A Brief Defense of the Resurrection
If the resurrection didn’t happen why do we go church? Why read the Bible? Why seek to uphold the New Testament ethic?
Do you feel the weight of this question? Do you feel its significance? If Christ did not rise then the Church is a sham. My life is a sham.
It changed the world. The launch of the World Wide Web in 1990. It led to a wealth of information unprecedented in any other age to include what followed after the creation of the printing press in 1440. The Declaration of Independence, the French Revolution, the first moon landing, the first flight, the Model T, antiseptics, the Industrial Revolution; they changed the world and, one could argue, for the better. However, their significance pales in comparison to the question of the resurrection.
The topic of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is profoundly important. Upon it Christianity, indeed, heaven and hell rest. It is the hinge on which the direction of one’s life hangs, but it is more than that. The resurrection, if it happened, means that the hermeneutic with which we look at the world, even the whole of the universe, must correctly fit that evidence.
It means that all of history—that of the television to that of Tokyo—and everybody—Albert Einstein to Adolf Hitler—hang in the balance. It means that there is a day of reckoning; a day of profound peace and of hell. It means this world will one day finally be great for some and for others it will be the best they’ve known. It means that there is purpose and extreme futility.
It means that the unreal is real. It means that the far out has burst upon the scene. It means that what is seen is not it. It means that there is more. It means that there is meaning and direction to the cosmos. It means history is going somewhere and it is on its way.
If the resurrection happened then that new creation is the most significant thing that has happened since the (literal) beginning of time with the creation of all things. If the resurrection indeed happened then it confirms the words and work of Jesus. If the resurrection happened, it truly changes everything.
Second, it is important to argue for the resurrection because the Bible itself all over the place argues for the resurrection. It’s what the Christian hope is built upon. If it didn’t happen then what are we doing?!
So, many of the sermons in Acts seek to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah (see Acts 9:22; 13:16ff; 16:13; 17:3, 17; 18:4-5, 19; 19:8ff; 24:25; 26:6, 22-26; 28:23, 31 cf. 18:28; from the beginning of the church preaching and teaching was integral 2:42). Also, Luke wrote an “orderly account” to Theophilus so that he would have “certainty” (Luke 1:3). Luke said that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs” (Acts 1:3).
Peter says “we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16). John talks about very tangible proof: “…we have heard… we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands… the life was made manifest, and we have seen… that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you” (1 Jn. 1:1-3). Even when warned at the cost of punishment Peter and John said in Acts that they could not but speak of what they had seen and heard (Acts 4:20).
The reality of the resurrection is something that is obviously very important to the New Testament authors. It is something that they did not take for granted but gave witness to (cf. e.g. Jn. 19:31-37). The reality of the resurrection is no less important for us today. We must still give testimony to it. We must still give the “many proofs” (cf. Acts 1:3) for it.
So, to the question, did the resurrection happen? Actually, even before that question, is it even possible for the resurrection to happen?
It is important before considering the evidence to think about our assumptions. For instance, in Harper Lee’s book To Kill a Mocking Bird the correct verdict could not have been given in that context (i.e. Maycomb’s racist white community) because people excluded the possibility that anyone other than the black man, Tom Robinson, was guilty. Despite the strong evidence that Atticus Finch put forward Tom was still convicted. Why? Because people were prejudice against the truth. The people’s a prior assumption, that Tom was guilty because he’s black, led them to not honestly look at the evidence and pronounce the correct verdict.
This sadly still happens. It happens in the court of law and it happens when people consider the evidence for the resurrection. Atheists and naturalists will obviously claim that Jesus could not raise from the dead because for them that is not even a possible option. It must have been something else. There must be a different explanation. And so, they propound all sorts of other ideas. Yet what they offer does not do justice to all the information.
More common, however, is a more popular form of denial. Either people just say it’s not possible without clearly weighing the evidence or they deny it because of doctrine. That is, they don’t like certain things that the New Testament teaches and realize if they deny the resurrection then they don’t have to worry about any of the other teachings; such as repentance. However, as Timothy Keller has said, “The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like [Jesus’] teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.”
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”
Notice that this teaching is of “first importance.” There is a lot that we can disagree on but this is not one of those things. This is one of the absolute bare essentials. If we lose this then the whole structure collapses. Also, notice that Paul is delivering something to us that he “received.” Paul is incorporating an earlier confession or tradition that was passed down.
First, the Crucifixion. Christ died (1 Cor. 15:3). And He died on a cross. This is basically an undisputed fact. Tacitus says:
“Christ, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and a pernicious superstition was chekcked for the moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judea, the home of the disease, but in the capital istelf” (Annals of Imperial Rome xv.44).
The Talmud even reports that Jesus (Yeshu) was hanged (as in on the cross) on the eve of the Passover (b Sanh 43a-b; cf. Justin Martyr Dial. 69) for practicing sorcery (it is important to note that the authorities did not deny that “strange” things accompanied Him). The Jewish historian Josephus says that Pilate condemned Jesus to the cross (Antiquities, Book 18, ch. 3, par. 3). Lucian, a Greek writer of the 2nd century, mentions the crucifixion of Jesus as well (The Death of Peregrine, 11-13).
This is very significant, because to be hung on a tree, to be crucified, was to be cursed in the eyes of the Jews. Paul tells us this (Gal. 3:13) reminding us of Deuteronomy 21:23. How could Christianity develop and believe in a crucified, cursed, carpenter as their long-awaited promised Messiah? What could make sense of the fact that Jesus was crucified and later venerated as the Promised One, indeed, God incarnate? Surely a crucified man could not be the Messiah (Deut. 21:22-23 cf. Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24). Plus, the expectation was a king in the vein of David. A Yehoshu’a that defeats Israel’s enemies, not a Yehoshu’a that will be defeated by dying upon a tree.
This makes the existence of the Church all the more amazing. Why would people such as Peter, James, and Paul follow—to death!—someone that was crucified?! What could account for this historical fact? Why would Jews switch their day of worship from Saturday, the Sabbath, to Sunday in light of someone that died a horrible death on the cross? Why would the Church be persecuted for “eating flesh” (i.e. celebrating the Lord’s Supper) if Jesus only died and never raised?
Of course, we know that Jesus, the Messiah, died as the Lamb of God to take away our sins. We see that His death was the fulfillment of passages like Isaiah 53. However, that was not immediately understood then. They did not a first understand that the Messiah must suffer many things (cf. e.g. Lk. 18:31-34; 24:11). They did not understand that Jesus’ death was indeed in “accordance with the Scriptures.” Yet, they would understand. So, we see, “Jesus’ resurrection is, in fact, the best explanation for why ancient monotheistic Jews would worship him as divine.”
Second, He was Buried. Jesus was buried (1 Cor. 15:4). Laid in a tomb and later His tomb was found empty. There are multiple attestations of this. The Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all tell us about this. Further, they tell us that women were the first people on the scene. This is significant because a woman’s testimony was no good in court in that day. If the empty tomb story would have been made up they would not have chosen women to be the first witnesses to the resurrection. Instead, it would have made sense for them to say that Peter, for instance, was the first person on the scene.
Also, they would not have left any discrepancies in the accounts. However, discrepancies remain. They are not irreconcilable but they remain. If the story of the empty tomb was fabricated the account of it would be much more tidy. Anyhow, if Jesus did not rise from the dead His followers would have no motivation to claim that He did.
One of the theories put forward against the resurrection is that Jesus was not actually dead when He was taken off the cross. However, think of this: Jesus would have been a more horrific image than a zombie. He would have been in no position to convince His disciples that He had rose from the dead. Plus, He would then be a deceiver which greatly conflicts with His amazing ethical teachings.
All of this aside, it is just not possible that Jesus would have lived through the whole ordeal. So William Lane Craig has said that the apparent death theory is foolish when we consider “the beatings of Jesus, His exhausting all-night trial and interrogations, His scourging, His crucifixion, the spear in His side [which serves to demonstrate that He did in fact die], the binding and wrapping of His body in seventy-five pounds of linen and spices, and the cold tomb sealed by a large stone.”
In fact because of the type of beating that Jesus underwent before He was even crucified He could have died even beforehand so there was no way that He would have lived through the crucifixion. Further, the guards though not doctors or scientists likely had as much experience with dead bodies as morticians. They would have known if Jesus was not dead. So Alexander Metherell, who has both a medical degree and a doctorate degree in engineering and has edited five scientific books, has said that “there was absolutely no doubt that Jesus was dead” and “there’s just no way he could have survived the cross.”
People have even claimed that Jesus death was faked. They claim that Jesus was slipped a drug that put Him into a deep stupor (they use Mk. 15:36 as their proof text) so people thought He was dead. However, this theory falls short for a number of reasons. Not least is the fact that had Jesus fell into a deep stupor He would have in fact died. One of the ways, probably the most common way, which people died on the cross was through asphyxiation. Thus if Jesus was drugged He would have certainly died of asphyxiation anyhow.
William Edwards concludes his study “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”:
“It remains unsettled whether Jesus died of cardiac rupture or of cardiorespiratory failure. However, the important feature may be not how he died but rather whether he died. 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.”
So I think we see through the “swoon theory” is unbelievable it does lend credibility to the other evidence leading to the resurrection. This is because if someone is willing to claim that Jesus did not die on the cross rather than face the other evidence then the other evidence must be substantial indeed.
So what then is the significance that Jesus was buried and that Paul and the confession stated that? The Heidelberg Catechism says that “His burial testified that He had really died.”
Third, the Tomb was Empty. Jesus rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:4) and thus left an empty tomb. Actually, it was never even claimed that the tomb was not empty. That was not an option that anyone could have claimed because the tomb was empty. Instead, the authorities that wanted to crush the early Christian movement said that the disciples stole Jesus’ body (Matt. 28:13, 15). Yet, that claim is preposterous for a few reasons. For example, Jesus’ followers did not have the motivation or the means to put on such a pointless charade. People have also put forward the idea that the women went to the wrong tomb. This view, however, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny either. If the women had gone to the wrong tomb then the authorities would have said so. They did know where the tomb was; they set guards in front of it.
First, we see early attestation that the tomb was empty. Paul quoted an early confession that Jesus was raised (1 Cor. 15:4) which implicitly states that the tomb was empty. We also have other very reliable historical sources that all claim that the tomb was empty.
Second, if the tomb wasn’t empty it would have been impossible for the Christian movement, which is founded on the resurrection, to get started in Jerusalem. Perhaps if the disciples would have moved somewhere else then it would have been possible but not in Jerusalem. People there had certainly seen Jesus teach, die a horrible death, or at least heard rumors about Jesus. Jews and Gentiles alike had reasons for hostility against the radical upstart movement. People didn’t understand Christian teaching and as Jesus predicted it brought division. So if people in Jerusalem could have produced Jesus’ body to shut up the movement before it got off the ground they would have. But they didn’t, because they couldn’t. If the tomb was not empty then there could be no Christian movement; especially in Jerusalem. Paul and the Gospel writers all identify and give names of multiple people that were said to be eyewitnesses of the resurrection. If people wanted to they could question them and determine the validly of their claims. So Craig shows that “the controlling presence of living witnesses would prevent significant accrual of legend.”
Again, and thirdly, the fact that the Gospels tell us that women discovered the empty tomb argues for its validity. This, once again, is because if the Gospel accounts had been made up, they would not been made up to include woman being the witnesses to the empty tomb. Something else to consider looking at is the Shroud of Turin.
Fourth, Jesus’ Appearances. Jesus appeared too many (1 Cor. 15:5-9). Paul gave a pretty substantial list of witnesses. In fact, Paul basically said, they are still around, here are their names, you can go question them yourself. Actually, that is apparently what Luke did. Luke did a thorough investigation of the whole thing and his final verdict was that the resurrection and thus the Church did indeed happen.
The New Testament lists twelve separate appearances over a forty-day period:
- Mary Magdalene (Jn. 20:10-18)
- Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10)
- Peter (Lk. 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)
- Two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35)
- Ten apostles (Lk. 24:36-49)
- Eleven apostles (Jn. 20:24-31)
- Seven apostles (Jn. 21)
- All of the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20)
- Five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6)
- James (1 Cor. 15:7)
- Again to all the apostles (Acts 1:4-8)
- The apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8; 9:1)
One of Jesus’ followers (likely Mark) fled naked risking great shame (or worse) but was transformed by the good and surprising news of the resurrection (cf. Mk. 14:32-52). Paul, a persecutor of the Church, was radically transformed and ended up being persecuted himself for preaching the truth of Jesus the Christ’s resurrection.
As has been very often pointed out:
“The disciples… went from dejected, dispirited and grieving followers of a crucified rabbi to apostles, those who had beheld the risen Christ and who, on that basis, preached him as Lord of life and the Judge of history… The actual resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the disciples’ transformation from cowardice, despair and confusion to confident proclamation and the willingness to suffer persecution, hardship and even martyrdom for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.”
And who would die for a known lie? Who would go to a bloody painful death if it could be avoided simply by denying a lie?
After Jesus was taken His apostles were scared and hid in the upper room. Peter denied Jesus 3 times. After Jesus’ resurrection he appeared to the apostles and many others. After the apostles saw the resurrected Jesus they were no longer scared, they were emboldened. All of the apostles died for their beliefs, except John. Yet, tradition says he was boiled alive and later exiled to the island Patmos. Following is how the apostles died:
- Peter- crucified
- Matthew- the sword
- John- died a natural death after being boiled in oil and exiled
- James, son of Alphaeus- crucified
- Philip- crucified
- Simon- crucified
- Thaddaeus- killed by arrows
- James, the brother of Jesus- stoned
- Thomas- spear thrust
- Bartholomew- crucified
- James, the son of Zebedee- the sword
Many have contended that the appearances were just hallucinations. However, this theory also falls short for various reasons. Actually, even the Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide, believed that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead even though he didn’t believe that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah. So, for instance, he said, ““When this frightened band of apostles suddenly could be changed overnight into a confident mission society… Then no vision or hallucination is sufficient to explain such a revolutionary transformation.”
Others have put forward the “conspiracy theory” view that says the disciples made up the resurrection story. However, as I said, the Gospel accounts have small, though not contradictory, discrepancies in them. This would not make any sense if the early followers of Jesus got together and fabricated the whole thing. However, it would not make any sense for them to fabricate the whole thing anyhow. What would they gain from such lies?! Nothing. Nothing but persecution and death. So clearly the crucifixion of Jesus was not just some conspiracy theory that some whacks made up to serve their own end.
Can you imagine the disciples saying, in the words of William Lane Craig,
“Let us band together… to invent all the miracles and resurrection appearances which we never saw and let us carry the sham to death! Why not die for nothing? Why dislike torture and whipping inflicted for no good reason? Let us go out to all nations and overthrow their institutions and denounce their gods! And even if we don’t convince anybody, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of drawing down on ourselves the punishment for our own deceit.”
Even mobsters, like Henry Hill and Alphonse D’Arco, from time to time break down and confess what they swore on life and limb they would not confess. Surely Jesus’ followers who had everything to lose and nothing to gain would break down and confess it was a hoax if it was. Thus the “conspiracy theory” fails to meet the demands of the evidence.
Further, Craig points out that “if we distrust these men, then we must distrust all writers of history and records. If we accept the records of secular historians, then we must by the same standard also accept the reliability of the disciples’ testimony to the resurrection.” Similarly, Licona points that “to claim as useless any effort to know the past is not only the death of history but of the legal system too.”
If Jesus Christ has been raised there is purpose and direction to the cosmos; to our life. If Jesus rose from the dead His claim and promises our justified. If Jesus rose then we, who have faith in Him, will also rise. If Jesus rose the Kingdom of God and new creation has broke into this broken world. Truly, “The resurrection of Jesus… is the symbol and starting point of a new world.”
- How has the resurrection changed you?
- How has it changed someone you know or know of? For instance, think of the Apostle Paul.
- How should the fact of the resurrection continue to change you?
- What should you do differently this week in light of the resurrection?
- How can you thank Christ for the resurrection and all that it means?
- Lastly, read 1 Corinthians 15 this week, pray, and think about the importance of the resurrection of Christ.
 Marten Hengel rightly says Paul considered the “Jewish-Messianic message and its concomitant scriptural evidence… quite important from the very beginning.” (Marten Hengel, “Paul in Arabia” Bulletin for Biblical Research 12.1 , 59).
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 115
 Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, 530. See also e.g. Licona’s discussion of John Dominic Crossan’s view in The Resurrection of Jesus, 44-45 see also 608.
 See also John Adams in Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 609.
 Keller, The Reason for God, 210. Also, William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 279.
 Licona says “Paul wrote the letter we now refer to as 1 Corinthians in A.D. 54 or 55. If Jesus died in A.D. 30, we are reading a letter that was written within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death by a major church leader who knew a number of those who walked with Jesus. If this letter contains tradition that Paul has preserved, we are even closer than twenty-five years to the events it claims to report” (The Resurrection of Jesus, 223-24. See 223- 35).
 Even John Dominic Crossan says the fact that Jesus was crucified is “as sure as anything historical ever can be” (Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991], 145).
 Martin Hengel says, “A crucified messiah, son of God or God must have seemed a contradiction in terms to anyone, Jew, Greek, Roman or barbarian, asked to believe such a claim, and it will certainly have been thought offensive and foolish” (Crucifixion John Bowden trans. [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977], 10) as Paul himself later would say (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). See also Ibid., 61-62, and esp. 89. Justin Martyr Apology I ch. 13. Also the Alexamenos graffito shows how foolish many thought it was to worship one that had been crucified. The graffiti depicts a Christian worshiping an image of a man on a cross with a donkey head.
 cf. Thomas R. Schreiner, Paul, Apostle of God’s in Christ: A Pauline Theology (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001), 75. Truly, “a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms for the Jews” (Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 292). Paul himself was among the rulers that “did not recognize him,” the Messiah, nor what the prophets said regarding Him (Acts 13:27). Yet he later was enlightened to the fact that the Scriptures were fulfilled (v. 27b) when Jesus was condemned, i.e. “cursed,” on a tree (v. 29 see also vv. 30-39). Also, Loren T. Stuckenbruck after examining the relevant apocalyptic and early Judaism literature says, “messianic speculation varied from author to author and even within the documents themselves” (“Messianic Ideas in the Apocalyptic and Related Literature of Early Judaism” 112 in The Messiah in the Old and New Testament (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 90-13.
 In Paul’s day “Messianic expectation married social discontent. The result was the offspring of anticipation and action” (David P Seemuth, “Mission in the Early Church” in Mission in the New Testament, 51). People, not least Paul, did not expect a suffering servant that would die a violent death to be the long awaited messiah. They expected a messiah that would bring violence to their oppressors.
 See Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 579-80 and Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 554. “Wright argues that the empty tomb and the postresurrection appearances of Jesus are necessary conditions for the rise of early Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus” (Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 107).
 Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 553.
 Cf. e.g. Wright who says “women were simply not acceptable witnesses” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 607 cf. 326). Also, Craig, The Son Rises, 59-61.
 So N.T. Wright has said, “The stories exhibit… exactly that surface tension which we associate, not with tales artfully told by people eager to sustain a fiction and therefore anxious to make everything look right” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, 612).
 Or, as Islam teaches, Jesus was not really the one that was crucified. This, though ludicrous, is not any worse than thinking Jesus did not really die. Surah 157-58 says, “And [for] their saying, ’Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah.’ And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.”
 To think of it in terms of the miraculous, it would be more miraculous for Jesus to have lived through the crucifixion and what lead up to it then that He was resurrected from the dead.
 See his further helpful elaboration in The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 37-40.
 Cf. Alexander Metherell, interviewed in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 196.
 Alexander Metherell, interviewed in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 200, 202.
 William Edwards, M.D., et.al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association (March 26, 1986), 1463.
 Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 41.
 Craig, The Son Rises, 106. “Something more than mere curiosity about an ancient puzzle draws our attention to the first centuries of Christian history… whether or not we regard ourselves as Christians or in any way religious, we cannot altogether escape the tectonic shift of cultural values that was set in motion by those small and obscure beginnings” (Wayne A. Meeks, “The Origins of Christian Morality: The First Two Centuries [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993], 1). “The creation of so many texts and their survival is remarkable and counter-intuitive. Jesus was a Jew, and anti-Semitism was rife in the Greco-Roman world. He came from Nazareth, a tiny village in Galilee, a remote landlocked principality. He was crucified, a brutal and humiliating form of execution reserved for the lowest orders to deter subversives, troublemakers, and slaves like those who followed Spartacus” (Paul W. Barnett, “Is the New Testament Historically Reliable?” 228-29 in In Defense of the Bible).
 See Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 546.
 Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 551.
 Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (Fortress Press, 1988), 125.
 Craig, The Son Rises, 24. Craig says this referencing Eusebius of Caesarea’s argument in Demonstratio evangelica 3. 4, 5.
 See Craig, The Son Rises, 23-36 for a concise and pungent argument.
 Craig, The Son Rises, 25.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 95.
 Thomas Arnold as quoted in Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, 217.
 Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 608.
 Ibid., 610 cf. 619.
 N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2008), 67.