This is a summary of session one of Pastor Tom’s Sunday morning class, “Resurrection in Three Dimensions.”
May 4 – Resurrection When: Historical Evidence
May 11 – Resurrection Then: Theological Explanations
May 18 – Resurrection Now: Practical Expressions
Session 1: Resurrection When: Historical Evidence
“If the Resurrection of Jesus actually happened, then nothing else really matters. If the Resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen, then nothing else really matters.” ~Jaroslav Pelikan, Church Historian.
Much of what follows has been adapted from, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, by Timothy Keller. (Available in our Church Library as well as in DVD-format in our Small Group Resource Library)
The Resurrection of Jesus is a major historical problem.
If you want to make the philosophical or scientific assumption that there are no miracles, at least no resurrection from the dead, you will be faced with a second problem:
It is difficult to explain how the church got started at all. If you disbelieve the miracle of resurrection, you must account for the historical miracle of the church.
If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.
If Jesus rose from the dead, you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, why worry about any of what he said?
Two critically-connected factors: The empty tomb and the eyewitnesses.
The first fallacy skeptics make is to suggest that the empty tomb and the eyewitnesses were fabrications added much later in the first century, when the Gospels were completed in final, written form.
This fallacy forgets that Paul’s letters predate the Gospel writings. Consider this passage from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8…
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
This is a very early testimony that Paul had been taught and now passes along in writing about 10-15 years after Christ’s crucifixion.
This testimony includes the two critical factors that Christ “was buried,” and that “he appeared to” many eyewitnesses.
The reference to “the third day,” indicates the church’s desire to make a historical claim, not just offer a detached, once-upon-a-time tale.
The mention of 500+ eyewitnesses invites people to fact check. Most of them were still alive at the time of Paul’s writing.
In his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Richard Bauckham makes a strong argument for the careful way in which eyewitness testimony was passed along in an oral culture. There were clear distinctions made between the kinds of stories that could be embellished and those that were not to be altered.
New Testament scholar, NT Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God, points out many of the awkward details of the resurrection appearances contained in the four Gospels: the strange silence of the Old Testament; the strange absence of personal hope; the strange portrait of Jesus; the strange presence of the women in the stories. These general issues support the argument that these are very early testimonies, preceding Paul and preceding the final forms of the gospels, and were not to be messed around with in transmission, despite their little idiosyncrasies and the questions they raise when taken together. Their crude form and lack of spin strongly suggests eyewitness testimony.
In short, the accounts of the resurrection were too problematic to be fabrications. There are several other factors to consider.
The first eyewitnesses were women. In that cultural context, women could not testify in court. They held no credibility as eyewitnesses. There must have been enormous pressure to remove the women from the accounts, but they were too well known to be altered or suppressed. Fabricating women as the first and primary witnesses of the risen Christ is certainly not how one would go about concocting a credible conspiracy.
The empty tomb and accounts of personal appearances are more plausible when you consider they must be taken together:
If there were an empty tomb and no appearances, no one would have considered it was a resurrection. They would have suspected grave-robbing.
If there were only eyewitnesses and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded it was a resurrection, because people’s accounts of seeing departed loved ones happens all the time.
Only if both factors were true together would anyone have concluded Jesus was raised from the dead.
The empty tomb testimony arose so early, skeptics could have produced Jesus’ corpse and silenced the believers.
Whatever else happened, the tomb of Jesus must have really been empty and hundreds of witnesses must have claimed that they saw him bodily raised.
Resurrection and Immortality.
CS Lewis wrote against “chronological snobbery” – that ancients would have been naive and ready to believe any supernatural claim. In truth, to all the dominant world views of the time, an individual bodily resurrection was almost inconceivable.
Non-Jewish thought in the ancient world: Resurrection of the body is impossible.
Greco-Roman: the physical body was weak, corrupt, and defiling. The spirit was good. Salvation was considered to be a liberation from the body. Bodily resurrection is not only impossible; it is undesirable.
Plato’s highly influential philosophy considered this world the lesser reality, and the spiritual world of “ideals” to be the goal upon death of the body. Many modern conceptions of heaven – even among Christians – unfortunately draw upon Platonic beliefs, not Biblical testimony.
Jewish thought, which saw physical reality as good, had no concept of an individual being resurrected, in the middle of history, while the rest of the world continued on burdened by sickness, decay, and death. The belief was in a general, mass resurrection of the dead, in conjunction with the coming of the messianic age and God’s restoration of creation. Take, for example, Martha’s stated beliefs during this conversation at Lazarus’ tomb:
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” ~ John 11:23-27.
Other questions that get raised:
Were the witnesses of the resurrection suffering from wishful thinking? This assumes that individual bodily resurrection was imaginable for Jesus’ followers, which it was not.
Were the witnesses suffering from hallucinations? Again, it was not an imaginable option capable of inducing such a hallucination. Moreover, you don’t get large groups of people experiencing the same hallucination.
Did the disciples steal Jesus’ body? This assumes the disciples would expect other Jews to be open to the belief that an individual could be raised from the dead.
In addition, there were many other messianic movements where would-be messiahs were executed, however…in not one single case do we hear the slightest mention of disappointed followers claiming their hero had been raised from the dead. Why would Jesus’ disciples have come to the conclusion that his crucifixion had been a triumph, not a defeat?
The Explosion of a New Worldview.
After Jesus’ death, the Christian community suddenly adopted a set of brand-new and previously inconceivable beliefs. A resurrection-centered reality. This was not simply a resuscitated body like the Jews envisioned nor a solely spiritual existence like the Greeks imagined. Jesus’ resurrection guaranteed our resurrection and brought some of that future new life into our hearts now.
In every other instance of massive paradigm shifts in world history, it only happens to a group of people over a period of time. Ordinarily it takes years of discussion and debate. Here, there was no process of development. They just told others what they had seen. There were no early, alternative proclamations from Jesus’ followers.
Even entertaining the highly improbable theory that just a couple of disciples came up with the idea, these conspirators would not have been able to convince a movement of Jews without multiple, plausible encounters with Jesus.
The ancient Jewish worship of a human as God is even more improbable, yet hundreds of Jews started worshipping Jesus as divine almost overnight. The “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2:5-11 is believed by most scholars to be an early testimony which Paul received and passed along to his readers, again, very close to the event of Christ’s death, within 10-15 years.
Finally, consider what Blaise Pascal wrote, “I believe those witnesses that get their throats cut.” The sacrifice and martyrdom of virtually all of the earliest apostles and leaders would be difficult to explain with a hoax.
Tim Keller’s summary statement:
“It is not enough for the skeptic, then, to simply dismiss the Christian teaching about the resurrection of Jesus by saying, ‘It just couldn’t have happened.’ He or she must face and answer all these historical questions: Why did Christianity emerge so rapidly, with such power? No other band of messianic followers in that era concluded their leader was raised from the dead – why did this group do so? No group of Jews ever worshipped a human being as God. What led them to do it? Jews did not believe in divine men or individual resurrections. What changed their worldview virtually overnight? How do you account for the hundreds of eyewitnesses to the resurrection who lived on for decades and publicly maintained their testimony, eventually giving their lives for their beliefs?” Reason for God, 219.
Recommendations for Further Study:
Reason for God, Tim Keller. Book and DVD.
Resurrection. A 50-minute fascinating DVD presentation by NT Wright. This would make a fine viewing party or two with a small group.
The Resurrection of the Son of God. NT Wright. If you have a lot of spare time!
The Case for Christ. Lee Strobel.