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Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

The Origin of the Christian Movement

Even the most skeptical of scholars admit to the existence of the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. That is, the Christian movement began based on the belief in a resurrected Jesus. Something must have happened to create this belief. Where did this belief come from? There must be an adequate cause!

The disciples' Jewish background was not adequate to explain their belief in a resurrected Jesus. In Jewish thinking the resurrection would take place at the end of the world, and would be a general resurrection of all people, all the righteous, or all Israel.15 Nowhere in Jewish thinking was there the concept of a resurrection of one individual in the middle of history. Examples of people coming back to life in the Old Testament and Lazarus in the New Testament are examples of resuscitations, not resurrections. These people were revived only to die again. Jesus' resurrection was to a new immortal, imperishable, glorious existence, never to die again.

Pagan Sources?

In the first half of the 20th century it was common for scholars to suggest that the disciples borrowed the concept of Jesus' resurrection from pagan sources. It cannot be emphasized too strongly that experts no longer consider this position tenable. The alleged parallels are spurious. Any similarities are far outweighed by the differences. The legends are not about historical personages, they are just symbols for the seasons. There is no text prior to the late second century of a mythical deity who rose from the dead.

Moreover, there is no causal link between the pagan myths and the Jews. There was very little influence from the pagan religions in first-century Palestine. Jewish and early Christian thought was exclusive. Unlike most of the other religions of the time, they were not open to incorporating the ideas of other religions into their own. Therefore, the lines of influence are more likely to have run the other way. That is, it is much more likely that the 2nd and 3rd century pagan religions borrowed from Christianity than Christianity borrowed the resurrection from pagan religions. Historian Michael Grant summarizes the scholarly opinion, "Judaism was a milieu to which doctrines of the deaths and rebirths, of mythical gods seemed so entirely foreign that the emergence of such a fabrication from its midst is very hard to credit."16

Transformation

The disciples were devastated and defeated after the resurrection. They thought that their glorious three years with Jesus had come to a bitter and final end. But something changed them from being frightened and discouraged to being bold, courageous and outspoken. Peter, who denied he even knew Jesus, stood up a few weeks later in downtown Jerusalem proclaiming Jesus was Lord and had risen from the grave. There must be a sufficient explanation for the dramatic changes in these people's lives. History records repeatedly how strife and division among followers usually follow the demise of a great leader. But with the disciples, we see them come together in a unity of spirit and purpose for which it is hard to find a parallel anywhere in history.17

And it was not just followers, but skeptics and enemies who were transformed! James, and Jesus' other brothers, did not believe Jesus was Lord during his lifetime.18 What would it take to cause you to believe your brother was the Lord God? They later believed. And James not only believed,19 but became the leader of the Jerusalem Christian movement and even died a martyr's death in AD 62.

Saul of Tarsus was the chief prosecutor of the early Christians. He hated the Christian "heresy" even to the point of killing in order to stop it. But something happened that changed him from Saul, the number one persecutor, to Paul, the number one propagator of Christianity. He was totally transformed. He gave up the prestige and comforts of being a respected rabbi and took on the life of a travelling missionary who experienced incredible suffering.20 Something incredible must have happened to change this man.

There must have been a sufficient cause to explain both the origin of this belief in the resurrection and the amazing transformation of frightened followers, skeptics and enemies. There seems to be no plausible explanation that fits the facts apart from the explanation that the earliest Christians have given, that Jesus physically rose from the grave and appeared to these people. These events are inexplicable apart from the resurrection. Thus, the faith of the early Christians did not make up the events; rather the events of Easter produced the faith of the early Christians.

Contradictions?

Many people reject the resurrection of Jesus because they think the gospel accounts of the resurrection are hopelessly contradictory. But the minor differences in the accounts establish their independence, that the information in the different gospels is from different sources, which shows there was no collusion among the writers to produce a carefully scripted hoax. This is a more reasonable hypothesis than the view that the writers borrowed from each other and were so stupid, that they botched all the points they borrowed. And the more sources an historian has that say essentially the same thing, the greater the probability of their veracity. As many scholars have pointed out, "The confusion between the different accounts in the gospels does not appear to have been contrived. The conflict of testimony is more a mark of the sincerity of those from whom the testimony was derived than a mark against their veracity.21

Moreover, differences in details do not necessarily discredit an entire account. No historian suggests that just because there are differences in the eyewitness accounts of John F. Kennedy's shooting, that therefore, JFK wasn't assassinated. The differences in the resurrection accounts are minor and are to be expected since each account is based on different witnesses' reports, is written by a different author, with slightly different themes and emphases, and to different audiences. Witnesses don't usually report the details of an event exactly the same. In fact it is when they do that lawyers get suspicious. What is really remarkable is that they are so similar. The gospels are not intended to be exhaustive accounts of Jesus' life. They are summaries. Only if you presuppose that they are exhaustive can you get contradictions in the resurrection accounts.

Furthermore, many people overlook or are unaware of the work done by the British scholar John Wenham which, by paying careful attention to detail and clues in the accounts, has provided an extremely reasonable and plausible account that harmonizes the superficial differences.23 The gospel accounts are shown to be complementary not contradictory.

Conclusion

The evidence shows that the tomb was indeed found empty, and that Jesus physically appeared to different people on numerous occasions in a variety of places after his death. Furthermore the very origin of the Christian faith and the transformation of followers, skeptics and enemies is inexplicable apart from a resurrection. There is no plausible natural explanation for any one of these three independently established points, let alone all three. Together, they point powerfully to the same unavoidable conclusion: that Jesus did rise physically and bodily from the dead. If one denies this conclusion he is rationally obligated to provide a more plausible explanation that fits the facts. A rational person can hardly be blamed for believing in the resurrection.

Significance

What is the significance of Jesus of Nazareth rising from the dead? As we noted at the outset, it provides substantiation for Jesus' divine self-conception. As Wolfhart Pannenberg explains, "The resurrection can only be understood as the divine vindication of the man whom the Jews had rejected as a blasphemer."24

But more than that, the resurrection offers hope. Jesus holds the key that unlocks the door to eternal life. He 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."25 This points to the incontrovertible evidence for the resurrection that is available to every honest seeker, that is a personal experience of the risen Christ, and if you haven't already come to know him personally, may I encourage you to do so.

Revised October 2003; © Campus Crusade for Christ, Canada

Notes

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