Calvary Road Baptist Church

“CHRIST’S RESURRECTION AS HISTORICAL FACT

 

Easter Sunday, in the year 2009. Celebrated around the world by those of us who identify ourselves as Christians as the day God raised the day the Lord Jesus Christ up from the dead. It can truly be said that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which the religion known as Christianity is built.

We Christians embrace the notion that believing in God is quite insufficient to stand anyone in good stead with God. As well, we maintain that the Islamic notion that there is only one god, while true, is also insufficient. Keep in mind what is found in James 2.19: “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble.” So you see, believing in God, believing in one God, while true, is insufficient, since demons know as much. Beyond the fact that there is one God, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD,” Deuteronomy 6.4, and “there is none other God but one,” First Corinthians 8.4, there is the revealed truth that God is a trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that God the Father’s will is that in all things His Son, Jesus, should have the preeminence, Colossians 1.18.

Christians, then, believe in only one God. However, Christians also embrace the truth that Jesus is God, the Son of God, and God the Son. As well, we glory in the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news which the apostles preached, which we have received, and wherein we stand. By which we are also saved, unless we have believed in vain, First Corinthians 15.1-2. What is the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the good news? We find it stated succinctly in First Corinthians 15.3-4: “. . . that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.” It is that “rose again the third day according to the scriptures” part that is our focus on this Easter Sunday. That is what we celebrate today.

Not a new idea that was developed gradually, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the explosive cornerstone of our faith and always has been. From the beginning in Jerusalem[1], the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been a most prominent feature in the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to the uttermost parts of the world before the end of the first century AD, as far west as the British Isles and as far east as India and China. It is important at this point for us to understand what is meant by the word resurrection. Resurrection is not resuscitation. Someone is not resurrected who regains consciousness after fainting. Neither is resurrection the same as being brought back to life after dying. With respect to the Lord Jesus Christ, resurrection means so much more than coming back to life after having died.

Resurrection, that which is celebrated about Jesus on Easter Sunday is not life after death, conscious existence after you die, but ‘life after “life after death.”’[2] “The meaning of resurrection, both in the Jewish and the non-Jewish world of late antiquity, was never that the person concerned had simply ‘gone to heaven’, or been ‘exalted’ in some way which did not involve a new bodily life.”[3] Resurrection has to do with someone who dies, and who is then given a new life.[4] Thus, Jesus lived on this earth for thirty-three and a half years and then died. Upon His death, He continued to exist and enjoy consciousness and the rest of His nonphysical faculties for three days, at which time He was given physical life once more in a body that was the same, yet was also in some ways different from the body He was born with.

You do understand that the clock prevents me from developing the meaning of resurrection any further at this time, though it is necessary for me to touch on the importance of the resurrection before moving on. The resurrection is important as a victory over death. The resurrection is important as a testimony of God’s approval of His Son’s saving work on the cross. The resurrection is important as an integral component of Christ’s saving work to accomplish our redemption. As well, the resurrection is important as a historical event that speaks loudly to the existence of God and the authenticity of our Christian faith.

In light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, how can an intellectually honest person dismiss out of hand a thorough consideration of the claims of Jesus Christ? As well, lest anyone insist that history is one thing and faith another, let me remind you that scriptural faith can only be faith that is rooted in hard evidence, such as we will be dealing with this morning. After all, Hebrews 11.1 insists, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Thus, there is a direct link between the faith of our Christian faith and the resurrection of Jesus that serves as a foundation stone on which our faith is built. That being true, it is no disservice to Christianity to investigate the facts upon which our faith is based. Unlike Islam, we Christians have no objection to anyone investigating what we claim to be the facts of history and drawing their own conclusions, so long as they are willing to defend those conclusions in the marketplace of ideas.

Before we turn more fully to a review of facts, allow me to mention two requirements for truly honest inquiry, both in the realm of science and in the realm of history: Facts must be investigated before a decision is reached. It is intellectually dishonest to rule out conclusions that you may not like before you thoroughly investigate the facts. Therefore, your professor is intellectually dishonest who denies the resurrection of Christ without having thoroughly investigated the facts related to Christ’s resurrection. I bring this up because thinkers in the 18th century Enlightenment period assumed the universe was a closed system, thereby completely ruling out even a consideration of supernatural intervention. Of course, that is stacking the deck. Modern thinkers now recognize that such drawing of conclusions before all the facts are in is intellectually dishonest.[5]

Doctors, lawyers, journalists, detectives and others must examine the facts before conclusions are made, whether it pertains to a lawsuit, curing a disease, interviewing eyewitnesses to correctly understand a new story, or finding a murderer. Scientists likewise depend on the inductive method of examining all possibilities before a theory is postulated. Both scientists and historians who are intellectually honest and logically sophisticated recognize that there is no scholarly basis for rejecting the facts before a thorough investigation to find the truth is made, and that dismissing facts is simply not permissible, even if we do not like the conclusions arrived at by the evidence before us.[6] Are you with me so far?

That said, allow me to cite ten facts which are accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who study this subject, in spite of the various differences in other areas of their thought:

 

(1) Jesus died because of crucifixion.

(2) He was buried.

(3) The disciples became very discouraged, having lost hope because of His death.

(4) Jesus’ tomb was found empty soon after His burial.

(5) A few days after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that they believed were literal appearances of the risen Jesus.

(6) Because of these experiences, the disciples’ lives were completely transformed to the point of being willing to die for their belief.

(7) The disciples’ public testimony concerning the resurrection took place in Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and buried shortly before.

(8) The Christian faith had its beginning at this time.

(9) Sunday became the primary day of worship.

(10) A few years later, Paul became a believer because of an experience that he also believed to be an appearance of the risen Jesus.[7]

 

I submit two things to you for consideration this morning: First, quite apart from any confidence you may or may not have in the Bible, the burden of proof is on you or anyone else who doubts these facts to explain them. Second, I invoke the Sherlock Holmes rule, whereby the elimination of all possible explanations of an event save one, however unlikely, requires that you accept the remaining explanation as being true. Based upon what we have just reviewed, I challenge anyone to devise an explanation of the facts experts are almost unanimously agreed upon that is more likely to be true than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, however unwilling you are to admit God’s supernatural intervention in the affairs of men. Facts are stubborn things, but facts are on the side of the Christian faith with respect to the resurrection of Jesus.

Having presented my introductory remarks, allow me to present my three main points to establish the resurrection of Jesus Christ as historical fact:[8]

 

First, THOSE THEORIES ADVANCED THAT DENY THE RESURRECTION

 

The skeptic’s denials of the resurrection advanced from time to time have three major weaknesses:

First, none of the various theories offered by skeptics to deny the resurrection comes even close to explaining the ten facts that even the skeptics accept as true. There are a number of theories advanced by infidels who deny any possibility of the miraculous, asserting that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is based upon fraud, a swoon, hallucinations (along with other psychological explanations), so-called spiritualistic occurrences, and legends. All of these theories have failed to disprove the resurrection. Since each of these faulty theories fails because of several major objections, and because of our obvious time limitations, allow me to quickly deal with and dismiss the theory that the disciples and early believers were overcome by hallucinations (what some term mass hysteria) that caused them to believe Jesus had risen, to illustrate the approach that can be used to show the limitations of other theories: First, hallucinations are subjective experiences in an individual’s mind and therefore they are not collective or contagious. Since these experiences cannot be shared or induced, the disciples could not all have had the same hallucination. In short, groups do not hallucinate. Second, the psychological condition of the mind needed for hallucinations, characterized by belief and expectation, was entirely lacking. The disciples were not expecting the resurrection. On the contrary, they were in a state of despair. Third, the variety of times, places, and personalities involved in these post-resurrection experiences militates against any hallucination theory. Fourth, care was taken to show that these experiences were not hallucinations. For instance, the New Testament clearly distinguishes the resurrection appearances of Christ from subjective visions, thereby relating that Jesus’ appearances were of a different quality. Fifth, hallucinations are thought to stem from mental illness or from physiological sources such as deprivation of sleep and lack of food or drink. These conditions were not applicable to the disciples, however. They were neither malnourished nor sleep deprived for long periods. Sixth, how do you explain the conversions of two nonbelievers, Paul and James? It is extremely doubtful that they would have desired to see Jesus enough to hallucinate. This provides just one instance of how the alternative theories put forth by skeptics over the years have failed to account for the known facts concerning the resurrection. It also serves as an example of how each miracle denying explanation can be refuted by numerous objections.

Next, even if you combine two or more of the skeptic’s theories invented to oppose the resurrection, you still have no valid explanation of the facts, because many of the skeptical theories refute the other skeptical theories that compete for attention. Two skeptical theories that oppose each other have never been successfully combined to make a valid one.

A third reason the anti-resurrection theories fail is because they are all based upon an assumption made by one 18th century critic, a man named David Hume. Hume wrote an essay titled “On Miracles,” in which he concluded before thoroughly investigating every fact that miracles could not occur. His conclusion before investigating the facts was based on his view that the universe is a closed system, where the assumption was made that there is no God who could or who would intervene to work miracles. However, neither scientists nor historians agree with Hume’s view of the universe anymore. Springing from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in physics, simply stated, “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa,” a different view of the universe now prevails, rendering Hume’s faulty conclusions reached before he had considered all the facts null and void.[9] Therefore, despite the fact that there are scientists and university professors who adamantly deny the possibility of miracles such as the resurrection, they are either ignorant of the fact that the basis for their predisposition is not valid, or they are dishonest with their students.

Fourth, when the various theories opposing the resurrection were advanced in the 1800s, each of the theories advanced by skeptics thoroughly disproved the other theories then being advanced. Thus, it was the religious liberals themselves who disproved the swoon theory, the hallucination theory, as well as the others, as valid explanations of the ten facts that I listed for you surrounding Christ’s resurrection.

Fifth, the antisupernaturalist theories of those who deny the resurrection that were suggested in the 1800s have now been rejected by just about everyone. All across the theological spectrum, from liberals to conservatives, the belief is now held that none of the theories which denies the resurrection of Jesus Christ satisfactorily explains the history that scholars now accept as true.

 

Second, EVIDENCES THAT SUPPORT CHRIST’S RESURRECTION

 

The second major reason for believing the resurrection of Jesus literally occurred in history is that there are at least ten positive, corroborating evidences for the event, which we will only be able to briefly explain here. Not only is there the fact that no naturalistic theory has been able to explain the resurrection, but there are also a number of other evidences supporting the literal event which give it the status of high probability. In other words, to historians, just as probable as Julius Caesar was one of Rome’s emperors. It should be mentioned at the outset that these evidences are taken from the list of accepted facts I mentioned earlier. In other words, the evidences being presented here are agreed to by virtually all scholars (even of differing schools of thought) as historical facts. The most obvious advantage of this is that these evidences would themselves be seen as historical and therefore would not be rejected as having no historical basis. Because of this acceptance, each of these historical evidences would logically have to be explained away in order for the resurrection to be rejected as a historical event itself.

The first evidence is the experiences of the disciples claiming they witnessed the risen Jesus. This is the most important evidence both because there are no valid theories to explain away these appearances, and because there are additional reasons for accepting them as factual.

Second, the change in the disciples from normal men concerned only with their own welfare into bold preachers who were even willing to die for their faith effectively demonstrates that they really believed that they had seen Jesus. That these men were totally convinced of this fact is also admitted by even unbelieving scholars. The question is, how do you explain such changes apart from Jesus’ literal resurrection, especially when the naturalistic theories have failed to explain them?

The third evidence in favor of this event is the inability of the Jewish leaders to disprove it in the very city in which Jesus died and was buried. Of all the enemies of Christ’s message, the Jerusalem Jewish leaders were in the best position to expose any error, both because of their opposition to this teaching and because of their location in the exact area in which the evidence could best be checked. This is key evidence in favor of Jesus’ resurrection because the Jewish leaders were skeptics, and yet even they could not refute the evidence.

Fourth, the resurrection was at the center of the earliest Christian preaching. This is a fact admitted by essentially all scholars, based especially on the Apostle Paul’s use of what many believe to be an ancient creed in First Corinthians 15.3ff. This creed probably dates from the 30s A.D., as it notes that the disciples’ experiences immediately followed Jesus’ crucifixion, beginning only three days later. This early creed thus demonstrates that the resurrection was not derived from ancient myths and legends years after Christ’s death, since this report follows directly after Jesus’ crucifixion (about 30 A.D.). That legends cannot account for the origin of this earliest proclamation of Christ’s resurrection is further indicated by the fact that it was the disciples who both participated in these occurrences (First Corinthians 15.5-8) and who testified about their own experiences (verses 11-14). Thus, the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection extends back to the original eyewitnesses and not to myths or legends that were added later to the written record. In other words, the origin of the disciples’ message concerning the resurrected Christ lies in their own observations and not ancient myths. Since their experiences are not refuted by alternative theories, they provide strong evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

The evidence for the empty tomb constitutes a fifth evidence for Jesus’ rising from the dead. In recent years, an increasing number of critical theologians have recognized the evidence for the empty tomb and even the historicity of it.[10] To be sure, an empty tomb does not guarantee a resurrection, but it does serve as a pointer to such an event. If you deny a literal resurrection, then you are burdened to formulate an additional theory to explain the empty tomb.

The very existence of Christianity is a sixth evidence for the resurrection, especially when we recall that the Christian faith was founded on the resurrection. Christianity would never have gotten off the ground if the Savior upon whose teachings it was built was dead, not even being able to conquer death Himself. Without this event, there would have been no Pentecost. How else can you explain the existence of Christianity as a worldwide movement apart from the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

A seventh and somewhat related evidence is the use of Sunday as the Christian day of worship ever since the time of the early church. We too often forget that the first Christians were monotheistic Jews, accustomed to worshiping on Saturday. Yet we find Christians utilizing Sunday as their special day (cf. Acts 20.7; First Corinthians 16.1-2). It is plain that Sunday is the commemoration of the day on which Jesus rose (Luke 24.1; Matthew 28.1; Revelation 1.10). How else can we account for this observance, apart from Jesus’ resurrection appearances on the first Easter Sunday?

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus, probably the best-known persecutor of Christians, provides an eighth evidence of the reality of Jesus’ rising from the dead. That Paul was converted to Christianity is denied by no one. Yet such a drastic change surely demands a good explanation. Paul had no doubt that he had met the risen Jesus (First Corinthians 9.1; etc.). Is there a more probable cause which really explains what occurred to him?

The ninth evidence concerns another conversion of an unbeliever. That James, the brother of Jesus, was opposed to Christian teachings before the resurrection is well recognized (see John 7.5; cf. Mark 3.21). That he was a leader of the Jerusalem church later is equally established (see Acts 15; Galatians 1.18-19 for example). Paul reports that a key intervening event was an appearance to James by the resurrected Jesus (First Corinthians 15.7). How else do we account for his conversion, which was so radically contrary to his former beliefs, especially when we recall that family members would often be the hardest to convince on such matters? The conversion of James is so noteworthy that even from a critical viewpoint, a skeptical scholar named Reginald Fuller concludes that if Paul had not recorded this appearance to James, we would still have to accept such an appearance in order to account for both James’ post-resurrection conversion and the subsequent speed with which he acquired a position of leadership in the early church! Such a conclusion provides a valuable insight into this important issue.

The tenth and final evidence is not one of the ten accepted historical facts, yet it builds on the others. It is, however, a corroboration of the resurrection. This is the evidence supplied by Jesus’ own predictions of His resurrection. Although these are often denied by critics, this is obviously because they also deny the literal event. However, I would hold that it is fruitless to object to these predictions if the actual raising of Jesus is already probable, based on the other evidences. The special value of His predictions is that they show that the resurrection was not simply a coincidence, or a “freak event,” but rather a performance of God of which Jesus had foreknowledge. How can we explain all of these ten evidences apart from Jesus Christ’s literal resurrection? How does one advance some other explanation that does not deal with the accepted facts of history? Yet this is what would have to be done in order to explain away the resurrection. In particular, when the eyewitness experiences of the disciples, James, and Paul are considered along with their corresponding transformations, the literal resurrection is shown to be the best explanation for the facts. This is especially so in light of the failure of the naturalistic theories to account for the historical facts.

 

Finally, THE ACCEPTED AND CORE HISTORICAL FACTS

 

The third extremely strong evidential point in favor of the historical certainty of Jesus’ resurrection concerns a further usage of the ten accepted historical facts surrounding this event that I gave earlier. It is my belief that even if we were to use only four of these facts, we would still have a sufficient case by which we could demonstrate that Christ’s resurrection was probable, without once resorting to the Bible.

The four facts we will utilize here are Jesus’ death by crucifixion, the disciples’ experiences that they believed to be appearances of the risen Jesus, the subsequent transformation of these men, and the conversion of Saul of Tarsus because of an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Savior. These four “core historical facts” are unanimously accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who study this subject, in spite of differences in other areas of their thought. These four facts are capable, on a smaller scale, both of disproving the theories of the skeptics and of providing key positive evidences for the resurrection, as an example will now illustrate.

The facts surrounding and supporting Jesus’ death disprove the swoon theory, that Jesus fainted on the cross and later revived in the tomb. The disciples’ experiences also rule out the hallucination theory and other subjective theories both because such phenomena are not contagious, being witnessed by one person alone and because of the variety of time and place factors involved, as I already pointed out.

That it was the disciples who had these experiences also rules out the legend or myth theory, because the original teaching of the resurrection is based on real eyewitness experiences and not on hearsay. The disciples’ transformation shows that they really believed that Jesus rose from the dead and disproves the fraud (stolen body) theory both because of this change and because liars do not make martyrs.

Paul’s conversion also points out the futility of the hallucination and most other theories because Paul was an avid enemy and persecutor of the church, and was not in the proper frame of mind for hallucinations, nor would he be convinced by lies. In addition, the fact that Paul also had a real experience similarly rules out the swoon and legend theories. This is an example of how these four core historical facts are capable of ruling out the naturalistic theories of unbelievers.

These core facts also provide positive evidences for the resurrection, such as the appearances which cannot be explained away as natural events, the transformation of the disciples, who were willing to die for their faith, and the conversion of Paul, a skeptic and persecutor of the church, causing him to be so transformed that he died for his faith as well. These evidences, in particular, are able to show that the resurrection is the best explanation for the known facts.

The importance of this additional consideration of the evidence cannot be overestimated, since it has other important functions besides what we have just seen. Since these four facts are established by critical and historical procedures, contemporary theologians cannot reject our evidence for the resurrection simply by rejecting the inspiration of the Bible, as we will now see. A few examples will readily show the further use of these four facts.

It is impossible to rule out the resurrection merely by citing scriptural “discrepancies.” Not only can such claims be refuted, but also, as I have just shown, the resurrection can be demonstrated as probable even when the minimum amount of known historical facts are used. Thus, although unbelievers may have doubts concerning the Bible on other matters, these four core historical facts that scholars know to be reliable history are sufficient in themselves to demonstrate the resurrection.

For this same reason, one cannot simply say, as is popular today, that “something happened to the disciples, but we do not know what it was,” due to such reasons as the subjective quality of writing history or because of the “cloudiness” of the New Testament. Likewise, the contemporary popularity of some type of “spiritual resurrection,” whereby Jesus is risen in the present preaching of the church, but not literally, is also proven erroneous.

Once again, we are compelled to reject such views because the facts, which are admitted by all scholars as knowable history, are adequate to demonstrate the literal resurrection. Therefore, although we do not know everything that happened to the disciples, we do know enough to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead and appeared literally to the original eyewitnesses.

 

We wrap things up on this Easter Sunday 2009 with the declaration that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a fact so firmly rooted in history that insofar as anything can be proved in history the resurrection can be proved in history. Our study has been brief, but it has touched on many key issues. I pointed out that the theories advanced by skeptics who would deny the miraculous resurrection of God’s Son from the dead are actually more difficult to believe, and provide a poorer explanation of the ten readily admitted facts they admit, than the resurrection does.

Thus, remembering the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, we accept the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead as the best explanation of the established facts of history because the other explanations have been discarded as implausible, actually requiring more faith to accept than the resurrection. Therefore, the claims of the earliest eyewitnesses of our Lord’s resurrection, men like Peter, and James, and John, have been vindicated, since the evidence does indicate that Jesus Christ’s resurrection was a literal historical event.

What does all this mean? It means you need to take Jesus Christ seriously, since He is the only man who ever lived to defeat death, and to defeat death in so convincing a manner that one does not need the Bible to prove it. Tell that to your skeptical uncle. Tell that to your skeptical college professor, but in a respectful way.

Am I suggesting that you shelve your Bible? Absolutely not. The Bible has always been right about Christ’s resurrection, even if science and history are just now coming to grips with the fact of it. Further, it is only in the Bible that you find out how to benefit from the saving work the risen Savior accomplished.

It would be a terrible thing, would it not, to come to grips with the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead, only to remain lost and bound for Hell? Come and talk to me sometime, so we can discuss how one comes to know the risen from the dead Jesus as a personal Savior.



[1] Acts 1.21-22; 2.24, 32; etc.

[2] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection Of The Son Of God, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), page 31.

[3] Ibid., page 694.

[4] Ibid., page 314.

[5] Gary R. Habermas, The Resurrection Of Jesus, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984), page 22.

[6] Ibid., page 23.

[7] Ibid., page 25.

[8] I am indebted to Gary R. Habermas, The Resurrection Of Jesus, (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1984) for the facts present in this sermon, except as otherwise noted.

[9] Heisenberg, uncertainty paper, 1927, www.aip.org/history/heisenberg/p08.htm 4/11/2009

[10] Such as Reginald Fuller, John A. T. Robinson and Wolfhart Pannenberg



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