Most people today will acknowledge the fact that a man named Jesus once walked the earth. Many of them will also acknowledge that this man Jesus suffered a horrific death by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman Empire. Yet how many people believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead?
For many, the idea that Jesus walked out of his tomb three days after being nailed to his cross is simply ridiculous. For such folks, the resurrection is one of the most outrageous claims in the entire Bible. Who in their right mind really believes that a man can truly die and then return from the dead? For a skeptic, then, the resurrection has to be hoax: either Jesus did not really die, or he did not really rise again. To maintain otherwise – to believe in a real crucifixion and a real resurrection – would be as crazy as to believe the world is flat.
Is the resurrection then just an elaborate hoax, or is it literal history?
The first thing that we should ask ourselves is this: by what standard will I judge? What evidence would I be willing to accept?
Here the example of a “flat earth” is actually very helpful. Very few of us today believe that the world is flat. But why not? Is it because we have each flown into outer space and witnessed firsthand that our planet is a spheroid? No, of course not. We believe the earth is round not on the evidence of personal observation, but on the evidence of reliable testimony. Credible witnesses tell us what they have observed, and we have no evidence that demonstrates they are wrong. Therefore, we believe them.
But if we are willing to be convinced by this secondhand standard regarding the shape of our world, why would we not be willing to accept it regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ? If the testimony of the New Testament is reliable, and there is no evidence to prove it wrong, then it is the skeptic and not the Christian who runs the risk of being a spiritual “flat-earther.”
But is the testimony of the New Testament reliable?
Everything indicates that it is. When the first reports came in that Jesus had been raised, even the Bible admits that the apostles were skeptical. The reports “seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them,” (Lk 24:11). Even after ten of the apostles had seen Jesus alive, an eleventh – the famous “Doubting Thomas” – refused to simply go along with the story: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe,” (Jn 20:25). It was not until a week later – when Thomas saw Jesus for himself – that Thomas confessed his skepticism had been wrong. Having seen Jesus alive again firsthand, he joined the other apostles to become the credible witnesses who provided the reliable testimony recorded in the New Testament.
But think about what this means. If the resurrection were a hoax, why would the New Testament record that even the apostles had their doubts? If it were all just an elaborate scam intended to deceive people, why would the New Testament open the door to doubts in this way? Such reporting is not the stuff of fabrication. But it does have the believable ring of truth. It tells us that the apostles were real people, and that the idea of resurrection was not a piece of popular folklore easy to swallow.
What about contradicting evidence?
The obvious piece of contradicting evidence would have been the body of Jesus. If anything could have proved the resurrection a lie, it would have been a body. But what is so often overlooked is the fact that even the enemies of the Christians don’t argue with them about the resurrection. When two of the apostles are put on trial, the Jewish leaders never asked, “Where did you stuff the body?” The empty tomb is not even questioned! The New Testament tells us the reason for this is that the chief priests had already bribed Roman soldiers – who had witnessed the resurrection – to lie about it (Mt 28:1-15)! Even the enemies of the infant church knew there was no body in the ground to exhume. The fact of the empty tomb was undeniable and glaring. It remains so today.
Perhaps the most significant line of evidence is the way in which the New Testament hangs everything about Christianity on the fact of the resurrection. The apostle Paul puts it most clearly: “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain,” (1Cor 15:14). Do you understand what Paul is doing here?
Paul is taking a titanic risk. He is laying everything on the reality of the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Show me the body,” says Paul in essence, “and I will admit it is all a fraud.” Christianity crumbles if Christ is not raised. Why is this such a compelling piece of evidence? Paul wrote this letter in the first century, less than thirty years after the crucifixion. If he knew that Jesus’s body was secretly buried somewhere, would he have written such a dangerous statement? If he knew that the resurrection was a hoax, wouldn’t he have hedged his bets in some way – just in case some clever skeptic found the body? For that matter, there were just as many skeptics in Paul’s own day as in our own! If the body of Jesus was in the ground to be found, would it not have been found and displayed publicly?
But the enemies of the church have never produced the body. There is no evidence that contradicts the testimony of the New Testament. The New Testament itself displays an honesty not found in a piece of mythology. All this points us toward an inexorable conclusion: the testimony of the New Testament is reliable. And if so, then we are drawn to an even more significant conclusion…
The literal resurrection of Jesus Christ was no hoax. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is literal history.
To learn more about the significance of what the reality of Jesus’s resurrection means for all of life, join us for worship at Resurrection OPC this Sunday!