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The Resurrection of Jesus, How Can We Know That It Really Happened?

The Centrality of the Resurrection in Christian Faith

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of the Christian faith. As Paul asserts in 1 Corinthians 15:14, "and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain." This statement underscores the essential nature of the resurrection; without it, Christianity loses its foundational claim. The resurrection is not only a demonstration of Jesus' divine power but also the guarantee of eternal life for believers, affirming His victory over sin and death.

Eyewitness Testimonies and Early Creeds

The New Testament provides multiple accounts of Jesus' resurrection, grounded in eyewitness testimonies. These accounts are recorded in the Gospels and the letters of Paul, which were written within the first century C.E., close to the actual events. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, offers a summary of the resurrection appearances: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, 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."

This passage highlights the variety and number of witnesses who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, providing a robust foundation for the resurrection narrative. The mention of over five hundred witnesses, many of whom were still alive at the time of Paul's writing, invites contemporaneous verification of the claims.

The Empty Tomb

The empty tomb is a critical piece of evidence for the resurrection. All four Gospels attest to the discovery of the empty tomb by women followers of Jesus (Matthew 28:1-7; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). The fact that women, whose testimony was considered less credible in the first-century Jewish context, are reported as the primary witnesses to the empty tomb lends credibility to the accounts. If the story were fabricated, it is unlikely that women would be depicted as the first witnesses.

The empty tomb alone does not prove the resurrection, but it is a significant part of the cumulative case. The Jewish and Roman authorities had every reason to produce Jesus' body to quash the burgeoning Christian movement, yet no body was ever produced. The absence of Jesus' body from the tomb remains a compelling mystery that points towards the resurrection.

Post-Resurrection Appearances

The New Testament records multiple post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to His disciples and others. These appearances are described with specific details and locations, such as Jesus' encounter with Mary Magdalene (John 20:11-18), His appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), and His meeting with Thomas (John 20:24-29). These accounts provide consistency and coherence across the various narratives, reinforcing the claim of the resurrection.

Moreover, the transformation of the disciples from a group of frightened, disillusioned followers into bold proclaimers of the resurrection is noteworthy. The disciples were willing to face persecution and death for their testimony, suggesting they genuinely believed in the risen Jesus. As Peter declared in Acts 2:32, "This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses." This bold proclamation, made in Jerusalem where the events occurred, adds to the credibility of their witness.

The Conversion of Paul

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence for the resurrection is the conversion of Paul. Originally a fierce persecutor of Christians, Paul experienced a dramatic transformation after encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19). This encounter led Paul to become one of the most ardent defenders and spreaders of the Christian faith.

In his letters, Paul repeatedly cites the resurrection as the cornerstone of his message. In Galatians 1:11-12, he writes, "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ." Paul's dramatic shift from persecutor to apostle, driven by his encounter with the risen Christ, provides strong evidence for the resurrection.

The Growth of the Early Church

The rapid growth of the early Christian church in the face of intense persecution is another testament to the reality of the resurrection. The apostles and early Christians proclaimed the resurrection despite facing severe opposition from both Jewish and Roman authorities. The willingness of early Christians to suffer and die for their faith suggests they truly believed in the resurrection.

The Book of Acts documents the explosive growth of the early church, attributing it to the power of the resurrection message. In Acts 4:33, it states, "And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all." The resilience and expansion of the Christian faith in its nascent stages underscore the transformative impact of the resurrection.

External Historical Sources

External historical sources from non-Christian writers also provide evidence for the resurrection and the existence of early Christians. Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote about the persecution of Christians under Nero and mentioned Christus (Christ) who "suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate." This aligns with the New Testament accounts of Jesus' crucifixion and the subsequent growth of the Christian movement.

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, also references Jesus and His followers. In his work "Antiquities of the Jews," Josephus writes, "At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus. And his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. And many people from among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive."

While some aspects of the Josephus passage are disputed, its core affirmations about Jesus, His crucifixion under Pilate, and the persistent belief in His resurrection among His followers are significant.

Addressing Common Objections

Skeptics often raise objections to the resurrection, including claims that the disciples stole Jesus' body or that the resurrection appearances were hallucinations. However, these theories fail to account for the historical and textual evidence adequately.

The theory that the disciples stole the body is implausible given their initial despair and fear following Jesus' crucifixion. The transformation of the disciples into bold proclaimers of the resurrection, willing to face persecution and death, argues against the idea that they fabricated the resurrection.

The hallucination theory also falls short. Hallucinations are typically individual and subjective experiences, yet the New Testament records multiple group appearances of the risen Jesus. Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to over five hundred people at once (1 Corinthians 15:6), a phenomenon not consistent with psychological explanations of hallucinations.

The Theological Significance of the Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus is not only a historical event but also a theological cornerstone. It validates Jesus' claims about His identity and mission. Jesus' resurrection is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and the guarantee of believers' future resurrection. In Romans 4:25, Paul writes, "He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification." The resurrection signifies God's approval of Jesus' sacrificial death and His power to grant eternal life.

Moreover, the resurrection provides hope and assurance for Christians. In 1 Peter 1:3-4, it is written, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you." This living hope, grounded in the historical reality of the resurrection, sustains believers in their faith and life.

Faith and Reason in the Resurrection

While the historical and textual evidence for the resurrection is substantial, faith also plays a crucial role in accepting its reality. Hebrews 11:1 defines faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." Faith in the resurrection is not blind belief but is grounded in reasonable evidence provided by Scripture and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit.

Christian apologetics bridges the gap between faith and reason, demonstrating that belief in the resurrection is intellectually viable and spiritually enriching. As 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts, "But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence." This call to defend the faith includes providing reasons for believing in the historical reality of the resurrection.

About the Author

EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 220+ books. In addition, Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).



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