WAKE FOREST, N.C. (BP)–Christianity stands or falls with the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul certainly understood this to be the case.
In that great resurrection chapter, 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is without foundation, and so is your faith. In addition, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified about God that He raised up Christ -– whom He did not raise up…. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 17).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain the birth of the church and its Gospel message apart from the resurrection of Jesus. The Christian faith orbits about the confession and conviction that the crucified Jesus is the Son of God, established and vindicated “by the resurrection from the dead according to the Spirit of holiness” (Romans 1:4).
It is not surprising that skeptics outside the church have attacked the bodily resurrection from the very beginning. However, it is disappointing that attacks launched against the truth of Jesus’ bodily resurrection come from those who claim to be a part of the Christian community.
For example, the infamous Jesus Seminar says, “The body of Jesus probably decayed as do all corpses. The resurrection of Jesus was not something that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been captured by a video camera.”
Bill Phipps, moderator of the United Church of Canada says, “I don’t believe Jesus was God, but I’m no theologian. I don’t believe Jesus is the only way to God. I don’t believe he rose from the dead as scientific fact. I don’t know whether these things happened. It’s an irrelevant question.”
When one approaches the issue of the bodily resurrection of Jesus, those of us who affirm its truth acknowledge that we bear the burden of proof. After all, we are making the claim that Jesus did what no other person has ever done in all of human history. He died, rose from the dead and remains alive until this day.
So, the question naturally arises: why should anyone believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Is not the claim itself simply incredible and unbelievable from the start? After all, we are making a one-of-a-kind claim that has never been duplicated at any time, in any place, by any other person. I believe we can marshal a strong case of compelling evidence that Christ did indeed rise from the dead. Let me quickly summarize 15 lines of evidence.
— Naturalistic theories fail to explain the event. Naturalistic arguments (swoon, wrong tomb, hallucination, etc.) of the previous centuries did not stand up to careful analysis. Highly selective in the biblical data, they chose that which helped their theory and jettisoned what did not. Such arbitrary methods were doomed to fail from the beginning.
— The creation of faith in the disciples and the radical change in their lives. Something happened that caused the followers of Jesus to believe they had real and genuine encounters with the risen Lord. These encounters with Jesus changed them from timid and fearful cowards to bold and courageous witnesses of the resurrected Christ. In addition, each of the disciples, with the possible exception of John, died the death of a martyr. And, each of them died alone, and yet each died still proclaiming Jesus as the risen Lord with their last dying breath. The importance of this can scarcely be overstated. While it is the case that persons will die for a lie — consider the terrorists of 9-11 and what they believed awaited them following death — it is not the case that persons will die for what they know to be a lie.
— The empty tomb and the discarded grave clothes. The Christian movement could have been quickly crushed and brought to an end by one act: producing the dead corpse of Jesus. Evidently, based on the evidence, no one was able to do this.
— Jesus was testified to have been seen by women first. In the Jewish culture of the first century women were not qualified to be witnesses in a major legal proceeding. Given this fact, it is amazing, even astonishing, that the Bible records that women saw the risen Jesus first.
— Change in the day of worship by Jews from the Sabbath to Sunday.
Something happened around A.D. 30 that caused a large group of Jews in Jerusalem to change their day of worship from the Sabbath to Sunday. Whatever happened would have to have been extraordinary. It was, they claimed, the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
— Unlikely nature of mass hallucination. Mass hallucination is not simply unlikely. It is impossible. Hallucinations are inner, subjective experiences of the mind. The repeated appearances of Jesus at different times and to different people is a death knell to this theory.
— Numerous and varied resurrection appearances which lasted for 40 days and then abruptly ended. The New Testament records at least 10 occasions on which Jesus appeared to his followers shortly following His resurrection.
— The 50-day interval between the resurrection and the proclamation of the Gospel at Pentecost (Acts 2) in Jerusalem. For some reason the disciples of Jesus did not go about proclaiming the Gospel of the risen Lord for 50 days after the event took place. Why? The biblical witness is clear and compelling. They waited until Jesus had ascended (Luke 24, Acts 1) and the Holy Spirit had come to empower them for witness (Acts 2).
— The Jewish leaders nor the Romans could disprove the message of the empty tomb. It is an undeniable fact of history that those who opposed and crucified Jesus could not disprove His resurrection. All they had to do was produce the body of Jesus and the Christian movement was dead. Again, it appears there was no body to produce.
— The unexpected nature of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The disciples did not anticipate that Jesus would rise from the dead, though He had predicted it on several occasions. Mark 9:32 tells us they did not understand. Perhaps they thought He was again speaking in parables. There was no expectancy or anticipation on their part that Jesus would rise from the dead. All the evidence strongly affirms it came as a complete surprise.
— The conversion of two skeptics: James the half brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus. James was an unbeliever in Jesus as Messiah prior to His crucifixion. John 7:5 makes this clear. Yet something happened that transformed the half-brother of Jesus from a doubter to a believer, from a skeptic to a leader in the church at Jerusalem. Saul was a persecutor of the church. However, something happened in Saul’s life that changed him from a persecutor of Christ to a missionary/evangelist for Christ. His own confession and testimony, recorded several times in Scripture, is that he saw the resurrected Christ (Acts 9:3-6; 22:6-10; 26:12-19; 1 Corinthians 15:8; Galatians 1:15-16).
— The moral character of the eyewitnesses. The New Testament provides the greatest teachings found in any literature on love, truth, honesty, hope, faithfulness, kindness, and the list goes on. These teachings come from the pens of men like Matthew, John, Paul, James and Peter: all of whom claim to have been eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus.
— The early creedal witness of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. The resurrection was the heart of the earliest Christian teaching. This is based on 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, where Paul recorded a very early creed concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Some scholars date Paul’s receiving of this creed within a decade of the crucifixion itself, about A.D. 35-40. This is deadly to any type of mythical, fable, or embellishment theory. First, there is not enough time. Second, there are eyewitnesses who can provide a check and balance to any inaccurate or exaggerated claims.
— The accepted character and claims of Jesus. Jesus on numerous occasions spoke of His crucifixion and resurrection. He claimed He was God (John 8:58; 10:30; 14:9) and He said He would come back from the dead (Matt. 16:21). To claim Jesus as a great religious figure and moral teacher and yet believe He was mistaken on the prediction of His resurrection will not do. If He did not rise He was either a liar or a lunatic.
— Reliable eyewitness documents recording the events. The New Testament is the most well-authenticated document of antiquity. There are more Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, over 5300, of an earlier date and more reliable nature than any other work of antiquity.
The hope of the Gospel and the resurrection is at the core of the Christian Gospel and Christian Theology. It tells us that the God who raised Jesus from the dead exists. It establishes Jesus’ Lordship. It is the greatest event in history. Why should you believe it? Because it really did happen!
Daniel L. Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.