We continue this month with several more arguments that substantiate the resurrection accounts. Remember, in our era we confront the tertiary task of belief: can we trust the documents? We look at the New Testament writings that refer to the resurrection of Jesus, and we ask: do these writings record actual history, or are they better accounted for as myth, fabrication, allegory, or wishful thinking?
The lines of evidence given briefly below do not carry equal apologetic weight. Cumulatively, and in addition to the major arguments given in the two previous articles, they provide a massive case for the literal resurrection.
The numbering continues from last month.
6. Nature of the Gospel Accounts
That the gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus exist is, of course, beyond question. It is because they do exist that we have the problem of dealing with their veracity. It is also beyond question that they have existed since the first century, making the report of the resurrection nearly as old as the event itself. Therefore, if the event did not literally occur, how do we best explain the existence of the narratives? If, in fact, Jesus did not rise from the dead, what caused the writing of four separate accounts, plus numerous other attestations throughout the New Testament?
If the accounts are indeed not actual history, then they could be allegory, fabrication, or fantasy. Let’s consider these serially. Did the authors write allegorically, knowing that Jesus was really dead? Had they found a religious message anyway, and “coded” it in a resurrection account? The allegory option must be discarded in light of the fact that the resurrection accounts follow the narrative of the trial and crucifixion, which are historical fact. To hypothesize that the “literal” story ends with the burial of Jesus and then the “allegory” starts would be in itself a groundless fabrication. Further, passages such as 1 Corinthians 15 plainly treat the resurrection as literal event. Paul uses allegorical themes from nature to support the literality of the resurrection.
Secondly, we must consider if the writers knowingly fabricated a resurrection story in order to justify the Christian movement. Fabrication means that the gospel authors knowingly, for the purpose of deception, recorded narratives that in fact did not occur. This is a strong claim, and differs greatly from the assertion that the gospel writers wrote in good faith, but mistakenly or allegorically. I doubt if any serious critic would advance this argument. The moral teaching of the gospels tells us that it would be extremely unlikely to account for the writers as fabricators. We can also rule out the notion that the disciples had a vested interest in having the resurrection accepted as true. As I wrote in last month’s article, the disciples were probably the last people inJerusalemto even think that there would be a resurrection to prove. It wasn’t in their thinking at all.
The third option is that perhaps they wrote what they thought was true, based on hallucinatory visions of a risen Jesus. One theory has the disciples suffering a collective hallucinatory experience so that they truly believed that they had seen a vision of Jesus, and that he was truly alive. This theory is so thin as to represent a position that can only come from a desperate desire to justify one’s atheism. It has become a “leading” skeptical position of late, but suffers greatly when investigated.1
Another theory that allows the gospel writers (and disciples) to remain morally defensible and yet quite mistaken concerning the literal resurrection is that the literal resurrection is actually unimportant; it is the concept of faith that impels Christianity. This faith is reduced to believing in a spiritualized form of resurrection, that Jesus still lived in his teaching, and in the affirmation of life, and in the essential deathlessness of the soul, and “shilly-shally twaddle” (to quote Dr. Thomas) like that. This is, in a brief way, the position of the most radical of modern “scholars.2We are asked to believe that early Christianity flourished on this account, and we are also asked to find life-converting faith believing in something that we know didn’t happen. That such arrant vacuous speculation could actually gain a foothold in public thinking says much about the intellectual bias of those who hold such views, and very little about actual history.
7. Alternative Explanations Had No Proximate Merit
Any alternative theory to the literal resurrection would have had to have been a much more convincing argument in the first century, when people were so much closer to the facts. For example, we in modern times are asked by some scholars to believe that the resurrection was just a hallucinatory experience. If this is meant to convince us now, then how much more convincing should it have been in the first century, when people were much closer both in time and space to the realities of the situation? They would have had a much easier time discerning the truth of what in the world was going on, and Christianity would have never established a foothold. This is an argument aside from the historical problems inherent in any of the alternate explanations. To quote the elegant words of Frank Morison:
“Personally, I am convinced that no body of men or women could persistently and successfully have preached in Jerusalem a doctrine involving the vacancy of that tomb, without the grave being physically vacant. The facts were too recent; the tomb too close to that seething center of oriental life. Not all the make-believe in the world could have purchased the utter silence of antiquity or given to the records their impressive unanimity. Only the truth itself, in all its unavoidable simplicity, could have achieved that.”3
8. The Testimony of the Women
The women were the first on the scene among those who might have actually believed a resurrection had occurred. The guard, scared out of their collective wits, had departed. Only a young man, dressed in white linen, remained in the garden. He had perhaps seen the guard depart. The women come to the tomb, and they become the initial hearers of all those who had been close to the Lord during his ministry. Now they are the first to learn that the prophecy had been fulfilled that he would rise from the dead (Matt. 28:5,6). The women became the conduit to the others of the greatest news in history (Matt. 28:6,7). However truthful their appearance and their testimony, a grave deficit remained — they were women, and their testimony would have been a detriment, not an asset, to the proclamation of the gospel. The only reason to include this fragment of history is because it happened that way. Had the resurrection accounts been fabricated or written later, as a legendary addition to the actual story of Jesus, then the writer would never have mentioned them. Women’s testimony, in those times, would carry weight with no one. A legendary account would have Peter and John coming to the tomb first.
9. Sabbath Forsaken, First Day of the Week Instituted
Oh, is this ever a big one! The first ecclesias had a terrible time moving from worship under the law to an era of faith and grace. Every epistle deals with this question at least in part, and Romans, Galatians, and Colossians are entirely given over to the subject. The Jerusalem Conference recorded in Acts 15 also testifies to the problem. Many theological, social, and practical issues accrued as a result of the shift from Judaistic worship to Christian worship. The former required ritual observances, especially on the last day of the week, while the latter focused on useful works, community support and sharing, prayer, and a new institution known as the “Lord’s supper”. Not only was there a shift in the format of worship, but the first century also saw a huge Gentile influx. These changes created enormous stress in nearly every ecclesia.
Among the changes that a believing Jew had to accommodate was moving from the customary Sabbath worship to a primary worship day on the first day of the week. Moreover, the nature of this worship was radically different from the old Sabbath worship. All the Sabbath anti-work legislation was lifted. Unlikely as these changes would have been in 30 A.D., they became the norm within a short time: the disciples met regularly on the first day of the week, and they abandoned the Sabbath in favor of another day and another form of worship, one that had no place for the keeping of the law and all the associated rituals and observances. In our day we might not appreciate how momentous these changes were. In our day we might not even notice that such a change even means anything. In that day, the abandonment of the law was a “Richter nine” event.
We will focus on two aspects of the cultural shift from Judaism through Jewish Christianity to Christianity. One is the abandonment of the Sabbath-keeping, and the other the adoption of the first day of the week as the weekly day of worship.
As for the first, what event, teaching, personality, or council ruling could possibly wield sufficient power to dislodge 1500 years of deeply entrenched religious practice? The Jews valued the Sabbath as the most holy of all commandments, and keeping the Sabbath held a place beyond even religious duty. For the Jew, in keeping the Sabbath lay their ethnic heritage, connection to God, religious justification, and national identity.4 Nothing was more important in life. No ruler, teacher, or council could dare overturn it. Jesus and Paul found out how deeply entrenched the opposition was to their teaching a greater meaning of the law, and particularly, the Sabbath.5
Yet, somehow, the early believers did abandon the Sabbath, as well as the other aspects of Jewish practice. What could have led them to do so? How about a provable resurrection? I think it would take no less than this to effect this change. If Jesus, with all his acumen and power of argument, could get nowhere with the Pharisees during his ministry, it is altogether unlikely that the change could ever come about by anything other than demonstrable Divine intervention. Without the resurrection, do we think the disempowered disciples could have achieved the overthrow of the Sabbath regulations?
Secondly, the fact that the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, replaced the Sabbath provides even further testimony to the veracity of the resurrection accounts. To this day people who identify with any form of Christianity still worship on the first day of the week, even if they have no idea why, or if they curiously call it the “Sabbath”. This shift occurred early in the first century, is well known in history, and could have only occurred as a result of a demonstrable act of God; in other words, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
10. The Rapid Rise of Christianity
The rapid rise of Christianity in the first century is an indisputable historical fact. The “new” religion, which began as a Jewish sect, burgeoned throughout theMediterranean in the latter half of the first century. Can it be attributed to a non-literal resurrection? To the women mistakenly going to the wrong tomb? Does anyone really believe that an error like that would lead to a successful Christian movement?
Arguments based on the rapid rise of Christianity find further strength when we consider the enormous opposition from the Jewish hierarchy, as well as the utter impossibility that the Christian doctrines propounded by the disciples could have arisen by any other means than the very resurrection so preached. Consider the mismatch. After the crucifixion, another indisputable historical fact, we have the two sides shaping up like this: the full power and authority of the combined Jewish establishments — the political/temple-based Sadducees as well as the council/legal-based Pharisees — versus a scattered band of twelve uneducated, unemployed, dispirited, leaderless, indigent disciples plus a handful of loving women, whose collective resources probably accounted for nearly all of the disciples’ assets. Yet, the establishment could not quash the religious uprising. Just whom or what could it have been on the disciples’ side that wrought their success? Perhaps something on the order of a firm belief in their resurrected Lord and his power extended through the Holy Spirit? Yes, I think that might turn the tide in the disciples’ favor, and we would search in vain for a lesser cause with sufficient force to affect what came to pass in the first century.
Because Christianity did grow rapidly, we have an external corroboration of the gospel accounts. If we just had the historical appearance of Christianity, but no supporting documents, then we could question its origin. Or, if we just had the documents, but no historical evidence that anything ever became of the followers of the resurrected Jesus, we might also have reason to doubt. With the two together, though, we have a situation that leaves alternative explanations wanting.
A literal reading of the resurrection accounts accords perfectly well with known history and stands as the most likely explanation. It only requires that one suspend the modern bias against miracles, which, in any event, is quite misplaced in view of the massive evidence for a personal God.
Starting next month, God willing, we will move from considering the historicity of the resurrection, and develop the theological implications of the event. This move will directly connect the exclusivity argument with the fact of the resurrection.
1 Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, Eds. Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000. A debate on this theory forms the core of this book.
2 Michael J. Wilkins and J.P. Moreland, Jesus Under Fire.Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995. This book heavily criticizes the methodology of the radical Jesus Seminar and presents several excellent apologetic studies.
3Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?London: Faber and Faber, 1930, p. 175.
4 For details, see my book Legalism vs. Faith, chapter 4.
5 Legalism vs. Faith, chapters 6,7.