by Stefan Paulus
The historical resurrection of Jesus, the foundation of Christianity, is under attack. Believers must have confidence in the historical accuracy of the resurrection, as well at its importance in their lives.
“I affirm resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. God’s essence cannot be killed, buried, or kept from being alive in creation or history.... But, resurrection, including that of Jesus, does not include bodily resuscitation. God does not work this way. The issue is not the absence of God’s power, but God’s own self-limiting role of revelation in history. God works within the boundaries God has established” (emphasis added).
These are the words of a Methodist bishop speaking at the Iliff School of Theology in 2002. Further in his speech he admits that he does not know God’s boundaries, but he is certain it does not include resurrection. This is a “Christian” leader casting doubt on the bodily resurrection of Jesus with no more proof than that he believes this is not how God works. So, is our faith in Jesus’ resurrection based on no more than mere belief, and is His bodily resurrection really that important?
A helpful book, Jesus Under Fire, which defends the historical facts of Jesus, states, “Fortunately, the Christian faith does not call for us to put our minds on the shelf, to fly in the face of common sense and history, or to make a leap of faith into the dark. The rational person, fully apprised of the evidence, can confidently believe that on that first Easter morning a divine miracle took place” (emphasis added).
The apostle Paul gives a lengthy defense of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. The conclusion of that argument states, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The Christian’s work here on earth is only profitable when we have a proper belief in the resurrection of Jesus and what it means for the believer’s current and future life.
The foundation of Christianity is the resurrection of Christ; therefore, believers must have confidence in (1) the historical accuracy of the resurrection, as well at (2) its importance in the life of the believer. We can examine these two points by using the acronym A.L.I.V.E.
Accounts of Life
Why is a bodily resurrection so important? If the disciples had wanted to deceive the world, it would have been much easier to teach a non-literal Resurrection, so there would be no need of proof for it. Instead, the disciples taught and the early church believed that Jesus literally, physically rose from the grave. So, we need proof for the resurrection. While we cannot give all the proofs here, the following defenses are some of the most compelling:
1. Christianity originated in the very city in which the resurrection happened (Acts 2:22-28; 26:24-26). Peter preached his first sermon to the very people who would have been around at Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul testified about the resurrection to Roman Procurator Porcius Festus and stated that “this thing was not done in a corner.”
2. Jesus’ appearances after the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) This list of appearances in I Corinthians 15, and in other books, amounts to well over 500 people. In addition to the lists, Luke indicates that Jesus was seen during a forty-day period (Acts 1:3). These lists of witnesses were written down only 20-25 years after the resurrection, allowing opportunities for living eyewitnesses to contest the claims.
3. Women were the first witnesses. Women were not considered reliable witnesses in the first century. Their testimony was not accepted as reliable in court. So, why would someone have them as first witnesses to a fabricated event? Unless that is what actually happened.
4. The transformation of the disciples Peter was transformed from being frightened of claiming Jesus (Mark 14:67-71) to a bold preacher of the Gospel (Acts 2:14; 3:6, 12). All the other disciples ran from Jesus at his crucifixion, but tradition tells us that all except John were martyred for their faith. Paul turned from a persecutor of the Church (Acts 9:1-2) to being persecuted many times for his faith in Jesus and eventually martyred (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
The foundation of Christianity is the resurrection of Christ and the early sources claiming His bodily resurrection are overwhelming.
5. Other explanations for the empty tomb are not satisfactory.
Explanation 1: The disciples stole the body. All evidence indicates the disciples did not expect Jesus to rise from the dead, so they would have no reason to take the body. If it all were based on a lie, then the disciples died for what they knew was a lie. (Six were crucified, others were stoned, and some were killed by the sword, etc.)
Explanation 2: Jewish or Roman authorities removed the body. What purpose would the Romans have had in stealing the body? The Jewish authorities would have simply needed to bring out the body, instead of making up the story about the disciples stealing the body?
Explanation 3: Swoon theory. How could a barely-alive Jesus have convinced the disciples that he was a victorious risen Lord? Also, the evidence for Jesus’ death is overwhelming.
Explanation 4: The women went to the wrong tomb. Surely they would have taken note for the One they loved, and Scripture says the ladies took careful note of His tomb. Also, the enemies of Christianity had only to locate the real tomb and bring out the body.
Explanation 5: The resurrection is a legend developed over time because of visions. This is the most popular in recent years. It is believed that Peter and the rest began having visions of Jesus alive. Among many other things, such as the reliability of the New Testament, it is impossible that 500 people at a time had the same vision. Experts confirm that legends do not develop in such a short time.
The early sources claiming the bodily resurrection of Jesus are overwhelming. Even critics of the resurrection, after examining the evidence, must admit to the accuracy of the Scriptural account. A noted example is Simon Greenleaf, a distinguished Jewish law professor and an authority on law. Greenleaf was challenged by his students to look at the evidence of the resurrection and, thereafter, became a Christian.
Lord of Life and Death (1 Cor. 15:50-57)
1 Corinthians 15 is one of the best defenses of the resurrection. Paul’s point here is that Jesus was the first One to experience the resurrection of the body. Because of Him all believers have the hope of physical resurrection. Jesus is also seen as the One who makes all believers alive spiritually (cf. v.22-23). Our victory over death as Christians has come through Jesus and His resurrection.
Jesus was the first One to experience the resurrection of the body. Because of Him, all believers have the hope of physical resurrection.
The resurrection proves that Jesus is who He said He was—the Son of God—for only God has power over death. C. S. Lewis, a great Christian apologist of the last century, said, “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God…”
Jesus was either Lord, liar, or lunatic. There are no other choices. He claimed to be God, and the resurrection proved that fact. It makes Him Lord. The resurrection then begs the response on our part. “Will mankind make him Lord, or will we continue in spiritual death.”
Internal Life (Romans 6:4-5)
“That like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” The result of the resurrection is new life! We are changed internally. We no longer serve sin. If we accept His death as the atonement for our sins, then we also walk in a new life through the resurrection of Jesus. We enter His death, then we must enter into his resurrection.
The promise in verse six is that the new life (the resurrected life) is a life freed from the “body of sin.” The promise based on the resurrection of Jesus is that we are now alive unto God (v.11). Just as death no longer had dominion over Christ (v.9), so we are no longer under the slavery of sin. Romans 8:11 states we are made alive by the spirit of Christ that dwells within us. This leads directly to our next point; because of a change internally, we can now walk free from sin externally. An external victorious life follows an internal transformation!
Victorious Life (Acts 2:29-36)
Quoting the Psalmist David, Peter is here showing the fulfillment of David’s prophecy in Jesus. God has raised Jesus up “to sit on his throne.” Romans 8:34-37 tells us that Jesus is now interceding for the believer: “Christ…who also maketh intercession for us…in all these things we are more than conquerors.”
This victorious life is made possible because of a risen Christ sitting in the place of honor, “at the right hand of God,” constantly pleading our cause. When temptation comes, I can picture Jesus the Son leaning over and saying, “Send help, Father, because they are mine.” We are “more than conquerors through Him.” We live now in victory because of the living Christ!
“If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable" (1 Corinthians 15:19). “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Eternal life certainly is the hope of the future beyond death, but eternal life is something we can experience in the present. Someone has noted that “it is a mistake, however, to view eternal life as simply an unending progression of years.”
Our condition in this life and in the next is based on our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Eternal in Scripture carries the idea of quality, as well as quantity. Eternal life is our current possession. John 3:36 states in the present tense, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life…” Notice also John 6:47 is in the present tense. Eternal life then is associated with our current standing with Christ. John 17:3 gives us insight into how we are to understand eternal life: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (see also 1 John 5:11-12). True life begins only when a person believes in Jesus and His resurrection. Because of Christ’s resurrection, he is the first of many to receive eternal life that continues after the grave (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Our hope goes far beyond this life! Our condition in this life and in the next is based on our belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Beyond the physical resurrection, we must also recognize that Christ’s resurrection happened because of who He is. This is illustrated in the death and resurrection of Jesus’ friend Lazarus (John 11:1-46). Jesus had purposely waited two days to come in response to the plea of the sisters, Mary and Martha. The Jews believed in resurrection but only as an “end of the age” happening. What had been a future Jewish hope was now a reality. In their grief they questioned Jesus’ delay, but he showed them that resurrection is the very essence of who He is. He is the resurrection and the life!
For us it is not just a matter of intellectual understanding of the resurrection, but it requires a response. If Jesus was resurrected, everything that Jesus said is true. In the words of one writer, Jesus is “the only reality that ultimately matters!” We can present all the evidence, but it comes down to the question Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe?” Another writer concludes, “Perhaps, even with historical evidence, it is not until we personally meet Jesus ourselves that we can know He is risen indeed. Like Mary who did not recognize Jesus in the garden until He said her name, we too must experience the risen Christ; we too must hear Jesus call our names to really believe.”
Resources for Further Study
Evidence of the Resurrection: Part 1—Internal Evidence
Evidence for the Resurrection: Part 2—External Evidence
Bird, Mark. Defending Your Faith: A Twelve Lesson Series on Apologetics (Hebron, KY: Answers in Genesis, 2007).
Geisler, Norman L. The Battle for the Resurrection (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989).
Sprague, Joseph. A speech given at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, January 28, 2002.
Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds. Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995).
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity.
James R. Krabill and David W. Shenk, eds. Jesus Matters: Good News for the 21st Century (Scottsdale, PA: Herald Press, 2009).