Yesterday we looked at the question about if Jesus really died when He was crucified. Continuing on with arguments against the biblical account of Jesus’ resurrection, David Frees examines the question—Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
The answer to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead determines the validity of the Christian faith. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then as the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, our faith is useless and we are still in our sins and have no hope of eternal life. But if Jesus did rise from the dead, then the good news of the gospel is true: Jesus has defeated death and we, as His followers, share in the hope of the resurrection from the dead. However, as with the question of whether Jesus actually died on the cross, objections to His resurrection have also been raised. The more common of these objections include the conspiracy theory, the wrong tomb theory, and the legend theory.
The conspiracy theory holds that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from the tomb and later claimed He had risen from the dead. This theory was first refuted by Eusebius of Caesarea around AD 263 and later by William Paley and others when it was resurrected by deists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Various arguments have been used to debunk this theory. First, it would have been impossible for the disciples to take Jesus’ body given the presence of the guards stationed outside the tomb. Second, the fact that the disciples would propose such a deceitful ruse, claiming Jesus rose from the dead when they knew it to be false, is inconsistent with those who had followed the teachings of Jesus
for three years. Third, a deception of this sort would only result in the disciples’ own suffering and very possible death. Stated another way, while people may be willing to suffer and die for a cause they believe to be true, people are not willing to suffer and die for a cause they know to be false. In order for the disciples to endure the persecution they would experience as followers of the risen Christ, they would have had to have been convinced that the resurrection actually took place. Therefore, if the resurrection was known by them to have been false, at least one of the disciples would have revealed the deceitful scheme instead of dying for something they knew to be a lie.
In The Son Rises, William Lane Craig stipulates that the many arguments laid out by Paley and his predecessors have refuted the conspiracy theory forever. Craig writes, “It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that no modern biblical scholar would for a moment entertain the theory that the disciples conspired together to steal the corpse and then lie about the resurrection appearances. It is utterly out of the question. The fact that this issue is still batted back and forth at the popular level is a sad testimony to the terrible lack of communication between the specialist and the man on the street.”
A second theory that has been raised against the resurrection is the wrong tomb theory that originated with Kirsopp Lake in 1907. This theory holds that on the first day of the week when the women went to anoint the body of Jesus, they inadvertently went to the wrong tomb, which they saw to be empty, and therefore proclaimed that Jesus had risen. This theory is easily refuted not only by the fact that the women knew exactly where Jesus had been buried as mentioned in Luke 23:55, but by the simple fact that when the disciples began to proclaim the resurrection it would have been all too easy for the religious leaders to simply identify the correct tomb, open it, and produce the body of Jesus.
A third theory commonly used to challenge the resurrection is the legend theory espoused by David Strauss proposing that the resurrection of Jesus is merely a legend invented by His followers in the early days after His death, which grew with each successive generation. This particular theory denies the reliability of the gospel accounts themselves and views the resurrection as a myth. Modern biblical scholarship, however, has demonstrated that the gospel accounts are authentic, accurate, and should be considered biographical in nature.
In his book The Historical Reliability of the New Testament, Craig Blomberg writes, “Although the novel and avant-garde almost by definition are what receive the most attention in the media and interest on the Internet, the amount of solid scholarship that has been produced in the last forty-five years internationally that supports the historical trustworthiness of this or that portion of the Bible has grown exponentially.” As discussed in lesson 3, the Bible is a unique book whose historical reliability is supported by its stellar textual transmission, archaeological discoveries, and many prophetic fulfillments.
Drawing from the evidence presented above, there are five foundational lines of argumentation that can be given to support the authenticity of the resurrection. First, the moral character of the disciples. The disciples followed Jesus for three years, and the moral character they would have developed would be inconsistent with the idea of them creating or supporting a lie designed to deceive others. In addition, the disciples themselves were surprised by the resurrection given that belief in a resurrected Messiah was foreign to Jewish thought. In fact, there are no direct prophecies in the Old Testament regarding the resurrection.
Second, the reality of the empty tomb. The tomb was discovered by women who were going to anoint the body of Jesus on the first day of the week. Upon arriving, they were told that Jesus had risen and were to go tell the disciples. At this time the testimony of women was considered unreliable, which is demonstrated in Peter’s disbelief of Mary Magdalene’s report in Mark 16:11. If the empty tomb was merely an invention of the early church, then the story would have had the disciples discovering the empty tomb rather than women.
Third, the many eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:3–7, Paul recites a creedal statement that can be dated back to just a few years after the resurrection event itself. The creedal statement records four facts that were believed by the first followers of Christ: Christ died for our sins; Christ was buried; Christ was raised on the third day; and Christ appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and later to over five hundred people at one time who were still alive at Paul’s writing. It was a statement of faith developed very early in the Christian community which, if false, would have been refuted by those who knew the truth.
Fourth, the willingness of those who saw the risen Christ to suffer and die for something they knew to be true. The disciples would face severe persecution and eventual death because of their belief in the resurrected Jesus. As mentioned above, while people will die for what they believe to be true, they won’t die for what they know to be false. The resurrection appearances of Jesus to His followers had a profound effect on their lives, which empowered them to live and proclaim His resurrection in the face of overwhelming odds.
Fifth, the accuracy of the gospel accounts. The gospels should be viewed as authentic, eyewitness accounts because they were understood to be authoritative in the first century and referred to as “Scripture” by such early writers as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus. Reverence for these documents and their incorporation in early church writings led to them being collected into a single volume at a very early date. The gospels, Acts, and the writings of Paul were even accepted by non-Christian groups as historical records, though they may not have been embraced and followed.
Gary Habermas, a New Testament scholar, takes an even simpler approach to understanding the resurrection of Jesus as an historic event in which he assumes one of three approaches to the Bible. First, if the Bible is the inspired Word of God, as was demonstrated in lesson 3, then Jesus was in fact raised from the dead as the Bible claims. Second, if the Bible is not inspired but nonetheless a historically reliable document, then Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is still factual. Third, if the Bible is neither inspired nor reliable but is just a book of ancient literature on the level of Homer and Plato, then one could still say Jesus was raised from the dead based on the testimonies of others during its time.
Part of lesson 4 from the class Apologetics Basics by David Frees
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