Did Jesus Really Rise From the Dead?

Below is a rough document I put together outlining the historical evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In it, I attempt to also address the major criticisms that try to refute the historicity of the resurrection. I am posting this as a resource that might be helpful for any discussion you may find yourself in this easter season.  Also, remember Easter is more than just about establishing and refuting historical facts- Easter is about meeting and following the One who is Risen!

There Are Two Major Lines of Evidence for the Resurrection:

1. The appearances of the resurrected Jesus.

 Paul supplies a list in 1 Cor. 15:3-8 of those who saw the resurrected Jesus: Peter, the disciples, over 500 believers at one time, James, all the apostles, and Paul.   Eyewitness testimony is crucial in establishing the facts of a case or argument.  If a lawyer has an eyewitness, and the witness is credible, it bolsters his case greatly.

But how are these eyewitnesses credible?  How do we know this list of witnesses wasn’t something the early church concocted to make it appear as though Jesus had risen from the dead?  How do we know this list wasn’t created years and years after Jesus died, allowing time for all sorts of myths and fables about the life of Jesus to creep in to the story?

To begin, Paul wrote 1 Corinthians sometime between A.D. 55-57.  This is 25 years after the death of Christ.  Not a lot of time for fables to be added.  Next, most scholars agree that verses 1-4 of 1 Cor. 15 are a creed used by the early church dating back to A.D. 32.  This creed and this list of witnesses was most likely given to Paul three years after his conversion on the Damascus Road.  How do we know that?  Note Gal. 1:18-19 when Paul says he took a trip to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and James three years after his conversion.

And is this creed and this list of witnesses reliable?  The comment from Paul that most of the 500 were still alive is an implication that one could go and ask these witnesses for themselves what they saw.  German historian Hans von Campenhausen said, “This account meets all the demands of historical reliability that could possibly be made of such a text.”

Skeptics will say:

The eyewitnesses deliberately lied.

This is simply refuted in that no one would go through intense persecution and even death for a lie they had fabricated.  When someone is lying or joking, they call their bluff when the stakes get high.  When it gets down to crunch time, the truth comes out.  When it comes to the point that skin is going to be ripped off your back or your life is in danger, the gig, if there is a gig, is up.  Church tradition says that Paul was beheaded.  Peter was crucified upside down, because he said he was not worthy of being crucified in the same way as Jesus.  Andrew was crucified on a cross in the shape of an “X.”  He was tied, not nailed, so that his agony would prolong.  Thaddeus was killed by arrow wounds inflicted on him by a hostile mob.  Why were all of these men killed?  Because they were preaching that Jesus was alive.  If it was a lie, do you think they would have given their lives?

The eyewitnesses suffered some form of hallucination.

The eyewitness accounts of the resurrected Jesus violate everything we know about true hallucinations.  First, hallucinations are a result of severe emotional instability brought on by some form of wish fulfillment.  If the disciples were completely hysterical after the death of Jesus, why does John’s gospel tell us the disciples were out in their boats fishing?  They apparently had no trouble accepting the fact that Jesus was dead.  Second, the resurrection appearances appear to different individuals and groups.  Hallucinations do not work that way.  You never see different groups of people with each member of the group seeing the exact same thing in a hallucination.

2. The evidence of the empty tomb.

If ever a fact of ancient history may count as indisputable, the empty tomb must be it.  Ever since the first Easter Sunday, there must have been a tomb that once held the body of Jesus and is now empty.  The early church since the resurrection had taught and proclaimed the empty tomb.  And ever since the resurrection, the enemies of Jesus have tried to rebuff that teaching.  If the tomb were not empty, the Jewish leaders in that day simply would have gone to the tomb and said, “See, Jesus is in the tomb.”

An empty tomb does not necessarily mean you have a resurrection.  So, we must look at the evidence.

Skeptics will say:

The disciples stole the body.

Matt. 28:11-15 states that the guards posted at Jesus tomb went to the chief priests and told them what had happened at Jesus’ tomb.  The priests pay off the guards to say that the disciples came and stole the body.

Matt. 27:62-66 states that the Jews asked for a guard for the specific reason of preventing the disciples from stealing the body.  Pilate tells them they have a guard and to take care of it themselves.  Was this a Roman or Jewish guard?  It doesn’t matter because even Jewish guards would have been doing their duty under Roman law.  It most likely was a Roman guard already assigned to the priests.  It makes sense that it was a Roman guard since Roman soldiers carried out the crucifixion.

The only plausible way the disciples could have stolen the body of Jesus is if one of two things occurred: 1) The guards fell asleep.  2)The guards left the tomb.  There is no way the disciples could have rolled away the stone without waking the guards.  The stone was a large disk that leaned back toward the tomb and rolled along a groove.  It simply could not have been rolled away quietly or easily.  Also, the Roman punishment for a guard falling asleep on duty or leaving his post was execution.  This is why the priests tell the guards that they will protect them from the governor if he hears their story that they fell asleep.

The women went to the wrong tomb.

Both Roman and Jewish authorities knew the location of the tomb.  When the women returned with their report from the tomb, the men immediately rushed to the tomb to verify their report (John 20:1-10).

Finally, skeptics will argue that the Gospels are not reliable documents and the accounts of the resurrection are littered with inconsistencies. I will not argue the veracity of the Scripture in this post (I have done so in previous posts). But consider this quote from James Boice about the resurrection accounts in the Gospels:

“Over the years critics have complained about what they consider serious discrepancies in these accounts.  The number of women, for instance.  Matthew mentions two (v.1).  Mark has three (Mark 16:1).  Luke refers to three by name and speaks of ‘others’ also (Luke 24:10).  John mentions only Mary (John 20:1).  Another alleged discrepancy is the time the women set out.  Matthew says it was ‘at dawn’ (v.1).  Mark has ‘very early…just after sunrise’ (v.2).  Luke says ‘very early’ (v.1).  John writes, ‘while it was still dark’ (v.1).  Again, the number of angels varies:  one in Matthew and Mark, two in Luke and John.

These are not discrepancies, of course.  They are each only partial tellings of the story.  If there were two angels, there was certainly one.  As for the time of day, it is easy to imagine that the women set out for the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and arrived as the sun was rising.  Variations in the tellings of an obviously identical story actually attest to the reliability of the narratives.  They prove that these are independent accounts, not imaginary tales worked out in collusion by the writers, and their essential agreement proves that the four independent records are factual…

The way these accounts fit together makes the narrative compelling. Sir Edward Clark, a well-known English lawyer, wrote, ‘As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the first Easter day.  To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling.  As a lawyer I accept it as the testimony of men to facts that they were able to substantiate.’”





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