A Question of History:
Traditionally, Easter has been a time to celebrate Jesus Christ rising from the dead, but given our modern understanding of the world, it isn’t difficult to see why more people instead take Easter as a time to celebrate spring-time, family, and friendship. “People don’t rise from the dead.” The claim that Jesus actually rose from the dead is an interesting one though, because it means it’s not a question about faith and philosophy, but about history. Evidence showing that the resurrection was not an event in history would mean that Jesus is a waste of time. Evidence showing that it was an event in history would mean people should pay attention. So, what is the evidence?
Here are three historical facts about Jesus that, because there is so much evidence, are agreed upon by the vast majority of historians. This includes scholars that are atheists, agnostics, and Christians. The facts are:
1. Jesus died.
2. Groups of Jesus’ followers, individual followers, James (the skeptic brother of Jesus) and Paul (the aggressive church persecutor) all believed they physically saw a risen Jesus.
3. Jesus’ body was not found in the tomb he was buried in.
Let’s look at the text of 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 to see why scholars agree on these three facts. Note! This is not treating the Bible as holy, or inspired, or even special. Rather, we’ll look at the text, and then apply the criteria that historians apply to any historical document to see whether or not it is likely to be historically reliable.
The text reads, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also.”
Here, Paul records that Jesus died, that he and others personally saw Jesus after he had risen, and implies that the tomb was empty. But how does this measure up to the indicators of historical reliability that scholars use to analyze a document? For all we know Paul made everything up!
Well, scholars use criteria such as eyewitness testimony, enemy testimony, and early testimony to test historical reliability. Applying this criteria to the passage in 1 Corinthians, we see that Paul is himself an eyewitness. He was also an enemy of Jesus, harshly persecuting Jesus’s followers. And, many (even atheist) historians agree that the quoted saying was formulated within 5 years of the death of Jesus! So, the text strongly meets the evaluation criteria.
The Best Explanation of the Evidence:
So, we have three widely evidenced historical facts, that are accepted by a large majority of historians- including atheists, agnostics and Christians. But we still need to determine what the best explanation of the facts is. Historically speaking, we can’t determine anything for certain- especially when studying ancient history. But, we can consider the evidence, and determine what the most plausible explanation of the evidence is. So, how is the evidence best explained?
Some people’s explanation is that that the disciples stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. But, stealing the body and lying about it (claiming they had seen Jesus alive again) certainly could not explain why the disciples were transformed from cowards to bold preachers who were willing to be killed for their belief that they had seen Jesus. Also, that explanation wouldn’t account for the skeptic James or the church persecutor Paul believing that they had seen Jesus alive. We need to find the explanation that best accounts for all of the evidence. Other explanations argue that the “appearances” of Jesus were just hallucinations. However, modern medicine has shown that there is no such thing as a “group hallucination”. And again, this explanation does not account for James or Paul’s belief that they had seen a risen Jesus, or for the empty tomb.
Over the years people have come up with many different explanations to account for these three historical facts, but again and again, they fall short. There really is only one explanation that best accounts for the historical evidence, and it is that Jesus really rose from the dead!
He is Risen!
Jesus is not just some religious figure that we tell children stories about. He is alive today, and extends an invitation for a personal relationship with him. He died on the cross to pay the penalty we owed God because of our sin, and tells us that if we turn from our sin, and towards Him we can have eternal life. Now that is worth celebrating. He is Risen indeed!
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- Post a comment below with an alternative explanation that you think accounts for the evidence even better, or that maybe you have heard and would like to get thoughts on.