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Did Jesus Christ rise from the Dead?
The passages below are taken from Ravi Zacharias’ book, “Can Man Live Without God,” published in 1994.
There really are two questions that have relevance on this matter of Jesus’ resurrection. The first is, “Did Jesus, indeed, rise from the dead?” The second is the equally emphatic: “So what?”
In terms of the first, no event in history has been so subjected to scrutiny and analysis as this claim of Jesus. This focus alone is an indicator of the importance of the event. So many ingenious ways have been concocted to falsify this cardinal truth of the Christian faith—--from the swoon theory to the disciples’ self-delusion—--that it almost brings humor into the situation. I have often been amazed at the lengths to which scholars have been willing to go in an attempt to debunk the resurrection while scores of other religious figures (such as Krishna, Buddha, or Mohammed) have been left totally unstudied. An average student in India, for example, does not even know when Krishna was born or if indeed he ever was. At the same time, he or she has theorized about Jesus quite a bit.
This is a strange and ironic phenomenon, for even today while religious conversation in the workplace is being vociferously discouraged, the name of Jesus is still probably mentioned more than any other name—--to be sure with profane exclamation, but nevertheless He is mentioned. In fact, our very calendar is positioned by the birth of Jesus. Of all His claims, His promise of His resurrection and its fulfillment was understandably the most controversial, but it was the ultimate justification of His message.
The issue of the resurrection naturally evokes interest. Did it really happen? May I suggest for your careful reading the debate on this subject that most thoroughly examines the evidence. The protagonist was historian Gary Habermas and the antagonist, Anthony Flew. The arguments and evidences marshaled by Professor Habermas left Flew on the run for most of the debate. The fundamental problem for the resurrection that Flew presented was really the same one that has been set forth by Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most influential critical theologians of this century—--and a leading exponent in “demythologizing” the Scriptures. Bultmann rejected the resurrection a priori—--just as his personal assumption. To his obviously prejudicial disposing of this historical event, Professor Jon MacQuarrie said:
And here we must take Bultmann to task for what appears to be an entirely arbitrary dismissal of the possibility of understanding the resurrection as an objective-historical event. . . . The fallacy of such reasoning is obvious. The one valid way in which we can ascertain whether a certain event took place or not is not by bringing in some sweeping assumption to show that it could not have taken place, but to consider the historical evidence available, and decide on that.1
MacQuarrie goes on to say that “Bultmann does not take the trouble to examine what evidence could be addressed to show that the resurrection was an objective-historical event. He assumes that it is a myth.”2
In effect, the facts are unblushingly ignored. This is the precise prejudice with which much of liberal scholarship has treated the resurrection. In real terms, the New Testament is easily the best attested ancient writing in terms of the sheer number of documents, the time span between the event and the document, and the variety of documents available to sustain or contradict it. There is nothing in ancient manuscript evidence to match such textual availability and integrity. As the noted scholar Giza Vermes has said, “It should not be beyond the capabilities of an educated man to sit down and with a mind empty of prejudice read the account of Mark, Matthew, and Luke as though for the first time.”3
When an honest reader looks at the affirmations that are made and the substantiations that are provided, the following deductions ensue:
1. Jesus Christ Himself talked of His resurrection on repeated occasions. Both His enemies and His followers were told to expect it. Those who sought to smother His teaching took elaborate steps to counter the possibility of His claim, including the placement of a Roman guard at the door to the tomb.
2. Although His supporters basically understood His promise to rise from the dead and had even witnessed His raising of Lazarus, they did not really believe that He meant it literally until after the fact. Therefore, they could not be accused of creating the scenario for this deception.
3. It was the post-resurrection appearance that made the ultimate difference to the skeptical mind of Thomas and the resistant will of Paul.
4. The transformation of the disciples from a terrified bunch of individuals who felt themselves betrayed into a fearless group ready to proclaim the message to Rome and to the rest of the world cannot be explained with a mere shrug of the shoulder.
5. Had the Roman authorities wanted to eradicate Jesus’ teaching once and for all, they would have only needed to present His dead body—--but they could not. There is something often missed here. If the disciples were fabricators of an ideal, they could have merely posited a spiritual resurrection, which could have been done even with the presence of a dead body. Instead, they went the hard way, by talking of the resurrection of the actual physical body, which, if not true, was an enormous risk to take should the body have ever been detected. No, they believed in a literal resurrection because they had witnessed it. This is a very telling piece of evidence in light of the fact that Rome, itself, once diametrically opposed to the gospel, was later won over to Jesus’ message. The religious leaders wanted nothing more than they wanted to stifle Christianity. And in fact, Jesus’ own brother James was not a believer until after the resurrection.
6. One other very interesting factor to bring to our attention is from non-Christian sources. Even the Koran, which is hardly in favor of the Christian message, attests to Jesus’ virgin birth and credits Him with the unique power to raise the dead, a most interesting notation often forgotten by the Muslims themselves.
In summary, it was Jesus’ victory over the grave that provided the grand impetus for the early church to tell the world that God had spoken and, indeed, had done so in a dramatic and incontrovertible manner. All this transpired in history and is open to the historian’s scrutiny.
The Illusion of Neutrality
But that brings us to the second question: “So what?” The reason for this question is not hard to understand. The resurrection by itself may not be self-explicating. It could be argued a few other ways that this “just happened,” so why not treat it, then, as an aberration? But the resurrection of Jesus is not an isolated or vacuous event. It comes on the heels of a series of other events and teachings that have to be taken as a whole. Devoid of a context, the resurrection can be ignored, but positioned as it is with the birth, life, and death of one so unique, so without peer, so exclusive in His claims and instruction on life’s nature and destiny, it would be foolhardy to dismiss the resurrection with “So what?” Robert Browning captured the choice we face very well.
If Christ, as thou affirmest, be of men
Mere man, the first and best but nothing more—
Account Him, for reward of what He was
Now and for ever, wretchedest of all.
For see: Himself conceived of life as love,
Conceived of love as what must enter in,
Fill up, make one with His each soul He loved.
See if, for every finger of thy hands
There be not found, that day the world shall end,
Hundreds of souls, each holding by Christ’s word
That He will grow incorporate with all,
Groom for each bride. Can a mere man do this?
Yet Christ saith, this He lived and died to do.
Call Christ, then, the illimitable God,
Christ—--He is either the illimitable God or one dreadfully lost. There is no room for a theory that says He was “merely a good man.” Study His life with unyielding honesty and the answer is evident. It is this hope He brings that grants us hope for each individual, for our communities, and for our world. Without this hope of life beyond the grave, every question from love to justice becomes a mockery of the mind.
Billy Graham on one occasion told of a meeting he had with German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, at one time mayor of Cologne, imprisoned by Hitler for his opposition to the Nazi regime, and later chancellor of the West German Federal Republic from 1949 to 1963. Adenauer truly deserves the title of “statesman” as he picked up the broken pieces of his country and helped to rebuild it in a fractured world. On this occasion, he looked the evangelist in the eye and said, “Mr. Graham, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?” Graham, somewhat surprised by the pointedness of the question answered, “Of course I do.” To that confident reply Chancellor Adenauer said, “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I do not know of any other hope for this world.”
I have found this same sentiment echoed in two of the nations of our world presently in drastic transition. I refer to an occasion when I had been invited to deliver a series of lectures at the Lenin Military Academy and to participate in a round-table discussion at the Center for Geopolitical Strategy in Moscow. Present at the discussion were my wife, a colleague, and myself, and six Russian generals—--all but one, atheists. The one-and-a-half-hour interaction we had was a momentous occasion in my own life. As we entered this imposing building, eight stories above the ground and four stories below, I was aware that I was in a historic setting; for out of this grand structure had been graduated all of the previous general secretaries of the USSR. In the welcoming hall, we were introduced to the great heroes of Russian warfare—--Peter the Great and Kutusov as well as modern-day geniuses in geopolitical maneuvering. Every facet of the building was pompous and stately, intended not accidentally I am sure, to make the individual feel small and insignificant.
Here, in its inner chambers, our discussion began. As the conversation unfolded from early unease through robust argumentation all the way to our very warm and amiable conclusion, something incredible happened. One by one, each of these generals conceded that Russia was now in a pathetic state, not just economically but morally. As the men stood up to bid us good-bye, the senior-ranking general grasped my hand and said, “Dr. Zacharias, I believe what you have brought us is the truth. But it is so hard to change after seventy years of believing a lie.” Outside of God, they, too, saw no other hope.
That same sentiment was again echoed by some of the framers of the Peace Accord after I finished a series of talks in Johannesburg, South Africa.
As I reflect on that, the leaders’ confession and the words of the Russian general are haunting. After seventy years of believing a lie, it is hard to change. We stand at a moment in history where once-Marxist nations admit to a dastardly experiment that has failed, an experiment that demonstrates beyond any doubt the dire consequences that are reaped when God is eliminated from the framework of life’s choices. Yet strangely enough, we in the West are now moving toward that same ideological base, unwilling to believe what stares us in the face. In Russia, in the name of equality, the individual was offered at the altar of the state. Here, in the name of humanism, human beings are steadily being denuded and offered up at the altar of economic and hedonistic gains. What a contrast this is to the value Christ places upon each individual life, when every facet of life and its context is given significance.
Many years ago, while he was a professor of philosophy at Princeton, the German scholar and distinguished Harvard graduate Walter Kaufmann wrote a book, The Faith of a Heretic. It was the American equivalent of Bishop John A. T Robinson’s book, Honest to God. As Kaufmann brought his book to a climax, he said this:
That there are about a hundred million galaxies within range of our telescopes, and that our own galaxy alone contains hundreds of thousands of planets which may well support life and beings like ourselves seems strange to those brought up on the Bible, but not necessarily strange to Oriental believers.
For those not familiar with the sacred books of the East, the contrast may come to life as they compare Renaissance and Chinese paintings: here [in the Renaissance] the human figures dominate the picture, and the landscape serves as a background; there [in the Chinese paintings] the landscape is the picture, and the human beings in it have to be sought out. Here man seems all-important; there his cosmic insignificance is beautifully represented.
Modern science suggests that in important respects the Oriental religions were probably closer to the facts than the Old Testament or the New. It does not follow that we ought to accept the Buddha’s counsel of resignation and detachment, falling out of love with the world. Nor need we emulate Lao-tze’s wonderful whimsy and his wise mockery of reason, culture, and human effort. There are many possibilities: I say with Shakespeare, ‘All the world’s a stage.” Man seems to play a very insignificant part in the universe, and my part is negligible. The question confronting me is not, except perhaps in idle moments, what part might be more amusing, but what I wish to make of my part. And what I want to do and would advise others to do is to make the most of it: put into it all you have got, and live, and, if possible, die with some measure of nobility.5
I beg to differ with this fine scholar, but I have to wonder whether he has understood either Christianity or the Eastern religions; for that matter, his equivocation of the Christian message as synonymous with the Renaissance is at best tendentious, if not pathetic, for it is humanism that is built on the Renaissance, not Christianity. But his farcical conclusion of “make the best of it” is most betrayed by his words extolling the oriental genius, “[Man’s] cosmic insignificance is beautifully represented.” This is equivalent to our bloodletting and hate-filled films’ issuing the all-comforting disclaimer at the end, “No animals were harmed in the making of this film.” Nothing is said about any harm that may have been done to the people during the making of the film or to the innocent public who viewed it. But Kaufmann can be forgiven for this oxymoronic conclusion. He defined philosophy in his first line of the book as “a chaos of abstruse ideas”!
To tell us to die with nobility when there is no hope beyond the grave is farcical at best. All of Kaufmann’s philosophizing on this matter is an attempt to smother that irrepressible longing, the longing for life beyond the grave, which, in his scheme of things, is neither explained nor satisfied. Contrast this with the fact of Christ’s resurrection, which both justifies this longing and satisfies with fulfillment. In reality, when one denies the possibility of life beyond the grave—--when one tries to live without God—--the greatest problem for the skeptic still remains, the problem of life’s suffering. It is to answer that question now in a broader context that I turn to Jesus’ teaching on the nature of suffering. (161-167)
1. Jon MacQuarrie, An Existential Theology: A Comparison of Heidegger and Bultmann (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), 185—6.
2. Ibid., 186.
3. Giza Vermes, Jesus the Jew (London: 1973), 19.
4. Robert Browning, “A Death in the Desert.”
5. Walter Kaufmann, The Faith of a Heretic, 376.
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