If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins
1 CORINTHIANS 15:17
HAVING EXAMINED THE resurrection accounts (see Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-20, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:25) we must address the most important question we can ever ask: Did Jesus really rise from the dead and ascend to heaven to rule over the universe? As John MacArthur said:
Neutrality is not an option. Either Jesus rose and rightly demands your attention, repentance, trust and obedience, or he stayed dead. If he only became a rotting corpse why should you follow him?1
Jesus predicted his resurrection repeatedly. Was he a liar, misleading his followers deliberately to think that he was divine? Could he have been that evil? Could the man whose teaching has never been surpassed also be a con man on such a massive scale? How likely is it that instead he was a deluded fool who falsely believed death could not hold him? Jesus’ credibility is destroyed if he did not rise from the dead. You can- not believe in him as a savior or a good teacher if he deceived us or was himself deceived so completely about something so fundamental. Either he rose and is therefore divine, or he did not, in which case he is no savior, and certainly not God. God is immortal and is not rotting in a tomb somewhere in Judea.
Gary Habermas2 reports that there is now a remarkable degree of agreement among ancient historians irrespective of their beliefs about Jesus’ resurrection:
At least twelve separate facts are considered to be knowable history. (1) Jesus died by crucifixion and (2) was buried. (3) Jesus’ death caused the disciples to despair and lose hope, believing that his life was ended. (4) Although not as widely accepted, many scholars hold that the tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later. Critical scholars further agree that (5) the disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus. Because of these experiences, (6) the disciples were transformed from doubters who were afraid to identify themselves with Jesus to bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection. (7) This message was the center of preaching in the early church and (8) was especially proclaimed in Jerusalem, where Jesus died and was buried shortly before. As a result of this preaching, (9) the church was born and grew, (10) with Sunday as the primary day of worship. (11) James, who had been a skeptic, was converted to the faith when he also believed that he saw the resurrected Jesus. (12) A few years later, Paul was converted by an experience which he, likewise, believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.3
Some of these events may seem implausible, but the very early reports of them are historically accepted facts. Seemingly improbable things do happen, even if they are above our human comprehension. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle suggested the following approach to investigation: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”4 One by one we will consider what explanations could make sense of these documented historical facts.5
IS THE RESURRECTION JUST A MYTH OR A LEGEND?
It was once popular to argue that the stories of an empty tomb arose long after the life of Jesus, prompted by a supposedly fertile ground of other ancient mythology about resurrection. We now know that resurrection was not commonly believed possible, even in the realm of mythology. Some people outside of Judaism did believe in the survival of the soul after death, but not in a bodily resurrection. The news of Jesus’ resurrection had to conquer this skepticism. The Jews did not believe that the prophecies concerning the suffering servant referred to the same person as the Messiah. It is only in the light of Jesus’ death and victorious resurrection that we see these two figures as the same person.6
N. T. Wright7 has carefully studied all the historical evidence and concludes, “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false. Many believed that the dead were non-existent; outside Judaism, nobody believed in resurrection.”8
Wright also demonstrates that it is only after the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection had been taught throughout the Roman Empire that other stories of resurrection began to arise in popular culture. Far from being involved in producing the New Testament stories, these myths may well have instead been prompted by accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.
It is hard to imagine any group creating a resurrection story within a few years of the death of their founder. Scholars today agree that the Gospels were written within the lifespan of people who had met Jesus. If these stories had been made up within decades after the death of Jesus, others would have been able to immediately disprove them and stop them from spreading.
If the accounts of the resurrection were a late addition to Christianity, then an early form, which did not believe in the resurrection of Jesus, would have left traces in the historical record. There are no such traces of early Christians who denied the resurrection. Only in 1 Corinthians 15 does Paul defend against the charge that Jesus did not rise. Even there Paul does not attempt to prove the resurrection of Jesus; he instead assumes his readers all believe it and uses that to prove our resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:12–17).
The early Christians, according to the historical records available to us, all believed in the resurrection of Jesus. Such a belief, for it to be so widespread, must have arisen very early. In all the arguments about doctrine that arose over the next few hundred years, doubts about the bodily resurrection of Jesus did not feature. True Christianity does not exist without a belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
Throughout the New Testament the resurrection of Jesus is assumed. Paul repeatedly prays for grace and peace “from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”9 For Jesus to be able to grant anything, he must still be alive. Similarly Paul frequently refers to himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus.”10 An apostle is a messenger or representative and is not sent by a dead man. Certainly Paul was not appointed before Christ’s death! The opening chapter of each of Paul’s letters therefore has at least one mention of Jesus in a way that requires he is still alive.
Throughout these letters, Paul often mentions that God raised Jesus from the dead.11 Jesus is referred to constantly as a living and active presence without Paul needing to elaborate on or argue for the resurrection. When an event is part of the very foundations of a group, it can be mentioned without explanation, knowing that the hearers will understand.
The Gospel resurrection stories do not reflect upon the events theo- logically. If they were late myths, we could expect them to be at least as reflective as Paul’s writings in 1 Corinthians, if not more so. Why do the writers not even make the deduction that Jesus’ resurrection guarantees our own? The accounts come across as basic eyewitness reports given by those who did not yet fully understand the significance of what they had seen and heard.
Christianity is a simple faith that has no worthwhile content if the resurrection is not true, as Paul argues strongly in 1 Corinthians 15. Few historians doubt that the church was founded on a belief that Jesus had literally risen from the dead. Any contrary theory needs to explain how a small group of Jews became passionately convinced of the truth of the resurrection and spread it rapidly across the Middle East and into Europe. Within a couple of centuries this novel faith had conquered the then known world without a sword being drawn.
The church did not create the resurrection stories; instead the resurrection stories created the church.
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1 John MacArthur’s Preface, in Gerard Chrispin, The Resurrection: The Unopened Gift (Epsom, UK: Day One, 2002), 16.
2 Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy at Liberty University and one of the world’s foremost scholars of the resurrection.
3 Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, MO: College Press: 1996), 158.
4 Arthur Conan Doyle, Sign of Four (London: Penguin Classics, 2001), 42.
5 This is, of course, a well-worn path by apologists, and I acknowledge the influence of George Eldon Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1975); Gary Gromacki, “The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Journal of Ministry and Theology, 6:1, 63–88 and 6:2, 45–58 (Baptist Bible College and Seminary, 2002); the various works of Josh McDowell; Wilbur M. Smith, “The Need for a Vigorous Apologetic in the Present Battle for the Christian Faith: Part 2,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 100:532–545 (Dallas Theological Seminary, 1943); Dan Story, Defending Your Faith (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1997), 87–98; and David MacLeod, “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: Myth, Hoax, or History?,” Emmaus Journal, 157–199 (Emmaus Bible College, 1998), among others.
6 See Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, 36.
7 Bishop of Durham and New Testament scholar whose book on the resurrection is widely recognized to be the definitive work on the subject.
8 N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003), 35.
9 Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 3; see also Titus 1:4.
10 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; 1 Timothy 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:1.
11 See, for example, Romans 4:24; 6:4; 6:9; 7:4; 8:11; 10:9; 1 Corinthians 15:12; 15:20; Galatians 1:1; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 2:12; 1 Thessalonians 1:10.