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The Resurrection of Christ:
Myth or Reality?
by Matthew Perman


1996 / July-August



Imagine that you have been hiking all day in the mountains of Colorado, and you are lost. An enormous snowstorm is fast approaching, and if you do not find a way out soon, it will cost you your life. Up ahead there is a fork in the road, where you see two people. One is lying down on the ground--dead. The other is standing up and wearing a park ranger's uniform--alive. Whom would you ask for directions? Obviously, the living one.

A similar situation surrounds the questions of life after death. Many religions claim to have the answers, but they all contradict one other (Mortimer J. Adler, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religions and the Unity of Truth, Macmillan, 1990). They cannot all be true. So how can we know whom to believe? Christianity seems to be unique. Its founder and leader, Jesus Christ, not only experienced death, but it is claimed that He also rose from the dead and remains alive. If this is true, whom would you believe concerning matters of eternal destiny--one who is lying in his grave, or one who has risen from the grave?

If Jesus has risen, it would seem reasonable to consider His claim to be the only way to God: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me" (Jn. 14:6). But, according to the apostle Paul, "If Christ has not been raised, [the Christian's] faith is worthless" (1 Cor. 15:17). So the question arises: Did Jesus really rise from the dead?

To investigate this issue, we will examine six facts that virtually all scholars--even critical non-Christian scholars--who address Christ's resurrection accept as historical (Antony Flew and Gary Habermas, Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? pp. 19-20). We will also see that the Bible is not the only source of evidence for Christ's resurrection. John Singleton Copley, recognized as one of the greatest legal minds in British history, sums up the matter well: "I know pretty well what evidence is; and I tell you, such evidence as that for the resurrection has never broken down yet" (Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore Stand, p. 425).

1. Jesus Christ died from the rigors of crucifixion and was buried in a tomb.

A. Jesus was crucified. Extrabiblical sources (sources apart from the Bible) confirm this fact. Of particular interest is a reference by Thallus, a non-Christian Samaritan historian. He regarded the crucifixion of Jesus as so significant that he included it in his History of the World, which he wrote about A. D. 52. Thallus tried to explain away the darkness that fell when Jesus died on the cross as an eclipse of the sun (F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Intervarsity Press, 1972, p. 113). Jewish sources also refer to Jesus's crucifixion at Passover (The Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 43a).

B. Jesus was dead. The nature of crucifixion ensures death. After analyzing the medical and historical evidence leading to Jesus's death, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Society concludes: "Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge" (March 21, 1986, p. 1463).

2. Jesus's tomb was empty just a few days later.

Professor of philosophy Dr. G. R. Habermas in his Ancient Evidences for the Life of Jesus writes: "Our study [of the extrabiblical sources] has shown that Jesus taught in Palestine and was crucified and buried in Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. These sources assert that Christianity had its beginnings in the same location." Christ's apostles did not go to some obscure place to begin preaching about His resurrection but instead went back to the city of Jerusalem, the very place of Jesus's execution and grave. If what the apostles were preaching had been false, it would have been evident to the people in Jerusalem and Christianity more than likely would not have begun.

This situation therefore demands that Jesus was no longer in His tomb. Paul Althaus writes that the resurrection proclamation "could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned" (Josh McDowell, Evidence that Demands a Verdict, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1979, p. 217).

Second, early Jewish testimony admits the empty tomb. Matthew 28:11-15 makes reference to the Jewish assertion that the disciples stole the body. The author then adds that this story was still being spread at the time when he was writing. This text could not have been written unless there really was a Jewish counterargument to the empty tomb; otherwise, this passage would have been exposed as a fraud. Also, the passage would have been pointless, since its main purpose was to refute the Jesus allegation. The significance of this is that the early Jews did not deny the empty tomb but rather admitted the empty tomb by trying to explain it away. Additionally, Josh McDowell points out that a compilation of 5th-century Jewish writings, called the Toledoth Jeshu, acknowledges that the tomb was empty. Dr. Paul Maier calls this "positive evidence from a hostile source, the strongest kind of historical evidence. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine." That is exactly the case with the empty tomb.

Because of the strong case for the empty tomb, there are many natural theories that attempt to explain it away in order to deny Christ's resurrection.

A. Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb? This cannot be the case because the Jewish authorities, since they were against Christianity, would have wasted no time producing the body of Jesus from the proper tomb, putting an end to Christianity. Surely someone would have discovered this "mistake."

B. Did the disciples steal the body? If so, then the men who delivered to the world the highest moral standards it has ever known were frauds, liars, and hypocrites. Is this credible to believe? Paul Little asks, "Are these men, who helped transform the moral structure of society, consummate liars or deluded madmen? These alternatives are harder to believe than the fact of the resurrection, and there is not a shred of evidence to support them" (Paul Little, Know Why You Believe, Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1971, p. 63).

C. Did the Jews or the Romans steal it? Dr. John Warwick Montgomery dispels this possibility: "It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and preached it among those who might easily have refuted it by producing the body of Jesus" (John Warwick Montgomery, History and Christianity, Intervarsity Press, 1972, p. 78). If they had the body, why didn't they put the corpse on a cart and wheel it through Jerusalem, thus eliminating for all time any belief in Christ's resurrection?

D. What about grave robbers anonymous? They steal what's on the body, not the body. Who would want to steal a dead corpse?

In addition, most scholars today reject these natural theories because they all fail to explain another crucial factor:

3. The disciples had real experiences with one whom they believed was the risen Christ.

This fact is not widely disputed today, even among critical scholars (Carl Braaten, History and Hermeneutics, p. 78) because of the firsthand testimony supporting it. The gospels, which record these appearances, claim to have been written by eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus and by those who recorded eyewitness testimony. These internal claims are confirmed by external sources (History and Christianity, pp. 31-35). In addition, the reliability and trustworthiness of the New Testament has been confirmed by extrabiblical sources and archaeology (Evidence that Demands a Verdict, pp. 65-74). For these reasons, the conclusion that the gospels record eyewitness testimony, as they claim, cannot be denied.

In these reliable eyewitness documents, Jesus is reported to have appeared physically alive to His disciples after His crucifixion. This testimony is verified by 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. In this passage, Paul is recording an early creed concerning the resurrection appearances, which, the majority of scholars believe, he received from Peter and James within six years of the crucifixion. Since Peter and James are both mentioned in this creed as having seen Jesus alive after His death, we may agree with Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide who says that this creed "may be considered the statement of eyewitnesses" (Pinchas Lapide, The Resurrection of Jesus, p. 99. For a more in-depth treatment of 1 Cor. 15:3-8, refer to footnote 15, pp. 67-68). Because the gospels and this creed are the early testimony of eyewitnesses (not to mention that these eyewitnesses have been shown to be trustworthy), the theory that the resurrection is a myth or legend can be ruled out. There are only three options: the disciples hallucinated, lied, or really encountered the bodily risen Christ.

The disciples could not have been hallucinating because this theory is flatly contradicted by certain psychological principles governing the appearances of hallucinations. Also, the disciples record touching Jesus and giving Him food (Luke 24:39-43), which cannot be done with a hallucination. In addition, this theory fails to account for the empty tomb. The next option is that the apostles were lying. But...

4. Jesus's disciples were transformed into bold witnesses who died for their belief in the resurrection.

Of the twelve disciples, ten died for their belief in Christ's resurrection and their belief in Him as the Son of God. This is significant because if Jesus had not risen from the dead, His disciples knew it. People may die for something they believe to be true, but is in fact false. But if the resurrection did not happen, the disciples did not just die for a lie which they mistakenly believed to be true, but died for a lie that they knew to be a lie.

Josh McDowell puts this well: "Jesus's followers could not have faced torture and death unless they were convinced of His resurrection. The unanimity of their message and course of conduct was amazing.... If they were deceivers, it's hard to explain why one of them didn't break down under pressure" (Josh McDowell, More Than a Carpenter, Tyndale House Publishers, 1977, p. 67). After witnessing events such as Watergate, can we reasonably suppose that the disciples could have totally covered up such a lie?

5. The existence of the Christian Church.

Christianity requires a historic cause. It did not exist until about A. D. 30, when it suddenly burst to life, spread like wildfire, and changed the world. What could have started this if not the resurrection, as the early Christians claimed?

Josh McDowell writes, "The Church was founded on the resurrection, and disproving it would have destroyed the whole Christian movement. However, instead of any such disproof, through the 1st century, Christians were threatened, beaten, flogged and killed because of their faith" (Evidence, p. 218). It would have been much simpler to silence Christianity by putting forth evidence disproving the resurrection, but this could not be done.

6. The conversion of Paul.

If there was no resurrection, then Paul deceived the other apostles of an appearance of Christ to him, and they in turn deceived Paul! "Even worse, what could have motivated him to `sell out' to his former `ministry' of persecuting the Christians when he was convinced that it was God's will? From his point of view, why would he risk the damnation of his own soul by converting to what he perceived as anti-Jewish beliefs?" (Gary Habermas & J. P. Moreland, Immortality: The Other Side of Death, Tyndale House Publishers, 1992, p. 58). Paul says that it was an appearance of the risen Christ that convinced him that Christianity is true.

Based on the evidence, my conclusion is that the Christian faith is a reasonable faith (not a blind faith), based not on myth or legend but on a solid historical event--the resurrection of Jesus. What do you think? Would you agree with George Ladd, who said, "The only rational explanation for these historical facts is that God raised Jesus in bodily form?" (George Ladd, I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, p. 141). How else would you explain all of these facts? Perhaps before you come to a conclusion, you should consider one more reason.

Jesus has transformed millions of lives throughout history.

My reasons for believing in Christ's resurrection are not simply based on historical facts, as important as they are. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead because He lives in me and I have experienced the abundant life He offers. Millions of others have experienced this, too, which leads us to the most important question of all: What is the significance of Christ's resurrection?

First, we can be sure that life does not end at the grave. Second, we can be certain that Jesus is who He claimed to be -- fully God and fully man. Therefore, Jesus is the only one who can speak with certainty and final authority on matters of eternal destiny. This verifies Jesus's claim to be the only way to God and the claim that Christianity is true. Third, there is genuine hope. Through the risen Jesus, we can enter into a personal relationship with the living God, have the certainty of eternal life, and experience His abundant life.

Several years ago, I began this relationship with God. I understood that God loved me and created me to know Him personally. But I was also aware that before a holy and just God I was morally guilty, i.e., sinful, and deserving of His judgment. I came to understand that a relationship with God could not be restored unless the penalty for my sin was paid -- eternal death (Rom. 6:23).

The good news is that, on the cross, Jesus died in our place to pay the death penalty for our sin (Rom. 5:8). That's what it means to say, "Christ died for us." That is also why He is the only way to God -- only Jesus has died to provide our forgiveness. If there was any other way, Jesus wouldn't have died. His resurrection demonstrates that He conquered death and sin.

The Bible says that this relationship with God and eternal life are gifts and therefore cannot be earned by good moral behavior (Eph. 2:8-9). Like any other gift, I knew that I had to accept it before it would become mine (John 1:12). So I admitted to God that I was guilty of rebellion toward Him and made a decision to put my trust in Jesus to forgive me and to give me eternal life. I have been encouraged by His promises to come into my life (Rev. 3:20), to give me eternal life (John 5:24), and to make me a new person (2 Cor. 5:17). This gives me hope not only for the hereafter but also for the here and now.

No one wants to believe in something that isn't true, especially me. The resurrection of Jesus has given me substantial reason to believe that my faith is not in vain.

The evidence is clear: Mohammed's tomb -- occupied. Buddha's tomb -- occupied. Confucius' tomb -- occupied. Jesus's tomb -- EMPTY. What is your verdict?

(Matthew Perman, 1120 Dancer Hall, Cedar Falls, IA 50614; e-mail permanm4888@uni.edu)
 



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