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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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Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, Part I

With Palm Sunday behind us, we will now take the next few days to remember the Passion Week of Christ—soon to celebrate the death of Christ by Roman crucifixion.

Let’s be honest, it’s a rather odd thing to celebrate someone’s death, especially when it was such a brutal and barbaric execution. Have you seen Passion of the Christ (2004)?

Some skeptics today, certain that Christians are a few fries short of a happy meal, have written us off as sick delusional people. No doubt, it’s an old charge. We only need to remember how strange it appeared 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.”

But for us 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’s a beautiful death because it’s 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.

But we need to remember that the death of Jesus holds no power if he stays dead. That’s 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 ten years. There are excellent presentations that have been published that I could recommend—much of it is very readable, even to the man on the street (no worries, suggested reading list sure to come).

But I think we all know that a good number of folks won’t take the time to read them. So, I’ll bring out what I believe to be some of the strongest points in defense of the historical resurrection of Jesus. I will do this by discussing three primary reasons that have convinced me of the resurrection, while discussing many other interesting points along the way.

I. Reliability of the New Testament, Eyewitness Testimony & Multiple Attestation

All four of the Gospels record the death and resurrection of Jesus (Matt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20). If you engage folks today about anything pertaining to the Christian faith, and you appeal to the authority of Scripture, you may discover that the inspiration and trustworthiness of the Bible is no longer a given anymore. There was a time not long ago that many assumed what is written in the Bible is accurate and reliable. Those days are gone.

Truthfully, the reliability of the Bible has been heavily attacked since the Enlightenment. It would appear that even those of us in the Bible-belt are now beginning to feel the affects. I think our response should be to step up to the plate and be willing swing for the fences with a reason for the hope that we have (1 Pet 3:15). We can no longer afford to settle for the old clichés, church programs, and “momma said” or “my pastor said” or some other spiritual platitude.

The place to begin is by taking a look at the evidence for ourselves. While a case could be built for the death and resurrection of Jesus apart from the New Testament sources, I’m not so willing to give up on the reliability of the NT, and the Gospels as historical ancient biographies of Jesus.

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” (Wallace, 28). 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! We have more evidence for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus than Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great.

What about all those discrepancies you say? Well, there are certainly textual variants in the many manuscripts we have, but don’t let Bart Ehrman convert you to agnosticism just yet. 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” (Bruce, 14-15). That’s enough to make Greek scholar Bruce Metzger come back to life and smack his old student (Ehrman) around a bit.

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 truly happened in the first half of the century simply can’t be denied if any historian is consistent with their treatment of historical texts.

Luke said it happened the way he reports it, and we have no historical reasons why we should doubt his account is an accurate retelling of the events, or any of the other Gospel writers for that matter, since they are sharing much of the same material.

Now, there will be some who will reject the “supernatural” occurrences within the Gospels. Thomas Jefferson did this in his “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” where all miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection, were cut out of the Gospels because they didn’t fit his eighteenth century naturalist perspective on the way things are in the world—a world where men can’t walk on water, blind people can’t be made to see, and dead men stay in the grave.

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’s hard to determine who the “historical Jesus” really is after all.

It will not come as a surprise to you that I’m not so quick to dismiss the miraculous as human inventions by lunatic disciples wanting to start their own religion on a failed Messiah. I think we must welcome in the mysterious possibilities and phenomenon of miracles into our decision-making. More on that coming up in my third reason for believing in the resurrection of Jesus.

In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, 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.”

James D.G. Dunn has written that we can be “entirely confident” that this tradition was formulated within months of Jesus’ death. So, with the early dating of the Gospels being within approximately 30 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 they had a difficult time finding the words to express), I would say that’s good reason to believe that something out of the ordinary happened.

I believe it happened just as it is written.

D.D. Flowers, 2012.

Now Read: Why I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, Part II.
Empty Tomb, Resurrection Appearances, & Growth of the Early Church


Hell: Eternal Torture?

“For the wages of sin is death…” Paul, Romans 6:23

Why have I decided to tackle the highly controversial issue of eternal punishment? Well, I feel I have too many friends. Not really, I truly like the friends I have. Honestly, I must say it’s because that’s where I feel the Lord has led me in my pursuit of the centrality and supremacy of Christ.

As a student of the Scriptures and as a lover of Jesus, I must share what I have come to believe is closer to the biblical teaching concerning the end of the wicked. It’s a reflection of where I stand at this moment in my journey with the Lord.

So why broadcast it? I will let my recent acquaintance and new friend answer for me.

“Few people want to study the subject any more.  The liberals do not believe in such things, and the conservatives are satisfied that they already have the answers.” Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes p.20

I believe in eternal punishment, but I’m not satisfied with the traditional view of never-ending torture or with those that would soon do away with all verses that speak of a horrible destruction of the unregenerate sinner; those that say, “What’s all the fuss about worms, darkness, and death? God’s love would not allow for such a thing. It’ll be alright in the end.”

Let me begin by very directly stating my intent with this article. I desire to shake you up a bit. If you’re not ready for that… please stop reading now. If you’re up for the challenge and a respectful dialogue, I hope that this article will cause you to run into the arms of Christ and into the Holy Scriptures that testify to God’s truth.

I am but a man and I can err. And so can you. We must look to the counsel of Scripture in pursuit of the Living Word.

This post is for the purpose of stirring the pot a little. It originally began as a section in Part III of Heaven to Earth: The Christian Hope in the Resurrection. I felt it needed to be expanded into a single article because it was distracting readers from the primary purpose set forth in the Heaven to Earth series.

With that said, it would be best if you read that 3-part series before reading this article. If you’re looking for more than what is offered in this article, I strongly recommend that you check out some of the books mentioned along the way and those listed in the Suggested Reading below.

Now… stop and pray… grab a modern translation of the Bible and a concordance… sit down and strap in. As Short Round said in Indiana Jones: The Temple of Doom, “Hold on lady… we’re going for a ride.”

Might We Be Missing Something?

The more I am coming to know God in Jesus Christ of Nazareth, the less I am able to find the traditional idea of eternal torture in “hell” as being reflective of God’s character and consistent with the biblical teaching on eternal punishment.

“When we say something about heaven or hell we are also saying something specifically about God.” Randy Klassen, What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell? p. 28

Let’s quit fooling ourselves by pretending that what we believe about heaven and hell doesn’t communicate something about God and the way we relate to Him and the world around us. A person can’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter. Who can really know? It has no bearing on me for I am saved.” I submit to you that it does matter. Your salvation is bound up in the person of Christ who is God incarnate. Who is this God you serve?

In my personal study, I will at times come upon inconsistencies. I know that I’m not the only one that has known these moments of crisis. However, I do know that not everyone bothers with taking the time to address those concerns with patience and honest endurance. It usually becomes about defending a preconceived idea that we believe is biblical, deferring to our favorite Bible teacher, or ignoring the matter altogether.

“we protect ourselves either by saying that not all of us can be theologians or we take comfort in the fact that ‘this is the way we have been taught!’  We may respond by drawing our doctrinal coat about us even tighter… or we may examine the Scripture again…” Gerald Studer, After Death, What? p. 111

So, I am merely setting forth a challenge. If you believe that we have missed something, or that something is out of place and is inconsistent with your present beliefs, then come along with me in the spirit of the Bereans. And realize that you’re a theologian whether you like it or not. The question is… “Will you be a responsible one?”

Where the Tradition Began

The traditional view of hell was born in the second century AD and it later became a concrete idea in the Middle Ages after being perpetuated by Augustine (c. 354-430). It was Augustine’s views that largely shaped Western Christianity.

Tertullian (c. 160-230) believed that hell was a “secret fire under the earth” where torment was everlasting.  Catholic theologian, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), taught that believers would be able to watch the eternal damnation of souls in hell from their lofty place of comfort in heaven. And of course it was Dante’s Inferno in his Divine Comedy that gave us a vivid close-up of the torments of this medieval hell.

And like the famous Jonathan Edwards sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, we revel on with the preposterous idea that God is moody and hell-bent on having his enemies over for a barbecue. Edwards’ notorious speech is more reflective of a vivid imagination than it is of sound biblical exposition.

These ideas, along with a whole host of pagan beliefs on hell, have penetrated the church and continues to permeate the culture today. Still today books are written by folks who have “been to hell and back” and have lived to scare the hell out of you too! It is a message of fear intended to produce converts.

It’s no wonder that many are presently emerging to see the pendulum swing in the opposite direction on the doctrine of hell.

Anyone carefully reading the book of Acts can’t help but notice the absence of “hell” in the preaching of the apostles. There isn’t even a promise of heaven to convince others to “walk the isle” and receive Christ.

The apostles did however speak about the resurrection of Jesus and the people saving themselves from “this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40). They did proclaim a coming judgment foretold by Christ and the Old Testament prophets.

Before we look at those Scriptures, let’s take a minute to reflect on the words of the one who is largely responsible for a slew of misguided teaching and practice within our faith.

“Do not follow my writings as Holy Scripture. When you find in Holy Scripture anything you did not believe before, believe it without doubt; but in my writings, you should hold nothing for certain.” St. Augustine, Preface to the Treatise on the Trinity

Let’s heed the words of Augustine and go to the Scriptures themselves.

Let Scripture Interpret Scripture

The Hebrew Scriptures were the Bible in Jesus’ day. What does the Old Testament say about death and eternal punishment?  Let’s take a brief look. Whatever is being said by Jesus in the New Testament must be born out of the language and the context of the Old Testament Scriptures.

In the Old Testament there are sixty-five references to Sheol. The KJV inappropriately translates Sheol as “hell” numerous times. A balanced reading of the Scripture will prove Sheol to only be a reference to death and the grave. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Ps. 139:8). Those who trust in the LORD have reason to hope in His unfailing love (Ps. 34: 8-22).

The poet clearly wasn’t envisioning Sheol as a place of eternal (never-ending) torment. We do see that all men go to Sheol. But only those God raises up on the last day will live on in the Lord. Job expressed this hope when he said, “If a man dies, will he live again? I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer You. You will long for the creature Your hands have made” (Job 14:14,15).

David writes, “The Lord watches over all who love Him, but all the wicked He will destroy” (Ps. 145:20). The poet writes, “On the wicked He will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot” (Ps. 11:6).

This harkens us back to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Gen. 19. God destroyed the wicked and Abraham could see nothing else but “smoke rising from the land” (v. 28).  The smoke signifies that everything was destroyed and the wicked were no more.

In the Old Testament, those who have not trusted in the LORD will “wither like the grass” and will be “cut off” to “perish” and “be destroyed” (Ps. 37:1-40). The poets remind us in powerful language that there will come a day when the wicked will meet a horrible end.

We must carry over the meaning of the Old Testament images into Christ’s words and the whole of New Testament teaching on eternal punishment.

Immortality of the Soul?

In Genesis 1-2, God creates man in His image. In chapter 3 man sins and is put out from the Tree of Life. Man begins a descent from God’s image and the LORD sets in motion His eternal purpose; God wants man to live in community and bear His image!  God makes a way that leads back to the Tree of Life. His way is Christ.

I don’t see Jesus as plan B (1 Pet. 1:20). The Lord must have anticipated the Fall as it set up a greater revelation. It’s all part of His grand story. God wants to bring His realm “heaven” to our realm “earth.”

We see this very thing in the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrected body is the consummation of heaven and earth. And the Lord said He would return to establish a new heaven and earth right here where we live—where God’s reign in His creation is made complete.

We must understand that the biblical composite of man is spirit, soul, and body (1 Thess. 5:23). It’s always been God’s intent to redeem the whole man. There is no life apart from the body and God’s resurrection. It’s the heart of Paul’s message to the Athenian philosophers (Acts 17: 16-34).

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), the second-century Christian apologist, understood this and he opposed the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul. He viewed the Platonic idea as a direct challenge to the resurrection.

“For a Christian one simple sentence of revelation must in the end outweigh the weightiest conclusions of man-made philosophy.” John Wenham, The Goodness of God, p. 29

Greek wisdom taught that the soul is immortal. (I addressed this in the Heaven to Earth series. Reading that series is strongly suggested. Did I mention that already?) This is the one leg that the traditional view has stood on for 1500 years. As Greek-thinkers came to be Christian theologians and apologists, the popular idea of the soul’s immortality crept into Christian teaching.

“our traditional thinking about the ‘never-dying soul,’ which owes so much to our Graeco-Roman heritage, makes it difficult for us to appreciate Paul’s point of view.” F.F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 311

Christian teaching is quite clear that only God has life immortal (1 Tim. 6:13-16). Any human being that is not receiving the life of God, taking from the Tree of Life (i.e. Jesus), is most certainly headed toward death and destruction.

God placed Adam in the Garden and laid before him two paths: life and death. Life is given only to those who enter into the Kingdom now and take from the Tree of Life (Matt. 7:13-14; Jn. 3:16; Rev. 2:7).

Even the Didache, a mid second century text for training Christian converts, presents the entire Christian life in this manner: “There are two ways: one of life and one of death!” This early text of recitation very simply describes the way of life and the way of death.

This is in keeping with Paul’s own language in his theological work to the Romans (5-6). Paul writes, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23).

Let’s be clear about this. The immortality of the soul is not found in the Bible. And without the immortality of the soul, the literal interpretation of the metaphors used to describe “hell” falls apart before our very eyes.

Rethinking the Words and Metaphors

The Pharisees believed in a literal hell where folks would be tormented day and night without a real death. However, Jesus painted a picture of a judgment for the unbeliever, like the poets of the Old Testament, that should in no way be interpreted literally. Let’s take a closer look at the words and metaphors that are often used to support eternal torture.

The word Gehenna is translated as “hell” in the Gospels. Gehenna was the name of the Valley of Hinnom, the garbage dump outside the southwest walls of Jerusalem. It was also once the site of child sacrifice to Moloch in the days of Ahaz and Manasseh.

This dump was continually burning. Everything from trash to dead bodies were disposed of there. The trash was consumed but the fire continued to burn as the smoke rose forever without end.

Jesus references Gehenna on numerous occasions to speak symbolically of the judgment of God (Matt. 5:22,29,30; 10:28; 18:9, 23:15,33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5; 16: 23). Jesus’ metaphors would have undoubtedly spoken of a horrible judgment for those who did not accept God’s salvation.

But it would indeed be foolish to hear Jesus describing a literal hell where there are worms, fire, and darkness all at the same time (Mk. 9:48). Worms and fire speak of a complete and total destruction. Darkness is the absence of God.

It’s worth noting that Jesus uses “Gehenna” when speaking to the Pharisees, but he uses “Hades” when speaking to Gentiles. The Gentiles would have been familiar with this term. Hades was known as the Greek god of the underworld; the place of the dead. Jesus says to those that reject him, “you will be brought down to Hades” (i.e. grave, land of the dead). He even uses Hades in his parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31).

Notice that the point of the parable is to show the finality of the matter, not describe for the listeners a literal description of hell (v. 26, 31). In listening to a joke, it is important that you get the punch-line of that joke and not be distracted by the details. It is the same in this parable told by Jesus. He is telling us that a person can reach a point that is beyond the life sustaining power of God.

In this sense, we find that a proper understanding of the adjective aionios (i.e. “eternal”).  Eternal judgment does not speak of duration, but of consequence or result (Heb. 5:9). The judgment is final—it is done.  The Scripture also declares an “eternal redemption” and an “eternal salvation” that we would never take to mean that God will forever be saving and redeeming us.  In the same way, “eternal” describes the far-reaching consequence of this judgment.

The “eternal” nature of the matter is not that these things will be happening forever (never-ending), but that the results will never end. The results are “eternal” because they proceed and are final in the Age to Come. So when the Scripture speaks of eternal punishment, judgment, and destruction, it means to say that there is no end to the result. It can’t be reversed, as its results are final.

If we take Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 literally, should we then assume that we too shall see our loved ones roasting eternally and crying out for mercy? “Sorry, Charlie! Uh, I guess I should have witnessed to you more?”

This even causes a problem for those who are our enemies. For our love for them will be perfected upon resurrection. There is plenty of reason that we should steer clear of this Inferno of imaginative lies.

After all, if God is “all in all” in the newly remade world, how is it that there will exist a place of never-ending damnation (1 Cor. 15:28)? Will God be known for His mercy or His wrath? We shouldn’t interpret descriptions of hell in a staunch flat-footed literalism anymore than those words of John concerning the New Jerusalem coming out of heaven to earth (Rev. 21).

Well, then what did John mean when he said that “outside” the city walls of the New Jerusalem are “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22: 15)? In keeping with the literary style of the book, we understand this powerful image to speak of something much worse.

Like the valley of Gehenna outside the walls of earthly Jerusalem, John saw the eternal destruction of the wicked in the Age to Come. They shall never enter through her gates because they are destroyed. But “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and may go through the gates into the city” (Rev. 22:14).

The Final Judgment

Without the life-sustaining power of God in Christ, having not accepted Jesus as the sacrifice for sins, a person faces the judgment alone with no resurrected life to carry them through to the new heavens and earth. A person is resurrected in the old body only then to be judged according to his deeds (Jn. 5:28-29; Acts 24:15; Dan. 12:2).

The wicked then experience the “second death” (Rev. 20:12-15).

James D.G. Dunn calls this “the final destruction of the corruptible” (The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 125.) It is in the fire that the chaff is consumed and is no more (Matt. 3:12). The fire is “unquenchable” because it can’t be put out!  The fire consumes what is thrown in it. Then there is a real “second” death.

But don’t suppose I am proposing a simple annihilation. I believe there is a real punishment according to one’s deeds.

What is it to be judged according to a person’s deeds (Matt. 16:27; Rev. 20:12.13; 22:12)? What exactly causes a person to suffer in punishment? Is God tormenting them? Is the Lord causing nightmarish pain by afflicting them with hellish horrors?  Here is where I believe Tom Wright offers great insight into this discussion.

In his book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, Wright proposes that the wicked are punished through a “dehumanizing” process. What does it mean to be human? It means we bear the divine image of God. Christ is the image of God and the image by which God seeks to conform all of humanity.

Therefore, hell is what happens when people say “No!” to the creator God in whose image they have been made.  Those who reject God’s image enter into His judgment. They experience God as wrath. The righteous have been judged in Christ as He has incurred the wrath of God upon the cross (Eph. 2:14-16).

“But judgment is necessary—unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.” N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, p. 179.

Judgment is necessary in the sight of our Holy God. And judgment “according to deeds” may just be the factor that determines the degree and duration of eternal punishment.

The Dark Side of God’s Love

Stanley Grenz calls God’s wrath the “dark side” of God’s love. We must refuse to believe that God has a “wrath switch” that He flips on when He momentarily decides not to be love. For we know that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:16).  It’s not a guise that He puts on to woo us to Himself. Love is His very nature. We must accept that God’s wrath is found in God’s holy love. His wrath is known and experienced as a result of rebellion and in rejection to His image.

It’s the “dark side” of God’s love.

Therefore, it is consistent in seeing that eternal punishment comes in accordance to a person’s deeds as the Lord withdraws His life from the unregenerate. God’s nature is love and in that love is wrath. A parent doesn’t cease to love a child in punishment, the child simply experiences this love as wrath. It is a real thing, but not something outside of love. This punishment is indeed loving because it has a goal.

What then is the goal of eternal punishment?

Jan Bonda says, “Nowhere in Scripture do we find a statement that tells us that God wants those who are punished to suffer without end—this is not the purpose for which God created humans” (The One Purpose of God, p. 212). What sort of God endlessly tortures unbelievers for the sake of punishment alone? Even in this punishment we must reconcile our view to the God we have come to know in Jesus Christ.

At this point, many universalists are likely sitting on the edge of their seat anticipating the next few words. This is at the point they wish to say, “Yes, God’s goal is to restore them to Himself.” And I would agree. His goal is the same as it is for us believers who are purged by fire and being fitted for the new heavens and earth (Lk. 8:17). Yet, that intended goal has been eternally thwarted by the choice of the wicked on earth.

The righteous enters death in hope of the resurrection because they have been indwelled with the resurrected Christ (Jn. 11:25; Eph. 1:13). The Lord burns away all that isn’t reflective of Him. He sifts us down to Christ.

The wicked enter the grave without having experienced this spiritual resurrection in Christ. They rejected God’s image on earth. Their purging can only end in death. Like Adam, their eyes are fully opened. They see that man has no life within himself; only guilt and shame in the face of God.

How then can the wicked experience the future resurrection of the body that suits us for God’s resurrected world? Can a person turn from their wickedness in eternal punishment and be reconciled to God? Not if we accept “eternal” as the consequences and results of a person’s present decisions reaching over into the next age.

The Scripture simply does not allow for any teaching that gives man a choice after this life. Christ comes to those who await His coming (Heb. 9:27,28). Any teaching that promotes the idea that “everyone will make it in the end” can only come from isolating certain Scriptures and from building on obscure words and passages. This is always a recipe for error. Many denominations and cults have made a living at it.

This life really does matter and something happens upon death that seals that decision for eternity. God gave us choice in the beginning and He never removes it from us. What is “choice” if we have but only one real option to forcefully accept God’s image?

Why is it that the wicked are described as “gnashing their teeth” in punishment? They do not “gnash” out of pain, but out of hatred and anger! These are not repentant people. They are people who have rejected God’s image and God has given them over to their decision not to bear His image.

All the while God is pouring out His love, proving Himself to be good, the wicked gnash their teeth in human rebellion against God. Because of their own wicked hearts, they experience God as wrath.

It was not the Lord’s desire that anyone ever perish (Ez. 33:11). It’s also not His desire to choose life for us. He has placed us before two paths: the way of life and of death. And through the incarnation He has broke into human history to show us His great love and make a way for abundant life (Jn. 10:10). All are invited to the great banquet, but not all RSVP (Matt. 22:8,9).

Jesus said, “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. Do you believe this?”  (John 11:25)

Concluding Remarks

Is it not more consistent with the Lord’s character that those who reject the divine image would cease to bear it after having experienced God’s justice once and for all? What could be more dreadful than to experience a gradual shrinking of human life, life created in God’s image, until that soul can no longer be supported by God’s life any longer?

If we accept the “eternal life” Christ promised in John 3:16 to those who believe, should we not also accept His words that the wicked will “perish” (i.e. be destroyed in death) upon disbelief (Lk. 13:3-5)? God’s mercy is evident in allowing the person that rejects the divine image to fade from existence into death, not in sustaining their life for never-ending torturous suffering.

As we have seen, there is nothing biblical about it; certainly nothing that is in keeping with the Gospel message. After death and the wicked are destroyed, then God may be “all in all” as all things are restored and reconciled to Him (Col. 1:20). It is the only way in which I see that we can take serious the urgent call to presently follow the Lord in all things and heed His words to “repent or perish” (Lk. 13:3,5).

In this way, His justice is served, his mercy extended, and his love triumphs over evil.

The Word is true: “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8)! And that love has the final say; the cross overcomes; evil is no more; the final victory won!

“For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

If we were to stop and rethink all that we have been told about the traditional hell, I believe we would find that God’s character does not allow for such a place (1 Ch. 21:13; 2 Ch. 20:21; Neh. 9:31; Ps. 30:5; 103:9; 145:8; Is. 54:8; Ez. 33:11; Hos. 6:6; Mic. 7:18; Matt. 5:38-48; Jn. 3:16-21; 13:34-35; 1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:22-23; Eph. 1:4-5; 1 Pet. 3:8; 1 John).

It is not the Scriptures or Christ that has given us the traditional view of hell. Instead, if we look to Christ, we see a God that is reconciling the world to Himself and remaking the world in love. He has chosen to do this work through His church. And the gates of Hades (death) shall not overcome it (Matt. 16:18).

After the great war of the Lamb and the wicked are no more, John writes:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Rev. 21:1-5


D.D. Flowers, 2010.

Suggested Reading:

“The Bible and 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 Stanley Grenz; “The Eclipse of Christ in Eschatology” by Adrio Koenig; “An Evening in Ephesus: A Dramatic Commentary on Revelation” by  Bob Emery; “What Does the Bible Really Say About Hell?” by Randy Klassen; “Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God” by George Ladd; “Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead?” by Oscar Cullmann; “Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the  Mission of the Church” by N.T. Wright; “The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the  Doctrine of Final Punishment” by Edward Fudge; “Two Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue” by Edward  Fudge & Robert Peterson; “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” by Rob Bell


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