We live in a time and place where it is a commonly accepted belief that the dead don’t come back to life. Thus, it is not surprising that any account of the resurrection in the modern day is met with raised eyebrows. Of course, such incredible claim is contrary to the universally accepted belief that dead people don’t rise. Interestingly, every bit of Christianity hangs on it. The apostle Paul teaches, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Cor 15:14).

Christian philosopher William Lane Craig argued that there are at least three independently established facts that points to the reliability of the resurrection account. These are (1) The empty tomb, (2) the post resurrection appearances, and (3) the origin of the disciple’s beliefs.

The Empty Tomb

Orthodox Christians throughout the centuries have always bore the same testament as the apostles: Jesus rose from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb. This in itself is remarkable. If their intention is to perpetuate a false religion, the disciples could have gone the easy way by saying that Jesus spiritually rose from the dead. In doing so, they would have reaped a huge amount of benefit. First, they wouldn’t have to carry so heavy a burden to account for the empty tomb. Further, they run no risk of being disproven—there is no way to conclusively disprove an unverifiable claim of a spiritual resurrection.

Yet such is not how the apostles trumpeted their belief. They were positing a resurrected Christ. One who left behind an empty tomb. They raised the stakes so high that all the Pharisees needed to do is to present the body. Such a move would have quelled Christianity for good, yet history tells us of no such evidence. In fact, a look at Matthew’s Gospel shows that the early Jewish polemic is to spread the word that the disciples stole the body.

Now this is a vital piece of concordance. If the enemy of the church agreed that the tomb was indeed empty, then it can be said that there is hardly any reason to doubt the reports of the apostles. Jacob Kremer, a New Testament critic specializing in the study of the resurrection concurs. He said, “by far, most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb.”

This brings us to the next step in the issue. If the tomb is empty, are there good reasons to believe that the disciples stole the body? I think the answer is no. First, the Jews had no concept of a dying and rising Messiah. To have their Christ shamefully arrested, beaten and executed by Gentiles would otherwise cause the disciples to rethink their stand. They are not in a good mental state to rob the grave of Joseph of Arimathea. Early accounts tell us that not only did they desert their Messiah during his arrest, one of them even disowned him thrice.

If the disciples had no good motivation to steal the body, so much so for the chief priests. They had nothing to gain for removing the body of Jesus in the tomb. Thus, this means that if neither party has any good motivation to rob the grave, and yet the tomb was discovered empty, the best explanation is that Jesus was bodily resurrected.

The Post Resurrection Appearances

1 Corinthians, a letter written somewhere in the 50s AD tells an account in its 15th chapter that Jesus made multiple appearances to a wide range of people including the twelve apostles, to a skeptical brother like James, to Paul, an enemy of the church, and to more than five hundred people all at one time (1 Cor 15:3-8).

An independent account from Luke’s Gospel told the story of the risen Jesus accompanying two disciples on the Emmaus road. Jesus would then break bread in their presence (Luke 24:30) and consume a broiled fish (Luke 24:41-43). John reported another similar event in his Gospel where Jesus appeared to them early morning for breakfast. (John 21:12-13).

One may be quick to brush off such claims as hallucinations. Yet a hallucination would have been an impossible explanation to these sightings. For one, there are no extant medical observation accounting for mass hallucinations. Further, entities produced by hallucinations do not interact with physical objects such as the breaking of the bread or the consumption of food as mentioned in the Gospels.

Hans Grass, a known New Testament critic further admits that the conversion of James is the surest proof of the resurrection of Christ. Moreover, the conversion of Paul from a persecutor to an apostle could only be explained by the appearance of Jesus alive. It must be noted that Paul had nothing to gain and everything to lose by being a turncoat. He will be rejected by the Pharisees and find himself among the persecuted. He will be imprisoned, flogged, even stoned. He isn’t even sure that the apostles will welcome him with open arms. Yet, Paul was so convinced of the risen Christ that as a former persecutor of the martyrs, he became a follower of Christ and died a martyr himself. The best explanation of such a significant turn was that he was fully convinced of the resurrection—that Christ has God’s stamp of approval, thus, raising him from the dead. NT Wright rightly said that visions of the deceased is not an evidence that the dead came back to life. It is rather an evidence that he is dead! If what they experienced was not merely hallucinations, it thus makes sense to reason that the resurrection took place.

Origin of the Disciples’ Belief

At the arrest of Jesus, the Bible told a story of them deserting Jesus at a very crucial moment (Mark 14:50). Later on, the same document told the story of Peter disowning Jesus thrice (Mark 14:66-72). Elsewhere in another Gospel, they went into hiding for fear of the Jews (John 20:19). Even worse, the same document detailed an account where the disciples went back to their own way of life—as fishermen (John 21).

One has to ask how a bunch of demoralized and frightened apostles became fearless trumpeters of the resurrection even to the point of death (John 20:19). Unless they are fully convinced that what they saw was a risen Jesus, it is very difficult to explain why the early believers maintained their testimony. Peter for instance asserted, “we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16)

Many people die for something they believe is true. The apostles however, died for something they know to be true.

Conclusion

In the presence of three independently verifiable facts pointing to the resurrection, there are good grounds to believe that it did occur. The objection that “no one comes back from the dead these days” is valid only when one rules out the miraculous—one which carries so heavy a burden that proving it would be impossible. Just because something does not occur at present doesn’t mean it never occurred in the past. As responsible seeker, one should follow the evidence where it leads. Insofar as what has been written, the evidence weighs heavily on the historicity of the resurrection account. The best explanation for the empty tomb, the post mortem appearances of Jesus, and the origin of the disciples’ belief fall strongly on an overarching foundation of a genuine and historical event of a bodily resurrection of Christ.

 

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