The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the centrepiece of Christianity. We can posit, with a number of arguments, that a god can theoretically exist, but the Resurrection of Jesus is what takes us to Christianity. Can the Resurrection be historically proven beyond a reasonable doubt, or is our faith nothing more than baseless superstition? Let’s begin our look into the most important historical investigation of all-time.
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:13-19 NIV)
The above is one of my favourite passages in all of Scripture. There’s no vague or ambiguous hint at a metaphor, no mystical mythology or outrageous and unpenetrable spiritual babble, but a man inviting his brethren and opponents to investigate a simple claim upon which all of Christianity hangs on: Jesus Christ had been raised from the dead. Nothing more, nothing less.
However, as we’ve noted in our series of the divine claims made explicitly and implicitly by Jesus Christ, we are not investigating a curious case of a random citizen suddenly coming back to life. If the Resurrection were claimed to be a myth, so should the words and claims made by Jesus about Himself (along with, of course, His predictions of this very event). As New Testament scholar, Michael Bird noted,
“….the resurrection magnified rather than manufactured Jesus’ claims to a divine status.”
Bird, Michael F.. How God Became Jesus (p. 66-67). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.
But, why a resurrection? Some critics have wondered why Jesus needed to be resurrected at all. Why must the truth of Christianity rest in a historical event and not in a scientific phenomenon that we can test and repeat again and again? Should not the evidence for God be the same as the evidence for gravity? If that were to be the case, would we not perceive God the same way we perceive gravity? Would we not look at the existence of God with indifference, or worse, as something to be overcome the same way the Wright Brothers overcame gravity? The existence of gravity or something that can be scientifically proven or tested are not things which we think upon or fall in love with, they’re impersonal realities of our universe. They are simply there. The portrait of God we find in the Bible wants something more than to simply be known to exist. He wants a relationship, something that can change us profoundly from the inside out. He wants us to follow more than He wants us to believe. It is this difference that separates the existence of God from an impersonal scientific fact.
However, in order to make the choice to follow, we need to know why the choice is a good and true one at all. For the scope of this series, we’ll show that the latter can be established by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The former we will establish in a series following because we cannot treat the arguments for a good God with the weight they deserve unless we know that it is plausible that Jesus really was raised from the dead as the disciples once claimed He was.
Turning back to our question, why did God choose, in particular, a resurrection to be the centrepiece of Christianity? We can find the answer in the identity of Jesus Christ and the cultural setting of 1st century Israel. The cultural setting of the ancient world – and more than 70% of the world today – were members of an honor and shame culture. The crucifixion of Jesus was a shameful death, thus the Resurrection was a restoration of Jesus’ honor and identity as Messiah and the Son of God, in addition to being a vindication of His message and Lordship against His condemners.
Moreover, the ancient world was also collectivist in orientation, meaning that one’s identity was emphasized by his/her family or collective group rather than in his/her self. Christ was the head of the church (i.e. the body of Christ), thus our identity became rooted in Him and His resurrection would become the example of our own in a future age (presumably at the wedding feast of the Lamb). The Resurrection was more than a random or meaningless event. It carried a significance that shook the entire ancient world and created a movement of people who would come to be known, most infamously at the time, as Christians. Nothing else could compare to the rapid pace of growth of the Christian movement and, for a reason that can only be described as miraculous (or true), their movement stands even today.
The historicity of Jesus’ death and the claims of His resurrection are near undeniable facts of history, professed by over 70% of scholars, among those some of the most skeptical and unbelieving. Here are just a few examples.
“Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.” – Johnson, L. 1996. The Real Jesus. p. 136.
“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.” – Sanders, E. 1995. The Historical Figure of Jesus.
“It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” – Ludemann, G. 1996. What Really Happened? p. 80.
“The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.” – Fuller, R. 1965. The Foundations of New Testament Christology. p. 142 (bold mine).
“Jesus’ resurrection is unparalleled in terms of strong evidence.” – Michael Licona quoted by William Lane Craig’s in Dealing with doubt.
“If Jesus had died and stayed dead, they would either have given up the movement, or they would have found another messiah. Something extraordinary happened which convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah.” – N.T. Wright in a CBS special, Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus, aired June 19, 2000.
None of these quotes make the claim that Jesus really did rise from the dead, in that regard we may explore other theories to what really happened at the start of the Christian movement. What they do tell us is that the events surrounding the rise of the movement (the disciples claimed to see the risen Jesus, Jesus had been crucified, and the biggest enemy of the movement, Paul, miraculously converted on Damascus road) are historically certain. Of course, if we were to look down every corner, we should find the few that attempt to disagree, and their arguments as to why should be tested along with the majority position. They may never come to agree, and that’s alright. We aren’t looking for something that can be proven with 100% certainty, for even the shape of the earth is being doubted by the few. What we are looking for is the most reasonable conclusion, not what is merely possible (for it is possible that I could be a puppet controlled by aliens. We will not settle with something that cannot be shown to be plausible based on the evidence presented).
Before we can begin to investigate the evidence for the Resurrection we must first know what it is we are investigating. How are we to define the Resurrection? It is to this that will we turn next.