Published in the Shakopee ValleyNews, March 21, 2012
Christians around the world will soon celebrate Easter in remembrance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most people understand, however, that no one comes back to life after being dead for “three days.” How could any intelligent person believe such a thing? We could be cynical and say the key word is “intelligent” but there are many people with Ph.D.’s who believe that Jesus rose from the dead. What reasons could they possibly have?
First, Jesus’ crucifixion is considered to be historical fact. It is confirmed even by ancient non-Christian sources like Josephus, Lucian and Mara Bar Serapion. In addition, since crucifixion was considered such a shameful way to die, most biblical scholars don’t believe Christians would have invented a crucifixion story that would expose them to ridicule and hinder the spread of their message.
Second, Jesus’ tomb was found empty. All four biblical Gospels claim that Jesus’ tomb was empty (as does the second century “Gospel of Peter). The Gospels are unanimous in presenting women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb. Since women were not regarded as reliable witnesses in those days, even many skeptical scholars are convinced that early Christians would not fabricate a story in which the earliest eyewitnesses were thought to be unreliable.
The earliest explanation for the empty tomb is found in the Gospel of Matthew which says that the guards reported that someone stole the body while they slept (if they were sleeping, how would they know)? The stolen body theory might explain why the tomb was empty but we would still have to account for the stories that say Jesus was seen alive after his death.
Some have suggested that Jesus survived the crucifixion. Most biblical scholars find this unconvincing. Three crucified friends of Josephus (a first century historian) were taken off their crosses after only a few hours. Although all of them presumably received medical attention, two of them died the same day, and the third one died shortly thereafter. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21, 1986) concluded that theories about Jesus’ survival are contrary to the evidence. Even if Jesus had survived, however, it seems a bit silly to think that early Christians would have hailed this very bruised and broken man (most likely in critical condition) as their resurrected Messiah!
Third, Jesus was believed to have appeared alive physically after his execution (Matthew 28:9; Luke 24:39-43; John 20:17, 27-28). Recent scholars have argued that in the Gospels we are in touch with what early Christians believed about Jesus. Regardless of whether anyone today believes their stories, it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Gospel writers taught that the resurrection of Jesus was physical, not merely “spiritual.” Even Ignatius, writing shortly after the last New Testament book was written, said that that Jesus was still in the flesh after his resurrection.
Years before the Gospels were written St. Paul also affirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus. In First Corinthians—which even the most skeptical scholars believe is genuine—Paul writes that the resurrected Jesus was seen by more than 500 people. It seems pretty clear that Paul is not intending to say that 500 people had hallucinations or visions! Not only that, but Paul uses the word “resurrection” to describe what happened to Jesus. Resurrection” meant that the body came back to life, not that the spirit lived on after death which is something most people believed anyway.
In Second Corinthians, Paul reminds his readers of the persecution he faced for preaching the gospel, including imprisonment, beatings and life-threatening danger like being stoned (with real stones)! Paul was so convinced of the resurrection that he staked his whole life on it! Many other early Christians staked their lives on the same conviction.
Finally, the resurrection of Jesus could be treated as a historical hypothesis; a hypothesis which explains a lot that is difficult to explain otherwise. For example:
The hypothesis of Jesus’ resurrection explains the conversion of Paul. By his own testimony Paul had violently opposed Christianity. How did this rabid opponent of Christianity became one of its most ardent promoters? Paul himself would say it was due to his conviction that Jesus had risen.
The hypothesis of Jesus’ resurrection explains the change in worship from the Sabbath to the first day of the week. Sabbath observance was so central to ancient Jewish identity that for Jewish Christians (The earliest Christians were all Jewish) to start worshiping on Sunday would be more shocking than if PETA started sacrificing puppies! It would demand an explanation. Belief that Jesus had risen on the first day of the week would explain the change.
This hypothesis also explains the continuation of the Jesus movement even after his death. Many Jews expected their Messiah to kick the Romans out of Judea. When the Romans crushed these Messiah wannabees their movements always died with them. Only in the case of Jesus did the movement continue after his death.
The hypothesis would also explain the worship of Jesus by early Christians who were fiercely monotheistic Jews!
We really haven’t even scratched the surface on this topic but evidence like this has convinced even highly skeptical scholars that Jesus’ earliest followers sincerely believed that he had risen from the dead. These skeptical scholars are quick to add, however, that we can be absolutely certain that Jesus did not rise from the dead because dead people just don’t come back to life. Some might say that their philosophical presuppositions (faith) outweigh historical considerations.
In the final analysis, nothing can be “proven” beyond all possible doubt. There is always a gap that can be crossed only by faith (this is also true in science). Those of us who have examined the evidence, however, and have experienced what we believe to be the grace and power of God in our lives, and the witness of the Spirit in our hearts, have no trouble proclaiming with Christians around the world that He is risen indeed!