I love history. One of my favorite TV channels is the History Channel. A friend of mine jokingly calls it the “Hitler Channel” because it seems half its shows are about Hitler and World War II.
When I was a boy I enjoyed talking to my father, and other veterans who survived, about their personal experiences in World War II (I also knew a few who had been in World War I). If he were still alive, my dad would be 102 years old. Alas, he and most other veterans of the “Greatest Generation,” as Tom Brokaw called them, have now died.
This year (2013 as I write this) marks the anniversaries of a number of important dates in history. Which of these are you old enough to recall?
152nd anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War (1861-1865)
101st anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic (1912)
99th anniversary of the beginning of World War I (1914-1918)
72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (1941)
68th anniversary of the end of World War II (1945)
58th anniversary of the first rock and roll hit song (Bill Haley and His Comets, Rock Around the Clock -1955)
52nd anniversary of the first man in space (Yuri Gagarin -1961) *
50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy (1963)
44th anniversary of the first man on the moon (Neil Armstrong -1969)
23rd anniversary of the end of the Cold War (1990)
22nd anniversary of the First Gulf War (1991)
12th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (2001)
*This is the earliest event I can recall.
But what would you say was the most important historical event of all time? Any of those listed above? They all were certainly key dates in the annals of humanity. They all happened in real space and time. Nonetheless, for the Christian, the most significant event of all time happened about 1980 years ago. It was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
In the previous installment of this series we talked about why we should believe in the crucifixion of Christ. We looked at the evidence for its historical reality and also examined the reasons why he had to die. Most important was that He was the sacrificial atonement for our sins.
But that was not the end of story. His death would not have been enough. Jesus also rose from the dead. It is why each Spring we celebrate Easter. Obviously, however, not everyone (including some so-called “Christian” scholars) believes Jesus’ resurrection actually happened in space and time. Hardened skeptics with a naturalistic worldview blatantly ask, “Why should we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Miracles like that don’t happen.” They challenge us, therefore, to answer the question, “Upon what basis should we believe it really took place?”
Let me start by saying that the naturalist’s worldview is far from an established fact. The laws of nature certainly exist, but the naturalist is at a loss to say why they exist or where they came from. Those of us who start with a theistic worldview can easily accept the possibility of miracles. We contend that God established the laws of nature. So, if He can create the universe from nothing (and the theory that it came from nothing is an established scientific fact), then there is no reason why He cannot do anything else He pleases. That being said, in this installment we examine three reasons why we should believe in the resurrection as a historical fact.
Reason 1: The stone on Jesus’ tomb was rolled back!
1 Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. 2 And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. 3 And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. 4 The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. 5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. 6 He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. 7 Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.” (Matthew 28: 1-7 NASB)
In his account of the events following the crucifixion of Jesus, Matthew turns to the day after the Sabbath after the Friday when He was killed. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” came to see the tomb that had been provided by Joseph of Arimathea. Matthew reports that an earthquake rolled back the stone sealing the entrance. He also states that the women saw an angel. The angel’s appearance terrified the always gallant Roman guards who fainted. The angel told the women to see for themselves that Jesus’ body was gone and that He had risen. The angel told them to tell the disciples what they had seen and to prepare them for when Jesus would soon appear.
1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; 5 and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living One among the dead? 6 He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, 7 saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” 8 And they remembered His words, 9 and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now they were Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James; also the other women with them were telling these things to the apostles. 11 But these words appeared to them as nonsense, and they would not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he *saw the linen wrappings only; and he went away to his home, marveling at what had happened. (Luke 24:1-12 NASB)
In Luke’s account he also reports that Mary and several other women went to the tomb that morning. There they saw the stone rolled back. The angel (who Luke says was there with another) again announces Jesus’ resurrection to them. The angel reminds them of what Jesus had said about His suffering, crucifixion, and resurrection. The excited women went and told the apostles what they had seen. The apostles were skeptical because the testimony of women in that day was not highly regarded. Nonetheless, his curiosity piqued, Peter ran to the tomb where he saw the stone moved and Jesus’ body removed leaving only the linen wrappings in which he had been buried.
These accounts provide several significant reasons we can be assured Jesus’ tomb was actually empty.
First, in both accounts (and also in Mark and John), the women were first to see the stone rolled away and to see that Jesus/ body was missing. In both accounts an angel explains why the body is gone and announces that the resurrection had occurred.
The women then told the disciples what had happened. Note that in all four Gospel accounts Mary Magdalene is mentioned by name. Along with her was the other Mary, who Mark and Luke identified as James’ mother (not James, the brother of Jesus). Another woman named Joanna was also present (Mark’s Gospel possibly identifies her as Salome). It is important to understand that the stone was not moved so Jesus could get out of the tomb, as that was not necessary for Him in His resurrected state. It was moved so that the women and the disciples could look inside to see it was empty and the body was gone!
Also we should keep in mind that the tomb had been sealed and a Roman guard detail was placed there around the clock (Matthew 27:65-66). Matthew reports that the Roman soldiers “shook for fear of him and became like dead men” when the earthquake occurred and the angel appeared.
The main point here is that no person could have moved the stone and that the women and the disciples found it wide open with the body of Jesus gone. All that would have been necessary to extinguish the Christian movement was for its enemies to produce Jesus’ dead body. Christianity would have been dead in its cradle, but no one could offer any natural explanation for why Jesus was gone!
So the evidence of the open and empty tomb is a strong indicator of the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, but it is certainly not absolute proof of the resurrection. There is more.
Reason 2: Jesus appeared visibly and physically to a number of people!
Three of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the letters of Paul give undisputed eye-witness testimony of the appearances of Jesus over the course of about forty days after His resurrection. Here is a list of the primary New Testament passages of those accounts:
Matthew 28:9-10 – Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at Jesus’ empty tomb
Matthew 28:16-20 – The eleven disciples in Galilee (Great Commission)
Mark 16:9-20 – This passage is widely disputed as to its authenticity but it does report Jesus’ appearances to Mary Magdalene and the disciples.
Luke 24:13-53 – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the disciples
John 20-21- Mary Magdalene and the disciples
Acts 1:3-9; 9:3-6; 13:30-31; 22:6-10; 26:13-18 – The disciples and Paul on the road to Damascus
1 Corinthians 15:5-8 – Paul identifies those he personally knew who had seen the risen Lord including Peter, the “twelve” (the other disciples), James (Jesus’ half-brother who had previously been a skeptic), more than 500 unnamed people (most of whom, however, were still alive when Paul wrote), and finally himself.
“… He appeared to Cephas (PETER), then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” (NASB)
This is the ultimate objective proof that Jesus rose from the dead. He was seen by and spoken to by hundreds of people in and around Judea and Galilee. What’s more, Christianity exploded in Jerusalem in the weeks and months after the crucifixion of Jesus. Thousands joined the Christian movement.
This begs the question, “Why?” If Jesus were still dead there would have been no reason for the Christian movement to even have left the launch pad. As we said, Jesus’ enemies would only have needed to produce his dead body to squelch it once and for all. Also, after His crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples had all given up hope and were in hiding. So, why their sudden radical change of heart?
As New Testament scholar Dr. N. T. Wright of England observed: “The disciples, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, were completely devastated. Everybody in their world knew that if you were following a prophet or a Messiah or a leader or whatever and that person got executed by the Roman authorities, then it meant you had backed the wrong horse. Since everybody knew that a crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah, the only thing which explains why they said Jesus was the Messiah is that they really did believe that He had been bodily raised from the dead.” (emphasis added) www.truthinaction.org/index.php/2013/03/the-unstompable-jesus-christ
The only reasonable explanation for the spiritual outbreak in the first century A.D. is that Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead! Even many skeptics concede that Jesus’ disciples were fully convinced of its truth. No other theory explains why they were all willing to give their lives for Christ. It is a well-established fact that no sane person would die for a cause they knew was false.
I recall some years ago I met a man who served as a Marine in the Pacific during the Second World War. He did not like talking about it because he had seen the horrors of battle first hand. He had been an eyewitness to history. So were the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, but you could not stop them from talking about it.
So, we have great confidence in the historical truth that Christ was raised from the dead. Dozens of eyewitnesses saw and conversed with Him over the forty days before he ascended into heaven and were willing to die for that truth.
So Jesus was seen alive. Nonetheless, there is one more reason why we should believe in the resurrection, but this is only good if we are willing put our faith in Jesus.
Reason Three: We can have a personal experience with the living Christ!
In Matthew 28:20, Jesus promised His disciples, and us, that He would always be with us until the end of the age. If we accept Him as our personal Lord and Savior, as hundreds of millions have done in the past two millennia, we can know his presence in our lives. He actually dwells in our hearts in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is greatest personal evidence, He is alive in our hearts and we can experience his presence.
In conclusion, we can say with great assurance: the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happened. It is true and Jesus is alive! It was a real event in real space and time. Why can we be so confident? Because the stone on His tomb was rolled back and the tomb was empty. Because hundreds of eyewitnesses saw Him in His resurrected body. And, because we can know Him and experience His presence in our lives personally. Jesus won the victory over sin and death by His crucifixion and resurrection. Now we can share in that victory.
As Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:16- 20, For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep! (NASB)
In Depth Resources:
The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel
The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection by Lee Strobel
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary R. Habermas and Michael Licona
Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment?: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Ludemann edited by Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli
The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach by Michael R. Licona
© 2013 Tal Davis