Grave Issues

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

The gospel is the absolute center of the Christian faith. It is also the portion of Christianity that is most readily verified by the evidence. The atoning death, burial, resurrection, appearances, and deity of Jesus Christ are established on extremely strong grounds.

GARY R. HABERMAS, Dealing with Doubt

When I first began questioning my faith, I remember remarking that if I could just know that Jesus had really lived, I would be satisfied. At that time I naively believed that it was very improbable to establish that an influential Jewish teacher named Jesus ever lived in first-century Palestine. But as I began looking into the evidence for Christianity, I found that the existence of such a person was not often questioned even among those who wished to discredit Christianity. In fact, it was a rather simple task to establish for myself the






Page 76

existence of this first-century man.

   I was wrong, however, in thinking that this minimal fact would satisfy my doubts. It was just beginning. Establishing that Jesus did exist raised a multitude of other questions about the details and meaning of his life. Were the Gospel accounts of his life reliable? Did he really claim to be God? Was he capable of supernatural acts in support of this claim? Was he crucified by Roman soldiers? And most important, did he rise from the dead, demonstrating his love for me and his power over death?

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.... And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.... But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. 1 CORINTHIANS 15:14-20

   Looking back I can see how simplistic it was to think that merely establishing Jesus' existence would end my doubts. But at least at that point I had stumbled onto the realization that the truth of Christianity boils down to the truth about a Jewish man named Jesus. If this Jesus rose from the dead, that does much to answer very other question asked in this book, and if he did not, all of the other questions are meaningless.

   Have you heard claims that Jesus didn't exist? If so, from whom, and what basis did they offer for this view?

   Do you believe that the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead is at the center of arguments for the truth of Christianity? Why or why not?

Did Jesus Really Exist?

John Romer, author of Testament: The Bible and History, does not believe that the Bible is divinely inspired or trustworthy in detail. But he has little doubt that a teacher named Jesus walked the hills around the lake called the Sea of Galilee, just as he has little doubt that Alexander the Great truly ruled Greece. He believes both for the same reason — because of the obvious effects their lives had on history. Romer writes:

Yet this man Jesus lived, of that there can be little doubt.... Unlike Alexander, of course, Jesus was a humble man; there are no coins with his face upon them, no contemporary inscriptions telling of his passing.... Yet from a village by this lake and from the words of the Gospels came such an

Page 77

energy, such an effect, that unless the whole movement was a confidence trick of unparalleled dimensions, it is more reasonable to assume that a man called Jesus really lived in Palestine during the Roman Governate.1

   The effects of Jesus' life can still be seen today, two thousand years after his birth. In fact, every time we glance at the date we are reminded of the impact this man made on countless lives — sufficient impact to convince an entire civilization to renumber its calendar in his honor.

   Today Christianity is the most widespread religion in the world, with one in every three people claiming to be a follower of Christ.2 Churches can be found in every corner of the globe. The life of Jesus has inspired a vast array of art, literature and music. Countless humanitarian ventures have been launched in his name. And this incredible phenomenon can be traced back to first-century Palestine, when the Christian faith suddenly exploded into existence.

Tracing the Timeline

The New Testament establishes the church's birth in the years immediately prior to A.D. 50

The New Testament documents testify to the sudden introduction of a religion based on a man named Jesus. Scholars agree that the earliest New Testament documents were written around A.D. 50.

Suetonius, Roman historian, confirms that in the 50s Christianity newly existed

Writing around A.D. 120 about Nero's reign (54-68), Suetonius states, "Punishment by Nero was inflicted on the Christians, a class of men given to a new and mischievous superstition."3

Cornelius Tacitus, Roman historian, confirms details of Jesus' death and that the church existed in A.D. 60s

Writing in 112 about the fire in Rome during Nero's reign (64), Tacitus states:

But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures,

Page 78

the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.4

Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, confirms the widespread impact of Christianity by A.D. 112

   In a letter to the Roman emperor in 112, Pliny, governor of a remote province, asks advice regarding the prosecution of Christians. Even in this remote area at that time, he says, "many of all ages and every rank and also both sexes" were among the Christians, and this new religion was affecting "not cities only, but also the villages and the country." He indicates that Christianity had existed in the region for at least twenty years.

   In his letter Pliny gives a glimpse into the lifestyle and beliefs of the Christians of his day by recording their defense to the emperor:

They maintained, however, that the amount of their fault or error had been this, that it was their habit on a fixed day to assemble before daylight and recite by turns a form of words to Christ as to a god; and that they bound themselves with an oath, not for any crime, but not to commit theft of robbery or adultery, not to break their word, and not to deny a deposit when demanded.5

   Do you believe adequate evidence exists to establish that an influential teacher named Jesus lived in first-century Palestine? Why or why not?

Are the Gospel Accounts of Jesus True?

Establishing that an influential teacher named Jesus actually lived is still a far cry from establishing whether that Gospels accurately portray the details of this man's life. After all, the Gospels make some pretty unbelievable claims. How do we know that these accounts are true?

   When I was struggling with this question, it helped to think through the options of what I could believe about the Gospels. I asked myself, If the Gospels are not truthful accounts, what else could they be? I came up with only three possibilities.

1. Legends spread by those far removed from the events. Most people who do not believe the Gospel accounts say they are simply a collection

Page 79

of legends that grew up around the real facts after Jesus' death. This view has become particularly popular in the last two hundred years. It is also the position I was most inclined to believe when I began examining this question.

   At the time this view was first introduced, many scholars believed the Gospels were written long after the death of anyone who could have personally witnessed Jesus' words or actions. They theorized that in between the time Jesus lived and the time the Gospels were written, the stories about Jesus had taken on a life of their own and grown to include tall tales of supernatural acts, claims of divinity and an elaborate Easter resurrection story.

   But since that time further evidence has surfaced suggesting that the Gospels were written much earlier than these scholars had supposed. In fact, in the 1970s John A.T. Robinson, a renowned Bible scholar who had always accepted the popular opinion of the late date of the New Testament, decided to investigate the evidence for himself. In the process he reversed his former opinion and came to believe that all the New Testament books were written by the early date of A.D. 64. He cited a scholarly "sloth," "the tyranny of unexamined assumptions" and "almost willful blindness" for the wide acceptance of the late date theory.6

Arguments that Christianity hatched its Easter myth over a lengthy period of time or that the sources were written many years after the event are simply not factual. PAUL L. MAIER (professor of ancient history, Western Michigan University)7

   If Robinson is correct, the time between even the latest Gospel and the life of Christ would be around thirty years, not the previous one hundred or more some had believed. And even those who do not agree with Robinson's findings now generally concur that all the Gospels were written at the very latest by the end of the first century.

   Additionally, the writings of Paul, regarded among earliest New Testament documents, demonstrate that the elements of the Gospel accounts that skeptics view as most legendary — Jesus' resurrection and claims of divinity — were circulating at least by A.D. 50. A striking example is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

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

Page 80

on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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.

   Scholars of all persuasions generally agree that Paul penned these lines around A.D. 55 — just some twenty years after Jesus' death.

   I was surprised to find such concrete evidence confirming the existence of at least the bare essentials of the Gospel accounts this close to when Jesus actually lived. Most myths the Gospels are compared to have taken centuries to develop — not a mere two decades. Yet I still wondered if it wouldn't be possible for some embellishment to have occurred. But when exploring this option, a few factors spoke strongly against it.

As Paul mentions in the passage above, many of the people who played key roles in the Gospel stories were still alive at this time. Paul even indicates he is personally acquainted with many of them.

Rather than showing signs of being written by people far removed from the events, some of the historic and geographic details in the Gospel texts reveal the authors were intimately familiar with life in Galilee during the time Jesus lived. As even skeptic John Romer admits, "Indeed, the greater part of [Jesus'] teaching was  conducted in three towns so small that they are barely mentioned in texts outside the Gospels themselves. Yet so precise are the Gospel's descriptions of this Galilean landscape that their writers surely knew it well."8

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 2 PETER 1:16-18

History shows that the very people closest to the events of Jesus' life — Peter, John, James, Thomas and others — were prominent leaders in the early church. For these men the stories of Jesus' supernatural acts, claims of divinity and triumphant resurrection could not be mere hearsay. They would have had to know whether these stories were actually true. And if they were not true, something more than gullibility would have had to be at work.

2. Lies spread by those involved in the events. This last insight forced me

Page 81

to examine a second option. Was it possible that the stories about Jesus' life were outright lies invented by Jesus' disciples? What if the disciples had become so impressed with Jesus' teaching and so attached to the idea of his being the Messiah that they couldn't stand to let go of it even after his death? What if they were so sure Jesus' teaching was the key to peace and happiness for their people that they felt justified in inventing stories that would keep Jesus' message alive?

A casual reader of the New Testament cannot fail to notice the pains its writers go to in insisting that the revelation in Christ is open to investigation and objectively valid. CLARK H. PINNOCK9

   But  I came believe this was very unlikely, as well, for several reasons.

History demonstrates that the disciples were beaten, jailed and even executed for their beliefs. Would they have been willing to die for something they knew was a lie?

It is hard to imagine that even a well-meant lie would have motivated the disciples to spread their tale with such breathless enthusiasm as would account for the explosive growth of the early church. Was it really imaginable that absolutely nothing happened on that first Easter morning — that it was only a well-crafted lie that transformed this motley crew of confused individuals into courageous and self-sacrificing missionaries?

Just the mind-boggling number of people who would have had to be involved in the hoax seems implausible — all the disciples, Mary Magdalene, Peter's mother, Joseph of Arimathea, Lazarus, Jesus' family and many others. And all these conspirators would have had to coordinate their stories very soon after Jesus' death while they were still confused and grief-stricken.

Belief in the Gospel stories can be  traced back to Galilee and Jerusalem — the very areas in which the events were supposed to have taken place. It is difficult to believe that someone could invent a story that was supposed to have happened in a small rural area and pass it off as truth in that same area within living memory of the residents.

3. Symbolic stories never claiming to record actual events. When investigating these first two options, I came across some authors who proposed a third option I had never considered.The Gospel stories of Jesus' life, they claimed, were never intended to communicate actual events but were only symbolic stories invented to illustrate spiritual truths. One advocate of this

Page 82

view compared the Gospel accounts to Aesop's fables and argued that the point was not whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or performed supernatural acts but that, somehow in some way, early Christians found victory through him. Early Christians, he said, understood that these books were fiction with the purpose of illustrating spiritual concepts, not historical truth.

   However, when I read through the New Testament, I couldn't escape the impression that the writers intended to communicate real events open to investigation by their readers. And I saw no evidence in church history to say differently. In fact, the intensity with which these stories were taught, and even the arguments their enemies chose to use against them, strongly suggested the opposite. As Craig Blomberg explains, "At the very least the main outline of the events of Jesus' life, death and resurrection must be historical or the claims of Christianity become incomprehensible... Sceptics down through the ages argued that those beliefs were not true, but seldom did they maintain that those beliefs were not what Scripture was claiming."10

   Which of the three alternative views of the gospel listed here do you find most credible and why?

   Can you think of any other alternative explanations for the Gospel accounts? If so, describe them and the evidence for and against them.

   Do you believe any of these views over the possibility of the Gospel's being trustworthy accounts? Explain.

But Did the Resurrection Really Happen?

After considering these options, I found no satisfying explanation for the Gospels except that they are trustworthy accounts of Jesus' life. But I still wondered if it was really possible that Jesus rose from the dead as the Gospels claimed or if there be some other explanation. Wasn't there another plausible explanation?

   Regarding Jesus' crucifixion and empty tomb, even more reasons exist to believe these parts of the Gospel accounts.

Few scholars doubt that Jesus was crucified by Roman soldiers, because it is impossible to believe that anyone would invent such a disgraceful end

Page 83

for their leader. As Romer explains, "The act of Jesus' crucifixion convinces because of its extremely degrading nature. In the Roman Empire crucifixion was a most shameful death.... No one but the most bizarre of contemporary theologians would have invented such a miserable ending for the Lord of Heaven."11

It also seems unlikely that the Christian community would have invented the story of Jesus' burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent citizen and member of Jewish Council (Mt 27:57-60; Mk 15:43-46; Lk 23:50-53; Jn 19:38-42). Anyone who doubted the story could easily discover whether this important official actually existed and whether he buried Jesus in his own tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. MARK 15:43

As for the claim that the tomb was found empty on the third day by a group of women, good reason exists to believe this as well. Since at that time the testimony of women was not respected, it is difficult to imagine that someone inventing this story would choose to have women discover the tomb. The accounts also mention some of the women by name, so it would have been possible to question them. And if the tomb had not been empty, it seems as if the Jewish leaders would have produced the body for all to see if they began hearing stories of Jesus' resurrection.

   So if Jesus was crucified and buried in Joseph's tomb and the tomb was found  empty, what other possible explanations are there? I could only think of four possible scenarios.

   1. Jesus' body was moved by Jewish leaders. But why would they do this, especially when it was the very thing they feared the disciples would do (Mt 27:62-64)? And why wouldn't they have produced the body once they realized the confusion moving it had caused? And how do we explain the appearance of Jesus after his death?

   2. Jesus' body was stolen by some of his followers. But how did they get past the guard (Mt 27:65)? And if his disciples were involved, this brings us back to their dying for a lie. If they weren't involved, who would have taken the body, and is it really feasible that no one would have found out? And this still doesn't explain the appearances of Christ after his death.

   3. The women went to the wrong tomb. At first this seemed possible to

Page 84

me. What if the women accidentally went to the wrong tomb and everyone jumped to conclusions? But if the tomb was Joseph's, wouldn't he have been able to quickly correct the mistake? Furthermore, the Gospels say that at least two of the disciples visited the tomb after the women to verify the women's claims. Is it possible that they too went to the same wrong tomb? Additionally, wouldn't the Jewish leaders have produced the body, if they still had it, when the resurrection story began to circulate? And again, what about the appearances?

   4. Jesus survived the crucifixion. Some propose that perhaps Jesus' didn't die on the cross but only fainted and was taken for dead. But is it really possible to believe that he survived being beaten by the soldiers, crucified, pierced through the side with a sword, and then wrapped from head to foot in spice-laden linen? It is difficult to imagine that someone who had been through all of this and had laid in a damp tomb without food or water for thirty-plus hours could unwrap himself, roll away a stone and slip through a Roman guard. Even if this were possible, could this person, weak and in need of medical attention, give his disciples the impression that he was the Prince of Life, the conqueror of death?

   What is your response to these arguments for belief in the resurrection?

The Final Option

In the end none of these other options made sense to me, and I was left with the explanation that the disciples offered so long ago — the one on which they staked their lives. Only the resurrection of Jesus could account for the empty tomb, belief in the resurrection story so soon after Jesus' death, the fervent message of the disciples and the explosive growth of the early church. And only the resurrection could account for the appearances of Christ after his death.

   The reports of his appearances were particularly convincing to me. They are present in even the earliest New Testament documents, written when many eyewitnesses were still alive. Jesus appeared to many different people in different locations at different times, and these experiences give no

Page 85

evidence of being some sort of mass hallucination.

   On the contrary, the accounts appear to involve distinct events, often happening at unexpected times and witnessed by more than one person. And these appearances didn't come just to those who already believed in Christ. Consider Paul's story. This hard-core Jew encountered the resurrected Jesus while in the process of attempting to stamp out every trace of Christianity. His own words and the profound change in his life testify to the encounter. What else could account for the sudden conversion of this sworn enemy of Christianity?

   Even as I write these words, going back over the evidence's of Christ's resurrection fills me with hope. It confronts me with the reality of these events. It puts flesh and blood, dust and sweat on the flannelgraph Bible figures I remember from my childhood. It reminds me that when Jesus cried out, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30), his voice was the hoarse voice of a real man giving up his life for me. And when he appeared to his disciples and said, "It is I" (Luke 24:39), it was the very voice of God proclaiming his triumph over sin and death.

   What do you believe the best explanation is for the accounts of appearances of Christ after his death and why?

   Do you believe Jesus rose from the dead? Why or why not?

Digging Deeper

   The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel (Grand Rapids, Much.: Zondervan, 1998). This fast-paced book, written by a former legal reporter for the Chicago Tribune, examines the evidence supporting the reliability of the Gospel accounts and the resurrection story through interviews with thirteen top experts in various fields and retraces the author's own journey from atheism to faith.

Page 86

   The Historical Reliability of the Gospels by Craig Blomberg (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1987). In this comprehensive book, one of American's foremost authorities on the Gospels explores the history of Gospel criticism, tackling questions regarding alleged inconsistencies, the possibility of miracles, the Jesus tradition outside the Gospels, and the trustworthiness of the Gospel accounts.

   Who Moved the Stone? by Frank Morison (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1958). When I stumbled onto this little book, I could hardly put it down. Written in the 1930s by a British journalist who began trying to separate legend from truth in the Gospels, this book, which reads like a detective story, follows his journey as he uncovers evidence that leads him to believe in the biggest miracle of all — the resurrection.

   Will the Real Jesus Stand Up? Paul Copan, ed. (Grand Rapids, Much.: Baker, 1998). In alternating chapters this book records a debate between a liberal scholar and a conservative scholar on the identity of Jesus and the reality of the resurrection.

Chapter Eight  ||  Table of Contents