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The historical validity of the Resurrection

By George O. Wood

A cynic quipped to his colleagues, "Gentlemen, it would be easy to start a new religion to compete with Christianity. All the founder would have to do is get himself crucified and then be raised from the dead."

Does anyone have truth?
Suppose you don’t know if anyone has the truth, so you attend a seminar on world religions. A young woman relates a dramatic change in her life from drug addiction to wellness. She attributes it to Jesus.

However, she is followed by a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Hindu — all averring that their religious faith has brought an inner feeling of congruence and God-connectedness.

Then a young man, rather unkempt in appearance, says, "I grew up in a dysfunctional family and in recent years lived alone with deep depression. While cooking breakfast one morning, I accidentally flipped an egg too high and it landed on my head. Instantly, I experienced the sensation of warmness over my whole being. My whole life has changed. A warm egg on the head will do the same thing for you."

All testify from their own subjective experiences.

Add to their number the final person who addresses the seminar: a buoyant, confident college coed. "I’m glad religion has worked for all these people,’’ she says, ‘‘but I don’t need any crutches to get through life. I am so happy to be free of all superstition. If you need a transcendental belief system or a warm egg, have at it — but not me. I’m strong enough to stand on my own without beads in my hands, prayers on my lips, a cross around my neck, or a god in my heart."

Which testimony is true?

How is truth established?
If the reality being tested involves repeatable phenomena, then the scientific method is your answer. For example, you can drop a ball from the leaning Tower of Pisa every minute for the rest of your life, and you will always get the same result. It falls to the ground.

But, what about a phenomenon that is unique, nonrepeatable? You use the historical method for validation. For example, the existence of Abraham Lincoln (or any other person) is not provable by the scientific method. Why? Because individuals appear once and are gone. We establish their existence by eyewitnesses. When the eyewitnesses die, we rely upon documents (writings, drawings, photographs, etc.) left by the eyewitnesses.

We examine the claims of Jesus through application of the historical method. The scientific method only tells us that people are born, live and die. What do you do with a claim that one person in human history lived, died — and lived again? You look at the testimony of the eyewitnesses and the totality of the circumstances surrounding the purported event. You sift through the evidence; and, if the witnesses are no longer alive, you evaluate documents left behind.

The body of Jesus
All theories trying to discredit the resurrection of Jesus, over 20 centuries, can be boiled down to six possibilities as to why His corpse disappeared from human history.

1. The followers of Jesus stole the body.

This is the first theory advanced to counter the claim that Jesus rose from the dead. (See Matthew 28:13.) To hold this position, you must discount the New Testament assertion that the gravesite was guarded by soldiers, placed there with Roman permission by religious leaders fearful that His disciples would steal the body in order to perpetrate a hoax. (See Matthew 27:62-66.)

Why would the disciples of Jesus even want to steal a dead Jesus? Only hours before His death they had all forsaken Him and fled. What would account for their sudden bravery and duplicity in stealing the body?

2. Jesus did not really die on the cross.

This is called the swoon theory. It does not account for the fact that, had Jesus survived crucifixion, it would have left Him emaciated. But, the disciples of Jesus preached Him as dynamically alive.

If Jesus pulled off such a hoax, there should be no respect for Him in the common culture. How can anyone say He is a good teacher, if at the core He is a liar or a lunatic?

If He did not die on the cross, when did He die? Where was He buried? Why was His corpse never produced? How can the emergence of His large contemporary following be explained — men and women willing to stake their lives on the fact that He rose from the dead?

3. The Romans or religious leaders took the body.

If either the Romans or the religious leaders took the body, they would have immediately produced it the moment the apostles began preaching Jesus as raised from the dead.

4. The women went to the wrong tomb.

This view was advanced because of the accounts in the Gospels of women arriving at the tomb early on Easter morning. Rather than meeting an angel, as claimed, they actually met a gardener whom they mistook for a heavenly being. When he tried to point out they were at the wrong tomb, they falsely assumed Jesus had risen and ran to tell His disciples. Of course, the rebuttal to this theory is that, if the women went to the wrong tomb, then all someone had to do was go to the right tomb.

5. The disciples were victims of hallucination.

This view suggests that the purported post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to His followers took place in their minds. However, hallucinations occur to individuals and not to groups en masse. What would account for the hallucinations abruptly ending after 40 days?

6. Jesus’ followers told the truth — He had risen.

Why should anyone believe their account? Because there is credible evidence.

Luke’s Gospel tells the story of two followers of Jesus, Cleopas and an unnamed disciple, returning the seven miles from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus the morning of the Resurrection. They are pictured as sad and shattered. They have already heard a report that some of the women from their company had gone to the tomb at daybreak and returned saying Christ was risen. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed like nonsense. (See Luke 24:11.) They didn’t even bother to go to the tomb and check out the story.

Two others did: Peter and John. (See John 20:1-9.) When John saw the evidence, he drew inferences. What could explain the grave clothes appearing in such a neat and folded manner? If enemies of Jesus had stolen His body, they would not have taken time to unfold and refold the clothes. Only one logical explanation: Jesus had risen, even though John himself had not yet seen the risen Christ.

But, these eyewitnesses of Jesus had even better evidence than that found at the gravesite — the risen Lord appeared to them. "After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days" (Acts 1:3, NIV).

Our culture separates private character from public conduct. Not so the early followers of Jesus. They staked their message and very lives on His credibility and theirs.

Jerusalem was filled with those who were eyewitnesses of the Crucifixion, heard the rumors of the Resurrection and appearances by Jesus, and knew the corpse had disappeared. At great danger to themselves, in the very city where He was executed for holding himself out to be the Son of God and Messiah, the followers of Jesus declared, "This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead" (Acts 2:23,24).

The opponents of Jesus launched a cover-up. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, "You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble" (Matthew 28:13,14).

Like the enemies of Jesus, your conduct can fly in the face of reason if you are disposed to evil. The first persons to disbelieve the Resurrection did so not because their heads were unconvinced, but because their hearts were darkened and rebellious.

Your response
Whom do you believe — Jesus and His followers or those who opposed Him?

Some say Jesus did not rise again from the dead, but He was a great moral teacher. If His followers lied about Him, then He was a poor teacher of truth; and, if He lied about himself, He should be disgraced.

What does the Resurrection mean to you? Everything, if you will respond to this call from an eyewitness of the risen Christ: "If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). To be saved is to be forgiven of sin, to be in right relationship with God, and to receive God’s gift of eternal life.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the only satisfactory conclusion that may be reached when all the evidences are weighed. From a personal experiential point of view, the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ living in your life by the power of the Holy Spirit brings you into true, loving and joyful relationship with God. In the last analysis, faith is not a leap in the dark. It is resting in the sufficiency of the evidences.

The late William Sangster, an English Methodist minister, became seriously ill with progressive muscular atrophy two years before his death. For those final years he endured suffering with courage. On Easter, unable to walk or speak, he wrote to his daughter: "It is terrible to wake up on Easter morning and have no voice with which to shout, ‘He is risen!’ But it would be still more terrible to have a voice and not want to shout.’’

Oh, I want to shout: Jesus is risen from the dead. I hope you do too.

George O. Wood, D.Th.P., is general secretary for the Assemblies of God.

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