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The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth

A Brief Survey of the Historical Evidence

Christians celebrate the death of Jesus on what is known as Good Friday. It is a rather odd thing to celebrate someone’s death, especially when it was such a brutal and barbaric execution. Some skeptics today have written believers off as sick delusional people. No doubt, it is an old charge. It was even strange to Pliny the Younger who investigated the early church’s worship of the crucified Jesus—those who sang “a hymn to Christ as to a god” (Pliny, Letters 10.96-97).

But for those who are Christians, Good Friday is a time of deep theological reflection. The biblical narrative from creation to fall, from exilic despair to salvific hope, from sinner’s debt to atoning sacrifice, has reached its climax in the life and death of Christ—the true Israelite, the promised Messiah who takes away the sins of the world.

It is a beautiful death because it is the first and only death in the history of mankind that has the power to save—the Creator God becomes human flesh and displays boundless love to his broken creation. The idea of it is too good to be compared to any ancient myth of dying and rising gods, and it is so self-incrementing that any man would or could make it up only to endure the wrath of empire for proclaiming it.

However, the death of Jesus holds no power if he stays dead. That is why the apostle Paul was so adamant about it to the Corinthians who were arguing about the future of those who had died before Christ’s Second Coming (parousia). He writes:

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. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Cor 15:14-17 NIV).

There has been no shortage of books, articles, and journal entries written on the resurrection of Jesus, especially in the last few decades.[1] Dale Allison has stated that the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus is the “prize puzzle of New Testament research.”[2] There are excellent presentations by historical Jesus scholars that have been published in defense of the resurrection—arguments that are concerned with the reliability of the biblical text, the historical possibility of the event, and the reasonability of belief in such a miraculous occurrence.

It is the purpose of this paper to bring out some of the strongest points used in defense of the physical resurrection of the historical Jesus. This paper will persuasively argue on behalf of the following points: (1) the reliability of the NT, eyewitness testimony, and multiple attestation; (2) the empty tomb, resurrection appearances, and the growth of the early church; (3) the philosophical and scientific reasonability of miracles, ancient and modern.

EVIDENCE FOR THE RESURRECTION

Reliability of the NT, Eyewitness Testimony & Multiple Attestation

All four of the Gospels record the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20). However, the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible is no longer assumed. Truthfully, the reliability of the Bible has even been heavily attacked since the Enlightenment. While a case could be built for the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from the New Testament sources, the author of this paper is not so willing to give up on the reliability of the NT and the Gospels as historical ancient biographies of Jesus.[3]

Daniel Wallace has recently written, “In Greek alone, there are more than 5,600 manuscripts today… altogether about 20,000 handwritten manuscripts of the NT in various languages.” [4] Even if someone were to destroy all of those manuscripts, the NT could be entirely reconstructed with the one million quotations by the early church fathers![5]

Some critics will respond, what about all those discrepancies? There are certainly textual variants in the many manuscripts we have, but the careful reader should not let the skeptical NT textual critic, Bart Ehrman, convert them to agnosticism just yet.[6] F.F. Bruce has written, “The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historic fact or of Christian faith and practice.”[7]

In fact, the more historical and textual criticism that is being done on the NT Gospels, the more scholars are recognizing just how meticulous the ancient authors were in their creative retelling of the life of Christ. For instance, Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul, says he consulted with the “eyewitnesses” and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning” (Lk 1:2-3). Luke’s concern to give an “orderly account” of the things that happened in the first half of the century simply can’t be denied if any historian is consistent with their treatment of historical texts.

The apostle Paul passes along an early creedal statement about Jesus:

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 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 (1 Cor 15:3-8 NIV).

James D.G. Dunn has written that scholars can be “entirely confident” that this tradition was formulated within months of Jesus’ death.[8] So, with the early dating of the Gospels being within approximately 30-40 years of the actual events, the careful oral transmission and tradition between Jesus and the writing of the Gospels, and the multiple eyewitness testimony that Jesus was seen in a resurrected form (something that it seems they had a difficult time finding the words to express), it is fair to say that something out of the ordinary happened.

The majority of scholars agree on some basic events in the life of Jesus. E.P. Sanders has written, “There are no substantial doubts about the general course of Jesus’ life: when and where he lived, approximately when and where he died, and the sort of thing that he did during his public activity …”[9]

No real scholar in the field denies these things. Even the liberal Jesus Seminar scholar, John Dominic Crossan, admits that the crucifixion of Jesus is historical “as sure as anything historical can be.”[10] It is one of the major points of agreement between liberal and conservative Jesus scholars. For any person to deny the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, they must be ignorant of history or purposely distorting the facts. Ancient historians such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Jewish Talmud, mention that Jesus was crucified.[11] Mainstream scholars agree with the biblical text: Jesus really lived, he was crucified, he died, and he was buried in a borrowed tomb. (Mk 15:42-47; Matt 27:57-61; Lk 23:50-54).

Empty Tomb, Resurrection Appearances, & Growth of the Early Church

The empty tomb is recorded and admitted by Christians, enemies of Jesus, and skeptics alike—in ancient and modern times. All four canonical Gospels mention the empty tomb. Paul affirms the empty tomb with the early creed in 1 Cor 15:3-4, and so does Luke in Acts 13:29. While there are scholars today that refuse to acknowledge an empty tomb (e.g. Crossan believes that Jesus’ body was discarded with criminals and eaten by dogs), most scholars recognize the empty tomb as a historical fact.

The empty tomb makes the most historical sense. If the body was not missing, the early Christian message could have been easily stamped out with, “Resurrected? We have his body right here!” The big question is ‘why was it empty?’ The Jewish polemic against the Christian message was that the disciples had stolen the body (Matt 28:11-15; Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, 108; Tertullian’s On Spectacles, 30). Matthew writes, “And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (28:15).

The swoon theory was first proposed in the eighteenth century.[12] This theory claims that Jesus was not really dead after all, but merely slipped into a coma, later to be revived in the cold conditions of the dark tomb. Let there be no mistake. The Romans knew how to kill condemned criminals.[13] While there may have been an occasion where someone escaped the cross (e.g. when Romans fled the scene of battle), the historical evidence in the case of Jesus does not allow for a great escape. The medical evidence indicates a certain death (Jn 19:34).[14]

David Strauss, a nineteenth century liberal scholar, was unconvinced of the swoon theory, saying that a half-dead Jesus would not have convinced his disciples of a glorified resurrection.[15] Strauss points out that you can’t talk about the empty tomb without considering the transformation that took place with the disciples who had previously abandoned Jesus. What else can explain what they claimed they saw, and empowered them to speak the message of the risen Jesus?

According to a small few, the disciples actually had some sort of mass LSD trip, a group hallucination.[16] There are many reasons why this theory doesn’t add up. In short, the disciples claimed to have touched him, ate with him, yet he walked through walls! Also, there has never been one documented account of an entire group of people having the same hallucinations.[17] And the disciples would need to be under a continual psychotic delusion to face martyrdom with non-resistance, declaring that Jesus had been raised from the dead.

Michael Licona writes: “Historians are not chained to using a psychological explanation that is stacked against the supernatural in order to obtain purely natural conclusions in their historical work. They need to go beyond psychological conjectures and employ method carefully.”[18]

Other theories have been proposed: Jesus had a twin brother that dropped in after the crucifixion and appeared to the disciples; the women went to the wrong tomb; and the resurrection was only spiritual. But none of these theories can account for all of the historical evidence, what the disciples believed were resurrection appearances, the teaching of the apostles, and the growth of the early church in the face of intense persecution.

I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know that as a historian that they must have seen something.[19]

Whatever they saw, it was enough to change the mind of James, the brother of Jesus, and Saul of Tarsus, a zealous Pharisee and persecutor of the church. James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church (Acts 15), and he is later martyred for his belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What could have happened to prompt the brother of Jesus to become one of the church’s greatest leaders? An encounter with the risen Jesus is the most likely of all possible scenarios.

Saul of Tarsus had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Christ, while on his way to persecute the church in Damascus, Syria (Acts 9). Something happened to this Saul, student of the great Jewish teacher, Gamiliel (Acts 22:3). He said his transformation from persecutor to apostle was a result of being confronted by the resurrected and glorified Christ. What could change this zealous teacher of the Law? The apostle Paul had met the risen Jesus.

N. T. Wright makes the claim that he knows nothing else that could explain the initial birth and rapid expansion of the early church, except that Jesus was really raised from the dead. Wright states that there are two things “historically secure” about the first Easter: the empty tomb and the meeting with the resurrected Jesus. Nothing in Second-Temple Judaism would have produced such a radical claim that someone (i.e. a crucified Messiah) would be raised to life in the middle of human history.[20] Wright says, “It is therefore historically highly probable that Jesus’ tomb was indeed empty on the third day after his execution, and that the disciples did indeed encounter him giving every appearance of being well and truly alive.”[21]

There is another piece of evidence that adds further weight to the story. Fitting with the principle of embarrassment, the Gospel writers report that it was women who first found the empty tomb and met the risen Jesus (Matt 281-10; Mk 16:1-11; Lk 24:1-11). This is rather peculiar since a woman’s testimony was not even considered as a reliable witness in a first century law court (Josephus, Ant 4.219).

It comes as no surprise that the disciples did not believe their report (Lk 24:11). If they were making up a story about a crucified and resurrected Messiah, especially when the whole idea was foreign to Judaism in the first place, the last thing they would do is have women as the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection. But no attempt is made to gloss over this embarrassing episode.

This bit of the story adds to the historical credibility of the empty tomb. The physical resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the empty tomb, as well as the experiences of the disciples, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of overwhelming opposition from the same world that condemned Jesus.

Limitations of Science & Boundaries of Human Reason

There are certain biases and presuppositions that must be acknowledged on the outset of an investigation into the case for the resurrection. The seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment has conditioned much of the West to separate faith and reason. The church has often been guilty of refusing to take serious the discoveries of science. The sloppy practice of using the Scriptures to attack and defend scientific theories has furthered the idea that faith and reason are at odds with one another.

Of course, there is such a thing as bad science, something that many evolutionary biologists and skeptics of religion today refuse to acknowledge. But who will argue that it was right for the church to denounce Galileo’s heliocentrism—that the earth revolves around the sun? Like many European intellectuals who grew tired of the abuses of the Roman Catholic Church, some modern skeptics and scholars abandon faith altogether, reject any spiritual dimensions to life and the cosmos, only to rely solely upon science as the only infallible guide to epistemology (what we can know and how can we know it). Is this sound?

The thinking of David Hume has left an indelible mark on Western society. Hume rejected the idea of miracles, largely based on his naturalistic perspective that the laws of nature prohibit them from happening. Hume wrote:

The Christian Religion not only was at first attended with miracles, but even at this day cannot be believed by any reasonable person without one. Mere reason is insufficient to convince us of its veracity: And whoever is moved by Faith to assent to it, is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.[22]

Would the resurrection of Jesus be a violation of natural laws? Are miracles to be entirely ruled out because Hume concluded that they are contrary to nature and the whole of human experience?

There are currently three main views of natural law: the regularity theory, the nomic necessity theory, and the causal dispositions theory. None of these theories actually allow for miracles to be understood as violations of the laws of nature. Instead, miracles are naturally impossible events that require an unknown or “supernatural” force to interrupt the natural world at a certain time and place.

Naturalism may indicate that dead people stay dead. But if there is a God who created the world, and sent his Son to reveal his divine program, then how can skeptics be so certain that this God wouldn’t raise Jesus from the dead in order to vindicate him and affirm divine revelation? It is just the sort of thing God would do to reveal himself and redeem mankind for a new world—a world that he has not left to simply wind down, grow cold, and become stardust.

William Lane Craig writes:

When a scientific anomaly occurs, it is usually assumed that some unknown natural factors are interfering, so that the law is neither violated nor revised. But suppose the law fails to describe or predict accurately because some supernatural factors are interfering? Clearly the implicit assumption of such laws is that no supernatural factors as well as no natural factors are interfering. Thus, if the law proves inaccurate in a particular case because God is acting, the law is neither violated nor revised. If God brings about some event which a law of nature fails to predict or describe, such an event cannot be characterized as a violation of a law of nature, since the law is valid only under tacit assumption that no supernatural factors come into play in addition to the natural factors.[23]

It is for the reason of “miracles” and the divinity attributed to Jesus that some “historians” find reason not to trust anything the Gospel writers say. They believe the Gospels are tainted with wishful thinking. Therefore, it is hard to determine who the “historical Jesus” really is after all. Crossan has written the following on the possibility of a resurrection miracle: “I do not think this event ever did or could happen… I do not think that anyone, anywhere, at any time brings dead people back to life.”[24]

Historians should not be so quick to dismiss the miraculous as human inventions by lunatic disciples wanting to start their own religion on a failed Messiah.[25] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd have written:

Most within the guild of historical-critical scholarship identify the historical-critical method with this unequivocal commitment to the presupposition of naturalism. For such scholars, talk about a naturalistic historical-critical method is redundant, and talk about about a historical-critical method that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism is a contradiction in terms.[26]

Eddy and Boyd suggest an alternative method they call an “open historical-critical method” that is not unequivocally committed to naturalism and is open to events that defy natural explanation. The method is “critical” in that it first looks for “natural” causes to bizarre events, but at the same time it is “open” to the appeals of “supernatural” occurrences, not rejecting them on an a priori basis.[27] Scholars must be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.

Other contemporary NT scholars also argue for the historical probability of miracles, thus substantiating the claims of the NT. Craig Evans believes that the same criteria used for supporting the authentic words of Jesus in the Gospels, can also be applied to miracles. The historical criteria are multiple attestation, dissimilarity, and embarrassment.[28]

As already previously argued, all of these can be found in the resurrection story. Craig Keener has arguably written the greatest work on the subject of miracles. In his two-volume work, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Keener challenges David Hume’s epistemological skepticism, and presents a monumental case for miraculous phenomena from late antiquity up to contemporary times. He begins by pointing out that all of the many ancient sources acknowledge that Jesus was a worker of miracles. Keener describes the importance of miracles in the Gospels:

Most scholars today working on the subject thus accept the claim that Jesus was a healer and exorcist. The evidence is stronger for this claim than for most other specific historical claims that we could make about Jesus or earliest Christianity. Scholars often note that miracles characterized Jesus’ historical activity no less than his teaching and prophetic activities did. So central are miracle reports to the Gospels that one could remove them only if one regarded the Gospels as preserving barely any genuine information about Jesus.[29]

Keener mentions how Walter Wink, a NT scholar and member of the Jesus Seminar, shifted his “materialistic” assumptions about reality after a divine healing of his own. Wink says, “I have no difficulty believing that Jesus actually healed people, and not just of psychosomatic diseases.” Wink writes that any scholar who would deny the truth of his story because of their worldview, do so “not on historical grounds, but on the basis of their” antisupernaturalistic assumptions.[30]

Therefore, it is important to study the historical Jesus by first discarding of the presupposition that naturalism can fully account for the way things are in the world. As Craig has written, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but on definition.”[31] So, based on the amount of observable evidence, there is good reason to believe in miracles today.

EVIDENCE THAT DEMANDS A VERDICT

The very laws of nature (as we know them) are continually sustained by God’s power. He has revealed himself in the natural order and in the spiritual order. But more specifically, God’s good will for creation has been made known in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he has displayed his saving power by raising this Jesus from the dead. However, it is right to conclude that no amount of scientific or historical data can conclusively prove that Jesus rose from the dead. Belief in miracles, the resurrection of Jesus particularly, is not born from historical evidence alone. John Meier candidly writes:

Can miracles happen? Do miracles happen? In my view, these wide-ranging questions are legitimate in the arena of philosophy or theology. But they are illegitimate or at least unanswerable in a historical investigation that stubbornly restricts itself to empirical evidence and rational deductions or inferences from such evidence.[32]

C. E. B. Cranfield sums up his survey of the evidence in this way:

A positive proof of its truth is just not to be had by such means. Certainty with regard to it can come to us only by the work of the Holy Spirit making us free to believe. But it seems to me that the evidence available to us—and I have tried now a good many times to weigh it as carefully and honestly and objectively as I can—is such that, though I cannot prove that God raised Jesus from the dead by historical-critical methods, I can believe it without any way violating my intellectual or moral integrity. For myself, I must declare that I do indeed confidently believe it.[33]

Finally, there are at least five established facts in the case for the resurrection. These “minimal facts” are the death of Jesus by crucifixion, the empty tomb, the disciple’s resurrection claims, the conversions of James and Paul, and the rapid growth of the early church in the face of suffering and death. This is compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus that every skeptic must confront with historical, logical, and consistent reasons of rebuttal if they wish to challenge mainstream biblical and historical scholarship, or engage in an attack on the gospel of Jesus.

After normal causations are exhausted as an explanation for the resurrection story, the historical evidence points to the “high probability” that Jesus rose from the dead.[34]

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

NOTE: This academic paper was put into a popular three-part post “Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus” here at the blog. There are active links and videos in that series of posts.


[1] A few major scholars such as Dale Allison, Raymond Brown, Peter Carnley, David Catchpole, William Lane Craig, John Dominic Crossan, James D.G. Dunn, Bart Ehrman, Gary Habermas, Gerd Ludemann, Willi Marxsen, Gerald O’Collins, Richard Swinburne, A.J.M. Wedderburn and N.T. Wright have weighed in on the topic.

[2] Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 200.

[3] See Richard Burridge, What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004). Burridge calls for an understanding of the gospels an ancient biographies.

[4] Daniel B. Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament: Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 28.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bart Ehrman is a NT textual critic, and former evangelical Christian. See his book, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005). Also, see Nicholas Perrin’s response to Ehrman in his book, Lost in Transmission: What Can We Know About the Words of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007).

[7] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 14-15.

[8] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered. Christianity in the Making, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 855.

[9] E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 11.

[10] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Peasant (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 145.

[11] Josephus, Antiquities 18.64; Tacitus, Annals 15.44; Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Pererine 11-13; Mara Bar Serapion, BL Add. 14658; and the Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a. The Quran denies that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross (Surah 4:157-158). This is a rather embarrassing historical blunder on behalf of the Quran. This is not some insignificant textual variant or slight discrepancy in the Islamic text. It is a historical contradiction.

[12] Early proponents were: Karl Friedrich Bahrdt, Karl Venturini, Heinrich Paulus, and Friedrich Schleiermacher. The muslim, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, proposed that Jesus survived the crucifixion in journeyed to India. See his book, Jesus in India (1899).

[13] See the ancient writer, Seneca Moral Epistles 101; and Martin Hengel, Crucifixion, trans. John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 22-23.

[14] “interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” The Journal of the American Medical Association “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ” Vol. 255 (March 21, 1986), 1463.

[15] David Strauss, A New Life of Jesus. 2 vols (Edinburgh: Williams & Norgate, 1879).

[16] Oddly enough, Strauss actually popularized this theory. In Strauss’ view, the disciples were tripping with the resurrected Christ! This view is not taken seriously by any scholar or medical expert today. See Jake O’Connell “Jesus’ resurrection and collective hallucinations.” Tyndale Bulletin 60, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 69-105.

[17] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 105-108.

[18] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2010), 567-568.

[19] Paula Fredriksen (Boston University) in an interview by Peter Jennings in Search for Jesus (American Broadcasting Corp. [ABC], July 2000).

[20] Douglas W. Kennard, Messiah Jesus: Christology in His Day and Ours (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 335. Kennard writes: “No O.T. text claims the time of third day resurrection of Messiah, but a sentiment grew among Pharisaic second Temple Judaism that began to see the Biblical text describe the general resurrection and even a Messianic resurrection on the third day.” Also see Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God, 321-322. It can at least be said that the traumatized disciples were not thinking that Jesus was going to rise from the dead

[21] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Vol. 3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 686-687.

[22] David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10.2.101. Hume is saying that it is a miracle that anyone could ever be dumb enough to believe in the Christian faith!

[23] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth & Apologetics (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 262.

[24] Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1994), 94-95.

[25] The following contemporary perspectives on miracles take the notion seriously: R. Swinburne, The Concept of Miracle (New York: Macmillan, 1970); F.J. Beckwith, David Hume’s Argument against Miracles: A Critical Analysis (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989); T.C. Williams, The Idea of the Miraculous: The Challenge to Science and Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1990); J. Houston, Reported Miracles: A Critique of Hume (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); R.D. Geivett and G.R. Habermas, eds., In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997); C.S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

[26] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 51-52.

[27] Ibid., 53.

[28] Craig Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 140.

[29] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 23-24.

[30] Ibid., 103.

[31] Craig, 279.

[32] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 511. Meier is not saying that miracles are not real events in time and space, nor is he doing “covert” apologetics.

[33] C.E.B. Cranfield, “The Resurrection of Jesus.” The Historical Jesus in Recent Research. eds. James D.G. Dunn and Scot McKnight (Winona Lake: Eisebrauns, 2005), 390-391.

[34] David J. Norman, “Doubt and the resurrection of Jesus.” Theological Studies 69, no. 4 (December 1, 2008): 786-811.

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Ephesians: The Eternal Purpose of God

Ephesians: The Eternal Purpose of God—–A Brief Overview of The Epistle to the Ephesians

The Epistle to the Ephesians has been one of the most influential and earliest attested documents in the history of the Christian church.[1] Despite the letter’s early attestation, it is not among the indisputable writings of Paul.

Authorship & Recipients

Within the last few hundred years there have been a growing number of scholars that contend that the letter was written pseudonymously from a later follower of Paul because of its striking similarity to Colossians and its dissimilarity to other letters of the apostle.

Andrew T. Lincoln is convinced that the terminology used in Ephesians is unlike anything in the Pauline corpus.  He also argues that the theology contained in the epistle is far more developed than in previous letters.  Lincoln finds the letter impersonal “having no intimate connection” with the intended audience.[2]

Is it possible that readers have been a bit hasty in their decision to credit Ephesians to a later admirer of Paul?  Can the student or scholar be so quick to overlook the claims the letter makes concerning authorship (1:1; 3:1)?

H.J. Cadbury asked: “Which is more likely—that an imitator of Paul in the first century composed a writing ninety or ninety-five per cent in accordance with Paul’s style or that Paul himself wrote a letter diverging five or ten per cent from his usual style?”[3] D.A. Carson mentions that the letter was viewed as Pauline by numerous apostolic fathers and it was not even questioned until the modern era.

Furthermore, writing under the name of someone else was not a wide practice within the early Christian church.[4] A closer examination of the epistle within the Pauline corpus, and an allowance for theological expansion upon earlier material, may enable the reader to accept Paul as the author and learn from his revelation.

The next matter of debate comes in the later part of the first verse:  “to the saints who are [in Ephesus] and the faithful in Christ Jesus.” Bruce Metzger writes that the words “in Ephesus” are absent from several important manuscripts.

Clinton Arnold believes there is still “strong manuscript support” for keeping the original reading.[5] It could be that the phrase “in Ephesus” was omitted in later manuscripts in order to universalize the letter and pass its message along to other churches in need.  This is a reasonable explanation.

The absence of “in Ephesus” has led many scholars to conclude that the letter was definitely intended to be circulated.[6] Scholars have weighed in on this problem and offered several other solutions. Conservative scholarship believes that the author intended the letter to be circulated among the churches in the city of Ephesus, a city with a first-century population of one-quarter million, and possibly in the entire west coast region of Asia Minor.[7]

Historical Setting and Purpose

The ancient city of Ephesus was first excavated in 1863.[8] The partially reconstructed ruins are some of the largest and most visited of all ancient cities. Today the city is located a few miles inland from the Aegean Sea along the west coast of Turkey.

In the first-century, Ephesus was a metropolitan port city with a thriving harbor. Like the city of Corinth, Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia, was filled with temples and theaters. The temple to Artemis, the Greek god of fertility and hunting, was four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens. In Acts 19, Paul’s preaching conflicted with the religious practices that existed in Ephesus.[9]

Many scholars struggle to see any specific Sitz im Leben (setting in life) addressed in Ephesus. In fact, the epistle does not reflect the standard Pauline address directed to saints in a particular location. Ben Witherington writes: “Ephesians is a circular homily included in a document… it does not deal with any particular problems… this document should not be compared to letters, as it really is not one.”[10]

It is likewise acknowledged by other scholars that the epistle is styled much differently from the rest of the Pauline corpus, however, there is not sufficient evidence to remove the writing from the realm of letter (e.g. 4:17-6:9).

What can be known? What is the occasion and purpose for the epistle?

In the letter we learn that Paul is writing from prison (3:1; 4:1). Scholars insist that this places the epistle during the time of his house arrest in Rome toward the end of his life in the early 60’s. This would certainly allow for a theological development—a grand view of the eternal purpose—set forth in the letter.

Paul preached among the Ephesians and remained with them for some time (Acts 19:8, 10; 20:31). His love and affection for them can be seen in his farewell address (Acts 20:17-38). Scholars that doubt Pauline authorship find the letter lacking in emotion and thus affirming their suspicions. However, the argument for a letter lacking in emotion is contestable (1:15-16; 3:14-21).

Overview of Epistle

A simple reading of the epistle reveals that Paul is addressing a predominantly Gentile audience (2:11-22). It could be that the church has grown significantly since Paul’s last visit, for there seems to be some distance between them (3:1-6). His message to his audience is that the “mystery” hidden in Christ has now been disclosed to all saints, to bring all things in the cosmos under the headship of Christ Jesus (1:9-10), and to form one new humanity from Jew and Gentile (2:14-16; 3:5-6). Flowing from the glorious revelation of the “eternal purpose” of God in Christ (3:7-13), comes a “unity of the Spirit” in the building up of believers through the church—the dwelling of God (4:1-16). For the wisdom of God to be made known, the saints are called to live intentionally (i.e. put off/put on) as “children of the light” (4:17-5:21). This life “in Christ” permeates all relationships (5:22-6:9). Therefore, the saints must “stand firm” and be on guard against spiritual evil that works against God’s eternal purpose in Christ (6:10-18).

It has been said that Paul presents a cosmic Christ, a realized eschatology, and an advanced ecclesiology in this magnificent Epistle to the Ephesians.[11] As Paul pours out his divine revelation after years of service as Christ’s bond-slave, listen and be moved to join the triumphant Lord and his bride whom he has seated in the heavenlies.

The following overview of Ephesians may help you to capture the flow of the epistle before or as you read it:

1:1-2 Greetings—salutation to saints in Ephesus

1:3-3:21 God’s Eternal Purpose in Christ

1:3-14   Prayer of praise and thanksgiving—inclusion into promised Holy Spirit and guaranteed inheritance.

1:15-23   Continued prayer of thanksgiving and supplication—full knowledge of the hope and glorious riches in Christ.

2:1-10   God’s mercy and kindness in Christ—created to walk in goodness as a proper response to grace.

2:11-19   Remembrance of exclusion from promise—now included in Christ as a new creation.

2:19-23   New creation is set in motion by Christ, apostles, and prophets; manifested through the dwelling of God together with the saints.

3:1-13   Paul called to Gentiles—mystery of Christ made known through apostles and prophets—Gentiles are included in the mystery and the promise.

3:14-21   Paul’s ecumenical prayer for the experience of Christ’s riches with encouragement to discover love over knowledge (gnosis).

4:1-6:20  Living in Christ

4:1-16   Knowing the eternal purpose calls for living worthy of it—unity in the Spirit—obtain a full knowledge of Christ through the building up of the body—corporately grow up into Christ.

4:17-6:9  Living intentionally in Christ

4:17-5:2   put off former conduct of the flesh—put on Christ.

5:3-14      call to purity—be on guard.

5:15-6:9    live not as unwise, but as the wise—relationships.

6:10-20    Stand firm against spiritual warfare—put on the armor of God.

6:21-24  Final Comments—Tychicus sent to encourage saints

Conclusion–Applying the Text

If you have followed this brief overview of Ephesians, I think you should be able to see the aged apostle Paul used up for Christ in Rome.  The gospel has reached the heart of the empire, and the story that began ages ago has been fulfilled in Jesus.  Paul had previously described an astounding revelation of the cosmic Christ in his Letter to the Colossians.  He was so fond and familiar with his language to those saints—even having hidden it away in his heart—that it spills over into his Epistle to the Ephesians.

As Paul grew older, his vision of Christ matured.  This seasoned revelation is evident in his presentation of the “mystery” of God in Christ, which is the central message to the saints in Ephesus and all those who have believed on the Lord Jesus (Eph. 1:9-12).

The eternal purpose of God in Christ is that through the church God’s glorious grace might be known in all the earth; that all things would be gathered up into Christ.

The lack of historical and cultural issues in this epistle makes application fairly easy.  For the message is transferred to the reader with little to stumble over.

The God who existed before time, placed man in the Garden, traveling through the wilderness to Canaan, and sent the Son up a hill to Calvary, has been vindicated by the resurrection of Jesus.  He has revealed his eternal purpose in Christ.

Out of Adam… God brought forth Eve.  Out of Jesus… he called out a Bride.  The Trinitarian God, who is heavenly community, looks for a dwelling in his children upon the earth.  By the power of his Spirit and the fullness of his grace we are included in his plan.

Are you participating in the eternal purpose of God in Christ?

The overwhelming glory of God invites us to join him in the building of a spiritual house.


[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 1-2.

[2] Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians. Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), lix-lxi.

[3] H.J. Cadbury, “The Dilemma of Ephesians,” NTS 5 (1958-59): 101.

[4] D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 480.

[5] Clinton E. Arnold, “Letter to the Ephesians.” The IVP Dictionary of the New Testament. ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 324.

[6] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2d ed. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 532.

[7] Clinton E. Arnold, “Introducing Ephesians: Establishing Believers In Christ.” SWJT 39, no. 1 (September 1, 1996): 9.

[8] Hoehner, Ephesians, 79.

[9] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 499-500.

[10] Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2007), 217-218.  [Witherington says: “The profound theological and ethical reflections found in Ephesians would have sounded more like  a philosophical oration to Gentile ears.” p. 219]

[11] Charles B. Cousar, The Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 174-175.


Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection, Part III

It has grown increasingly apparent to me that pop-culture Christianity was birthed, and is being maintained, by a steady diet of sloppy hermeneutics and a distorted view of Jesus. It has opened the church up to demonic deceptions and has made her susceptible to the pagan powers seeking to undermine our hope in the finished work of Christ.

Because of this onslaught upon Christian orthodoxy and years of propagating a view of God that more closely resembles Greco-Roman mythology than the Abba of Jesus, it is necessary that we adopt the Berean spirit and be reconciled to an apostolic view of God that looks like Christ and is consistent with the eternal purpose (Eph. 1-3; Col. 1:15-23).

Let’s stop and reconsider what the Scripture teaches concerning heaven, hell, and the resurrection of the dead. For what we believe about the future has a profound effect on how we live in this present evil age.

Heaven: Our Final Home?

“Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” Isaiah 65:17

The creation of a “new heavens and a new earth” is a transformation of the former things. It is a world transfigured like unto the physical body of the Lord Jesus (Matt. 17:1-9). The resurrected body of Christ was of its own kind. There is continuity with the old body and there is discontinuity as well (Lk. 24: 13-35, 36-49; Jn. 20:1-18, 24-31; 21:1-14).

In Rev. 21-22 we do not see believers flying off to a disembodied spiritual existence on the other side of the cosmos. No, we see heaven coming to earth. We see heaven, God’s realm, breaking through and fully consummating with the physical realm we call earth. We can see this in the resurrected body of Christ: heaven intersecting with earth.

We must rid ourselves of this mantra that speaks of going to heaven when we die, as if we will have come to the end of our journey. Heaven is indeed where the Lord is presently, but it is not our final home (Ps. 14:2; 20:6; 33:13; Ecc. 5:2; Is. 66:1; Dan. 2:44; 7:27; Rev. 11:15). The finished work of Christ is not fully realized until God makes his home on this earth.

If anything, heaven is only a temporal dwelling for those awaiting the resurrection of the dead. Jesus said there are “many dwelling places” in his Father’s house (Jn 14:2). The Greek word for “dwelling places” used here, monai, has regularly been used to refer to a temporary stop on an extended journey.

Even when Christ was on the cross, he told the thief on his left that “today” he would be with him in “paradise” (Lk. 23:43). This too doesn’t speak of a final destination, but of a temporal garden of rest. All of the saints, past and present, still await the return of the King and the establishment of heaven on earth (Heb. 11:13-16; Rev. 6:10-11).

God’s desire has always been to complete his good work in the created world upon which every human being has ever lived. For the Jew, there was a firm belief that God would restore creation and fulfill his covenant with his people. The Lord of heaven and earth would finally merge the two into one unified reality.

This resurrected world is called the “New Jerusalem” and the “Holy City” (Rev. 21:2). This newly remade world is our final destination. It is the Kingdom of God fully realized. In Revelation 21:5, Christ says:

“Behold, I am making all things new!”

And it is Christ that has the authority to say such things, for he was the first to be resurrected and be clothed with the imperishable.

Our hope is in a future resurrected existence in the “new heavens and earth.” It is on this earth that Jesus prayed, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). Heaven is indeed coming to earth. Jesus has called for its renewal and resurrection!

“Heaven, in the Bible, is not a future destiny but the other, hidden, dimension of our ordinary life—God’s dimension, if you like. God made heaven and earth; at the last he will remake both and join them together forever.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, 19

NOTE: The original section Hell: Eternal Torture? was removed and expanded into a single article.

Resurrection Future

“I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable… for the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality.Paul, 1 Cor. 15:50, 53

Some folks would have you believe that the resurrection has already taken place in the spiritual sense and there is therefore no need for a physical resurrection of our bodies. This view highlights the work of the cross but overlooks the importance and power of a physical resurrection in order to maintain its toxic eschatology.

We can’t afford to ignore the earliest Jewish meaning of the word resurrection. Resurrection always refers to a new bodily existence. Paul’s emphasis on Christ’s bodily resurrection in 1 Cor. 15:12-58 is to assure the saints that we too shall receive the same.

It should be equally accepted as his purpose for addressing those believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-18). The believers there were dealing with the deaths of loved ones around them. They had “fallen asleep” before the coming of Christ.

Concerning the Christian hope at death, Stanley Grenz writes:

“As Christians, however, our hope does not focus on any conception of life after death. On the contrary, our hope is directed toward the promise of resurrection. Therefore, anything we say about the status of the dead must arise out of our hope for resurrection.” Created for Community, p.271

It is by Christ’s death on the cross that we died. But it is through Christ’s resurrection that we may live. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Paul continues, “If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Rom. 6:4-5).

Without the physical resurrection of our bodies, we may not enter into the fullness of the new creation. When heaven comes to earth and “the dwelling of God is with men,” we shall receive a body that is clothed imperishable and raised in immortality; a resurrected body for a resurrected world.

It is in the physical resurrection of the dead and the judgment that the “last enemy” is destroyed (1 Cor. 15:26). Death shall be no more!

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus, John 11:25-26

Resurrection Now

Does the resurrection of Christ on the third day have any effect on us in the present? Paul believed we could know the power of Christ’s resurrection even now.

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Paul, Philippians 3:10-11

Paul wrote, “outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). How is it that resurrection has already begun in an inward way? It has happened by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. As N.T. Wright has written, it is in the resurrection of Christ that the world is already now “being born with Jesus” (SH, 73).

Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life…” and receiving his indwelling Spirit is receiving resurrection life (Jn. 12:24; 14:15-31; 16:5-16; Acts 1:8). The Kingdom of God has broken through into the old order of things and has already begun the work of resurrection in the here and now. It is doing a work within the hearts of men.

“The Kingdom of God belongs to the future, and yet the blessings of the Kingdom of God have entered into the present Age to deliver men from bondage to Satan and sin. Eternal life belongs to the Kingdom of God, to The Age to Come; but it, too, has entered into the present evil Age that men may experience eternal life in the midst of death and decay. We may enter into this experience of life by the new birth, by being born again.” George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 71

We are able to stand firm and give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord because of our hope that soon Christ’s victory over death will become a reality for all of creation (1 Cor. 15:54-58). Resurrection is now working in the spiritual order of things.

The Kingdom of God is already here now and it is yet to come (Matt. 12:28; Mk. 1:15). It is working behind the scenes to destroy the sovereignty of Satan and is restoring the creation in every act of Christian love.

The Kingdom of God is breaking though into this present evil age because of Christ’s resurrection and it is testifying of the age to come when God will bring heaven to earth. The two-stage coming of the Kingdom should not be overlooked any longer (Lk. 19:11). The Lord is advancing his Kingdom even as I write this article. Heaven is invading earth in a covert operation of love.

How is the resurrection impacting our world today? What does the Kingdom look like in action? I believe Gregory Boyd very simply describes its nature and power.

He says, the Kingdom of God “always looks like Jesus—loving, serving, and sacrificing himself for all people, including his enemies. To the extent that an individual, church, or movement looks like that, it manifests the Kingdom of God. To the extent that it doesn’t look like that, it doesn’t.” The Myth of a Christian Religion, p. 14

If we are not willing to bleed like Jesus, we shall not know the power of his resurrection life. There is always a cross before there is a burst of light coming from the empty tomb. We must return to Christ and the foolishness of his cross if we wish to exhibit resurrection. For his Kingdom is not a matter of talk, but of power (1 Cor. 4:20).

This power does not come through utilizing the power-over structures of man to baptize the culture into the Christian religion. It is a spiritual authority that is earned by sharing the suffering of mankind. It happens when we see our neighbors as objects of God’s love instead of souls to conquer for our work-centered faith.

Resurrection happens in the here and now when the church is reflecting life as it will be in the new heavens and earth.

And that life always looks like Jesus Christ of Nazareth.

“For, as I have often told you before and now say again with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians3:1821

Suggested Reading:

The Bible & the Future by Anthony Hoekema Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation by Bruce Metzger Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living by S. Grenz The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology: Toward a Christ-Centered Approach by Adrio Koenig An Evening in Ephesus: A Dramatic Commentary on Revelation by Bob Emery Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd IMMORTALITY OF THE SOUL OR RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD? by Oscar Cullmann The Myth of a Christian Religion: Losing Your Religion for the Beauty of a Revolution by Gregory Boyd Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church by N.T. Wright Dispensationalism: An Inquiry Into Its Leading Figures & Features by Jon Zens


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