What a small and quaint thing to believe. That a man murdered on a cross somehow got up from his grave. Perhaps, at some level, the world may be ready to accept the notion of signs and wonders, – miraculous cures etc, – if you will, – the notion of man that conquers the grave, – that rises up from the dead, – is a little too fantastic to believe. Or is it? Is this the final confirming and convincing evidence of God’s power? Let’s do science. Let’s look at the evidence.
HE GOT UP !
What we know to be true for his many public miracles, would certainly hold true for the greatest sign of all, His resurrection from the dead. If God exists: Miracles are possible! And the Resurrection is the touchstone of the Christian faith. If Christ did not rise from the dead, Christianity is a meaningless exercise in good morals. The validity of Jesus’ very message hinges on the truthfulness of that claim. Paul expanded on this in a letter to the Corinthian church. “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith….And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” (1Corinthians 15: 14 & 17) The disciples were raising a very high hurdle for themselves. They were claiming not just some spiritual appearance that would have been so difficult to disprove, but they were saying that Jesus was raised in the flesh. If they were lying their opponents need only produce the body to shatter their claims. But they were convinced of the truth of the matter. They had to testify to that truth.
Now there are many critics out there that say that the resurrection is merely a legend, or a lie perpetrated by Christ’s early followers. But let’s look at that contention. To what end would such a lie be put forth? Persecution and communal sharing characterized the early church. Its leaders sought neither fortune nor power. We know that Christians would pay for their lives for those beliefs. This was no lie. Neither could it have been a legend. This was the teaching of the Apostles just weeks after Christ’s death. It is recorded in Luke’s account of Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost, found in the Book of Acts. If Peter was lying folks would have known. This was Jerusalem where the drama of Christ’s death had recently taken place. Instead, 3,000 believers were added on that day, the Church’s birthday.
We have already demonstrated Luke’s record for historical accuracy. It is further confirmed by Paul in 1Corinthians 15:3-8. Scholars believe this to be a restatement of a very early ‘creed’ Paul received when he became a follower of Christ. There is overwhelming agreement that this creed dates certainly within 20 years of the crucifixion. Many scholars date it even earlier, to within a couple of years of Jesus’ death. This creed passes on the very early held beliefs that Christ died to pay for our sins and rose from the dead again. It reads: “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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers, most of whom are still living though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as one abnormally born.” This passage, documenting so early the beliefs of the Church, contains several significant aspects that need to be looked at.[i]
Remember again that Paul was writing at a time when many of the witnesses to the events were still alive. By mentioning specific names and by claiming that Jesus had appeared to as many as 500 people at one time, he was inviting inquiry. Paul was so confident of his message that he wanted his readers to check out the evidence. Secondly, and this is very important to understand, when Jesus appeared to Paul, he was an enemy of the Christian faith. In fact, he was consumed by a passion to stamp out what he saw as a dangerous heresy, if need be by killing off those who professed that heretical creed. It was Christ’s appearance that changed the direction of his life. Here was an example of a hostile witness converted by the evidence.
Finally, in that passage in 1Corinthians, Paul is alluding to the fact that Jesus appeared to people in various locals on several different occasions. There are at least nine post-mortem appearances described in the Gospels. This does not include his appearance to Paul on the Damascus road described in Acts. These appearances ranged from the individual, as in the case of Mary Magdalene, (John 20:10 –18), to much larger groups as in the 24th chapter of Luke. This was no will-of-the-wisp, no shadowy manifestation of desire or imagination. On these occasions He spoke with them; they ate with him and touched him.
Neither were these mere hallucinations. The appearances happened to different people at different locations and times. These were unconnected events, and not just to people expecting their occurrence. To the contrary, the disciples testify that they little grasped the meaning of Jesus’ words when He prophesied his death and resurrection. In fact this was a truth that had been predicted, both in the ancient Scriptures and on several occasions by Jesus himself. In Psalm 16:9-10 we read, “my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay.” Matthew records Christ’s prediction of his death and raising in chapter 16 and elsewhere. And Luke 9:22, puts it perhaps most clearly. He quotes Jesus as saying of himself, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” But his followers neither understood nor accepted these predictions when Jesus revealed them. Peter told him at the time, “Never, Lord!…This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22) It was not until after they had seen the risen Christ that Jesus’ words had meaning for them.
And Jesus showed himself to both skeptics like Thomas, and outright enemies such as Paul. No, these events show none of the marks of hallucinations. Immediately following Christ’s death, the disciples were a confused, cowering lot. They had run away during the trial and execution, and in the case of Peter had even denied association with the Lord. They were living in fear and despair. But in every case, the appearance of Christ became the catalyst for a radical transformation. Peter, went from on the one hand, denying his Lord to a servant girl, to on the other hand, preaching before thousands in just a matter of weeks. Paul went from avowed enemy participating in the mob killing of the martyr Stephen, to a tireless worker for the faith. The doubter Thomas was murdered many years later while preaching the Gospel in India. In every recorded case, those who reported seeing him after his death, became the committed witnesses of that truth.
Finally, if the Jewish authorities had produced the body, the early death of Christianity would have been assured. But they could not. The tomb was empty. There are a number of reasons we know this to be true. First of all, if the tomb was not empty, the apostles would never have been able to make that claim right in the city of Jerusalem, where the recent events had taken place. It would have been too easy to check. This fact is confirmed both in the writings of Josephus, and in the Toledeth Jeshu, a compilation of 5th century Jewish writings. Neither of these sources could be considered sympathetic to the cause of the Gospel.[ii] Then we have Matthew’s account of the events that followed the death of Jesus.
In chapter 28 he describes the generation of a rumor that the disciples had stolen the body. In his account he tells how the assembled chief priests and elders bribed the guards to say that Jesus’ followers had come during the night and taken the body while every member of the dozen or so Roman guard was asleep. Of course critics can say that this was just Matthew’s attempt to cover up the fact that the disciples did indeed steal the body. But that assertion will not stand up to scrutiny for several reasons. First of all, how could the guards possibly have known what was going on while they were sleeping?
Then there is the character and mindset of the apostles to consider. This was a cowardly bunch. Now, after the public execution of their leader, with the Jewish leadership and the power of Rome against them, they were supposed to have taken on the Roman guard, facing a certain and horrible death if they were caught, in order to perpetuate a hoax. And if they did generate enough courage, they would have had to find a way to roll back a stone weighing as much as two tons, moving it uphill just to get at the grave. They would have had to accomplish all this while not disturbing the sleeping guard. The final absurdity is that all of them in on this deception would live out their lives in support of this lie, not recanting even in the face of torture and death.[iii]
To the early Christians, as unbelievable as it may have seemed at the beginning, the Resurrection was a fact. They were sure because they had seen the evidence. They realized the temporary nature of this life and the eternal nature of the next. The disciples had come to know Jesus as no one else. They had seen a man that was at once meek and humble and yet filled with courage and the righteousness of God. This was a man that would on one occasion, gather the little children to himself and on another take on the religious authorities, or chase the moneychangers from the Temple. This was a man who felt compassion for the multitudes, and at home in the wilderness. They had been witnesses to his many signs and wonders, his healings, his mastery over nature. They had seen Lazarus raised from the dead.
When at first they had seen him arrested and killed they were crushed and defeated. But once they had seen him, and touched him, and eaten with him after his death, they were transformed. So, when the disciples died martyrs deaths they were testifying to the truth of the Gospel they had learned at Jesus’ feet. They were affirming the reality of the miracles and the healings. When Peter died on his cross, or when Stephen or Paul were murdered, they were acknowledging the truth they had come to know.
So who is Jesus? He was a man of impeccable character. No one could find fault with him. Even the Jewish authorities that eventually put him to death, – did so strictly on the basis of self-interest; – as they scrambled to preserve their authority. As they, of anyone, should have seen, He was the fulfillment of prophecy. The Scriptures predicted the circumstances of his life, and the exact timing of his appearance. He acknowledged this and proclaimed often that He indeed was the Messiah. He performed many signs and public miracles as evidence of this. He healed as a sign of God’s love. In His ministry He called for repentance and promised forgiveness of sins for all that would acknowledge Him and make Him Lord of their lives. He taught that He was “the way, the truth, and the life.” And he promised eternal life to all that would come to him. He predicted his own death and assured them He would arise from the dead. And then to prove once and for all that He was indeed the Truth, He fulfilled that final prophecy and rose up from the grave.
The miracle of the Resurrection is one of the great wonders of history. There have been many legal scholars and men of letters that have set out to prove it a hoax, only to fall victim to the elegance of its logic. They have studied the evidence, beginning as enemies of the Faith. They have finished fully convinced that it actually happened.
In the 18th century, the English statesman, George Lyttleton set out to prove the Bible false and ended up concluding the Resurrection happened and wrote a book to that affect. The British lawyer Albert Henry Ross was a 20th century convert via the method of hostile study. He ended up writing a work entitled Who Moved The Stone.
One of greatest legal minds in US history was Samuel Greenleaf, the Royal Professor of Law at Harvard. His work: Treatise on the Law of Evidence “is still considered the greatest single authority on evidence in the entire literature of legal procedure.” He set out to prove the Resurrection a fraud. Instead, in 1846, Greenleaf ended up publishing An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice that concluded the event had actually occurred. Greenleaf argued that it only the Resurrection that could have motivated the Disciples to suffer and die for their faith. They believed that it was absolutely true. He wrote: “As one after another was put to a miserable death, the survivors only prosecuted their work with increased vigor and resolution. The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unblenching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted; and these motives were pressed upon their attention with the most melancholy and terrific frequency. It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact.”[iv]
Then there’s Dr Richard Lumsden, a biology professor at Tulane. He was a committed Darwinian atheist until challenged by a series of questions from a student. Suddenly unsure of the pat answers he was spouting, Lumsden undertook a personal research project to check out the answers. When he completed his inquiries he became a Bible-believing Christian. The well-known Josh McDowell and Lee Strobel also started as unbelievers. However the evidence for the Resurrection in particular and the viability and veracity of the Christian Worldview is both broad and deep and has convinced many of its most hostile – but honest critics.
[i] Lee Strobel, The Case For Christ, Zondervan, 1998, pg 308-309
[ii] Josh McDowell, Evidence For The Resurrection, Leadership U, 1992
[iii] Josh McDowell, Evidence For The Resurrection, Leadership U, 1992
[iv] David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, April 4, 2017