The Resurrection of Jesus

Jesus Series - 8

The Resurrection of Jesus

(1 Corinthians 15:1-20)

The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of Christianity. If true, it challenges the secularist worldview and can radically transform your life. This examination of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, eighth in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, was presented at an evening service in St. Albans Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 18 April 1993.

The resurrection of Jesus is the central basis of the Christian faith. ‘If it is true,’ says Michael Green, the English evangelist and New Testament scholar, ‘then there is a God; the claims of Jesus are vindicated; he has saved us; there is a future for mankind; and death and suffering have to be viewed in a totally new light. If it is not true, Christianity collapses into mythology.’

Paul, writing in the New Testament, also recognized that the truth of Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.’ (1 Corinthians 15:19-20).

Jesus rose from the dead. So important a claim needs to be substantiated. What evidence is there for it?

1. The Documents are Early

A list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection is given in 1 Corinthians 15:5-9: ‘. . . he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.’

One of the earliest of Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians was written in AD 55, twenty five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. In human memory, twenty five years is a short time. We are well able to check the truthfulness of stories from that time ago. Many Baby Boomers could tell stories of the Hippy Movement and the Counter Culture from that time back in their own past, and we can all say where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated or when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. A multitude of witnesses can check the veracity of one another’s memories, especially concerning events of importance.

Paul tells us that he ‘had received’ this information from others (1 Corinthians 15:3). This means that the evidence he records of Jesus’ resurrection goes back earlier than when he wrote 1 Corinthians, to about AD 35, around the time when he became a Christian. That is less than five years after Jesus rose from the dead - a very short time in historical memory. The early nature of the evidence is confirmed by the use of Peter’s Aramaic name ‘Cephas’ - Aramaic (or late Hebrew) being the language spoken by Palestinian Jews before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Radical nineteenth century German scholars like F. C. Baur gave a late first or early second century date for the New Testament, and on that basis questioned its historical accuracy. The foregoing evidence shows that this won’t do: it simply doesn’t fit the facts. The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is early.

2. The Witnesses are Many

The list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection given by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 mentions six separate resurrection appearances to a minimum of 525 different individuals:

Peter (Cephas):

1

The twelve (the technical term for the group of twelve disciples, but omitting Judas Iscariot who had committed suicide after betraying Jesus, and Thomas who was absent):

10

More than five hundred brothers and sisters, some now dead, but most still living. (Implied here is an invitation to the sceptic to check out the truthfulness of the story with these surviving eyewitnesses):

No fewer

than 501

James, Jesus’ brother:

1

All the apostles (presumably including Thomas, and possibly including Matthias, Judas’s replacement):

11 or 12

Paul (a late convert, formerly a persecutor of believers in Jesus):

1

The Gospels record additional appearances:

Women in a garden

2 or more

Walkers on a road

2

Fishermen by a lake

11

Disciples in an upstairs room

11

Crowd on a hilltop

Not known

The sheer number and diversity of the appearances rules out hallucination or imagination. Hallucinations happen to individuals - here are many witnesses. Hallucinations tend to be found in emotionally disturbed people - here is a wide range of personality types and psychologically diverse people. Hallucinations tend to recur - these appearances cease after forty days, except for Paul, whose description acknowledges the special nature of the appearance granted to him. Even in Paul’s case, he distinguishes this resurrection appearance from his later vision of Jesus (1 Corinthians 9:1, 2 Corinthians 12:1-4).

The number and variety of the eyewitnesses lends strong credence to the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection. Such a large number of people cannot fake it or be responsible for collusion in falsehood.

3. The Tomb was Empty

The supreme evidence that Jesus’ tomb was empty was the inability of the enemies of the early Christian movement to produce the body. To disprove the early Christian preaching that Jesus was alive, all the opponents had to do was display the body, and the disciples’ message would have been laughed out of town. ‘The silence of the Jews,’ says Leon Morris, ‘is just as significant as the speech of the Christians.’

In fact, Peter’s first sermon announcing the resurrection (Acts 2:29-32) gave his hearers opportunity to produce the body. To paraphrase what he said: ‘David’s tomb - and remains - are near here. The prophecy from Psalm 16 about God’s holy one not experiencing corruption can’t apply to him. It applies to Jesus, who has just been raised from the dead in this very city.’ But the enemies of the Christian movement couldn’t produce a body to falsify the message. This was in spite of the fact that they had taken the precaution to place Jesus’ body in a sealed and guarded tomb (Matthew 27:65). Roman soldiers would have been court-martialled for dereliction of duty if they had not guarded it securely - and must have been bought off with a handsome bribe to put about the story that it was stolen! (Matthew 28:11-15).

Actually, the tomb was empty except for one thing: the graveclothes. Peter and John found ‘the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.’ (John 20:6-7). Seeing this brought them to faith - because it was like a chrysalis case after a butterfly has emerged. No grave robber could have left the cloths in their original shape minus a body. Jesus had been transformed into a new dimension of existence and they were awed by it.

4. The Disciples were Happy

Further evidence for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection was the profound psychological and motivational change that took place in his disciples. It was a change from fear to faith. From cowering behind locked doors, they had been transformed into bold public witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection. Peter changed from a coward who denied to a servant girl that he even knew Jesus, to a rock-like figure who became the leader and spokesperson of the early church. The eleven disciples were transformed from a dispirited rabble into an effective missionary organization.

All the apostles - including doubting Thomas - were changed from unbelief to ardent faith. Notable are James and Jude - Jesus’ brothers. They didn’t believe in Jesus during his lifetime, but they did after his resurrection, and James became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul himself was changed from a militant anti-Christian - rather like the ultra-Orthodox Yad L’Achim in modern Israel - into a great missionary who pioneered the worldwide expansion of the Christian movement.

Personal transformation of people’s lives by Jesus continues to this day. Nearly 2 billion people - one third of the world’s population - today believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. With a normal historical event, its impact and the testimony of witnesses diminishes as the years pass. It is the opposite with Jesus. The Christian movement grows and grows - touching people from all sorts of cultures and races, and of all kinds of backgrounds and abilities.

Jesus is not a dead historical figure, but a living person who can be met today. He was dead, but rose again. He is no longer dead, but alive. Because he is alive, you can meet him, and your life can be transformed by believing in him. You can know him personally as your Saviour and Lord.

Rob Yule
18 April 1993

© 1993, St Albans Presbyterian Church