men like Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish religious council), as discovering the tomb and avoid the issue of women altogether?[13] In fact, the resurrection account was mocked in the ancient world just because of the presence of women.

The fact that women were part of the resurrection account is extraordinary. Michael Licona makes a good point when he says, “Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses?”[14] Another Bible scholar, N. T. Wright, makes a good point concerning why the evangelists did not use male disciples as founders of the empty tomb: “That they did not tells us either that everyone in the early church knew that the women, led by Mary Magdalene, were in fact the first on the scene, or that the early church was not so inventive as critics have routinely imagined, or both. Would the other evangelists have been so slavishly foolish as to copy the story unless they were convinced that, despite being an apologetic liability, it was historically trustworthy?”[15]

If you think that including women was an embarrassment, the Bible records the disciples as being incompetent. They did not believe the predictions of Jesus’ resurrection and even after he appeared to them they are incredulous (Luke 24:11). The women receive divine revelation while the men are thickheaded. This makes the men who founded the church look very bad.[16]

Conclusion

It is pretty obvious that something very unique happened to the followers of Jesus Christ. They taught that this unique event was that Jesus was resurrected and appeared to them alive. It seems very illogical that they would make up a religion, be persecuted for it, be put to death, tell others to check out the evidence themselves, and place women in a prominent place. We’ll continue this series weekly, and discuss all the different criticisms that skeptics come up with to explain away the resurrection.


[1] Flavius Josephus, The New Complete Works of Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews. Translated by Wlliam Whiston. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1999.  Book 20, chapter 9, part 1.

[2] Tim Chaffey. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Evidences and Minimal Facts.” http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/2013/02/26/resurrection-evidences-and-minimal-proofs. Accessed May 8, 2013.

[3] Chaffey.

[4] Ibid.

[5] James Patrick Holding, ed. Defending the Resurrection. Xulon Press, 2010. Pg. 226.

[6] Holding, 226-227.

[7] Ibid. 276.

[8] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004. Pg. 70.

[9] Josephus, Antiquities. Book 4, Chapter 8, Section 15

[10] Lee Strobal. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998. Pg. 217-218.

[11] R. Bauckham. Gospel Women: Studies of the Named Women in the Gospels. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.270-271.

[12] Holding, 234.

[13] Michael Licona. The Resurrection of Jesus. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2010, Pg. 351.

[14] Licona, 350-351.

[15] N.T. Wright. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003, Pg. 608.

[16] Licona, 354-355.

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