Prepared to Give a Reason (Part 2) - The Resurrection
This post was originally written on the blog for Summit Church - West Club Campus
Hello fellow West Clubbers,
This is the second post in a series related to an upcoming class on apologetics that I'll be teaching. This week, we'll examine the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus, the defining event of the Christian faith.
Objection 2: The Resurrection is a fairy tale, not a historical event.
Andrew and Matt are playing pick-up basketball at a local park. "The Mormons came by my house last night," said Andrew. "It's ridiculous what some people believe. Gold plates and magic glasses. All these religious claims are the same. Does anyone take that kind of thing seriously these days?" How should Matt respond?
There is no question that there are miracle claims made both inside and outside the major traditional religions and that many of these claims are obviously false. But the Resurrection stands out for two reasons. First, it is questionable whether any religion hinges on a single miraculous event to the extent that Christianity hinges on Resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that if Jesus has not risen from the dead then their faith is useless and Christianity ought to be abandoned. According to the Bible, Christianity stands or falls on the historicity of the Resurrection. But second, the Resurrection is probably the best-attested religious miracle in history. Consider the following statement: "The evidence for the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstanding in quality and quantity." This statement was not made by a Christian apologist but non-Christian philosopher Anthony Flew. So what is the historical evidence for the Resurrection? Although there are many different lines of historical evidence that support the Resurrection, let me merely mention three major ones: the historicity of the New Testament Resurrection accounts, the appearances to the disciples, and the appearance to Paul.
First, the Resurrection accounts pass three major tests used by critical scholars to determine the historicity of an event in the gospels: multiple attestation, the criterion of embarrassment, and dissimilarity. The Resurrection account may be the single best-attested event recorded by the gospels. We have independent accounts of the Resurrection in Mark's gospel, John's gospel and Paul's letters and it can be plausibly argued that both Luke and Matthew make use of additional, independent sources. Next, the Resurrection includes details that would have been very embarrassing to the early church, such as the discovery of the empty tomb by Jesus' female disciples at a time when women's testimony was not legally valid in court. Finally, the physical Resurrection of Jesus was implausible within both the Jewish and Greco-Roman worldviews, which viewed an individual Resurrection or a bodily Resurrection with incredulity and distaste. These three points support the assertion that the Resurrection accounts in the New Testament record a real historical event, not a later fabrication of the early Jesus movement.
Second, the near-universal consensus of scholars of all worldviews, whether evangelical Christian, Jewish, agnostic, or atheist, is that the disciples truly believed that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead. While people may be willing to suffer and die for what they wrongly believe to be true, it is difficult to see why the apostles would suffer and die for what they knew to be false. Yet in the face of immense suffering, the apostles persisted in their belief that Jesus was alive and continued to proclaim this message to others. Moreover, there were many Jewish messianic movements in Palestine around the time of Jesus and many messianic Jewish figures were captured by the Romans and killed. In no case did the followers of these movements claim that their leader had been raised from the dead. The apostles were unique in claiming that their crucified leader had been raised to life.
Finally, the conversion of Paul is a highly significant witness to the historicity of the Resurrection. The apostles were Jesus' earliest followers and had been his closest friends during his ministry. In contrast, Paul was a violent enemy of the Jesus movement. He had not been one of Jesus' disciples and had no incentive at all to wish that Jesus were alive. But Paul went from being a fervent persecutor of the church to being its fervent defender after claiming to have encountered the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Given the conversion of this eminently hostile witness, scholars of all backgrounds concede that Paul must have believed that he had seen Jesus alive, regardless of whether they believe the Resurrection actually occurred.
In this brief essay, I obviously cannot go into detail about the case that can be made for each of these three points or the other lines of evidence supporting the historicity of Resurrection. However, to convince you of the strength of the arguments I would like to close by quoting two modern non-Christians who -while rejecting Christianity- nonetheless concede that a strong historical case can be made for the Resurrection. Jeff Lowder, founder of the freethought website infidels.org, says this in his essay The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection: "I think it is rational to both accept and reject the resurrection. I think there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection... but I also think there are good reasons to reject such arguments." Even more surprisingly, Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide writes: "I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event."
What is clear from these statements is that a belief in the Resurrection is not equivalent to a belief in the tooth fairy or the Flying Spaghetti Monster and anyone who says so has simply not done his homework. So is there evidence for the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus? Yes. But in the end, we are not called to look to the evidence, but to look to Jesus. If we are considering the evidence for the Resurrection as a purely intellectual exercise, then we are not considering it honestly. The Resurrection is not a puzzle to be solved; it is a truth to be embraced. It is our ultimate and only source of hope and assurance before God. The Resurrection is God's declaration that He is "reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them."
For more information on the historicity of the Resurrection, see my essay Resurrection and Worldview and the references therein. We will be examining the historical evidence for the Resurrection in the second week of the four-week apologetics class I will be teaching starting July 11th. For more information, email me at neil -AT- shenvi.org
If anyone reading this essay has questions about it or about Christianity in general, feel free to e-mail me at Neil -AT- Shenvi.org. I also highly recommend the book The Reason for God by Tim Keller and would be happy to send you a copy for free if you email me your mailing address.