Monday, August 31, 2009

The Resurrection

It is rightly pointed out that the resurrection of Jesus is the hingepoint of the Christian faith. The question of whether Jesus really came back from death makes all the difference in the world. The apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is usesless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

So it is worthy of note that this belief in Jesus' resurrection is not only the most essential of the Christian faith, but also the most hotly contested--and yet, one of the most verifiable events in history, when one evaluates the historical evidence.

1. Eyewitness Testimony
In courtrooms, considerable weight is given to eyewitnesses who have observed the events being discussed in the court case. Since no one else in the courtroom was there, the eyewitnesses are considered key for helping reconstruct the events of the past. In the Bible, two of the four writers who tell the story of the resurrection (Matthew and John) were personal eyewitnesses to the fact, as disciples of Jesus. Luke insists that his account is an "orderly account" based on his own careful investigation of Jesus' life "from the beginning," "so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught" (Luke 1:1-4). And Mark, as a traveling companion of Paul, relied especially on Peter.

In addition, John and Peter both wrote letters to the churches, affirming their eyewitness status:

  • We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of your Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty (2 Peter 1:16).
  • That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched--this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Fathe rand has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard (1 John 1:1-3).

And Paul in one of the earliest writings of what we now know as the New Testament said, For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appearedc to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of hte brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

Here we see that the belief in the resurrection of Jesus can be traced to a very early point in the life of the church, attested to by a number of people who claim to be eyewitnesses to the fact. Clearly, this is not a belief that arose a number of years later; it was part of the Christian faith from the beginning.

2. Empty Tomb
Eyewitness testimony is great, but of course we all know that eyewitnesses can lie. What gives credibility to the eyewitness testimony is that there are other historical facts that back up their claims. One of the most striking is that it is almost certain that the tomb of Jesus was empty. We can know this because if Jesus' followers are running around claiming that Jesus is alive, the best way to squash that claim is to produce the body--which nobody did.

It's not because they didn't have a reason to. Many people, in fact, had a vested interest in putting this whole Jesus movement to rest--namely all those who had conspired to get him killed in the first place:

  • Jewish leaders--The whole problem for them with Jesus was that his teachings and his understanding of God and scripture profoundly threatened everything they loved--their privileged status, their power and influence, their wealth. The last thing they wanted was to see Jesus' followers take up his mantle and start spreading his influence throughout the Roman Empire.
  • Roman authorities--Until Jesus, they had been able to boast a 100% success rate with crucifixions. They certainly didn't want that image tarnished. Moreover, Jesus had been charged (at least officially) with rebellion against Rome and attempting to establish his own kingdom. While Pilate personally felt that Jesus was harmless, could he be sure that the same could be said for all of his followers? In addition, the tomb of Jesus had been guarded by Roman soldiers; it certainly made them look inept if it could be said that the tomb was empty.

The only reason that makes sense for why no one came forward with the body of Jesus is because the body wasn't there! This is especially true when we consider that the church was born in Jerusalem, the very city in which Jesus was crucified--the last place on earth that it could have started if the tomb were not empty.

3. The Disciples' Lives/Deaths
Many theories have been put forward as to why the tomb could have been empty. Some are so ridiculous as to require more faith than actually believing in the resurrection (for instance, some advance what is known as "The Wrong Tomb Theory"--that everyone in Jerusalem forgot where Jesus was buried and all went to the wrong tomb to look for his body). Probably the most common explanation from skeptics for the empty tomb is that the disciples stole the body.

Setting aside the difficulty of overcoming the Roman guard which was posted, and the courage required to break the Roman seal on the tomb (remember, Peter withered under questioning from a servant girl in a courtyard just days earlier), one must consider that each of the disciples was eventually executed for their faith, except for John who lived out his final days in exile on the island of Patmos.

Certainly, no one is willing to surrender their lives simply to perpetuate a lie. And they would have known it was a lie if they were the ones who had stolen the body. The only logical explanation for their behavior is that they were absolutely certain that they were telling the truth--to the point that they were willing to die for it. And the only way they could be certain it was the truth is if they had been telling the truth when they shared their eyewitness testimonies.

And there was much they suffered before they actually gave up their lives. Consider this description of his life from the apostle Paul:

I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides eerything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? (2 Corinthians 11:23-29).

Who signs up for a life like this? Only those who believe that the benefit outweighs the cost. Only those who are fully convinced that Jesus Christ indeed rose from the dead.

4. The Audience
All this that we've examined so far is pretty convincing to me, but the clincher is the fact that the Christian faith grew so explosively in its first years. How could this happen if the audience the first Christians were trying to reach did not believe in the message they were sharing?

Shortly after Jesus was killed, Peter spoke to a crowd in Jerusalem (remember, the site of the crucifixion!). Many of the people listening had themselves probably seen Jesus put to death. Peter started out by saying, "Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know" (Acts 2:22). Then he went on to say, "God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact" (Acts 2:32).

And the audience's response is interesting. They didn't say, "We don't know what you're talking about!" or "Hey! That's not the way it really happened!" Instead, they were immediately terrified, and said, "Brothers, what shall we do?" And 3000 of them put their faith in Jesus that day.

The earliest New Testament books were written within 25-30 years after Jesus' death--plenty of time for many, many eyewitnesses to still be alive and able to rebut or refute the claims of the biblical writers. But there is no evidence that anyone at the time disagreed with the version of history that the Bible presents. Everyone agreed that that was the way it had happened.

If there is a God, and if he has revealed himself in Scripture, and if archaeology backs up the Bible's claims, and if dozens of prophecies were fulfilled in the life of Jesus in a way that no one could arrange, then it's not too big of a leap to believe that this God could raise his Son from the dead. The whole New Testament bears witness to that pivotal event, and the writers of Scripture are all in agreement. Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming--Jesus did rise from the dead. It's just one more reason that I find the Bible trustworthy.

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