Evidence FOR the Resurrection of Jesus Christ by Lee Strobel
All the passages below are taken from Lee Strobel’s book, “God’s Outrageous Claims,” which was published in 1997 by Zondervan.
It was a bright and beautiful August day in 1990 when Tobin McAuley, his best friend, and their girlfriends rented a catamaran to go sailing off the coast of Mexico. Nearly two miles off shore, Tobin’s buddy and the girls jumped into the warm water for a leisurely swim.
They were laughing and splashing—until suddenly Tobin’s friend began shouting for help. Cramps had gripped his legs. Quickly Tobin maneuvered the catamaran as close as he could to the swimmers. The girls scrambled on board. Tobin glanced around the boat for a life jacket, but there weren’t any, so he dove into the water to save his friend.
The problem was that the girls didn’t know how to sail. Frantically they tried to keep the catamaran near the guys, but the current pulled the craft away faster than Tobin and his friend could swim toward it. Pretty soon the boat had drifted out of sight—and twenty-nine-year-old Tobin and his thirty-year-old friend were left behind to drown.1
When soldiers march off to war, they accept the risk that they may never come back. When people contract a serious disease, they understand they may not survive. But when vacationers go out on a sailing jaunt, they don’t anticipate that these will be their last moments in the world.
And yet through the years I’ve seen time after time how death often comes calling on days that start out bright and beautiful.
DEATH STALKS THE UNSUSPECTING
On a mild autumn afternoon when I was in fifth grade, my friend Bart and I were playing on the monkey bars after school. When it was time to go home, I headed south toward my house, and Bart and his little brother rode their bicycles west toward theirs.
As they approached a busy highway, Bart’s foot slipped off the pedal. He was unable to brake, and before he could regain control of his bike, it rolled directly into the path of an oncoming truck. As his helpless brother held him in his arms, Bart’s lungs filled with blood and he died.
It was a sunny spring day in 1979 when my dad was driving down the highway on his way to the commuter train. Without warning he was stricken with a massive heart attack and was dead before the car came to a halt at the side of the road.
In 1982 my friend Frank got up in the middle of the night because he was feeling queasy. Since he was only in his mid-thirties, he didn’t think this was anything more than indigestion. But he fell over dead, leaving behind a widow, a six-year-old son, and a four-year-old daughter.
As a journalist, I’ve seen hundreds of instances in which people embarked on a day that started routinely but ended in tragedy. They were victims of drunk drivers, muggers, drive-by shooters, carjackers, auto accidents, household mishaps, fires, medical anomalies, or airplane crashes. Each year six thousand people are killed just crossing the street!
I’m not trying to be unduly alarming. However, some people look at the national average life span and behave as though it’s guaranteed to them. It’s not.
There’s an old saying that only two things in life are certain: death and taxes. But while you can fudge on your taxes, ultimately none of us cheats death. It is ugly, unnatural, and morbidly efficient: one out of one dies. In fact, someone cynically said that life is merely a sexually transmitted disease with one-hundred-percent mortality!
And people fear the end. One third of Americans are so afraid of death that they are emotionally unable even to ponder their own demise. They fear the pain of death, the unknown, being separated from their loved ones, and the deterioration of their body. They just can’t face it.
UNPLUGGING THE REFRIGERATOR
Yet increasingly other people seem fascinated by the topic. Popular movies like Ghost and Defending Your Life explored death and what might come afterward. Not long ago three of the top ten best-selling books dealt with these subjects. Over three hundred and fifty thousand people bought the book How We Die, in which a physician gave graphic details of what it’s like to succumb to various diseases. Books on near-death experiences are proliferating.
Why all this interest? The most likely reason is that the leading edge of the baby boom generation turned fifty years old in 1996, and suddenly the perils of old age aren’t so remote anymore. Their parents are dying, and baby boomers themselves are reaching an era in which heart attacks and cancer are starting to take their toll among people they know. Now the odds of dying aren’t just an abstract mathematical long-shot but are an ever growing realistic possibility.
So more and more people are asking the same question that Job posed thousands of years ago: “If a man dies, will he live again?”2 After all, what could be more fundamentally important than that?
Even wisecracking Murphy Brown has been asking that question. In a memorable episode, the fictional television reporter became concerned that her son, Avery, was someday going to ask what happens after a person dies, and she wanted to be ready with a response.
She thought back to what her father had told her when she asked that question as a child: “If you pull the plug on a refrigerator, does it keep running?” he said simply. That brought more confusion than clarity “Between the ages of five and seven,” Murphy mused, “I thought that when you died, the Goodwill truck hauled you away.”
So Murphy went to her friends for their ideas about death—and they didn’t turn out to be much help, either
THE QUEST OF MURPHY BROWN
Murphy’s colleague Frank Fontana admitted that he changes his opinion about the afterlife based on whether he’s currently dating a Hindu, Buddhist, or Rostafarian. Murphy’s producer, Miles Silverberg, told her, “Look, I’m Jewish, and we don’t talk much about heaven and hell. We focus on the here and now. We’re a lot like the Unitarians that way, except they don’t have gefilte fish.”
Murphy thought she might get some solid answers from anchorman Jim Dial, a devout church-attendee. But when she asked what participating in Sunday services provided him in coping with life and death, Jim mustered up enough honesty to reply; “Nothing. There, I said it.” He said he hopes that by immersing himself in the trappings of religion, someday he might develop a real faith that will make a difference for him.
And Corkie Sherwood, the ditzy, born-again Christian reporter, was only able to give Murphy some sugary platitudes about heaven before inviting her to a church potluck dinner where, if she was lucky; she might meet an eligible guy or win a new car.
Nobody was able to provide much guidance for Murphy Brown—until she talked with Eldon, her housepainter and confidant. “I do believe in life after death,” he said, “but not in the way you may think. I believe you live on in the things you create. For me, that’s my art. That’s my immortality. Maybe you’ve got something like that, too.”
Incredibly, that satisfied Murphy Brown! She thanked Eldon for his insight and—amazingly—walked away with newfound confidence. But would that satisfy you?
Sure, it’s nice to leave behind something that will make the world a little better than before you came onto the scene. But if that’s all there is—if we’re otherwise doomed to eternal extinction, like an unplugged refrigerator—then I’ll tell you what that’s not very satisfying to me!
That’s why one of my favorite quotations from Jesus comes from when he was talking with Martha about the death of Lazarus, who was her brother and Jesus’ good friend. Declared Jesus, “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.”3
In effect, Jesus was making this astonishing claim: “There is life after death. It’s not fantasy, it’s not make-believe, and it’s not wishful thinking. In fact, I’ll prove it to you by bringing Lazarus back to life after his four days in a tomb. And later I’ll establish it conclusively by overcoming the grave myself.”
For Christians who sometimes secretly wonder whether the idea of heaven is too fanciful or fantastic and for spiritual skeptics who suspect it’s probably the product of fertile imaginations rather than concrete reality; this unambiguous proclamation by Jesus is, without a doubt, one of his most outrageous.
But is it true? And if it is, how can we know?
THE RELEVANCE OF THE RESURRECTION
Gary Habermas, a bearded, hockey-loving scholar who looks more like a nightclub bouncer than a university professor, is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Resurrection. He received his doctorate on the topic from Michigan State University and has authored several persuasive books marshaling the evidence that Jesus rose from the dead. In 1985 he devastated the arguments of renowned atheist Antony Flew in a major debate on whether the Resurrection is an actual event of history. Of the five independent philosophers who served as judges, four voted that Habermas had won; the remaining judge was undecided.
I got to know Gary several years ago when Willow Creek invited him to speak about the Resurrection in a program attended by more than five thousand people, many of them spiritual seekers. During our time together my curiosity prompted me to ask him a question.
“You’ve devoted so much time and effort to researching the Resurrection and defending it as being true,” I said. “What motivates you? Why is this so important to you?”
“It’s very simple,” he replied. “You see, every single shred of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is also evidence for my eventual resurrection.”
When it’s put that way, all of us have a personal stake in the issue, including Christians who long for additional assurance that their faith is well placed, and the real-life Murphy Browns of the world who aren’t sure where they stand spiritually.
Of course, our everyday experience tells us that pigs don’t talk, (regardless of the movie Babe), Santa Claus doesn’t slide down chimneys (despite Tim Allen’s Christmas film), and dead people don’t spring back to life.
But the Bible makes the outlandish assertion that Jesus did return from the dead. If this is false, “your faith is futile,” said the apostle Paul.4 But if it’s true, we can have hope that as Christ’s followers, we also will someday conquer death ourselves and spend eternity with him.
For us, heaven hinges on the reality of the Resurrection; that’s how central it is to the Christian faith. J. I. Packer said that when Christians are asked to provide evidence that their beliefs are grounded in truth, they invariably point to the Resurrection:
The Easter event, so they affirm, demonstrated Jesus’ deity; validated his teaching, attested the completion of his work of atonement for sin; confirms his present cosmic dominion and his coming reappearance as Judge; assures us that his personal pardon, presence, and power in people’s lives today is fact; and guarantees each believer’s own re-embodiment by Resurrection in the world to come.5
With so much riding on the Resurrection, how reliable is the evidence that it really did occur? How much confidence can we have in it, really?I’m going to address that question with a query of my own.
WEIGHING THE EVIDENCE OF HISTORY
Who would you guess is the most successful lawyer in the world? Johnny Cochran? F. Lee Bailey? The attorney who filed the lawsuit against McDonald’s for that famous spilled cup of scalding coffee?
There is an authoritative source to settle this sort of question, The Guinness Book World Records, and it says that Sir Lionel Luckhoo is by far the most accomplished lawyer on the planet. In an absolutely amazing feat that nobody has come close to repeating, this real-life Perry Mason won 245 murder acquittals in a row, either before a jury or on appeal.6
What uncanny skills would be necessary for a lawyer to soar to that unprecedented level of courtroom achievement? Certainly he must be smart, he must be savvy, he must be extremely analytical so he can dissect airtight cases, and he must have world-class mastery of what constitutes reliable and persuasive evidence. All of that describes Luckhoo, who was knighted twice by Queen Elizabeth and who also served as a distinguished diplomat and justice.
Given those qualifications wouldn’t it be interesting to get Luckhoo’s razor-sharp analysis of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? Fortunately, we have his opinion, because he took the time to apply his daunting legal expertise to thoroughly studying the matter.
Here is the conclusion he ultimately reached: “I say unequivocally that the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is so overwhelming that it compels acceptance by proof which leaves absolutely no room for doubt.”7
Thoroughly convinced that Jesus rose from the dead in an irrefutable demonstration of his deity, Luckhoo did the most logical thing he could do: he reached out to receive Christ’s forgiveness and leadership of his life. “My life took a 180-degree change,” he said later “I found real peace and happiness and joy and righteousness and holiness.” 8
I appreciate Luckhoo’s story, because I used to consider the Resurrection to be a laughable fairy tale. After all, Yale Law School had trained me to be coldly rational, and my years of sniffing for news at the Chicago Tribune had only toughened my naturally cynical personality:
But intrigued by changes in my wife after she became a Christian, I spent nearly two years systematically using my journalistic and legal experience to study the evidence for the Resurrection and the credibility of Jesus’ claims to being God. Like Luckhoo, I emerged totally convinced and gave my life to Christ—and now, like Habermas, I rest in the security of knowing that Christ’s resurrection is a glorious precursor of my own.
So to heighten your own confidence, I’m going to summarize some of the evidence that I found particularly persuasive, beginning with a description of how Jesus died.
DID JESUS REALLY DIE ON THE CROSS?
It’s called the “swoon theory”—the idea that Jesus fainted on the cross or took a drug that made him only appear to die, and then the cool damp air of the tomb revived him and he emerged alive. Consequently, there was no miraculous Resurrection, because Jesus hadn’t actually perished.
Although there are no reputable scholars who currently hold this position, it was the topic of a popular book several years ago and is still frequently raised by skeptics. Frankly, I was curious about it myself when I began to sift through the possibilities, but it didn’t take long for me to see the fallacy of this position.
After Jesus’ trial, in which he was declared guilty of blasphemy for claiming to be God, the eyewitness John says, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.”9 Most people skim over this, but a physician named Dr C. Truman Davis actually analyzed the practice of Roman beatings during the first century. His conclusion was that Jesus had been mercilessly whipped to the very edge of death.
Jesus was tied to a post and beaten at least thirty-nine times—and probably more—with a whip that had jagged bones and balls of lead woven into it. Again and again the whip was brought down with full force on his bare shoulders, back, and legs. Davis said,
At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from vessels in the underlying muscles. The small balls of lead first produce large, deep bruises which are broken open by subsequent blows. Finally, the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons, and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue.10
One witness to a Roman flogging gave this description: “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles and tendons and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.”11 Some victims died even before making it to the cross. Undoubtedly, Jesus was in serious to critical condition before his crucifixion began. It’s no wonder that history tells us he was unable to carry his own cross.
CHRIST’S SUFFERING FOR US
Later, five-to seven-inch spikes were driven through Jesus’ wrists. Dr. Alex Metherell, another physician who has extensively studied the crucifixion, told me that this would generate an agonizing pain akin to squeezing your funny bone with a pair of pliers. So brutal was death by crucifixion that a new word was coined to describe it—excruciating, which is Latin for “out of the cross.”
After his wrists and feet were nailed securely, Jesus was hoisted into the air to hang. Dr. Metherell said that death from crucifixion is basically a slow death by suffocation.
Because of the stress on his muscles, Jesus could inhale but couldn’t exhale unless he pushed up with his feet to relieve some of the pressure on his chest. Of course, that was tremendously painful, because his bloodied back was scraping against the coarse wooden cross and because of the spikes through his feet. After hours of struggling to push up and breathe, exhaustion sets in.
If the Roman executioners wanted to hasten death, they used a mallet to shatter the victim’s shin bones so he couldn’t push up anymore. The victim would then hang limp while his lungs would slowly fill with carbon dioxide and he would asphyxiate. That’s what the executioners did to the criminals being crucified on either side of Jesus.
But when they came to him, they saw he was already dead. To confirm that, a soldier thrust a spear between his ribs, puncturing the sac around his heart and the heart itself, causing a clear fluid and blood to drain out. After that Roman experts confirmed he was dead.
Let’s be unambiguous about this: nobody survived the torment of the cross, and that includes Jesus. “Clearly, the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted,” concluded an authoritative article in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association. “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”12
In fact, even if Jesus wanted to go against everything he taught by intentionally deceiving people, even if he had survived the cross, even if he managed to escape from his cocoon of linen wrappings soaked with seventy-five pounds of spices, even if he could roll away the huge boulder from the mouth of his tomb—a rock so large that one ancient account said twenty men couldn’t budge it—and even if he could get past the elite Roman guards, think of the condition he would have been in when he appeared to his disciples!
He wouldn’t have inspired them with boldness and gotten them excited about receiving that kind of Resurrection body someday. He wouldn’t have prompted them to triumphantly declare his return and launch a worldwide movement on his behalf. They would have been horrified. They would have been sickened by his bloody and broken condition. They would have pitied him and gotten him a doctor.
No, the swoon theory simply doesn’t make sense. There’s no doubt about it. Jesus died on Good Friday. But thank God, as Tony Campolo likes say, Sunday was a-comin’! And there are five categories of evidence that point affirmatively to the Resurrection as being an actual event of history that occurred on that day. Building on a memory device that Habermas taught me, each one begins with the letter E.
1.EARLY ACCOUNT: THE RELIABLE TESTIMONY OF HISTORY
I used to believe that the historical documents that comprise the New Testament and describe the Resurrection were irreparably flawed because they had been written so long—perhaps one hundred years—after the events. As a professor told me in college, legend and wishful thinking developed during this interim period and hopelessly distorted the record of who Jesus was and what he did.
But I found that many scholars are concluding there never was such a big gap between the life of Jesus and the belief that he’s the resurrected Son of God. The key to this is to establish an accurate date for when the book of Acts was written, since it records the spread of the early church, and then to work backward to figure out when the Resurrection accounts were recorded.
Jesus was crucified in A.D. 30 or 33. In his book Scaling the Secular City, scholar J. P. Moreland cites half a dozen compelling reasons to conclude that the book of Acts was written before the early 60s A.D.
For instance, the three main figures in Acts—Peter, Paul, and James—were all put to death between A.D. 61 and 65, but there’s no mention of that in Acts, which gives many other details of their lives. And Acts doesn’t discuss Emperor Nero’s persecution of the church in the mid-60s or the war between the Jews and Romans, which broke out in A.D. 66. Surly all of this would have been included in Acts if it had been written after these events, so it must have been written before them.13
Experts concur that Acts was authored by the historian Luke, and Acts explicitly states that it’s the second of a two-part work. The first part is the gospel of Luke—which affirms Jesus was the resurrected Son of God—and so we know that it was written earlier than Acts.
And most historians agree that Mark’s gospel—also testifying that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God—was written before Luke, because Luke apparently incorporated some of Mark’s material into his own. Consequently, Mark’s account is even closer to the events of Jesus’ life. In fact, there’s evidence that a key source that Mark included when writing about the empty tomb can be dated no later than A.D. 37.14
Now the gap has been narrowed so much that there’s nowhere near enough time for legend to have corrupted the historical record. Oxford University’s renowned scholar of ancient Roman and Greek history, A. N. Sherwin-White, concluded that even the passage of two generations wouldn’t be enough time for legend to wipe out a solid core of historical facts.15
What’s more, there’s a creed of the early church that the apostle Paul includes in 1 Corinthians and that confirms Jesus was put to death for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day, as was predicted in Scripture. Based on a variety of factors, some scholars date this creed as early as twenty-four to thirty-six months after the crucifixion—and the eyewitness accounts that underlie it go right back to the cross itself.16 In historical terms, this is like a hot news flash!
When Paul mentioned in 1 Corinthians that the resurrected Jesus appeared to five hundred people at once, he specifically stated that many of them were still alive at the time he was writing.17 In effect, he was saying, “Hey, this happened so recently that these witnesses are still around—ask them yourself if you don’t believe me, and they’ll tell you it’s true!”
That’s how assured he was, just as we can have confidence in the reliability of the biblical accounts of the Resurrection.
In fact, after he examined all of the relevant historical evidence, scholar William Lane Craig came to this conclusion: “Within the first two years after [Jesus’] death. . . significant numbers of Jesus’ followers seem to have formulated a doctrine of the atonement, were convinced that he had been raised from the dead in bodily form, associated Jesus with God, and believed they found support for all these convictions in the Old Testament.”18
2.EMPTY TOMB: IT’S UNANIMOUS—THE BODY’S MISSING
During his trial, Jesus’ chief accuser was Caiaphas, who, history tells us, served as high priest from AD. 18 to 37. It was Caiaphas who accused Jesus of blasphemy for claiming to be God and then handed him over to Pilate to be executed.
Just a few years ago archaeologists were digging in Jerusalem, when they uncovered the burial grounds of Caiaphas and his family. But although his accuser’s grave has been found, nobody to this day has ever uncovered the body of Jesus himself.19
Jesus was laid to rest in a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Jewish council, and the vault was sealed and placed under heavy guard. However, it was discovered empty on Easter morning by—and this is very significant—several women.
The fact that the biblical record says women discovered the tomb empty lends strong credibility to these accounts. The reason: women had low status in Jewish society and didn’t even legally qualify to be witnesses. So if the disciples were manufacturing or embellishing this story, undoubtedly they would have claimed that men had discovered the empty tomb, because their testimony would have been considered much more credible. Recording the then-embarrassing fact that women first saw the tomb empty is just one more indication that the biblical writers were committed to accurately recording what had actually happened.
But as Habermas has pointed out, the most powerful evidence concerning the empty tomb is that nobody ever claimed it was anything but empty. Even Jesus’ opponents admitted it was vacant on Easter. They tried to bribe the guards to say the disciples stole the body while they were asleep, which doesn’t make sense because Jesus’ followers lacked both motive and opportunity. Besides, how would the guards have known it was the disciples who took the body if they had been sleeping?
But the point is that when the disciples declared the tomb was empty, Jesus’ opponents didn’t respond by saying, “Oh no, it’s not” or “You’ve got the wrong tomb.” Instead, they admitted the grave was vacant.
The question is how it got empty. When I was first trying to solve this mystery as a skeptic, I went through the list of suspects but found that all of them lacked motivation. For instance, the Romans wouldn’t have taken the body; they wanted Jesus dead. The Jewish leaders wouldn’t have taken the body; they wanted him to stay dead. Either of them would have loved to have paraded Jesus’ lifeless body down Main Street of Jerusalem, because that would have instantly killed the growing Christian movement that they expended so much energy trying to destroy.
As for the disciples, besides the huge risks and difficulties that would have been involved in trying to steal the body, they would have had nothing to gain and everything to lose by such deception. Why would they have wanted to live a life of deprivation and suffering and then be tortured to death for what they knew to be a lie? If this had been a charade they had concocted, certainly one of them would have broken ranks under torture and told the truth.
Charles Colson can affirm that. As special counsel to President Richard Nixon during the Watergate debacle, he personally saw how conspiracies fall apart under pressure.
Is it really likely that a deliberate cover-up, a plot to perpetrate a lie about the Resurrection, could have survived the violent persecution of the apostles, the scrutiny of early church councils, the horrendous purge of the first-century believers who were cast by the thousands to the lions for refusing to renounce the lordship of Christ?… Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is: Nothing less than a witness as awesome as the resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and Lord.2O
OK, so those theories didn’t work. Then I thought, “Maybe the women went to the wrong burial place—after all, the hills outside Jerusalem were pocked with tombs. Maybe they lost their way in the darkness.” But that didn’t withstand scrutiny, either.
Not only did Mary Magdalene and the other women find the tomb empty but Peter and John came and checked it out for themselves. What are the odds they all would have made the same mistake? And they certainly would have made sure it was the right tomb before they risked their lives proclaiming Jesus had risen. Besides, their friend Joseph of Arimathea certainly knew where his own tomb was located. And if somehow they had all come down with collective amnesia, wouldn’t the Roman or Jewish authorities have gladly pointed out the real tomb to show that Jesus was still in it?
The testimony of history is unanimous: the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday.
3.EYEWITNESS TESTIMONY: SEEING IS BELIEVING
Not only was Jesus’ tomb empty, but over a period of forty days he appeared alive a dozen different times to more than 515 individuals—to men and women, to believers and doubters, to tough-minded people and tenderhearted souls, to groups, to individuals, sometimes indoors and sometimes outdoors in broad daylight.
He talked with people, he ate with them, he even invited one skeptic to put his finger into the nail holes in his hands and to put his hand into the spear wound in his side, to verify that it was really him. This experience was so life-changing that the disciple Thomas ended up proclaiming to his violent death in south India that Jesus had in fact been resurrected.
I’ve covered scores of criminal trials as a legal affairs journalist, and I’ve never seen one with anywhere near 515 eyewitnesses. To put this into perspective, if you were to call each one of them to the stand to be questioned and cross-examined for just fifteen minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it would take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to nearly 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?
Of course, as a skeptic, I tried to poke holes in their stories. For instance, could these appearances have been hallucinations? Dr Gary Collins—president of a national association of psychologists, a university professor of psychology for twenty years, and the author of more than forty books on psychology-related subjects—says this just isn’t possible.
Hallucinations, he said, are like dreams—they’re individual events that can’t be shared between people. One expert said that five hundred people sharing the same hallucination would be a bigger miracle than the Resurrection itself!
But I wasn’t ready to give up yet. If these weren’t hallucinations, perhaps they were an example of what psychologists call “group think” —a kind of wishful thinking in which people in a group subtly encourage one another, through the power of suggestion, to see something that’s not there.
But Collins said this wouldn’t be possible either because the circumstances were completely wrong. The disciples weren’t anticipating a Resurrection, which would have been totally alien to their Jewish beliefs, so they weren’t primed for this sort of “group think” to occur. In addition, Jesus ate with them, talked back and forth with them, and appeared numerous times before all kinds of people in different emotional states—all of which runs contrary to the “group think” theory
Besides, what about the empty tomb? If the eyewitnesses had merely talked themselves into imagining a vision of Jesus, his body would still have been in the tomb—and surely the Romans would have produced it.
One thing is certain, said Craig: “On separate occasions different groups and individuals had experiences of seeing Jesus alive from the dead. This conclusion is virtually indisputable.”21
4.EMERGENCE OF THE CHURCH: FILLING A HOLE IN HISTORY
Suppose that during the politically conservative days of the Reagan administration, you left the country and lost contact with the United States for twenty years. When you returned, you learned from a history book that a radical Marxist had been elected president after Reagan’s last term in office. A major question would leap into your mind: “What cataclysmic event precipitated such a major social shift?”
Moreland uses this illustration as an analogy for what happened in the first century when the Christian church was started by Jewish converts who abandoned or significantly modified several major tenets of Jewish tradition. This monumental change, he said, is even more dramatic than the Reagan scenario.
It would have taken something as dramatic as the Resurrection to prompt first-century Jews to switch from Saturday to Sunday worship, to abandon both the system of sacrificing animals for forgiveness of sins and adhering to the laws of Moses as a way to maintain right standing with God, and to embrace the concept of the Trinity. In doing this, those who started the church risked becoming social outcasts and, according to Jewish theology having their souls damned to hell.
“How could such a thing ever take place?” Moreland asks. “The Resurrection offers the only rational explanation.”22
C. F. D. Moule, a New Testament scholar at Cambridge University put it this way: “If the coming into existence of the [church], a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?”23
The early church was fueled by the sincerity and enthusiasm of the disciples, who had shrunk back with cowardice before Easter but who after Easter boldly proclaimed to their death that Jesus had conquered the grave.
At first I wasn’t persuaded by the fact that they were willing to die for their beliefs. Certainly, lots of people throughout history have sacrificed themselves for their faith. As I’m writing this, for example, television news is bristling with a report that a Muslim terrorist has blown himself up and killed several people in a Tel Aviv shopping area. Why would he do that? Because in part he honestly believed that as a result he would go immediately to paradise to be with his creator.
But the disciples were in a completely different situation. They were in the unique position of knowing firsthand, for a fact, whether Jesus had really risen from the dead. They encountered him. They talked and ate with him. They declared it was true—he was resurrected. And because it was true, they were willing to die for it.
Do you see the difference? Unlike the terrorist who only had his faith, the disciples were able to know for sure whether their claim was true. Do you think they would have willingly let themselves be tortured to death for a lie? Nobody would do that. They were willing to die because they knew the Resurrection was a reality.
5. EXTRA BIBLICAL EVIDENCE: CONFIRMATION FROM OUTSIDE THE BIBLE
While there are plenty of reasons to believe that the New Testament records about the death and resurrection of Jesus are reliable, there are other ancient historical sources that provide additional confirmation.
Habermas, who is a leading authority on these so-called extra biblical records, has compiled twenty-two ancient sources that mention Jesus’ death, and thirteen that specifically refer to the Resurrection, with an additional ten providing relevant facts surrounding it.24
One of the most interesting references concerns the darkness that enveloped the land during the time Jesus was hanging on the cross. As a skeptic, I read about this phenomenon in the Bible and scoffed, “There’s no way the sky went dark. I don’t even think Christians really believe that!” I figured that someone had added this phony incident at some later date, as a way of sensationalizing a theological point. To me, it was just one more example of why the biblical accounts couldn’t be trusted.
But a first-Century Greek historian named Thallus, who was not a Christian, wrote a history of the Eastern Mediterranean world in 52 A.D. and he actually discussed this sudden darkness. His tactic was to try to explain it away as being an eclipse of the sun, even though this would not have been possible given the timing of the crucifixion.25
Again history provides more bits of affirmation that the Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history.
THE VERDICT OF HISTORY
If every shred of historical documentation for Jesus rising from the dead is evidence for our own eventual resurrection, we can face the future with confident expectancy. The hope that Christians will overcome the grave and spend eternity with God is not the desperate longing of people too afraid to face their own mortality. Instead, it’s a rational and logical conclusion based on the compelling testimony of history.
“No intelligent jury in the world,” said Lord Darling, the brilliant chief justice of England, “could fail to bring in a verdict that the Resurrection story is true.”
For the Christian, that’s reassuring. For spiritual seekers, that’s a challenge that should be taken seriously. I’ve been in both camps. On a day that started out bright and beautiful in June 1983, I was glad I was in Christ’s camp.
At the time, I had been working as managing editor of a newspaper in Missouri and had brought my family to Chicago to visit my mother for a few days. Late that night, I got up feeling ill and promptly collapsed in tremendous pain.
My wife called the paramedics. As they were on their way, I was sprawled on the floor—my breathing shallow, my pulse erratic, my skin pale—fighting to stay conscious and feeling an ominous numbness creep up my arms and legs. ‘This is it,” I thought to myself. I figured I was going to die just like my friend Frank had several years earlier
I’ll admit it I was scared. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to see my children grow up. I wanted to live a long and happy life with Leslie. But I had been a Christian for about eighteen months, and I knew with certainty that I could trust two things if I died: first that God would watch over Leslie and the kids; second, that the moment I closed my eyes in death, I would reopen them in the presence of God.
And Jesus would put his arm around me and say to the Father, “I know this man. I love him, and he loves me. I’ve paid for every single sin he ever committed. On the merits of what I did on the cross, he is washed clean of all wrongdoing and clothed in my goodness—and therefore invited to spend eternity in heaven.”
I was in a win-win situation: if I lived, everything would be fine, and if I died, everything would be fine. That gave me the kind of courage I needed to cope with the crisis.
Obviously I didn’t die. After nearly a week in the hospital, during which doctors were never quite able to diagnose the malady that had stricken me that night, I emerged to experience lots of other bright and beautiful days. But sooner or later one of them will be my last. Death still stalks me, as it does you.
But we can proceed with bold assurance, thanks to the evidence of history that establishes with convincing clarity how Jesus not only preceded us in death but also came back from the dead and blazed the trail to heaven.
“I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God,” said the apostle John, “so that you may know that you have eternal life.”27(166-183)
1. Abigail Van Buren, “Think Ahead, Avoid Boating Tragedies,” Chicago Tribune (June 28,1995).
2. Job 14:14 (NIV)
3. John 11:25—26 (NIV)
4. 1 Corinthians 15:17 (NIV)
5. Gary Habermas and Antony Flew, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), xi, emphasis added.
6. Donald McFarlan, ed., The Guinness Book of World Records (New York Bantam, 1991), 547.
7. Ross Clifford, ed., The Case far the Empty Tomb: Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection (Claremont, Calif.: Albatross, 1991), 112.
9. John 19:1 (NIV)
10. C. Truman Davis, “The Crucifixion of Jesus,” Arizona Medicine (March 1965), 185, quoted by Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor (San Bernardino: Here’s Life, 1981), 43.
11. McDowell, The Resurrection Factor, 44.
12. William D. Edwards et at, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association (March 21. 1986), 1463.
13. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 152-53.
14. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 150.
15. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 285.
16. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 150-51; Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus under Fire, 43.
17. 1 Corinthians 15:6 (NIV)
18. Wilkins and Moreland, Jesus under Fire, 43.
19. Ibid., 41.
20. Charles Colson, Loving God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 69.
21. Craig, Reasonable Faith, 284.
22. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 179-80.
23. Ibid., 181, emphasis added.
24. Gary Habermas, The Verdict of History: Conclusive Evidence for the Life of Jesus (Nashville: Nelson, 1988), 169—72.
25. Ibid., 93—94.
26. Val Grieve, Verdict on the Empty Tomb (London: Church Pastoral Aid Society, 1976), 26.
27. 1 John 5:13, emphasis added.