The crux of the matter!
When Jesus was publicly executed by crucifixion, the disciples he had been training for three years were shattered, scattered and frightened for their own lives! But within two months they had become a band of bold preachers who “turned the world upside down!” The central theme of their message was “God has brought Jesus back to life, and we have seen it for ourselves!!”
Today it is suggested that people living in the modern age cannot believe in the resurrection. But it was no easier when it happened!! If we are going to be honest, we should at least examine the evidence and consider which explanation of the facts is most plausible, even if it challenges our world view. (To make up your mind that resurrection is not possible before looking at the evidence is an irrational act of faith or an indication of a closed, unscientific mind.)
The historical records that are available to us document the accounts of witnesses. They were written towards the end of the first generation of those who had known Jesus personally, and seen him alive after his crucifixion. They had a clearly stated agenda.
Luke was a doctor who travelled with Paul and described first-hand the Mediterranean storm and ship-wreck which they both survived. He wrote a two-volume history which we know as Luke’s Gospel, and The Acts of the Apostles in the Bible. In the dedication of his first volume, he describes his careful study of the many reports, including the eyewitness accounts, of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He declares his aim to make an orderly account “so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4)
The Apostle John was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three. At the end of his long life, John wrote his own account of Jesus’ life, now called John’s Gospel. He describes his purpose in selecting his material; “so that you might know that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through your faith in him you may have life.” (John 20:30, 31)
(We should not be distressed that the gospels were written thirty and more years after Jesus’ death. In our own age, the stories of those who fought in the Vietnam war, for example, will continue to be written over the next thirty years, and their families will confirm that the stories that had been told in the home have been recorded for future generations. (See also “Forty years on…” )
Cleverly invented stories? – Not!
Mary Magdalene, the other women, the disciples, doubting Thomas, and the two disciples from Emmaus all told stories of how they came to be convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. Luke wrote; “For forty days after his death he appeared to them many times in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive.” (Acts 1:3)
Paul confirms that Jesus appeared to over 500 people on one occasion. (1 Cor 15:3-8) Peter, remembering the transfiguration of Jesus, wrote, “We have not followed cleverly invented stories, but we were eyewitnesses of his greatness.” (2 Pet 1:16-18)
How can we know if these stories are concocted, or truly the reports of eye-witnesses? Do they have, as translator J. B. Phillips felt, the “ring of truth?”
When Tony Morphett read the gospels for the first time, he said the experience “blew a hole in my ceiling!!” Tony Morphett (1938-2018) was a leading Australian film and TV script writer, who wrote hundreds of hours of popular TV drama. His work included The Sullivans, Water Rats, Blue Heelers, A Place called Home, and Packed to the Rafters. For years he made his living from constructing fictional stories to seem like real life. In contrast, he began his career as a journalist, interviewing witnesses of real events, researching historical records and producing documentaries. When he came to read the Gospels, he was expecting to find fiction. He was shocked to find “the taste of reporting”, the sure sense of people describing real events they had witnessed for themselves.
Successful detectives recognise the principle that, when all other explanations have been disproved, the remaining option must be true, even if it appears improbable or hard to believe.
Let’s consider the options to explain the reports of Jesus’ resurrection.
Was Jesus really dead, or just unconscious?
Before Pilate released the body of Jesus for burial, the officer responsible for the execution personally confirmed that Jesus had died. (Mark 15:43-45) One of his soldiers guaranteed it by thrusting a spear through Jesus’ side (John personally witnessed this. John 19:32-35)
Did someone steal the body?
The very birth of the Christian church could have been aborted if only someone had produced Jesus’ body. The Jewish leaders must have been desperate to do so!
Did the disciples invent the story?
It is implausible to suggest that Jesus’ disciples invented the story of the resurrection, and then spent the rest of their lives facing persecution and death preaching a message that they knew was false. Chuck Colson was Special Counsel to President Nixon, and went to jail for his part in the Watergate Cover-up. He observes that none of President Nixon’s loyal team was prepared to persist with a lie once they were facing loss of career and obstruction of justice charges. Their cover-up on behalf of President Nixon came unstuck within two weeks of being under the spot-light of investigation, – and they were not facing physical torture and the death penalty!
Is it true?!
Lee Strobel was the legal affairs reporter and investigative journalist with the Chicago Tribune. He was a sceptic and atheist. When his wife became a Christian, he set out to investigate Christianity for himself, expecting to be able to discredit her belief. His personal research led to his own conversion. He wrote of his investigations in his popular book, “The Case for Christ.” (Zondervan, 1990)
Similar journeys of sceptical investigation and discovery have been made in previous generations. Frank Morison was a British lawyer who set out to disprove the resurrection. He was persuaded by his own research, and formed the considered judgement that the resurrection is a fact of history. His influential book, “Who moved the stone?” was published in 1930. Going further back another generation or two, Lew Wallace was another lawyer, a Union General in the American Civil War, the Governor of New Mexico, and a diplomat. His indifference to religion was challenged by a conversation with the outstanding atheist orator of his day. He set out with an open mind to study the story of Jesus in depth for himself. He became a believer, and wrote the famous novel, “Ben Hur, a Tale of the Christ,” (published 1880,) which later became the source for two famous movies.
But the original sceptic convert was one of Jesus’ own disciples, Thomas! He demanded to see the risen Jesus for himself before he would believe. When Jesus did meet him in person, Thomas’ life was transformed. Thomas’ legacy is the existence of millions of ‘Thomas Christians,’ worshipping today in Ma Thoma churches in India’s Kerala state, and in cities around the world. (For more about Thomas, see; “Faith, reason and evidence.”)
What do you reckon?
Jesus himself predicted his own resurrection, offering it as the evidence for his claims. (See headline 35.) Now the evidence is available to us, and the challenge is to reach a plausible verdict for ourselves that explains the continuing impact of Jesus’ life and words around the world today. Have you seriously considered the evidence for yourself? What is your verdict?
Further Reading; see “Eliminating the impossible: Can a scientist believe the resurrection?” By John Lennox, on ABC Religion and Ethics, 6/4/14 (link)