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Evidences for the Resurrection
Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus, and the resurrection rests on strong evidence that is accepted by critical scholars and historians.


The resurrection of Jesus is the very foundation of the Christian faith, Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus did not rise from the grave on that first Easter Sunday, then Christianity is false and not worthy of belief. What sets apart the Christian faith from all other belief systems is the fact that it alone asserts that its founder is alive again. The resurrection of Jesus also uniquely sets Him apart from all major religious figures of the past and present, namely that Jesus did not remain dead but returned from the grave and it was this event that birthed the Christian movement. This simply cannot be said about anyone else in any major religious tradition. Among the religious leaders of the past stands one common denominator: they all died and remained dead, but Jesus Christ was raised to life. The importance of the resurrection of Jesus is stated by the Apostle Paul:

And 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! … But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep (1 Corinthians 15:14-17, 20).

Another important point regarding the resurrection of Jesus is that it is also the basis of the salvation of the believer. Notice again Paul's inspired words, "that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9).

The word "resurrection" comes from the Greek word anastasis and literally means "a standing up" and a "rising up". When it refers to a person it is always used in reference to the body that has died. The New Testament reserves this word for the rising again of the body from the grave. Biblically speaking, there are no such things as resurrected spirits or ghosts. Only resurrected bodies. Thus, the Bible teaches the bodily resurrection of Jesus and also the future bodily resurrection of believers (see Romans 8:11; Philippians 3:10-11).

The resurrection of Jesus rests on strong evidence that is also accepted by critical scholars and historians. Christians should be aware of this because it presents strong arguments in favour of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. In the preaching of the early Church as seen in the book of Acts, the one message that was consistently preached was the Gospel. But what exactly is the Gospel, or the "good news"? What is its content? Does the New Testament ever define it for us? Indeed it does. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, the Apostle Paul states that he received and passed on to the Church at Corinth the Gospel by which we are saved and he broke it down into four parts.

First, that Jesus died according to the Scriptures"; second, He was buried; third, He was raised on the third day "according to the Scriptures"; and fourth, that He appeared. Note that both the death and resurrection are referred to by the phrase "according to the Scriptures." This indicates that not only was the death and resurrection of Jesus the central core belief of the Gospel, but also that it was prophesied in the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament. The entire New Testament revolves around the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. When Paul speaks of the death, burial, rising and appearances of Jesus, he is outlining in capsule form what the Gospel writers recorded.

The three points of agreement that scholars hold as historically authentic are the following:

1) the empty tomb
2) the post-Easter appearances of Jesus
3) that both 1 and 2 together constitute the origin of the Christian faith.

I will deal with these and also provide additional information that when wholly considered do present a strong case for the resurrection of Jesus. Let us consider the following points:

The empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus

All four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) inform us that three days following Jesus' death, His tomb was discovered to be empty by His women disciples. The body of Jesus was never produced to refute the resurrection proclamation of the disciples. The Jewish religious leaders could not explain the empty tomb but attempted to explain it away as a tomb robbery (see Matthew 28:11-15). Explaining something away is not the same as refuting it. They knew the tomb was more than this: Jesus appeared alive again to His disciples. He appeared to individuals like Mary Magdalene (see John 20:14-18), Thomas (see John 20:26-29), Peter (see Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5), James (see 1 Corinthians 15:7) and Paul (see Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8). Jesus also appeared to groups like the women witnesses (see Matthew 28:9-10 cf. John 20:2), the 11 disciples (see Matthew 28:16-17), over 500 brethren (see 1 Corinthians 15:6), Jesus also appeared to unbelievers like His brother James (see 1 Corinthians 15:7), and sworn enemies of the faith like Saul of Tarsus who became the Apostle Paul (see Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:8). Jesus also appeared in different geographical locations such as Galilee (see Matthew 28; Mark 16; John 21), Jerusalem (see Luke 24; John 20; Acts 1) and the road to Damascus (see Acts 9).

The creed that Paul cites … dates from within five years of the death of Jesus.

Some critics attempt to argue that the idea of the resurrection of Jesus developed long after the death of Jesus due to borrowing from pagan myths. This critique however is fallacious simply because the time factor involved between the resurrection of Jesus and the writing of this event in the Gospels and the letters of Paul was extremely short. They were written very early and the duration gap was so short that there was not enough time for legend and myth to develop. Legends develop over long periods of time as classical historians have noted. The creed that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 is so early that it dates from within five years of the death of Jesus. There is simply no parallel to this in all of classical literature.

The radical change in the disciples

Another strong evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the acknowledged fact that most of the disciples of Jesus died as martyrs for their faith in the risen Christ. One does not die for something one knows to be patently false or a lie. On the contrary, one only sacrifices his/her life for that which he/she believes to be true.

There was also a noticeable change in the disciples three days after Jesus' death—from a defeatist and hopeless state to a bold and changed personality. Something radically changed their despair to hope. As a result, the Christian movement experienced exponential growth in a relatively short period of time. It should be remembered that the crucifixion of Jesus would have dealt a devastating blow to the early disciples because it marked in their minds the end of Jesus. In addition, in the Jewish mind of the first century, one who was crucified was believed to be accursed or under God's judgement (see Galatians 3:13; Deuteronomy 21:23).

The conversion of James, the Lord's brother (see 1 Corinthians 15:7), is also a significant event. The brothers of Jesus did not believe in Him (see John 7:5), and yet James came to believe Jesus was Messiah and the risen Lord. The only convincing reason would have to be the resurrection. This event changed him so much that he became the leader in the Jerusalem church (see Acts 15) and even wrote the epistle that bears his name in the New Testament. Finally, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (renamed Paul) is striking (see Acts 9). Paul was a vehement opponent of the Christian movement and sought its wholesale destruction and yet he became a follower of Jesus. How could Paul go from persecuting the early Christians to joining them and dying for his faith in Christ? The only reason he gives us is that he states in no uncertain terms that he too saw the risen Jesus and became a follower (see 1 Corinthians 9:1).

The honesty of the Gospel writers

One thing that surprises biblical scholars is the striking honesty of the biblical writers, specifically the Gospel writers. The women for instance are mentioned as the first witnesses to discover the empty tomb and see Jesus alive. This is highly unusual in first century writings since women had no legal credibility—no one would believe their testimony. The worst thing the Gospel writers could do is mention women as the first witnesses to the resurrection, but they did because that was how it happened. A sign of honesty is seen in that they did not attempt to change the story or embellish it as other classical writers would have done.

Another sign of honesty is seen in the fact that there was no sign of collusion. The Gospel writers draw on diverse material of the same event. The differences in the Gospel are actually signs of their historical credibility. Notwithstanding their differences the Gospels agree on the following five points: 1) women came first to the tomb; 2) the tomb was empty; 3) a young man/angel/ angels testified to an empty tomb; 4) it was the first day of the week; and 5) the risen Jesus appeared to His disciples.

The unexpected nature of Jesus' resurrection

The uniqueness of the resurrection of Jesus is seen in the fact that the early disciples did not expect it to happen the way it did. It did not fit their preconceived belief system. The Jews clearly believed in the resurrection of the body (see Isaiah 26:19; Daniel 12:2), but they reserved that event for the last day, at the end of time (see John 11:24). This is why the disciples did not understand what Jesus meant by dying and rising again in three days. They did not conceive of the resurrection occurring within history, but rather at the end of history.

If the resurrection of Jesus was not a Jewish or Christian invention, why did the early Christians believe it?

Second, the belief among Jews of Jesus' day was that the resurrection was to be corporate—all of God's servants would be resurrected on the last day according to Daniel 12:2, not just one individual. In the case of Jesus, He was raised to immortality within history, and He alone partook in this resurrection. That is why Paul calls Jesus the "firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (see 1 Corinthians 15:20). Believers will share in this resurrection as well, but only at the last day, when Christ comes again (see 1 Corinthians 15:23). Therefore, the resurrection of Jesus as a unique event was not an invention of Judaism, because as we saw, they reserved it to the end time. Secondly, the resurrection of Jesus was not an invention of Christianity, because there was no Christianity yet. The Christian church emerged after Jesus' resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. If the resurrection of Jesus was not a Jewish or Christian invention, why did the early Christians believe it? The only logical answer is that it must have happened. There is no other way to explain it.

The significance of Sunday

Sunday, or the first day of the week began to gain prominence and significance in the early Church (see John 20:1, 19, 26; Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). Jesus and His first followers were Jews who observed the seventh day Sabbath (Saturday). The Sabbath was the most sacred day of the week for Jews as it was a sign between them and God (see Exodus 31:14-17). As the old saying goes, "old habits die hard," yet Sunday became special to these Jewish believers in Jesus. Why?'

Sunday had no religious significance for Jews at all except when a feast day fell on it. What caused early Christians together on that day to give it significance? The only answer is that they believed that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday as the Gospels record. Sunday became so significant that it was later referred to as "the Lord's day" (see Revelation 1:10). This title designated it as a special day dedicated to the Lord and distinguished it from the seventh day Sabbath (Saturday).

The ordinances of the Christian Church

The two ordinances of the Church revolved around the theme of the death and resurrection of Jesus. The first ordinance, baptism, represents the believers' identification with Christ in His death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3-9; Colossians 2:12). The second one, the Lord's Supper, recalls the death and resurrection of the Lord, When believers partake of the elements, they declare the Lord's death until He comes (see 1 Corinthians 11:26). This, of course, implies Jesus is risen and will return again.

Summary

The resurrection of Christ is the very foundation, the cornerstone, of Christianity. If you remove it, there is no more Christianity. It is simply unparalleled and it is the distinguishing factor between Christ and all claimants to divine truth. The resurrection demonstrated that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God. The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, as we saw, is astounding. It is well-attested fact that remains as God's indelible mark within history. To all sceptical minds the invitation still extends, "He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him" (Mark 16:6).

Originally published in The Protestant Challenge, Fall 2006. Reprinted from The Gospel Witness, April 2006.

 

 
 
 
 

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