I was nine years old with an insatiable appetite for the dangers of weapons. I had collected pocket knives and had filled an entire briefcase with my many flea-market spoils. My parents eventually bought me my very own BB gun, which turned out to be as much a source of entertainment for my father as it was for me. My father and I would shoot at milk cartons filled with water in our backyard and watch as our shots left the carton to bleed water from its many holes. But there is one incident with my BB gun that stands out more than any other. It was family camp week for Ramona First Baptist, the church my father was pastoring at the time. We brought my BB gun. During camp I pleaded with my father to take me out to shoot it. Finally, he agreed to take me out with several other kids at the church. I would stick the gun between my legs to pump it up as many times as I could. We shot it out into the distance at really nothing in particular. When my dad took the gun to shoot a few himself, all the kids gathered closely to watch as the leader of the church squared his shoulders and aimed with deadly precision at an impossible target on the distant rocks. He pulled the trigger and immediately all the children gasped. The clueless lizard that meandered upon the rock was now on its back squirming from the gaping hole in its stomach. It had been shot cleanly with a copper BB and now unceremoniously died in paroxysms of pain. Death for the crime of being a lizard on the wrong rock at the wrong time. A little boy of five or so looked with sad eyes at my father and said, “Pastor Chuck, you killed one of God’s creatures.” There was a palpable despair, because all the kids knew as my father certainly did too, that was not supposed to happen. The lizard should not have been killed, it should not have died. My father gave the lizard mercy with one final BB and the deed was done. And we were done shooting.
Reflecting on moments like these help me recognize precisely how the followers of Jesus felt when they saw his death. It wasn’t supposed to happen. Jesus should not have been killed, he should not have died. They saw what was supposed to be their salvation cry out to the sky and drop his head in defeat. He was the Way, the Truth and the Life, and he was dead. The Bible teaches that the disciples scattered after Jesus’ death. After Jesus died, all their hope was crushed and their aspirations for the future were carried away to rot in a tomb. But something fantastically strange happened. Days later those same disciples were trekking into the world in all directions to proclaim the Gospel message of Jesus the Christ. These followers who had nothing more to live for all of sudden found something worthy of dying for.
So what could have possibly provoked such a perverse disposition? In this post I intend to present the evidence for the truth of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here I am going to cover three primary points. First, (1) there is the fact of the empty tomb. Then (2) there is the experience of post-mortem visitations of Jesus by the disciples which resulted in their sudden faith and ministry. And lastly, (3) the conversion of Paul.
It would not a very strong case if we had to assume the divine authenticity of the Bible in order to make a compelling case for the historical reality of the resurrection. Therefore, we will not assume the infallibility of the Bible or even its general reliability, instead we will only accept those facts that are virtually unanimously agreed upon by contemporary historians of the Bible. Any case soundly made from this foundation will be both compelling and enduring.
The Empty Tomb
Scholars agree that it would be strange indeed for authors to claim that the initial witnesses of the empty tomb were women. Though we have the luxury of hindsight to know that there is no relevant difference between a male or female witness, ancient readers thought differently. If the writers of the New Testament were fabricating the reality of the empty tomb, they would have certainly not claimed that the first witnesses were female followers of Jesus. It would plainly be better when trying to enhance the credibility of a contrived story in Ancient Judea to involve respectable males as witnessing the initial risen Christ. This reality has led scholars to concur that when a group of female followers met at the tomb where Jesus was laid, the tomb was indeed empty. A survey of scholars found that a majority “(approximately 75 percent) of scholars writing on the subject during the 30 years from 1975 to 2005 agree that Jesus’ tomb was in fact found empty. This includes scholars who are skeptical of Christianity itself.’’ This fact itself does not prove resurrection, but when conjoined with the following evidence, it helps make the reality of the resurrection undeniable.
Post-Mortem Visitations and a Sudden Faith
This is really just the fancy way of saying that the disciples actually saw Jesus after he died. Let me begin first with a story. I was part of a youth group in high school. One night my friend Pat and I were staying at a youth leader’s house for the night. With an eerie nonchalance, our youth leader talked about how he knew his house was haunted because he had seen a ghost. I, on the other hand, was only convinced of the existence of two spiritual beings aside from GOD – Angels and Demons. And I had the nagging suspicion that Angels were not in the practice of hauntings. So when we went to bed for the night I made but one request. A very firm request. Do not leave me alone in the room where we sleep. It was a whispered plea to deaf ears, all for naught. In the twilight of the morning my eyes woke up and I knew immediately in the sort of intuitive clairvoyance common in grave moments, that I was alone. The room was quieter than anything I had ever experienced. It was the soundless feeling of having my ears completely plugged. Worst of all, I could not move. There was a terrifying weight upon my chest. I would have been frozen with fear had I not already been frozen by something else. Then something stirred in the shadows of the dark room, something birthed in darkness came over me and I saw it. It came upon me and I could then only hear what sounded like a deep and continuous exhale. I saw its shape in a white fog come to consume me. I tried with all my might to move, to scream out for help. In peril you think you may be able to muster at least a modicum of articulation. But my mind rushed with a garble of holy quips, “Jesus, Bible, Scripture, God…God… O God…” All the chatter of a mind that could not unchain my tongue. Finally, all of the force that pushed against an unmoving wall was unleashed and I burst to my feet with a scream I thought I’d never scream. I fled from the room and would never set foot in it again.
It was much later in life that I learned that experiences like mine were being diagnosed as sleep paralysis. What I saw come from the dark and breathe over my unmoving body was ostensibly just a hallucination. And so with the high hand of scientific rationalism my experience was so easily relegated to nothingness. But no such scientific explanation can similarly account for the group experience of Jesus Christ after he died, by his disciples.
Eleven disciples (the original 12 minus Judas) claimed to have seen Jesus after his resurrection. The list can be found in Acts 1:13. The context of their experience was not one of excitement or anticipation, but rather of very real fear. This can be seen in Peter’s open and public denial of Christ (Matthew 26:69-75), made out of fear that what happened to Christ would happen to him. It was also in the context of open skepticism, as seen with Thomas’s need to feel the very wounds of Christ (John 20:24-29). We cannot merely believe that these accounts are true on pain of circularity. However, the truth of these accounts is evidentially compelling because the same disciples who were skeptical of resurrection and afraid of death, said they met with Jesus after his resurrection and thereafter willingly died for that which once led them into hiding. Peter himself was crucified. All the disciples who once ran and hid, now rejoiced when they were beaten for the Good News of a Risen Christ (Acts 5:41).[bra_blockquote align=’right’]I think it better suited to believe what the disciples saw was so real, so very real, that they were willing to put hands and feet to a cross and rejoice, for they knew that death had already been conquered.[/bra_blockquote]It is true that a person might die for something they believe in their heart to be true. But who in their right mind would willingly die for something they knew to be false? Are we to really believe that the 11 disciples lied about seeing the resurrected Christ and thereafter spent their entire lives being beaten for a lie, tortured for an untruth and murdered for the vainglory of a thing that never was? Such a belief strains credulity. Nay, instead I think it better suited to believe what the disciples saw was so real, so very real, that they were willing to put hands and feet to a cross and rejoice, for they knew that death had already been conquered.
The Conversion of Paul
The last fact being addressed here is the sudden conversion of Paul. What we know is that Paul of Tarsus (then Saul) was a pharisaical fanatic and as vociferous a foe of Christianity as he was implacable. He was said to be a rising star in the Jewish community. He had a bright future, starting with his swift hand at stamping out the Christian sect that masqueraded as a Jewish offshoot. This man, Paul, who trekked a Damascus rode some 2000 years ago, bore letters, authorized by the high priest of Jerusalem, to end the cult of Christ. But in the suddenness and quickness of a fallen star, this Jewish high power, gave it all up and became utterly transformed into a full-blown believer in the Risen Christ and believed it unquestionably thereafter. He changed his name, becoming Paul the Apostle. He became a tireless missionary who was jailed, tortured and ultimately martyred for a belief he at one point was tasked to destroy.
What we know is that Paul claimed to have encountered the Risen Christ on the Damascus road and it changed his entire life trajectory (Acts 9). So we are left with essentially two possibilities. Either Paul was the subject of an incredibly powerful and effective delusion, or his declared conversion experience was genuine. Timothy and Lydia McGrew phrase it thusly: “The strength of the evidence for the resurrection from the conversion of Paul is therefore for all practical purposes inversely proportional to the probability that on the road to Damascus he suffered from a hallucination.” There are, however, several layers of improbability that must be surmounted to trust that Paul merely hallucinated. First, there are no comparable accounts of delusions changing vicious persecutors into faithful followers of what they once worked to destroy. Also, a hallucination that occurs when a person is fully awake and which results in several days of blindness is simply unheard of. There are simply too many hurdles to overcome to soundly believe that Paul hallucinated.
Several volumes could be (and have been) written on the authenticity and reality of Jesus’ resurrection. While the Christian can rest easy in the fact that the reality of the resurrection is evidentially sound, we must also take care to remember that the reality of Christianity does not need the sort of evidence presented here. Christ is a God who promises to witness to our very hearts, witness in such a way that even if all the evidence for the Resurrection were stripped away, we would still know with the certainty of faith that our God is a risen one. Our God is one who has transformed us into beings that in faith anticipate life after life. We too, like the disciples before us, can put hands and feet to the cross of this world and rejoice. Rejoice in the knowledge that to die is the first step to a better way to live.
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