If you do not follow Jesus and want to begin to explore the life and claims of this man (and you should) start with his resurrection. If the resurrection did not happen, there is no point in moving on to anything else. Even the Apostle Paul said, "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (1 Cor 15:17). So, start with Jesus' resurrection. A common question I frequently get is, "How many intelligent, self-respecting people could actually believe an obscure Jewish preacher in a rural province of the Roman empire 2,000 years ago was God who raised from the dead?" That's a good question. Answer: Quite a few actually.
What do we know about Jesus?
Before dealing with the resurrection itself, let's consider the context and what is, generally speaking, un-debated by scholars.
- Jesus lived, died by crucifixion and was buried. That is un-debated.
- Jesus’ death caused his followers tremendous grief, sadness and loss of hope. That is un-debated.
- The tomb in which Jesus was buried was discovered empty just a few days later. That is un-debated.
- Jesus' disciples had experiences which they believed were literal appearances of risen Jesus. That is un-debated.
- Jesus' disciples were utterly transformed into bold proclaimers of his death and resurrection. That is un-debated.
- Jesus' death and resurrection became the center of preaching in the early church. That is un-debated.
- As a result of preaching about the death and resurrection of Jesus, the church was born. That too is un-debated.
- The early church experienced massive shifts in practice. For example, former Jews began to worship Jesus as God, Sunday became the primary day of worship in lieu of Saturday, and they declared the Law fulfilled. That is un-debated.
- Jesus’ mother and brothers converted to faith in Jesus Christ, worship as God. That is un-debated.
- Saul, who was one of the primary enemies of the early church, converted following what he claimed to be an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. That is un-debated.
- Within 200 yrs Christianity spread throughout the known world and today is the largest movement the world has ever seen.
How do we explain all of this?
The simplest and most logical explanation is that Jesus really did rise from the dead that first Easter morning. Without the resurrection of Jesus, it is unthinkable that so much change would have resulted in so short of a time. If you don't believe that you must come up with an adequate alternate explanation for all of the contextual facts above. You'll have hard time doing so, though many have tried. Let's look at some of the most common theories.
Q: “Isn’t the resurrection just a myth or legend?”
Some will say that “Christians took existing pagan myths or legends and adopted them.” But, the latest historical research reveals that no one in the ancient world, but theJews, believed in bodily resurrection (and even that was to occur at the end of time). In other words, there were no myths present to borrow from. It wasn’t until after the resurrection of Jesus did the idea of resurrection became more popular.
Others will say, “The resurrection is a late addition to Christianity that developed over time.” But there are two main problems with that. First, the vast majority of scholars now agree that the Gospels were written within the lifespan of Jesus' immediate followers. If they were spreading mis-information, it would have been stopped. Second, there is no trace of evidence that Christianity ever existed apart from resurrection of Jesus. It just doesn’t exist.
Q: “Don’t we just know better today?”
It is easy to fall victim to what CS Lewis referred to as “chronological snobbery”, the idea that everyone one came before us is "dumb" and we are "smart". Remember that Christianity was born into a world that was just as hostile and indifferent to Jesus as ours is today - even more so. The Greeks weren't pre-disposed to believing in resurrection. The Romans weren't pre-disposed to believing in the resurrection. The Jews only believed in the great resurrection at the end of history. If you told any of them that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah raised from dead they would have been just as confused and doubtful as many are today.
Yet, something happened caused Jews, Greeks and Romans to change long held views and embrace Jesus. Thousands became Christians and changed their culturally accepted views of philosophy, theology, world in a moment. Unexpectedly, and in very short amount of time, they believed life after death possible and Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. How do we account for that sudden, dramatic shift? Jesus rose.
Q: “Did the disciples simply lie?”
This is highly unlikely. All of Jesus disciples (except John) and many others were killed for refusing to deny Jesus rose again. People die for things that are false but believe are true, but people don't die for something they know to be a lie. Further, what are chances that they all lied. Highly unlikely. Why? They had nothing to gain - no money, power, prestige, etc only persecution and martyrdom. These early followers subjected themselves to persecution, imprisonment, rejection and death - for what? Additionally, the record tells us that the empty tomb was discovered by women. In 1st century Israel, women couldn't testify in court. If someone was making up this story, they wouldn't have written the story that way.
Q: “Did the disciples steal the body?”
The Gospel accounts tell us that the Jewish leaders were concerned about this so they placed Roman soldiers to guard the tomb. It seems impossible that an elite group of soldiers would’ve been so careless as to let uneducated fisherman sneak by, move the stone guarding the entrance and remove the body. Some say, "Well, they could have just bribed the soldiers." Under the Roman code if a prisoner escaped on a soldier's watch, he would die in place of the prisoner, making the bribe theory very unlikely. Further, think about it, what motive would drive his followers to steal the body of a failed messiah - then die for the lie he was risen? Also, they also left the grave clothes behind which were the only thing of value.
Q: “Did the authorities hide the body?”
We know this couldn't have been the case as they would’ve taken the earliest opportunity to display his body and destroy the early Christian church.
Q: “Did they go to the wrong tomb?”
Everyone knew where the tomb was. It is impossible that the disciples, women, guards, authorities and Joseph of Arimathea (whose owned the tomb) would all forget where he was buried.
Q: “Did he only lose consciousness on the cross and not die?”
Sometimes this is referred to as the "swoon theory" which has developed in the last 200 years by Islamic apologists. But, the Bible is clear Jesus died. He endured a sleepless night of trials. He was beaten and scourged (which alone kills many). He was crucified by a professional executioner. The Romans knew how to kill people. A spear was thrust in his side and it is reported that blood and water poured out - indicating Jesus was dead. Further, he was then wrapped in 75 lbs of burial clothes, placed in a sealed womb (without food, water or medical attention) for three days. Jesus died.
Q: Did the disciples see hallucinations?
Some argue that Jesus' disciples suffered from a form PTSD and, therefore, hallucinated. In other words, they really wanted it to be true so they all imagined it to be true. There are three problems with this. First, groups don’t have the same hallucination. Upwards of 500 people witnessed the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor 15:6). Second, hallucinations indicate mental deterioration but the disciples grew in clarity and boldness. Third, wherever early Christians went, they made life better, at their own expense, not worse.
There was no reason to invent the resurrection. It was completely implausible to begin with. Therefore, the only plausible explanation is that these witnesses were telling the truth. They did in fact see Jesus crucified, buried, and risen! If you struggle with this, that’s understandable. Even folks that saw the resurrected Jesus struggled to believe. But, if you don’t believe Jesus rose, you’ve got to come up with an adequate alternate explanation for all of these massive changes that took place around his life, death, resurrection and ascension. On the other hand, if Jesus did rise from the dead, and everything points in that direction, that means everything Jesus said and did is true. That changes everything about everything.