A number of years ago, I had the privilege of being able to speak at a conference in Belgium on the resurrection. One of the speakers was Gerd Ludemann.[i] Although I knew I had some different opinions than Ludemann, I was eager to learn from such a well-known scholar.
Ludemann began his presentation with an argument for the historicity of Peter’s denial of Jesus. He did a fantastic job of demonstrating that we should take the Gospel accounts of this event seriously and that the denial has the ring of truth. Ludemann then went on to talk about the emotional toll this must have had on Peter. I agree that it must have been extremely difficult for Peter and that the guilt must have been overwhelming. Ludemann went on to cite some modern psychiatric studies that have shown that people under tremendous emotional strain can hallucinate and can see the things they need to see to get through their difficult time.
I need to make a confession. If Peter was the only one to whom Jesus appeared, I could see this as a reasonable option. It seems entirely plausible that Peter could have broken under the strain. The problem is that Peter is not the only one to whom Jesus appeared. This is where the hallucination theory breaks down.[ii]
When trying to understand what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion, it is essential for us to examine 1 Corinthians 15:
“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 ESV)[iii]
This passage includes an appearance to Peter (Cephas) but also identifies a number of other witnesses. Any theory as to what happened to Jesus must take all of these appearances into account. The first group after Peter is that of the twelve. Of course Peter is one of the twelve and with Judas dead, there were only eleven at this point. What this passage is saying is that there was a specific appearance to Peter and then another appearance to the rest of the group that was known as the twelve. The Gospels give an account of these appearances. What is interesting is that these appearances were not used to add to the prestige of the twelve but to demonstrate their weakness. We are told that Thomas doubted the resurrection because he had been absent at the first meeting (John 20:24-29). In case people want to be overly critical with Thomas, we should remember that more among the twelve had their doubts (Matthew 28:17). These doubts fall under the criteria of embarrassment, the kind of details that historians look for when determining historicity.
We also find in this passage a reference to an appearance to more than five hundred people. We do not know where this appearance fits with the Gospel accounts or if it is a separate tradition. What is important is that there were many witnesses, far more than could be explained by the hallucination theory. Paul seems to indicate that most of these witnesses were still available to be interviewed if anyone has doubts.
The next reference is to that of James. This is significant as James was the brother of Jesus and eventually the leader of the Jerusalem church. What is interesting about James is that he did not start off with such leadership potential. We meet James in the Gospels as one of a number of brothers (Mark 6:3) from a family that was explicit in their disbelief in Jesus’ messianic identity (John 7:5). Again using the criteria of embarrassment, the lack of belief seems to be historical. If that is the case, how does James go from being an unbelieving and even a mocking brother to becoming the leader of the Jerusalem church? The answer is the resurrection appearance that he experienced. There was no psychological reason for James to create an imaginary appearance, as the truth of Jesus’ messianic identity would only increase James’ sense of guilt over not believing. The best explanation is that James did encounter the risen Jesus.
The next group mentioned is that of the apostles. Many people assume that the twelve and the apostles are the exact same group. While there is overlap, in reality the twelve were a subset of the apostles. This larger group of apostles probably included Joseph and Matthias (Acts 1:23) and may have included other individuals identified as apostles such as Barnabas (Acts 14:14). This group tells us that not only did many laypeople witness the risen Jesus, so did those who were leaders in the church.
Paul then goes on to add himself to the list of witnesses. Although Paul’s encounter with Jesus is recorded in Acts (9:1-9; 22:4-16; 26:9-18), he also describes it in his letters:
“For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.” (Galatians 1:13–17 ESV)[iv]
What we know about Paul is that he was a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the church, met Jesus and went on to become one of the greatest evangelists and theologians of the Christian church. This has to be explained somehow. Could Paul have converted because he was impressed with the Christians and how they treated one another? This is extremely unlikely. The Jewish community would have been just as tight knit and there is every reason to believe that Paul was content as a Jew. Could Paul have felt guilty over his violent treatment of the Christians? There is no indication of this. Paul likely saw himself as being faithful to the example of Phineas who was willing to kill for what he believed (Numbers 25:8). It is important to remember what Paul was doing when he converted to Christianity. He was burning one bridge without having the next bridge built. By becoming a Christian, Paul was abandoning his Jewish community and yet he had no reason to believe that the Christians would embrace him.[v] To make such a radical decision would require an extraordinary reason. It is unlikely that Paul hallucinated, as he probably did not know Jesus during his earthly ministry. It is unlikely that Paul invented the story of meeting Jesus as he suffered tremendously for his faith. The only explanation for the conversion of Paul is that he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus.
Although it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians, another important appearance of Jesus is that to the women. The fact that it is not mentioned in 1 Corinthians is significant as it shows that it added nothing to the testimony from an ancient perspective. In the first century, there was no value in a woman’s testimony and yet the Gospels agree that it was to women that the risen Jesus first appeared. There is no reason for the Gospel writers to invent this detail and so it likely goes back to a historical event.[vi]
Believers and skeptics will continue to debate about what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion. Some with a naturalistic worldview will see the resurrection as impossible while others with a worldview open to the supernatural will see it as possible. Aside from philosophical bias, one must still deal with the historical problem of the appearances. The resurrection of Jesus is not described as a dream or a feeling but as physical appearances to real people. The fact that there is such rich evidence from the eyewitnesses points to the historical nature of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
[i] All of the presentations from this conference can be found in G. Van Oyen and T. Shepherd (eds.) Resurrection of the Dead:Biblical Traditions in Dialogue (Leuven: Peeters, 2012).
[ii] Although this essay touches on the hallucination theory, it is not the focus. For more on the hallucination theory, see William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), pp. 384-87 and Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), pp. 495-519.
[iii] This is likely an early creed being passed on by Paul. See Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 722-37.
[iv] For more on Paul’s encounter with Christ, see Michael F. Bird, Introducing Paul (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), pp. 32-35.
[v] The church was hesitant to accept Paul as we see in Acts 9:26.
[vi] For more on the presence of the women, see N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), pp. 607-8.