Did Jesus of Nazareth rise from the dead? Sunday is Easter and Christians worldwide will sing in joyful affirmation.
One camp of Christians believes that Jesus’ resurrection is merely a figure of speech pointing to his continued influence upon his followers. Such Christians strive to keep history and faith at arm’s length. They see Christian faith as a subjective matter. Give it a try and if the Christian tradition happens to warm your heart, great!
Another camp of Christians takes Jesus’ resurrection as an objective, historical reality. From this perspective, history and faith lock arms. Christ’s resurrection is no myth devised by the church to keep his spirit alive amongst them, it is an objective event that generates the church. So the church does not birth a story, a story births the church. Historical fact authenticates theological formulation — Jesus conquered death, we spend the rest of forever working out the implications.
In support of this second perspective, several evidences uphold Jesus’ bodily resurrection. First, we must recognize that this is an investigation into ancient history: no video footage, audio recordings, or eyewitness interviews. As with every investigation into ancient times, one must rely on an analysis of oral tradition and written, eyewitness accounts. We cannot heed these accounts uncritically, nor may we insist on absolute certainty and irrefutable evidence as if Jesus died last month in Philadelphia.
Assembling the evidence, we must proceed on ancient-historical grounds, granting more weight to the witness of opponents and to testimony which casts the witness in a negative light. Further, while bias should not disqualify a witness, we must account for it. Proceeding on these grounds, the following evidences support Jesus’ resurrection.
First, Jesus was executed by crucifixion. Even the most hostile opponents of the early Christians acknowledged this fact. The Roman historian Tacitus, the Jewish historian Josephus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata and others wrote with certitude on this point. Four of Jesus’ disciples wrote accounts of his death and Jewish subjects did not accuse a Roman procurator of crucifying someone he did not execute. No one survived the tortures of crucifixion and Roman soldiers were held accountable, on penalty of death, to assure against anomalies.
Second, Jesus prophesied his resurrection. Jesus repeatedly claimed that he would rise from the dead on the third day (Luke 18:31-34). Significantly, his disciples never described themselves as possessing a faith sufficiently robust to believe Jesus’ promise. Rather, they admit they had no idea what he meant. Following Christ’s execution, they describe their state of mind as one of disillusioned despair and debilitating distress.
Third, the disciples believed that Jesus rose from the dead. This is no final proof that he did. Yet ancient Roman and Jewish authors such as Roman governor Pliny, Roman philosopher Celsus and Jewish historian Josephus attest that this is what Jesus’ followers believed. Legends take time to evolve. This was no legend. From the outset, both Jesus’ followers and their opponents identified Christians by their conviction that Jesus rose bodily from the dead.
Fourth, the tomb in which Jesus was buried was empty. Nothing would have silenced reports of Jesus’ resurrection more effectively than for his enemies to produce his corpse. They never did. Jesus’ tomb was sealed by the authority of the Roman governor. It was a capital offense to break the string stretched across the stone doorway and secured on either side with hot wax impressed with the governor’s seal. Armed guards stood at the ready to protect that seal with their lives. The tomb was sealed. The guard was set. The body was gone.
Fifth, the transformation and martyrdom of the disciples. Late on the Thursday night of his betrayal, Jesus’ disciples abandoned him. Several hours later, his corpse lay entombed while his disciples hid in fearful despair. On Sunday, these same followers proclaimed Christ’s resurrection openly, zealously and joyfully. They faced ridicule, imprisonment, torture, and most were executed for their witness. Liars make poor martyrs. Fabricated stories crumble in the face of such hostility, but the disciples never wavered in proclaiming Christ’s resurrection.
Sixth, the conversion of Saul and James. The radical transformation of the disciples is mirrored by the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Prior to his dramatic conversion, Saul despised Jesus and imprisoned Christians (Acts 9:1-31; 1 Corinthians 15:9). Likewise James, the half-brother of Jesus, rejected Christ’s claims (John 7:5). Both of these converts heralded Jesus’ bodily resurrection. While some critics credit the transformation of Jesus’ disciples to hallucinations, there is no such answer for the conversion of Saul or James, both of whom died for their faith. Saul (later the Apostle Paul) penned a classic defense, hinging the Christian faith on Christ’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15).
Christians will gather to sing of Jesus’ resurrection tomorrow. As their voices lift praises to God, their feet will stand on solid ground: He is risen indeed!