Jesus Gets a Raise

As Christians will be celebrating the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday, I thought I would share the chapter from Experiencing God Without Losing Your Mind that deals with the resurrection.  This will give you a sense of what this book is like.  You can pick up this book in its entirety either as an e-book or in the print edition.

Jesus Gets a Raise

I still remember my first Easter after having made a personal faith commitment to Jesus.  You could not wipe the smile off my face.  I had enjoyed Easter before.  It was nice to have a day off and chocolate is one of the best things in the entire world.  But this Easter was different, as for the very first time I believed that Jesus had risen from the dead.  Why is this so important?  There are all kinds of miracles in the Bible.  What is so special about the resurrection of Jesus?  The resurrection is the foundation for the Christian faith.  The Apostle Paul puts it this way: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” (1 Corinthians 15:13–18)

So the resurrection is important.  That is fine as a theological statement but how do we make sense of the resurrection?  As my Dad used to say: “Once you’re dead, you’re dead, there ain’t no coming back.”  When our loved ones die and we bury them, we do not expect them to show up on our doorstep.  Why should we look at the resurrection of Jesus any differently?

Should we look at the resurrection as a parable, as a symbol of hope for overcoming despair?  Or should we look at the resurrection as a historical fact?  We will look at this, first by examining possible alternatives to the resurrection and then investigating the evidence for the resurrection.

The fact that dead people do not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It was part of the claim itself.

N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), p. 712.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, what are the alternatives?  One is that Jesus did not actually die on the cross.  This theory suggests that Jesus simply passed out, was buried under the assumption that he was dead, recovered while in the tomb and later escaped.  There are a few problems with this.  One is that the Romans were experts at execution and it is highly unlikely they would make a mistake.  Secondly, it is physically impossible to only pass out on the cross.  Death on the cross comes from asphyxiation.  As the person weakens, they are no longer able to raise themselves up to get a breath and so they suffocate.  If a person passed out (which was likely), then that would hasten their death, not prevent it.  If a person was taken down under the mistaken impression that they were dead (which is unlikely), their wounds would be so severe that they would die in the tomb.  The disciples interpreted Jesus’ resurrection not just as a return to life but the beginning of the resurrection that all people would experience.  If Jesus came to them all bloody and barely alive, they might have interpreted things differently.  The case for the survival of the crucifixion is very weak.

Since the exact moment of death by crucifixion was uncertain, executioners could ensure death by a spear thrust into the victim’s side, such as was dealt to Jesus.  Moreover, what the theory suggests is virtually physically impossible.  The extent of Jesus’ tortures was such that he could never have survived the crucifixion and entombment.  The suggestion that a man so critically wounded then went on to appear to the disciples on various occasions in Jerusalem and Galilee is pure fantasy.

William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), p. 374.

Assuming that Jesus did die on the cross, what other alternatives are there?  One is the suggestion that the disciples made up the story of the resurrection.  The problem with this is that all of the disciples suffered and most were killed for what they claimed was true.  Why be martyred for what you know is false?  One could counter that there are terrorists today who are willing to die for what they believe.  That is true, but there is an important difference.  The difference concerns religious belief vs. eyewitness knowledge.  A terrorist may sincerely believe something will happen to them in the afterlife if they are killed, but the disciples died with knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection from first hand experience.  It is difficult to see how they would be willing to die for what they knew was false.

Perhaps the disciples really did believe that Jesus rose from the dead but they were actually mistaken.  We hear of examples all the time of widows who think they see or feel the hand of their recently departed spouse.  Our minds can play tricks on us and the disciples were grieving the loss of Jesus.  This would be very possible if only one or two people claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.  However, the New Testament claims that hundreds of people saw Jesus, including people who were not emotionally connected to Jesus.  To believe that so many people could share the same hallucination is a stretch.

The alternatives to the resurrection are weak in their explanatory power.  But could someone really rise from the dead?  We would have to have some very good evidence for such a thing.  Let us take a look at some of the evidence we do have for Jesus’ resurrection.

The best place to begin is this passage from Paul: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)  Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written around 55 AD, which makes it one of our earliest Christian writings.  Not only that, but most of this passage (omitting Paul’s statement about himself) was not written by Paul but was rather an earlier creedal statement that some scholars have dated to within a few years of Jesus’ death.  This tells us a number of very important things.  We can see that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was a not a later legendary addition but was a part of the Jesus story from the very beginning.  We also find that appearances by Jesus were not a rare or isolated experience.  More than five hundred people had seen Jesus after the resurrection.  Paul speaks as if the Corinthians could go to Jerusalem and start talking to eyewitnesses of the risen Jesus.  For Paul, we are firmly in the area of history rather than just spirituality.

Two of the people that Paul mentions deserve special treatment.  The resurrection appearance to James and Paul carry more weight than just two more names on the list.  James was the eldest of Jesus’ half-brothers and sisters (Mark 6:3).  We also know that James and the rest of his brothers did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah (John 7:1-5).  Yet by the time we get to the book of Acts, we have James as the head of the Jerusalem church, taking on important leadership roles regarding the direction of the church.  What happened?  Only one thing could have brought about such a radical transformation and that is the risen Jesus appearing to James.  While we would love the details of that meeting, even the hints that we have are enough to demonstrate that an unbeliever such as James did see Jesus alive.

And if the Gospels accurately report that Jesus was chided and rejected by his brothers who thought him at times crazy, it seems more likely that Jesus’ execution as a criminal and blasphemer would have supported their continued unbelief rather than their conversion to a faith that the especially pious James would have regarded as apostasy.

Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity Press, 2010), p. 517.

One could perhaps argue that James was feeling guilty and saw what he wanted to see (although that still does not explain the confidence required to take on leadership).  Paul is a different story.  Paul had absolutely no emotional attachment to Jesus and probably had never met him during his earthly ministry.  Paul (originally known as Saul) was not a spiritual seeker looking for a religion to meet his emotional needs.  Paul was very satisfied as a Pharisee and he was so zealous for his beliefs that he actively persecuted the Christians (Acts 8:1-3).  Paul was actually involved in the death of some Christians and yet a few years later we find him as the most active evangelist/theologian/pastor/missionary in the Christian church.  What happened?  Luke describes it this way: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” (Acts 9:3–7)  Paul was no gullible fool who could be easily led astray by an emotional experience.  Paul had the best of both Jewish and Greek education.  Yet, Paul really believed that he saw and heard the risen Jesus.  It is easy to miss the impact of this.  By becoming a Christian, Paul was cutting himself off from his Jewish community.  But because of his violent persecution of Christians, Paul was far from assured of a place within the Christian community.  Paul was burning one bridge without knowing if it was possible to build another.  One does not make such a decision unless very certain that it is based on fact rather than fantasy.  It should be noted that both James and Paul were certain enough of having met the risen Jesus that they both were martyred for their faith.

Another piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is found in the Gospels.  The Gospels agree that it was women who first discovered the empty tomb of Jesus.  To our modern minds that is no big deal, but in that culture this is significant.  If the disciples wanted to invent a resurrection story, they would have constructed it in such a way as would be most convincing in their culture.  In that culture, women had no value when it came to being a legal witness.  To have women as the first to discover the empty tomb would be a bit of an embarrassment.  A male disciple, a scribe or Pharisee, even a Roman soldier, would carry more weight than a woman.  But the authors recorded what they knew had happened and that was that women discovered the empty tomb and that a woman was the first to speak to the risen Jesus (John 20:11-18).

The final piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the existence of the Christian church.  The first century Jewish historian Josephus records the activities of a number of Jewish messiahs.  The pattern is clear: the so-called messiah is killed, the people scatter and the movement is dead.  No Jew would look at the execution of their leader and conclude that this was a movement worth staying with.  Unless something else happened.  It is only in the case of Christianity that these people saw the death of their leader as a victory rather than a defeat.  The reason for this is that they were very aware from a multitude of eyewitnesses that Jesus did not remain in the tomb but was risen from the dead on the third day.

After the death of Jesus the entire Christian community suddenly adopted a set of beliefs that were brand-new and until that point had been unthinkable.  The first Christians had a resurrection-centered view of reality.  They believed that the future resurrection had already begun in Jesus.  They believed that Jesus had a transformed body that could walk through walls yet eat food.  This was not simply a resuscitated body like the Jews envisioned, nor a solely spiritual existence like the Greeks imagined.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 217.

Discussion

 

Do you believe in ghosts?  Why or why not?

Have you ever thought you have seen a departed loved one?  How real was it?

How important is it for Jesus to have physically risen from the dead rather than the resurrection simply being a spiritual metaphor?

How do you think the disciples felt as they watched Jesus die on the cross?

How do you think the disciples felt as they discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead?

How would you have responded if you were James and you saw Jesus alive after his death?

How do you think the resurrection of Jesus helped Paul as he was persecuted for his faith?

Read Luke 24:36-49.  What do we learn about the resurrection of Jesus?

Read Acts 2:29-36.  Why did Peter include the message of the resurrection in his preaching?

Read 1 Corinthians 15:20-28.  How does Jesus’ resurrection affect us?

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