The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the singular most important event in all of Christendom. Indeed, all of Christianity being erected upon the canonical testaments of the ancient Jewish scriptures and the books of the New Testament stand or fall on this ground-breaking event (no pun intended). Because these dual testaments reveal to mankind God’s redemptive plan, it reaches its climax in the person of His Messiah and Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, no greater affirmation of the Eternal God and his purposes can be given then that which is declared by the Son of God himself- that he would rise from the dead. This prophetic declaration underpins the veracity of his claim to be God’s Messiah, and was many times front and center in his many clashes with the Jewish clerics of his day. Concerning Jesus, the people had asked, “Can this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:23), to which the Pharisees later sought proof by requesting of him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” (Matthew 12:38). In his book The Case for the Resurrection, New Testament scholar Dr. Gary Habermas underscores this encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees as a crucial point in the ministry of Jesus. Who He claimed to be and everything that he had said was now being pushed to the fore. The time had come to prove that he was in fact the long awaited Son of David, the Messiah of God. At this juncture Jesus placed his entire ministry on the line. He gave them what they asked for, a sign, but it would prove to be much more telling and faith stretching than any one of them could ever imagine. The sign that he would give them and in effect to the whole world was the outrageous claim wherein he would defy all natural law by rising from the dead. (Matthew 12:40). Dr. Habermas states, “If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was a false prophet…Conversely, if he did rise from the dead, this event confirmed his radical claim.” In effect, all who Jesus claimed to be, everything he said and every miracle he performed would be substantiated by his resurrection or become nothing short of demonic deception if he failed.
The Principle of Embarrassment The accounts in the gospels of the resurrection by the first witnesses and their reaction to it, reveal to us what we might expect. Their reactions to the news of the missing corpse was very human and typical of them. From what we read in the texts it’s easy to see that none of them, at first, believed that a miracle had occurred. In fact, the disciples are characterized as skeptics, in a way that typifies what most anyone would initially believe; namely this, that resurrections are impossible. If something similar were to happen in today’s modern world, it would not be hard to imagine that the disciples would have taken sides with the non-believing scientific community. Hearsay alone would not do, even if the reports came from people who had no reason to lie or make up such stories. What they needed was tangible proof. When the apostles first heard from Mary that she had seen Jesus, none of them believed. They knew that it was impossible for a dead Jesus to rise from a tomb, even though they had been told time and again when He was with them that he was going to do just that. The fact is, initially, they all, including the women visiting the tomb, believed that there were perfectly reasonable and natural explanations for the body of Jesus to be missing. This characterization of the disciples as being initially skeptic says something important about the unbiased way in which the gospel accounts were written. If someone wanted to invent a resurrection story, it would be more advantageous, to make the story credible, to leave out any information that would make those first witnesses appear skeptical and/or disappointed. The journalist would do better to find people who believed in the resurrection not those who voiced skepticism. But the gospel writers did just that. They told the story in its bold and unedited reality; showing people who struggled with fears, uncertainty, disbelief, discouragement, skepticism and every other human element.
“Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Luke 24:10,11
Dr. Habermas makes this added point, it is what apologists call the “principle of embarrassment.” The fact that the first heralds of the resurrection were women would, in Roman and Jewish culture, make these claims untenable, since the testimony of women was considered on equal grounds to that of a robber. In making the women the primary witnesses to the resurrection, the New Testament writers ran the risk of making their story invalid. The story would have been easier to sell to the public and more news worthy if they would have left out the women’s testimony altogether. It is, however, this sort of unbiased reporting by the gospel quartet which actually makes the narratives more authentic. Pastor Greg Herrick comments, “…if a tradition is found, which in all likelihood caused the church a certain degree of embarrassment, it is most likely authentic, since there would have been a tendency to omit it.”
Making A Case For The Resurrection However, the difficulty in verifying that Jesus rose from the dead is this: the Gospels, which purport to have been written by those who had access to the best testimony and eyewitness evidence, still have no one who actually saw Jesus rise from the dead and walk out of the tomb. This point is made clear by Pastor Herrick who says, “All that was seen was the resurrected Jesus. If, then, a resurrection took place, it must be demonstrated with a reasonable degree of certainty, historiographically speaking, that Jesus actually died and then was seen at some later time alive and in bodily form.” Because ancient historical events cannot be proven with 100% certainty, it is erroneous to conclude that the resurrection of Christ cannot be substantiated. Dr. Gary Habermas and New Testament Studies Professor Michael Licona gather an abundance of evidence to mount a formidable case. The result is an overwhelming consensus that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as chronicled by the four New Testament evangelists, is the only plausible explanation against the many theories which seek to discredit it.
Dr. Habermas and Professor Licona use what they call ‘a minimal facts approach’ to attest to the resurrection biographies. The bulk of their argument is to resort only to that data which is strongly attested historically by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the skeptical ones. They give five facts that they believe make for a strong defense for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, and pull from informants from both secular and religious history as well as the scriptures themselves.
Fact number one. In order to prove that Jesus was truly resurrected there must first be evidence that he in fact really died. So, fact number one is to prove death by crucifixion. The internal evidence is unanimous from the Gospel writers, as they all state clearly that Jesus was crucified. But we can also look to non-Biblical sources as well which confirm the crucifixion of a man named Jesus. These unbiased reports are found in historical works written by first century historians Josephus (Jewish) and Tacitus (Roman). Both mention the death of Jesus the Christ by crucifixion, as does the Greek satirist and Christian scorner, Lucian of Samosata. So it is not only from the gospels that we receive the record of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. But we find non-Christian sources from the first century also giving creedence to Christ’s crucifixion.
The second fact is that the disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them. Again Dr. Habermas provides an excellent, easy to remember acrostic to use for solidifying this fact, which he calls POW. It stands for Paul, Oral tradition, and Writings of the early church fathers. I will only explore the first two as anyone interested can explore the numerous writings from many of the early church fathers.
Paul – St. Paul had met with the apostles and conversed with them on several occasions giving him the opportunity to verify and critically examine the resurrection claims before making it his bedrock theology. This would have afforded Paul with concrete historical evidence. Unlike second hand hear-say, he acquired first-hand apostolic eyewitness testimony.
Oral tradition demonstrates that the early church held firmly to the Lord’s resurrection as evidenced by Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15:3-5.
“For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how 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 of Cephas, then of the twelve.”
These verses are conclusive proof that the apostle had delivered to the Corinthian believers the creedal statement that was already making its rounds, orally, among the Christian community. This oral creed makes four specific statements: that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, that he was raised, and that he appeared to many people. The miracle of the resurrection did not evolve over a long period of time like myths or legends. The event of the risen Christ was immediately reported as fact, attested by eye-witnesses and contemporaries who were living at the time. This left them open to interrogation so that their claims could be verified and cross-checked with other similar sightings or reports.
Anyone wanting to nullify the resurrection reports at that time could have easily falsified these claims by bringing forward damaging evidence. But none was successfully brought forth. Some tried to contrive a story that would silence these claims, the problem was that Jesus kept appearing to more and more of his followers, making the news of the resurrection spread quickly and making it all the more newsworthy.
The biblical narratives concerning the resurrection are viewed as real, true, historical accounts even by those, like the zealous Pharisee Saul, who wanted to rid Christianity from the culture. Concerning the apostles’ view of the resurrection, Dr. William Craig has this insightful observation, “The very fact that they [the apostles] saw in it [the resurrection event] no proof ensures that the narrative is substantially uncolored by apologetic motifs and in its primitive form.” Meaning, if the apostles invented the resurrection story in order to use it as a device to defend the faith, their intentions of this is completely absent within the narratives, making the story more credible. Let me break this down a bit more. The apostles were not out to prove the resurrection. If it was in their minds to start a new religion with Jesus as the iconic founder it would have been of utmost importance to prove that he was alive. But the gospel’s mention no such intention by any of the apostles. This makes the gospel accounts all the more honest and credible. No ulterior motive exists by the gospel writers or the apostles themselves to prove the claim of the resurrection. Their intention was to report what they heard without any added agenda. They told the story just as they heard it.
Fact three is to bolster an argument for the resurrection by using testimony from an enemy of the Christian movement: Enter the Apostle Paul. His conversion was unique in that he didn’t come to faith in Jesus Christ through an outside witness, but by the resurrected person of the Founder Himself. If this was an illusion or hallucination, the question is, would he be willing to be banned from the elitist religious community of his Pharisaic brothers if he had not believed with certainty that he had a personal encounter with Christ? And why would he suddenly call off the mission of exterminating Christians, which was sanctioned in writing by letters from the Jewish High Priest, and which he himself initiated, had not something significant taken place in his life? (Acts 9:1-7). And if he was to explain his reasons to the Jewish authorities for not going through with the mission to arrest and imprison Christians, he most certainly would have offered any excuse except one that made him a member of the very group that he was out to destroy! If this enemy gone convert was in any way doubtful about whom he had spoken to on the Damascus road (when the glory of Jesus threw him off his horse), the death threats and extreme hardships of his missionary journeys that followed would have certainly caused him, at some point, to withdraw from such perilous, religious enterprises.
“Now as he [Paul] went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Acts 9:3-5
Fact four brings us to the skeptic James, the brother of Jesus. Dr. Habermas points out that James was not convinced of Jesus’ Messianic claims until he had a personal encounter with the risen Christ. Eventually he became a chief elder in the Jerusalem council (1 Corinthians 15:7). His belief in his half-bother Jesus, as the Messiah who rose from the grave, became so strong that he was willing to die for what he believed. His martyrdom is attested by the early church father Eusebius (Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History, vol. II, ch. 23), and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews).
The fifth fact: 75% of scholars accept the fact of the empty tomb with the Jerusalem factor weighing in as supporting evidence. The Jerusalem factor is this: No contrary reports came from the area of Jerusalem at the time of the resurrection from any secular or religious source. If verifiable reports of any kind surfaced in Jerusalem that could debunk the resurrection, followers of Messiah Jesus would most certainly not start their faith movement in that city. But they did! This is astounding evidence when one considers that the Christian church was launched in the very same city of Jerusalem, because believer’s knew with absolute certainty that the resurrection had occurred. Nothing or no one in Jerusalem was able to discredit the ever growing news of the Nazarene who was crucified on Calvary, that he had arisen and was now alive in his body. Why? All one had to do was to check the tomb. The newly forming Christian religion could have easily been silenced and stopped by simply exhuming or making public the discovery of the missing body. Dr. Craig sums it up nicely, “When therefore the disciples began to preach the resurrection in Jerusalem, and the people responded, and the religious authorities stood helplessly by, the tomb must have been empty. The fact that the Christian fellowship, founded on belief in Jesus’ resurrection, could come into existence and flourish in the very city that he was executed and buried seems to be compelling evidence for the historicity of the empty tomb.”
Two Naturalistic Explanations for the empty tomb are proposed. There is the ‘fraud 1 theory’. This theory states that the disciples stole the body and lied about the resurrection. But if they really stole the body of Jesus we must ask ourselves why would they do such a thing? They were fearful of the Jews and for their lives for being in any way associated with Jesus during and after his crucifixion. Peter went so far as to denounce any accusation that he even knew Jesus! (Matthew 26:69-74). Why? Because he knew that he could be the next victim on a Roman cross. And yet, we must ask ourselves, would any of the disciples endanger or give up their life for someone who claimed that they would die and rise again, but really didn’t, knowing they themselves had really stolen the body and made up a story that he rose from the dead? That’s stupidity not loyalty! Quoting Dr. Habermas, “Liars make poor martyrs.”
The ‘fraud 2 theory’ is this: that someone else stole the body and the disciples erroneously believed that Jesus rose from the dead. This is easily answered by the disciples’ own testimony and actions. It was not the empty tomb that was the shock, because the body (looking at it from the skeptic’s view) might have been stolen by someone else. But who? One may think that a sincere but cunning believer in an attempt to make Jesus some kind of national hero or to fulfill Jesus’ own prophetic words concerning his resurrection, removed and hid the body, thereby, making a verifiable resurrection impossible to prove. Even Mary of Magdela, at first, thought the body of her Master was removed from the tomb.
“So she [Mary] ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” John 20:2
Again, it wasn’t the empty tomb that was the shock it was the fact that he appeared to his followers. It wasn’t until Mary actually saw him that the resurrection of her Lord had become a factual reality. John 20:15-18 provides the following testimony.
“Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
The apostles themselves, though startled by the news of the empty tomb, were still dubious that a miracle had indeed taken place. Without a body there was no convincing proof either way. An empty tomb simply meant that there was no body to be found, it did not necessarily mean that a resurrection had occurred. Peter and John had to see for themselves and went running to the place where they knew he was buried. But the convincing moment came when Jesus personally appeared to them, giving them empirical evidence and personal conviction.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” John 20:19-20
Was Jesus Really Dead? When medical analysis from David Ball, M.D. writing for The Journal of the American Medical Association, and German scholar D.F. Strauss’ critical examination of the torture and execution of Jesus are considered, only one conclusion can be arrived at. They firmly validate that Jesus died as a result of the extensive damage to the body by torture, the body’s inability to cope with the trauma and blood-loss of the pre-cross execution, asphyxiation, and the fatal death blows of the crucifixion from professional military executioners. If someone still believes that Jesus did not expire, they must provide an explanation that outweighs evidential consensus from professional medical science and downplays common knowledge about crucifixion in regards to the first century treatment and killing of criminals by paid Roman soldiers.
It is absolutely absurd to think, and borders on dark humor, if Jesus had not undergone some supernatural change as a result of his resurrection, for anyone to honestly believe that an extremely battered, near dead individual; whose feet were nailed and hammered to the wood, and whose torso was thrust through with a spear expelling water and blood from the organ of the heart, could somehow move a massive stone by himself, single-handedly take down weapon-ready Roman guards, walk in an almost dead condition to where the apostles were gathered, walk through closed doors, greet his apostles and convincingly tell them that he had victoriously rose from the dead, and then prime them to spread the good news must admit is a ridiculous, if not a laughable conclusion. Would he have honestly looked like the champion over death to this small band of frightful followers in a beat up and battered body? Would he have appeared to be a conqueror- victoriously arisen, then declare to them in a victory speech that he now had “all authority in heaven and on earth.”? In such a grossly morbid condition could he have inspired them with a further charge to go into all the world and make disciples? (Matthew 28:18). Hardly.
Seeing Jesus- A Hallucination What about the theories which say some people, overwrought by emotional trauma, can have illussions? And those first witnesses were all having illusions of the risen Christ? Or that they were hallucinating with such distraught emotional intensity that they were just envisioning him, not wanting to believe he was really dead. The strongest defense against illusion in my opinion is the one given regarding the apostle Paul’s Damascus road experience. It is impossible for someone to share their illusion with other individuals. And that is what would’ve had to happen in order for Paul and his entourage to experience the effulgence and the voice as well.
“And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man.” Acts 9:7
The scriptures tell us the men that were with Paul also heard a voice. Are we to assume that they all were under the same illusory experience? Doubtful. If Paul had been hallucinating, his natural reaction would have been to doubt his senses. The last person whom he ever thought he would run into on his way to imprison Christian criminals would have been Jesus. He was on a holy hunt to capture anyone claiming to follow this false Messiah. Anyone trying to stop him would have been seized or reprimanded for interfering with his mission of Christian extermination.
But Paul’s encounter with Jesus Christ on the Damascus road was life changing because he had thoroughly believed that this person, whom he had formerly believed to be a false prophet, who died just like any other man who suffered the execution of a Roman cross, was indeed the risen Savior. While on his way to Damascus he was literally blinded by a brilliant light, where he faced a most unusual event attended by a supernatural visitation, when a voice challenged his so-called holy mission. It was the voice of Christ, and that of a risen Christ that ended Saul’s destructive mission of persecuting the church. Dr. Craig in a debate with Richard Carrier comments, “Hallucinations of the dead, however real, don’t lead to believe the person is alive. As N.T. Wright says, ‘In the ancient world, visions of the dead are not taken that they were alive, they were taken as evidence that they were dead!’”. Paul was obviously convinced that he had an encounter with the crucified, buried and dead Jesus of Nazareth yet now alive and arisen. This experience eventually became the crux of Paul’s theology and what he staked the entire Christian faith upon:
“But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ:whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not.” 1 Corinthians 15:13-15
Upon further personal reflection: the doctrine of the resurrection as a pillar of Christian theology was not given to a devout clergy of Christ followers, but was handed to the church’s worst antagonist, Saul the Christian persecutor, whom we have come to know as the apostle Paul. If anyone could persuasively debunk and rid men of this resurrection tale, it would have been this zealous Pharisee, the first great persecutor of the budding church. To falsify the resurrection claims would be to cut off the head of this growing faction and bring it down before it could take hold. But this infamous leader of the first persecution did not only tell of his Damascus road experience where he was met by the resurrected Christ, but he went on to declare that the whole structure of Christian belief rested on the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
These are some of the facts as reported by those who witnessed this amazing God ordained miracle, called the Resurrection. If you choose not to believe, you’re in the company of many. Even the apostles themselves first believed the reports to be idle tales. All that remains is for you to be blinded by the light of His glory, then His voice will become unmistakably clear. So watch out as you ride along life’s road- you may just want to have an extra firm grip on those reins.
Steve Covarrubias copyright July 2014
Craig, William L. “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.” New Testament Studies
Habermas, Gary R., and Licona, Michael R. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004.
Herrick,Greg. “The Historical Veracity of the Resurrection Narratives”.1998.
Reasonable Faith. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? March 2009.