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Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

April 4, 2014

Here is the full transcript of a presentation I did last year on the resurrection of Jesus. There is certainly more to say on the topic, but this gives a helpful starting point for conversations about the reasonableness of believing in the resurrection of Jesus (to my overseas readers/listeners, I apologize for some of the more ‘local’ illustrations. I hope you get the idea.

Full transcript – Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

This is one of the most profound and important questions of all time.

If he was raised from the dead, then Christianity is true, Jesus offers hope and eternal life.

If he didn’t, then I’m a fool, just as the Apostle Paul wrote:

‘If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith’

The Christian message stands or falls on this question. If you want to convince me out of my belief in Christianity, then convince me that the resurrection didn’t happen. No resurrection, no Christianity.

Many modern skeptics claim that the resurrection didn’t happen: the story was fiction, a myth. And a number of them have recently written on the City Bible Forum YouTube channel. One person wrote:

The resurrection is completely absurd, and all the other miracles he performed are anecdotal at best

I don’t have to acknowledge the historicity of stories of a man … rising from the dead himself any more more than Aesop’s Fables. these stories are scientifically implausible and historically dubious.

Lawrence Krauss, a high profile atheist who recently appeared on the ABC TV show Q&A, once commented on the resurrection …

There are no definitive eyewitness accounts of these events, and in the case of the claimed resurrection the scriptures were written decades after the claimed event, and the different accounts are not even consistent. Isn’t it more likely that those who were preaching to convert fabricated a resurrection myth in order to convince those to whom they were preaching of Christ’s divinity?

Many in our world deny the resurrection of Jesus. It was invented many decades after the events. It’s implausible, impossible, it just didn’t happen.

So what do we say? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? That’s our question for tonight.

Which Profession?

Now as we consider this question, I was wondering; what sort of job I would need to answer this question. What sort of profession is best equipped to answer this? Would I need to be…

A scientist?

A philosopher?

A mathematician?

Well, science can’t really tell us about Jesus’ resurrection because science is based on experimentation: observation and repeatability. A scientist makes prediction and then tests them through experiments. The resurrection was a once-off historical event. We can’t run any experiments to test it. In fact science can’t tell us about any historical events. It can’t tell us whether Hannibal crossed the Alps, it can’t tell us about the burning of Rome, the assassination of Julius Caesar, or the resurrection of Jesus. So this isn’t a scientific question.

So, what about philosophy or probability? Again, these can’t really tell us much about the resurrection because philosophy describes what we think should happen, or what we think could happen – it doesn’t describe what actually happened. Similarly, mathematics, or probability, tells us what probably happened, or what is likely to have happened, not what actually happened.

So the disciplines of science, philosophy or mathematics aren’t the best ways of resolving this question. Now, I want to be clear. I’m not saying science, philosophy and maths are bad tools – not at all. They’re all excellent disciplines, but we need to ensure that we’re using the right tools to solve the right questions. I don’t use an iPhone to unblock a drain or to change the tyre on a car. Though, I wonder if Apple will introduce those features in the iPhone6?

No, to answer the question ‘did Jesus rise from the dead’, we need to adopt the appropriate approach and this is like an investigative journalist. Investigative journalists are actually historians: though I doubt that Today Tonight wouldn’t be so popular if it were called ‘The History Channel’.

Investigative journalists are historians who piece together what happened in the past from the various sources they have before them.

I’m not sure if any of you watch shows like 60 Minutes, Four Corners, or Today Tonight. They investigate all sorts of interesting and controversial events. For example Today Tonight recently exposed a funeral operator who defrauded people out of money by claiming to cremate their bodies in one place, but cremated them elsewhere because it was cheaper.

Last year Four Corners reported on Lance Armstrong and exposing his drug cheating. The investigative reporter Quentin McDermott talked to the relevant people and then told the story of Lance Armstrong – of his desire to do anything to win races and earn prize money and endorsements.

You see what the reporters have done? They have investigated, examined and uncovered past events. Like an historian, they piece together the past to share a news story.

So imagine the Today Tonight headline: man rises from the dead. It would make for a good story wouldn’t it?

This is what we need to do with Jesus’ resurrection. We need to approach the historical event as a journalist – conscious of history; trying to piece the history together to work out what happened.

So let us don the journalist’s hat and begin the task of investigating the evidence surrounding the resurrection of Jesus. The first thing we need to do is work out our sources. Where do we get our information on the resurrection of Jesus? Well, we have a wide range of material on the resurrection of Jesus, some is of better quality than others. But for today’s presentation, I will outline the three best and most important sources of information on Jesus’ resurrection. I will outline from the latest, to the earliest.

  1. The four Gospels in the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
  2. The New Testament letters.
  3. Material predating the New Testament letters.

The Gospels. The four Gospels contain the longest and most detailed accounts of the resurrection of Jesus.

But like any good investigative journalist we must ask probing questions about our sources. Are they reliable?

So as we consider the Gospels the first question to consider as we assess their reliability is determining their genre. What type of literature are the Gospels? Are the Gospel authors attempting to write history?

Well, the answer to this question is yes. The Gospel writers adopt a form of literature used in the Ancient world called ‘bioi’ or biography. In this type of literature the authors write a continuous narrative comprising stories, speeches and saying focussed on a main character. These bioi are intended to be historically trustworthy.

Further, the Gospel writer Luke outlines his method in compiling his Gospel. In Luke 1:1-4 he says how he carefully investigated everything from the beginning and he consulted the testimony of eyewitnesses. Luke also includes accurate references to historical dates and figures. In Luke 3:1 he describes the word of God coming in the ‘fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar’. The Gospel writers intend to write history. They attempt to record what happened in the real world and they include the testimony of eyewitnesses.

But weren’t they written late? Lawrence Krauss claimed that the resurrection stories couldn’t be trusted because – the scriptures were written decades after the claimed event.

Well, it’s generally agreed that the final form of the Gospels were written down about 30 to 65 years after Jesus’ life. Critics of Christianity seize on this time gap and say, see – the Gospels were all written well after the date – they can’t be trusted. Yet, this time gap is historically speaking nothing. It is very close to the time of the events. In fact, if this time period were used for any Ancient history, then we would have to reject much ancient history recorded. For example, consider Augustus – generally regarded as the greatest Roman emperor. There are nine main sources of Augustus’ life. Three limited and incomplete sources were contemporary to Augustus, another wrote 16 years after Augustus, Plutarch wrote 50-110 years after his death and the final four wrote from 100-200 years after his death. Yet, historians don’t see any reason to reject these histories because they were written so long after the events.

I have a bit of an interest in World War 2 history. And a few years back I read this book ‘Auschwitz’ by Laurence Rees. He wrote this in 2005 detailing events which happened over 60 years earlier. Rees wasn’t even alive when Auschwitz was operating, yet he can write good history, because he consulted sources and people who were. Rees interviewed eye-witnesses and developed an account based on their recollections. His work was written 60 years after Auschwitz, yet it contains good history. In fact some would suggest it contains ‘better’ history than earlier written works, because he consulted more sources and interviewed more people and resolved subsequent challenges. Hence rejecting the Gospels because they were written “late”, is not a sufficient reason to ignore their contents. The Gospels are important sources of information about the resurrection and these accounts are trustworthy because they record historical events and they’re written close to the events they record. We can use these sources in our investigative journalistic endeavour.

Now, critics of Christianity who attack the resurrection accounts in the Gospels often don’t realise that there are earlier and even more important sources pertaining to the resurrection. These are of great interest to us and I’ll explain them now.

The New Testament letters, in particular the letters of Paul, are the earliest written sources of information about Jesus. Paul’s letters were all written much earlier than the final form of any of the Gospels. They were all written about 17-35 years after Jesus and they contain references to Jesus and his resurrection. Indeed, the earliest of these letters, which was either 1 Thessalonians or Galatians, written about 17 or 18 years after Jesus’ resurrection, contain references to the resurrection of Jesus.

In our equivalent lifetime [in 2013], Paul writes about events which occurred in 1996. That was the year John Howard was elected Prime Minister and Martin Bryant conducted the Port Arthur massacre. In fact after the recent gun massacre in the US, John Howard wrote in the New York Times about the gun control measures he initiated in 1996. The Port Arthur massacre was 17 years ago. When Paul wrote about the resurrection in 1 Thessalonians, it happened 17 years before. Hence the New Testament letters are a very early and important source of information on the resurrection of Jesus. But there is an even earlier source of information about the resurrection. And this is..

Quotations within the New Testament letters. The New Testament letters of Paul are the earliest documents we have of Jesus, but within these letters we have quotations of even earlier hymns or creeds.

When you write an essay and you find an author you really agree with, you quote their work. Well, we have a number of these “quotations” in the New Testament. There are a couple of references to the resurrection, but by far the most important of these is the creed recorded in 1 Corinthians 15.

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 appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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, as to one abnormally born.

This is the earliest and most persuasive piece of evidence for the historical reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The main reason being that it is so early. Paul writes this letter to the Corinthians in the early to mid 50’s, at least 10 years before the final form of any of the Gospels. And in this letter, he’s quoting an already existing creed or tradition. Look in verse 3 where Paul writes,

‘For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance’

Paul had previously received this tradition about Jesus’ death and resurrection and he’d passed it on to the Corinthians. Now it’s likely that Paul received this tradition sometime in the 30’s and it’s also likely that this creed, which includes explicit reference to the resurrection of Jesus, was formulated at most a few years, at least a few months after the events of Jesus’ resurrection.

This is the best and earliest source of information about the resurrection of Jesus. As an investigative journalist this is our golden source.

One of the sceptics who commented on YouTube claimed that there were ‘no contemporary sources on the life, work and resurrection of Jesus.’

Well, that’s just not true. This creed quoted here in 1 Corinthians 15 is a contemporary source of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

According to the world’s most famous atheist, Richard Dawkins, the ‘accounts of Jesus’ resurrection […] are about as well documented as Jack and the Beanstalk’.

This is just plain wrong. We have a variety of sources documenting the resurrection – from the Gospels, to the New Testament letters and to this very early creed in 1 Corinthians.

The resurrection is well documented in ancient history. But is it true?

Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

Well, now as an investigative reporter we need to write our story. We need to work out and explain all the facts. And as we consult our sources and investigate the facts of the case of Jesus rising from the dead, there are six historical facts which require explanation. Six things our investigations need to resolve. I’ll outline them in turn.

1. The tomb was empty.

That Jesus died is fairly uncontested in history.

We have multiple sources claiming that the tomb was also empty. The Gospels, the speeches in Acts, and 1 Corinthians 15. These sources, which include very early testimony, all indicate that the tomb was empty.

Further, the earliest alternative theories for the resurrection presume an empty tomb. In Matthew 28 we learn that the early authorities explained Jesus’ resurrection because the disciples stole the body. Matthew tells us that this story was circulating widely. Now, this certainly one plausible explanation for what happened, but notice what it assumes, it assumes that the tomb was empty.

Women earliest witnesses. One of the most persuasive factors in believing the empty tomb was that the first witnesses to the resurrection recorded in the Gospels were women. In the ancient world the testimony of a woman was not valued. Ancient Jewish historian Josephus said, ‘From women let no evidence be accepted because of the levity and temerity of their sex’. The fact that women were recorded as witnesses demonstrates that the records of the empty tomb in the New Testament were unlikely to have been invented.

Thus it appears that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty.

2. Resurrection appearances

Eyewitnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. A number of eyewitness resurrection appearances are recorded in 1 Corinthians 15. In verses 5 to 8 Paul outlines a list of many of the different eye-witnesses, most of whom were still alive. Cephas, the Twelve, James, the apostles and 500 people at once! The fact that so many different people saw Jesus at the same time overcomes the idea that they were just seeing visions or ghosts. Multiple people on multiple occasions were convinced they’d seen Jesus alive.

The fact that there were so many eyewitnesses to this resurrection at different times is excellent evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

The empty tomb and the resurrection appearances are two facts that require explanation. Now any historical event has a variety of causes and consequences. An event like “the appearance of a miracle-working teacher to five hundred people” is bound to have consequences. The next four pieces of evidence are consequences which also need to be explained.

3. Origin of church’s belief in resurrection

Any explanation for the resurrection needs to explain the origin of the church’s newborn and life changing belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Where could this belief otherwise come from? .

Some think this belief in resurrection originated in the expectations of Jewish culture. Yet Jesus’ resurrection was fundamentally different to prevailing Jewish thought. At that time the Jews believed in a resurrection which would herald in the end of the world in which everyone would be raised to ‘resurrection’. They could not conceive of an individual resurrection. The resurrection of an individual has no Jewish parallels or precedents. Jesus’ individual resurrection cannot be attributed to Jewish expectations.

Skeptics consistently fail to provide plausible alternative explanations to explain why the church suddenly believed in Jesus’ resurrection.

If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, an alternative explanation of the resurrection must explain why all his disciples believed that he was. What caused this belief? What started this movement?

The resurrection provides the most plausible explanation of the origin of the belief in the resurrection – something contrary to prevailing expectations.

4. Sunday becoming the day of worship

Christianity began as a predominantly Jewish movement. Jesus was a Jew and the first disciples were all Jews. In the Jewish world the day of worship and of rest was strictly the Sabbath – the Saturday. To Jews the Sabbath – the Saturday was a very important day. Yet the Christians were different. Their day of worship was the day after the Sabbath – Sunday. Sunday coincided with the day that Jesus was resurrected that first Easter morning. What event was so significant to change the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday?

It appears the most plausible explanation is that Christians were remembering and celebrating the day in which Jesus was raised from the dead.

5. The changed lives of the first disciples

The lives of the apostles were all changed in a manner consistent with the resurrection. They all left their previous vocations to preach the message of the resurrection. Peter was formerly a fisherman and he became an early church leader. Jesus’ brother James, who would have likely been a carpenter in the family business, likewise became a pillar in the early church.

Those in the early church were utterly convinced of the resurrection of Jesus and they went around telling everyone and many died for their beliefs.

The lives of the first disciples were transformed. They were convinced of an empty tomb, and that they’d seen Jesus alive. Their lives changed in a manner consistent with this so that they left their previous vocations and died for their faith.

6. Conversion of Paul

There was a stage when the Apostle Paul was the Richard Dawkins of the first century. Paul actively opposed the fledgling Christian belief. Yet he was even more vociferous in his opposition than Dawkins – Paul actually murdered Christians.

Yet Paul changed his mind. What convinced Paul? A couple of years back I asked a friend of mine why he was a Christian believer and he said to me, ‘the conversion of Paul’. He said he could find no other explanation of why someone so passionately opposed to the Christian message could become its greatest defender, other than that he actually saw the risen Jesus. Paul saw the risen Jesus and it transformed his life.

Any explanation for the resurrection of Jesus must explain these six facts:

  1. Jesus’ tomb was found empty by women.
  2. Multiple people on multiple occasions were convinced they’d seen Jesus alive.
  3. The early church suddenly believed in a resurrection contrary to prevailing expectations.
  4. Sunday becoming the day of worship contrary to Jewish custom.
  5. The lives of the first disciples were changed in a manner consistent with such a dramatic event.
  6. Paul, the great opponent of the Christian faith, was converted.

As journalists writing our story, how can we best explain all these facts?

Conclusion

I think that the best explanation for all of these events is that Jesus really was raised from the dead. It’s remarkable, sure, it’s amazing, a miracle, but that appears to be where the evidence is pointing. If you think that a resurrection is impossible – that perspective betrays philosophical presuppositions, rather than actual evidence.

It seems that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

But so what? So what if the resurrection happened. Many in our world fail to see its relevance or importance. To atheist Richard Dawkins the message of the resurrection is petty, trivial and earthbound, he said it was so ‘unworthy of the universe.’

But the resurrection of Jesus is the greatest message our world has to hear. It’s a message of hope and life. It’s a message which says that death is not the end. Jesus’ resurrection begins a new age. An age of eternal life. An age where there will be no more tears, or mourning or pain. Do you like the sound of that?

I went to a funeral last month. Funerals are always sad. They’re sad because they say that death has won. No matter how much, or how little, you achieve in this life, at a funeral death wins. We will all attend our own funerals. And after the funeral, what? The legacy of our lives will steadily pass away into oblivion. In 250 years no-one is likely to remember you. Your Facebook account would have been deleted, all your blog posts removed, all your possessions sold or rotten away. Death and meaningless would have won.

But at the funeral I attended there was hope. The message from this funeral was that death wasn’t the end. Death had been swallowed up in the victory of Jesus’ resurrection. There was hope, there was life. ‘Where O death is your victory, where O death is your sting?

We have victory through Jesus Christ and his resurrection.

The message of Jesus is a message of hope of love and of life. It’s a message that says that death is not the end and it’s a message which can stand up to intellectual scrutiny.

If the resurrection didn’t happen, you can ignore Jesus.

But, if the resurrection did happen, you can’t ignore Jesus.

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3 Comments
  1. rssllbll55 permalink

    Plutarch is highly unreliable. His primary purpose for writing was for teaching moral lessons, and he is willing to quite heavily distort the record to do so.

    Reference:
    m.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/1elz6z/which_ancient_historians_are_most_reliable/

  2. rssllbll55 permalink

    So if you’re going to say that it doesn’t matter how long ago it was that a account was written. Please also note that the writer has to be regarded as credible as well.

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