The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?

Submitted by Benjamin on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 00:48

When asked why he was a Christian, apologist Josh McDowell responded, "For a very simple reason: I am not able to explain away an event in history--the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

In the first part of this essay, we examined the doctrinal significance of the Resurrection. However, if the resurrection never occurred, if Christ still lies in the grave, then what use is the idea to us? It is as much use as the idea of Star Wars. If true, it would have tremendous significance. However, it is false, and therefore, we (speaking for the sane world) could not care less. Phillip Schaff once said, “The Resurrection of Christ is therefore emphatically a test question upon which depends the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion. It is either the greatest miracle or the greatest delusion which history records.” In this second part of this essay, we will test the resurrection, and thus, ultimately, we will put to test, the entire Christian religion.

As we examine the resurrection, we will focus on three major areas of evidence before passing judgment.

The Evidence of Accounts

The first of these, we will refer to as the evidence of accounts. We have available to us numerous accounts of Christ’s resurrection from those who themselves were witnesses. In the Bible alone, there are six individual accounts: one in each of the four gospels, Paul’s account in 1 Corinthians, and Peter’s sermon, recorded in the book of Acts. Though they differ slightly in detail, as is expected among different authors and perspectives, the fundamental message is the same: Christ rose from the dead on the third day!

Peter summarizes the message excellently in Acts chapter two, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:22-24). He concludes his sermon with these words, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter didn’t speak out of ignorance or hearsay, but was himself an eyewitness of the event he described.

However, there is one problem with this account. You see, though this passage describes events that occurred immediately following the resurrection, the book of Acts was not written until A.D. 90 – nearly sixty years after the events described. With such a long span of time between the original events and the account, is it not possible that the real events were distorted if not entirely twisted? If this is the case, it could be that the doctrine of Christ’s resurrection was not formulated until many years after the fact, allowing for myths and legends to arise.

Even if we were to turn to the gospel of Mark (the earliest gospel) we only come, at best, within thirty years of the events recorded, though many would dispute this and date it as far as fifty years from Christ’s death. The problem remains: how can we trust sources written so long after the events recorded?

However, this problem fails to take into account one important fact: the fact that historians do it all the time. Take, for example, Alexander the Great. No historian doubts the ancient records we possess concerning him, and yet, the earliest accounts of Alexander the Great were written nearly four hundred years after his death. A mere sixty years between an account and the event recorded is unusually close for ancient records.

Yet we may go even further and date the resurrection doctrine to within just a few years of Christ’s death. Paul, a man whom even Antony Flew, a leading atheist philosopher regarded as “a first rate philosophical mind,” wrote, “I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

The undisputed date of authorship for this letter is A.D. 55, just twenty years after Christ’s death. Already, we find that the early date for the resurrection proclamation is moved back as far as thirty years!

Yet with further examination, we find that these resurrection claims originated before the writing of this letter, for this is the gospel Paul claimed to have preached to the Corinthians, prior to the writing of this letter. The question then becomes, “when did Paul speak this message to the Corinthians?” Virtually every scholar accepts that Paul traveled to the city of Corinth around A.D. 51, several years prior to the writing of this letter. It was at this time, then, that Paul presented this gospel to the Corinthians. We have thus moved the date of the resurrection accounts to a mere eighteen years from the events described.
But there’s another factor we must take into account. For Paul claims that the gospel he delivered to the Corinthians was “that which I also received.” Clearly, Paul received this message before he delivered it to the Corinthians, but when – and from whom? Historians commonly date Paul’s miraculous conversion to A.D. 34, just one year after Christ’s death. Sometime, then, between Paul’s conversion in A.D. 34 and his visit to Corinth in A.D. 51, Paul must have received this message of the resurrection.

Of course, based on what we have discovered so far, it could be anywhere in this stretch. For all we know, Paul could have received the message in A.D. 50. But let’s dig deeper and see if we can’t get a narrower time frame.

In order to do this, we must look at a brief overview of a portion of Paul’s life.

Following his conversion, Paul “went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus” (Galatians 1:17). Paul describes the following events, saying, “after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James, the Lord’s brother” (Galatians 1:18-19). We see that Paul traveled to Jerusalem where he conferred with two major leaders in the Church. This would have been around A.D. 37, just four years after Christ’s death.

In chapter two of Galatians, Paul describes yet another journey to Jerusalem. This time, he communicated to Simon Peter, James the brother of Jesus, and John, the gospel which he was preaching among the gentiles. Yet Paul writes, “those who seemed to be something added nothing to me” (Galatians 2:6). Based on these facts, we must conclude that Paul had already received the resurrection message before this second journey to Jerusalem.

When did he receive it then? Very probably, it was during his first trip to Jerusalem that Paul received the message which he would later deliver to the Corinthians, “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.” In the four years following Christ’s death, we find already the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection.

Clearly then, the Church held to a belief in the resurrection from the very beginning. There was no time for myths or legends to spring up. These men were witnesses.

Yet in addition to these biblical eyewitness accounts of the resurrection, we also find extra-biblical accounts of Christ’s death and resurrection. Perhaps most significant among these is that of Titus Flavius Josephus, a Romano-Jewish historian. He wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross, upon his impeachment by the principal man among us, those who had loved Him from the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive on the third day, as the divine prophets having spoken these and thousands of other wonderful things about him. And even now, the race of Christians, so named from Him, has not died out” (Antiquities 18.3.3., emphasis added).

When we take into account that Josephus was a non-Christian, Jewish historian, writing for a Roman audience at a time when the Christian Church faced intense persecution from both Romans and Jews, this statement takes on even greater significance. No historian in the position of Josephus would have written of the resurrection as he did, unless he was certain beyond doubt of the truth of what he wrote. Clearly, then, to Josephus, the resurrection was a historical fact, proven beyond doubt.

As we look at the evidence of accounts, we find that there is much support for belief in the resurrection.

The Evidence of Facts

Yet there is evidence for the resurrection that is, if possible, even more conclusive. This evidence, which we will term the evidence of logic, is comprised of three facts. The first fact we will examine is Christ’s death. At first, this seems to be of little significance and a waste of time. Yet what use is it to discuss Christ’s resurrection from the dead if he never died in the first place? For if Christ did not die, then of course He could not rise from the dead. In fact, many have sought to deny this crucial fact, and so deny the resurrection.

The most common hypothesis that has arisen is the swoon hypothesis, in which Jesus does not in fact die, but merely swoons on the cross. Joseph of Arimathea then supposedly brings Jesus down from the cross, wraps Him in 300 pounds of grave-clothes and spices, and lays Him in a tomb behind a stone that scholars estimate weighed from one and a half to two tons.

Then, the miracle occurs. The coolness of the tomb revives Jesus, who somehow manages to untangle Himself from the mass of grave-clothes. He then nonchalantly proceeds to fold these and lay them in a neat pile before rolling aside the stone and walking off. All this after first receiving a beating that left Him half dead, collapsing of weakness on the way to His execution site, suffering intense pain from nails driven into His wrists and ankles, and receiving a spear-thrust in the side, not to mention the fact that He had not eaten or drunk since Thursday evening, three days prior. To describe such a theory as ludicrous is an understatement!

The fact of Jesus’ death is one of the best-established facts of history. In a report from the American Medical Association, we read, “Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” Clearly, Jesus did in fact die.

This brings us to the second fact: the empty tomb. After Christ’s death, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish ruling counsel who followed Jesus in secret, wrapped Christ in grave-clothes and laid Him in a private tomb. However, on the third day (according to Jewish reckoning) the tomb was found empty. This marvel is recounted in Luke 24, where we read, “But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they [Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them] went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”

This fact has stumped scholars for centuries. What could possibly account for the empty tomb? The fact that the tomb was actually empty is virtually undeniable. There is no chance that the women could have stumbled upon the wrong tomb by accident, for this tomb was a private tomb in a private garden. In addition, if the tomb were not really empty, then why all the fuss over whether Christ rose? Wouldn’t the first reaction of the Pharisees be to examine the tomb to see if it was indeed empty? In addition, there is the added complication of the guards posted at the tomb. It was from these that the Pharisees first heard of the disappearance of Christ, not from the disciples. There can be no doubt then, that the tomb was indeed empty.

But what happened to the body? Among the numerous possibilities brought forward, only a few have ever gained much popularity, even among those that actively seek to deny Christ’s resurrection. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

The most popular theory by far is that Christ’s disciples stole His body and then claimed that He had risen from the dead. Indeed, this is probably the earliest argument against the resurrection, spread by the Roman soldiers who guarded the tomb.

However, several fundamental problems plague this theory. The first of these is the problem of witnesses. The first people to discover the empty tomb were a group of women. However, in Jewish society of that time, the testimony of women was utterly disregarded, for in Jewish thought, they were unable to accurately observe and relate facts. If the empty tomb was an elaborate hoax set up by the disciples, would they not have planned for respected male witnesses to discover the disappearance of the body rather than a group of women?

In addition, this conspiracy theory fails to take into account the Roman guards at the tomb. These guards, professional Roman soldiers, would have faced the death penalty for any failure in their duties, and thus would have been alert and watchful, fully knowing that the consequence of negligence was death. In addition, despite the widespread myth of the presence of a mere two guards, there were, at the very least, four guards, though a more accurate estimate would be nearer to fifty. The idea of Jesus’ disciples stealing away His body as the guards slept is absurd! Even if the disciples had managed somehow to slip past sleeping Roman guards unnoticed, the work of removing the heavy stone from the entrance would surely have woken at least one of the guards.

However, the greatest problem with the conspiracy theory is found in the disciples themselves. Compare the depression and cowardice of Christ’s disciples following His death with the brave and daring act of taking on a detachment of Roman soldiers at the tomb in order to steal Christ’s body. The two simply do not fit. If anyone stole Jesus’ body, it certainly wasn’t the disciples.

The only other serious attempt to conjure up a thief for Christ’s body cast blame on the Roman or Jewish leaders. However, this theory is faced with even greater problems than the former. The first problem it faces is that of motive. Why would the Roman or Jewish leaders steal the body of Jesus? There is no good answer to this question.

Yet the lack of motive is the smallest problem with this idea. For it fails to take into account the fact that these same leaders who supposedly stole Christ’s body later opposed the idea of Christ’s resurrection with great vehemence. If they had Jesus’ body in their possession when the disciples were preaching the resurrection in Jerusalem, why didn’t they bring forth the corpse? As Josh McDowell wrote, “Such an action would have destroyed Christianity—not in the cradle, but in the womb!” The lack of motive and lack of later action by these leaders is sufficient proof that they could not have stolen the body of Christ.

But now we find ourselves faced with the same problem with which we began: what happened to Christ’s body? The only plausible explanation is that Christ rose from the dead. As the angels said to the women when they came upon the empty tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen!” When we consider the implications of the empty tomb, this is the only plausible explanation.

However, it is the third fact that, if true, conclusively proves Christ’s resurrection from the dead beyond the shadow of a doubt. This is the fact of Christ’s appearances, recorded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-6. He writes, “For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep.”

Of course, Paul could have been lying. However, this is hardly probable when we consider that fact that any of these claimed witnesses of Christ’s appearances could have stepped up and denied ever seeing the risen Christ. Essentially, Paul said to the Corinthians, “If you won’t take my word for it, then go ask those who witnessed this marvel, for most of them still live!”

In addition, we must also realize that most of these men who witnessed Christ’s appearances later faced persecution and often death because of their belief in the resurrection. But what man would give his life for what he knew to be false? It is impossible that these disciples lied about these appearances.

What then would account for the appearances of Christ? One popular theory is the impersonation theory. According to this view, these appearances of Christ were not actually Christ, but rather, some other person seeking to impersonate Jesus.

Indeed, this theory seems to be gain credibility when we read the records in Luke chapter 24 as well as John chapters 20 and 21. In these accounts, the disciples to whom Jesus appeared failed at first to recognize him. Thus, this theory seems to have some rational ground.

However, when we carefully and logically examine the evidence, we find that this idea is preposterous. First, these disciples had spent the past three years of their lives in close companionship with Jesus, eating, sleeping, and journeying with Him. It is incredible then that anyone could have gotten away with an impersonation, especially considering the disciples reluctance to believe. Indeed, it is because of this reluctance that we find the most conclusive evidence against the impersonation theory: Christ’s wounds. In order to prove His identity to the disciples, Christ showed to them His scars, saying, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” No impersonator, no matter how good, could successfully imitate such wounds as those of Christ. Clearly then, the appearances of Christ were no impersonations. The idea is simply impossible.

The only other theory put forward is often referred to as the hallucination theory. This theory simply dismisses all of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ as hallucinations. This hypothesis, popular because of its sweeping dismissal of all problems the unbeliever encounters in Christ’s appearances, seems, on the surface, quite a valid possibility. Yet, when examined in more detail, we find that this view is simply unviable, for it contradicts numerous laws and principles which, according to Psychiatrists, are essential to a hallucination.

First, it is an established fact that only certain types of people experience hallucinations, typically the high-strung, imaginative types. Yet among the witnesses of Christ’s post-mortem appearances, we find, not only the possibly psychic Mary Magdalene, but also hard-headed men such as Peter (who most definitely could not be described as imaginative) and even stubborn skeptics such as Thomas Didymus. As John R. W. Stott says, “It is impossible to dismiss these revelations of the divine Lord as hallucinations of deranged minds.” These appearances were seen by too diverse a group of people for them to be explained away as hallucinations.

Yet another problem the hallucination theory faces is the problem of mass-hallucination, for these appearances of Jesus were not isolated individual events. At one point Christ appeared to five hundred of His disciples at one time! Are we then to say that five hundred men at one time were all subjected to the same hallucination? Thomas Thorburn nicely sums up this problem posed to the hallucination theory, saying, “It is absolutely inconceivable that as many as five hundred persons, of average soundness of mind and temperament, in various numbers, at all sorts of times, and in divers situations, should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions – visual, auditory, tactual – and that all these manifold experiences should rest entirely upon subjective hallucination. We say that this is incredible, because if such a theory were applied to any other than a ‘supernatural’ event in history, it would be dismissed forthwith as a ridiculously insufficient explanation.” The problems already examined demonstrate clearly that the hallucination theory is truly an insufficient explanation.

Yet there are still further problems encountered by the hallucination theory that we have yet to examine. The third problem is found in the period of time over which Christ’s appearances occurred. Hallucinations tend to recur over a long period of time with noticeable regularity, either recurring more frequently until a point of crisis is reached, or less frequently until they fade away. Yet quite the opposite is seen in the appearances of Christ. After the forty days immediately following His death and resurrection, no appearance of the risen Christ is recorded, save the experience of Paul, which was a unique event. The hallucination theory simply cannot explain this fact. As Ernest Kevan wrote, “if the visions of the risen saviour were hallucinations, why did they stop so suddenly? Why, after the Ascension does one not find others still seeing the coveted vision?” Too many problems beset the hallucination theory for us to accept it as a probable alternative explanation to Christ’s appearances.

However, there is one fundamental fact which truly proves to be the nail in the coffin of the hallucination theory, demonstrating it to be not only implausible, but truly impossible. For we find that hallucinations require a feeling of anticipation or expectation. Paul E. Little writes, “In order to have an experience like this, one must so intensely want to believe that he projects something that really isn't there and attaches reality to his imagination.” Unfortunately however, for the hallucination theory, those who witnessed Christ’s post-resurrection appearances clearly did not have any such expectation. Indeed, these men thought at first that they saw a ghost and had to be convinced against their wills that Christ had risen from the dead. Indeed, such was the disciples’ unbelief that Jesus says, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing” (John 20:27). Not only did the disciples see Jesus, they also touched Him, placing their hands into His wounds! This Jesus was no vision, but truly flesh and blood! Clearly then, the hallucination theory is an impossibility that we simply cannot accept.

But what option remains to us? The impersonation theory is illogical, the hallucination theory unfeasible. What then explains Christ’s post-mortem appearances? The only possible explanation is that Christ “rose again the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:4). The facts supports no other view.

The Evidence of Significance

Yet we still have one more evidence to examine. This evidence we will term the evidence of significance. Two facts comprise this evidence: the existence of the Church and the miraculous change that came over Christ’s followers. We simply cannot ignore the significant effects of the resurrection.

Let’s begin with the existence of the Church. What caused the Church to spring into existence a couple of thousand years ago? Without Christ’s resurrection, the Church could not exist, any more than an electric light bulb without electricity. These disciples of Jesus were timid, fearful men, men who deserted Christ at Gethsemane. What filled them so suddenly with this astounding courage? What caused them to come out of hiding, boldly declaring the gospel? According to Dr. William Lane Craig, “Without the belief in the resurrection the Christian faith could not have come into being. The disciples would have remained crushed and defeated men. Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher, his crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of his being the Messiah. The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end of his career. The origin of Christianity therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead.”

No one looks to a dead man for salvation. The disciples, having seen what Christ had suffered, and knowing that they could only expect the same, would never have proclaimed the gospel at all if it were not for Christ’s resurrection. The existence of the Church then stands as monumental evidence for the resurrection, for only the resurrection can explain the start of Christianity; only the resurrection can account for the miraculous change that came over the disciples. These timid men were transformed into men who courageously faced beatings, starvation, persecution, rejection, imprisonment, torture, and even death, all for the sake of Christ.

But what kind of men would give their lives for One whom they considered to be dead, defeated by that which He had come to destroy? What kind of men would sacrifice their all for One who had failed in His mission? Only the resurrection explains this transformation. As apologist Josh McDowell writes, “Had there been any visible benefits accrued to them from their efforts--prestige, wealth, increased social status or material benefits--we might logically attempt to account for their actions, for their whole-hearted and total allegiance to this ‘risen Christ .’

“As a reward for their efforts, however, those early Christians were beaten, stoned to death, thrown to the lions, tortured and crucified. Every conceivable method was used to stop them from talking.

“Yet, they laid down their lives as the ultimate proof of their complete confidence in the truth of their message.”

The early Church faced death with complete confidence in their Lord, crying, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55) For where is death’s victory? What power does death have over us? None!

Why? The answer can be summed up in a single phrase: "Christ has risen from the dead!" The Son of God has conquered, defeating death and trampling it in the dust! What fear, then, do we have of death? The Son of God has gone forth to war and risen triumphant over the grave! He has swallowed up death in victory, for He is risen! He is risen indeed!

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