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 You are in / Foolish Faith / Read Book Online / Chapter 7 / Resurrection Reasoning - Part 4
"The alleged bodily resurrection of Jesus, if true, was very consequential concerning mankind's most fearful and important questions."
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Chapter 7:
The Unrivaled Resurrection
What do some of the world's greatest lawyers say about the event that changed history from BC to AD?

Resurrection Reasoning - Part 4

Due to the unanimous rejection by scholars of the preceding theories, what remains are these historical facts: Jesus died on the Cross, and His body, after being placed in the tomb, was not stolen by His friends or His enemies. But this presents the same 2,000-year-old puzzle: What happened to Jesus’ body?

The Apostles certainly believed in Jesus’ resurrection. Indeed, they pinned nearly everything on it. Without this belief, Christianity could never have come into being — the crucifixion would have remained the final tragedy in the life of Jesus. The origin of Christianity hinges on the belief of the earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead. One of the oldest, and “indisputably genuine” New Testament books (1 Corinthians) affirms this. The Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “In one of the most significant of all Pauline texts . . . [Paul] reaffirms the reality of Christ’s resurrection — doubted or denied by some — as the very foundation of Christian faith.”[23]

How does one explain the origin of this belief? The most skeptical critic must postulate something that got the Christian movement going. But what was that “something?”

Was a missing body enough in the first century to spark the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead? The Apostles didn’t seem to think so, for not only did they say that Jesus’ tomb was empty, they also claimed to have seen Him alive again, after death.

The New Testament writers record that Jesus showed himself alive after His death by many infallible proofs, and was seen by the Apostles for 40 days (Acts 1:3). In one of the oldest New Testament books, written about A.D. 55, Paul the Apostle quotes an old Christian formula which he received and in turn passed on to his converts: “I passed on to you what was most important and what had also been passed on to me: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve apostles” (1 Cor. 15:3–5).

Paul probably received this formula from two disciples, Peter and James, during a fact-finding mission in Jerusalem three years after His own conversion to Christianity.[24]

He continues, “After that, Jesus appeared to more than five hundred of His followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died by now. Then He appeared to James, and later to all the apostles. Last of all, He appeared to me, long after the others” (1 Cor. 15:6–8).

No scholar denies the genuineness of Paul’s writing in this text, written within 25 years of Jesus’ death. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica concedes that this text dates between “20–30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion” and is “indisputably genuine.”[25] Of crucial significance, then, is that Paul appeals to his audience’s knowledge of the fact that Jesus had been seen by more than five hundred people at one time; he reminds them that the majority of these people were still alive and could be questioned.

William Lillie, head of the department of biblical study at the University of Aberdeen, notes the relevance of this fact: “Such a statement in an admittedly genuine letter written within thirty years of the event is almost as strong evidence as one could hope to get for something that happened nearly two thousand years ago. . . . What gives a special authority to the list [of witnesses in Paul’s writing] as historical evidence is the reference to most of the five hundred brethren being still alive. St. Paul says in effect, ‘If you do not believe me, you can ask them.’ ”[26]

The first century witnesses to whom Paul referred here could have certainly confirmed or denied the accuracy of his statements about them seeing the resurrected Jesus. Risking persecution, they would have had no reason to lie; there were sometimes mass Christian executions, which began in the first century.[27] If hundreds of these witnesses had denied seeing the post-mortem Jesus, then Paul’s credibility would have been utterly destroyed (not to mention the credibility of all the other Apostles as well). Any contrary testimony from the list of these five hundred witnesses would have drastically hindered (if not prevented) the spread of Christianity. But Christianity did not stop. In fact, in the face of persecution, it continued to spread beyond all reasonable expectation. Despite persecution, by about A.D. 70 (only 40 years after Jesus’ death), Christianity had spread almost everywhere in the East, from Egypt to the Black Sea, in Bithynia and in Greece, and even as far as Rome.[28]

Exactly what took place with these alleged appearances of Jesus is a subject of scholarly debate. Yet it is widely agreed that something did take place, because it is certain that those who claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus were, in fact, truly convinced that He was risen from the dead. Regarding Paul’s own appearance experience, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, “Though it is impossible to state exactly what happened, the central feature was certainly Paul’s vision of Jesus in glory. It convinced him that Jesus was risen from the dead and exalted as Lord in heaven.”[29]

Recall that scholars are in agreement that Paul’s sudden conversion to Christianity around A.D. 35 is an established historical fact. Since Paul states that his conversion was due to the latest appearance by Jesus, this means that all the previous appearance experiences he refers to must have occurred even earlier, at most within five years of Jesus’ death in A.D. 30. It is thus idle to dismiss the accounts of the appearances as mythical; Paul’s information makes it historically certain that on separate occasions, within a few years of Jesus’ death, various individuals and groups claimed to have seen Jesus alive from the dead. As Norman Perrin, the late New Testament critic of the University of Chicago, notes, “The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.”[30] “This conclusion is virtually indisputable,” says leading Resurrection expert William Lane Craig.[31]

But while the Resurrection appearances were described in the first century as true appearances of Jesus, today other explanations have been offered.

One suggestion is that the appearances were just hallucinations, or that the Apostles envisioned only a spiritual resurrection. But for a first century Jew, the idea that a man might be raised from the dead spiritually, but not bodily, was simply a contradiction in terms; the Jewish conception of resurrection was always physical. In the words of the much-respected scholar E.E. Ellis: “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis [resurrection] without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”[32] So when the Apostles spoke of Jesus’ resurrection, they always mentioned (either explicitly or implicitly) the empty tomb, signifying a physical resurrection.[33]

But could the appearances have simply been hallucinations, from which people mistakenly inferred Jesus’ resurrection? This theory became popular during the 19th century and carried over into the first half of the 20th century as well. The problem with this theory, however, is that it is psychologically implausible to postulate such a chain of hallucinations. Scholar William Lane Craig explains that the evidence shows that “Jesus was seen not once, but many times; not by one person, but by several; not only by individuals, but also by groups; not at one locale and circumstance but at many; not by believers only, but by skeptics and unbelievers as well. The hallucination theory cannot be plausibly stretched to accommodate such diversity.”[34]

Typically, hallucinations are projections of one’s own mind, and, in a highly emotional state, are triggered by extreme expectation.[35] It is therefore inconceivable that an enemy of Christianity should hallucinate something he opposes, much less transform his life as a consequence: no scholar denies that Paul first appeared on the scene of history as a persecutor of the early church, and later became one of its key proponents.

Additionally, the Gospels state that on several occasions the Apostles did not recognize Jesus. In normal experience, to witness someone alive again after death would, no doubt, cause anyone to question his or her sanity. That is, in fact, what the Gospels record. According to the narratives, none of Jesus’ followers expected him to rise from the dead. Luke’s Gospel says that when Jesus suddenly appeared to them, “they were terribly frightened, thinking they were seeing a ghost.” The gospel relates that Jesus asked, “‘Why are you frightened? Why do you doubt who I am? Look at my hands. Look at my feet. You can see that it’s really me. Touch me and make sure that I am not a ghost, because ghosts don’t have bodies, as you see that I do!’ As he spoke, he held out his hands for them to see, and he showed them his feet. Still they stood there doubting, filled with joy and wonder” (Luke 24:37–41).

Renowned Oxford professor C.S. Lewis observed the significance of such an account: “Any theory of hallucination breaks down on the fact that on three separate occasions this hallucination was not immediately recognized as Jesus.”[36]

Nor can hallucinations account for the full scope of the evidence. The theory leaves the empty tomb unexplained, and therefore fails as a complete and satisfying explanation.

Thus, like the empty tomb, the first century claims of Jesus’ resurrection appearances are left as unexplained historical facts.


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