“What makes you believe that God exists?” “Is Jesus the only way to God?” Here are just two of the questions which Christians will want to be prepared to answer. In each case, as in many other conversations we may have, there is one thing we will want to talk about: the glorious resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead! To me the resurrection is clearly the most important evidence for the existence of God. At the same time the resurrection is the historical event which sets Jesus Christ apart from all other religious figures and demonstrates the uniqueness both of Christ and of the Christian faith.
The resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of our Christian belief. This was the content of the good news which the first disciples preached: Jesus is risen from the dead and we have seen Him! (Acts 2:32; Acts 3:15; Acts 4:10). It was an encounter with the Risen Christ which transformed the enemy of the church Saul into the Apostle Paul. The resurrection was at the heart of the creed of the Early Church (1 Corinthians 15:3-8) and the ultimate proof that Jesus Christ is indeed Lord of all. The resurrection is integral to the most simple confession of faith,
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. (Romans 10:9-10 NIV)
It follows that Christians will want to be able to defend our belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. There are at least four strands of evidence we can point to.
We can start with the empty tomb. The evidence that the tomb was empty is conclusive. The burial site was known to Christians, Jews and Romans. If any of His opponents knew where the body of Jesus was, they would have said so. No alternative theory for the disappearance of the body holds water. The first Jewish response to claims of the resurrection, “the disciples stole the body,” is recorded in Matthew 28 but that presupposes the fact that the tomb was actually empty. The empty tomb it was discovered by women who in those times would be viewed as very unreliable witnesses and that makes it highly implausible that the story of the empty tomb was invented.
The gospel accounts of the resurrection are based on earlier accounts which may have been written or may equally have been passed on mouth-to-mouth in oral tradition. Both would have been reliable and surely originated within only a few years of Jesus’s death, as were the many mentions of the resurrection in the New Testament Letters. The four gospels contain different accounts of the resurrection, and the Longer Ending of Mark then makes a fifth account all telling a similar story but with enough differences to imply independent witnesses. D. H. van Daalen has pointed out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”
We can then talk about the resurrection appearances of Jesus to His disciples. The catalogue of appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is very likely a pre-existing Christian tradition which Paul received from the Jerusalem apostles early in his ministry, which dates it to within five years of the death of Christ. Many of those named eyewitnesses to the resurrection were certainly still alive when Paul wrote and the combined impact of their testimony cannot be dismissed as mere “legend.” New Testament scholar Norman Perrin wrote, “The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.”
Defending the historical event of the resurrection we can go on to points to the origins and the growth of the church and of the Christian faith. William Lane Craig wrote, “Without belief in Jesus’ resurrection, Christianity could never have come into being. The crucifixion would have remained the final tragedy in the hapless life of Jesus. The origin of Christianity hinges on the belief of these earliest disciples that Jesus had risen from the dead.” That belief could not have arisen from “Christian sources” since Christianity was only beginning to be established! Nor was it consistent with Jewish understandings of resurrection, which some anticipated but only after the end of the world, not during human history, and for all of God’s people, not just for one individual. The only coherent explanation for the emergence of the belief in the resurrection and the consequent expansion of the church is that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. As C.F.D. Moule wrote:
“If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with? … the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church … remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the church itself.” Jesus did indeed rise from the dead!
The popular notion that the disciples stole the body and invented the story of the resurrection is unconvincing. Honest men seeking to invent a religion which prizes truth so highly would not build its whole foundation on a lie. And a group of people who had seen their leader crucified and were terrified they would be next would not suddenly start preaching and even be martyred insisting that that Jesus was alive if they knew that was untrue. The only credible explanation for the dramatic change in the lives of all the disciples is that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead. It is equally unrealistic to suggest that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but merely swooned and then woke up in the tomb, or to suggest that all the disciples experienced hallucinations. Sherlock Holmes made the point well. “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
In this post-modern post-Christendom world people are not always persuaded by, nor are they necessarily even interested in historical facts. As well as being able to produce evidence for the historicity of the resurrection it is also appropriate for us to point to other evidence that Jesus Christ is alive. Christians should not be afraid of talking about our own experiences of Jesus, the differences Jesus makes in our own lives and that we have seen Jesus make in the lives of other people: answers to prayer, experiences of healing and peace and joy and guidance. From our own personal experiences, Christians have very good reasons to believe that Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead and is alive with us today!
The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg said this. “The evidence for Jesus’s resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things. First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.” So Christians can talk about the evidence for the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, the spectacular rise of the early church and the difference the Risen Christ has made in the lives of Christians through history and even in our own lives. Separately and together these point to the historical event when Jesus Christ rose from the dead. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. It proves that the claims Jesus made about Himself were true. It gives us good reason to believe that the rest of the Bible is true too and equally to believe that the God of the Bible exists. The resurrection points to the uniqueness of Christ and the uniqueness of the Christian faith which confirms the claim Jesus made, “No-one comes to the Father except by me.” (John 14:6) The resurrection is God’s warning to humanity of impending judgment (Acts 17:31). At the same time in the face of post-modern pessimism regarding life beyond death, the resurrection of Jesus Christ gives us the grounds of a genuine hope of eternal life. Because He lives we will live also! This is the Good News Christians have been given to share.