What It All Points To

empty-tomb-225x300Look here! If you find that Jesus works for you, that believing in him helps you get through the dirt of the daily grind and find meaning and purpose for life, that’s great! I’m happy for you, but don’t try to tell me that what you believe is the truth!” This is the kind of statement that I am hearing more often nowadays. Sometimes it is stated simply as, “That may be true for you, but it is not true for me.” The central point of these two statements is that spirituality and faith are private matters, and what is really important is sincerity.  Some Christians, perhaps unknowingly, have adopted this kind of thinking.  But, truth by definition is exclusive, and so these relativistic notions are nonsense.  In terms of Christianity, it is either true or it is false. And, as C. S. Lewis put it, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance.”

Christianity hinges on one single point, the resurrection, and if that didn’t happen, the whole of the Christian faith collapses.  Paul in I Corinthians says that it is a matter of first importance and that one’s salvation rests on what he or she does with it.  If the resurrection isn’t true, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, belief in him is vain, futile and pitiful.[1]  Simply put, without the resurrection, there is no Christianity, and faith in Jesus would be only idealistic and romantic without any base, a kind of delusion, which is precisely the accusation that many skeptics, such as Richard Dawkins, make about Christians.  If the resurrection as a matter of historical fact did not occur, then Dawkins and others like him are absolutely correct in their accusation.  One cannot be idealistic here.  As Francis Schaeffer put it,

Christianity is realistic because it says that if there is no truth, there is no hope; and there can be no truth if there is no adequate base.  It is prepared to face the consequences of being proved false and say with Paul: If you find the body of Christ, the discussion is finished, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.  It leaves absolutely no room for a romantic answer.[2]

Paul doesn’t mince words when he brings this up in I Corinthians 15 where he writes,

Now I would remind you brothers of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached—unless you believed in vain.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scripture, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scripture and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.[3]

This, in terms of critical scholarship, is one of the most important passages in the New Testament.  Briefly, here is why.

I Corinthians 15:3b-6, at least, is very early.  Paul is writing the letter in the mid-50s A.D., but Paul is reminding his audience of something he told them earlier.  It is a creedal tradition that he received much earlier.  How early?  It is generally accepted that Paul received this creed when he returned to Jerusalem after three year’s study in Arabia,[4] which followed his conversion around two years after the death of Jesus.  Critical scholarship, even among skeptics such as Gerd Lüdemann[5] and Michael Goulder,[6] virtually every scholar in the field, conclude that this creed goes back to the earliest period of Christian history, some two to five years after the death of Jesus.  It was penned far too early for it to be a product of legendary development over a long period as man have claimed.  Across the board, the consensus is that, whatever else may be stated, the creed and its claims were believed by the earliest followers of Jesus.

The creed makes three claims.  The first is that Jesus died.  This may seem superfluous, but there are those who think Jesus never existed as a historical figure in the first place.  Still others, and the teachings of Islam hold that he didn’t actually die.  However, “That Jesus died by crucifixion is almost universally attested in our sources early and late.”[7]  John Dominic Crossan, who is a highly skeptical scholar, said, “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[8]  If we can know anything about the ancient history of the near east, we can be quite certain that Jesus died by crucifixion.  Virtually no one, especially those with relevant degrees who teach at accredited institutes, skeptical or otherwise, will dispute this fact.

Dying is one thing, raising from the dead is another altogether.  This is the second claim of the creed.  For obvious reasons Jesus being raised from the dead has less acceptance among the scholarly community, especially in more skeptical circles, but not necessarily for scholarly reasons.  However, again, virtually all scholars do conclude that Jesus’ earliest followers were convinced that he had been raised from the dead.  We have the early date of the creed itself attesting to this.  Reginald Fuller states that the early belief of the disciples that Jesus was truly raised from the dead “is one of the indisputable facts of history.”[9]  J D Gunn remarks that, “It is almost impossible to dispute that at the historical roots of Christianity lie some visionary experience of the first Christians, who understood them as appearances of Jesus, raised by God from the dead.”[10]

The reason the earliest followers became convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead was because he appeared to them.  After witnessing his death on the cross, they later saw him walking, talking, and eating.  The creed makes this appeal and includes a list of those who had seen Jesus alive after his death.  Even the reports of the empty tomb didn’t sway the earliest followers much.  In fact, it seems that it did more to unsettle them than anything else.  Thomas, one of the disciples, wouldn’t even believe the report that Jesus had appeared to the others until he saw Jesus himself, saw the holes in his hands, felt the wound in his side.[11]  Paul includes a list of those to whom Jesus appeared implying that they should go talk to them if you really want to know. E. P. Sanders states, “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact.  What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”[12]

History’s task is to seek out the facts and then, with those facts, provide an explanation that accounts for them.  This methodology is why there are history departments in schools, colleges and universities.  Since we can be certain that Jesus died, and that there was a very early belief that he had been raised from the dead based on his appearances to his earliest followers, which could not have been a product of legendary development or made up hundreds of years later, there are only a few explanations that remain open.

The first is that the earliest followers of Jesus stole the body and made the whole thing up.  There are a couple of issues with this explanation.  First, the earliest followers would have had no reason to do this.  Conspiracies generally require a payoff, some value that will be gained.  But the earliest followers stood to lose everything including their life.  They were ostracized from the Jewish community, disowned by family, and persecuted by the Romans.  They were willing to die for their belief.  One may say that lots of people will die for something they believe, that doesn’t make it true.  This is a fair point, but remember that these earliest followers had the unique position of knowing if their claim was false.  As the saying goes, liars make poor martyrs.  While someone may be willing to risk everything for a belief, it is rarely the case that one will do the same for something they know to be false.  Also, why would Paul, who was Saul and persecuted the early followers of Jesus, forsake what promised to be a successful career with the religious leadership in Jerusalem for such a belief?  The idea that the resurrection was just made up doesn’t follow from the facts.

The second explanation, which is quite popular is that, while earliest followers were not engaged in any kind of deception, they themselves were deceived.  They hallucinated the “visions” of Jesus’ appearances.  There are issues with this in terms of psychology.  The accounts we have in their context do not cohere to known patterns of hallucination.  And mass hallucination such as what is described is virtually a miracle itself.  But here again, the hallucination explanation doesn’t account for Paul.  Paul, then Saul, would have had none of the emotional connection to Jesus that would be necessary to evoke some hallucination of Jesus back from the dead.  James, too, who is mentioned in the list of those Jesus appeared to, was not af the beginning someone who believed Jesus as the disciples did.  Paul turns 180 degrees and becomes one of Christianity’s greatest early voices.  James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church.  Hallucination doesn’t explain that.

We come to it at last.  As a matter of historical record, Jesus died.  As a matter of historical record, his earliest followers were convinced he had risen from the dead because they believed they had seen him alive after he died.  The disciples had no reason to falsify this claim nor are their experience consistent with hallucination.  More than this, even some who stood firmly against Jesus and his message, such as Paul, having absolutely no reason to lie or any of the psychological attachments needed to evoke a hallucination came to believe they had seen the risen Jesus and, therefore, began to believe in him.  There is certainly more data that can be analyzed.  The only explanation that fits what we know and makes sense is this.  He is risen indeed!  And that changes everything!

[1] I Corinthians 15:14, 17, and 19 respectively
[2] Francis Schaeffer, The Francis Schaeffer Trilogy. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 45
[3] I Corinthians 15:1-8, ESV
[4] Galatians 1:18-199
[5] Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 38
[6] Michael Goulder, “The Baseless Fabric of a Vision,” in Gavin D’Costa, editor, Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), 48
[7] Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York, HarperCollins, 2012), 163
[8] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A revolutionary Biography (San Fransisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 145
[9] Reginald H. Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology (New York: Scribner, 1965), 142.
[10] James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster, 1985), 75
[11] John 20:25
[12] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin, 1993), 280.

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Posted in Apologetics, Hisotry, Philosophy

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