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