Christians should be pitied. That’s right, people should feel sorry for us. At least, that’s what the apostle Paul thought if we are staking everything on the conviction that a dead man walked out of a tomb when, in fact, his corpse is still in the grave.
And he’s right. If the resurrection is just our make-believe-to-make-me-feel-happy kind of story, then we are a sorry bunch. False beliefs may make us feel good for the moment, but that kind of faith is worthless. (1 Cor. 15:19)
Fortunately for us, when we trust in the Christ of the empty tomb, we are not wishing on a star. We are standing on a solid foundation. The facts of history are clearly on our side. And here I am choosing my words carefully.
What would it take to show that a man actually rose from the dead? If he was dead at one point in time (and here I mean dead-as-a-doornail, stone cold dead), and then that same man was physically alive at some later point in time, I think that would do it. But can we show that with any confidence?
You may not know this, but in the last 50 years there has been a dramatic reversal in historical Jesus scholarship regarding the resurrection accounts. The vast majority of experts on the life of Jesus—including secular scholars who have no theological stake in the game—overwhelmingly agree to four facts of history.
First, they agree that Jesus died on a Roman cross and was buried in a tomb. Second, they agree that the tomb was empty three days later. Third, they agree that various individuals (and sometimes whole groups of people) experienced what they took to be the resurrected Jesus. Fourth, a skeptical non-believer—James, the brother of Jesus—and a vicious persecutor of Christians—Saul of Tarsus—did an immediate about-face based on what they claimed was an encounter with the risen Christ, and both suffered martyrdom rather than recant.
Note, none of these facts—a dead man, an empty tomb, claimed sightings, and changed minds—is supernatural in itself. Individually, they happen all the time. That’s why historians have no trouble agreeing on those particulars, especially since the evidence supports them. What historians don’t agree on is what best explains these four facts pertaining to Jesus. But there aren’t many options.
Jesus was dead. That’s pretty obvious. He suffered a brutal execution, was pronounced dead by a battle-seasoned Roman centurion (who had a spear driven into Jesus’ chest just to make sure), was embalmed (Jn. 19:39-40) and laid in a cold crypt.
Three days later, the tomb was empty, a fact even Jesus’ enemies did not dispute. They had no reason to. Produce the body and all this resurrection nonsense is silenced. The story would have never gotten off the ground. Where was the body?
Some charged the disciples stole the body, but this makes no sense. Why would a dozen men risk their lives for a myth they manufactured themselves? They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. And many lost everything, including their lives.
And what of the sightings? The going theory is that the disciples were hallucinating. Really? First, this doesn’t explain the empty tomb. Second, how do multiple individuals and whole groups of people hallucinate the same thing at the same time many times over in a large variety of circumstances at multiple locations? Hallucinations are “in one’s head,” so to speak, like a dream. How do bunches of people share the same dream in exquisite detail at the same time? I don’t think so.
And what of James and Paul? They had absolutely no native interest in conjuring a resurrection story, nor was there any evidence they were in a mental state that motived them to see what wasn’t really there. This is why so many scholars reject this notion.
What explanation accounts for all four facts? As I’ve written elsewhere:
What would transform a group of shivering, shaking, terrified men who had abandoned Jesus—one even denying he knew Him—scattered, hiding from the authorities, doors locked, lights out? What could account for their transformation into bold advocates for the resurrection, standing up to authorities who threatened to scourge, imprison, and execute them for declaring a risen Christ?*
Only one answer will do, in Peter’s words, “This Jesus, God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). No, there is no reason to pity Christians. He who was once dead, is now alive. And that changes everything.
With Resurrection Sunday almost here, I want to send you a new DVD to help you see Jesus for who He is. In it, the STR speaking team—Tim Barnett, Alan Shlemon, Brett Kunkle, and me—present four TED-style talks to help you rethink Jesus and encounter Him as He intended.
I think you’ll be intrigued, entertained, and enlightened as you watch this special DVD, Beyond the Clichés: Who Is Jesus and What Did He Really Do? And I want you to have it in grateful thanks for your generous support this month.
Will you send a gift today to equip more Christian ambassadors, like you, who know what they believe and why? Please be sure to request Beyond the Clichés: Who Is Jesus and What Did He Really Do? as you respond with your gift.
I’m thrilled and grateful to have you as a partner and friend.
With hope everlasting,
*Gregory Koukl, The Story of Reality (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 151-2.