Recently, a local radio talk show featured the subject of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Mentioned on this program were certain theologians who claim that the evidence of history denies that the resurrection took place. Who these experts may have been was never made specific, so it is difficult to deal with their arguments. However it is quite true that people over the years, including some with theological degrees, have asserted that Jesus of Nazareth was executed and stayed dead and that his remains probably still lie undiscovered somewhere near Jerusalem.
Some may dismiss this assertion as merely an intriguing historical debate among scholars. The truth is that the entire Christian Faith hangs on this question of the resurrection. If it is true that Jesus Christ never rose from the dead, then the central tenets of Christianity are nothing more than wishful thinking. On the other hand, if Jesus is risen as the immortal Son of God, then everything he promised is true and will be fulfilled.
Other religions can survive the deaths of their founders. Buddhism admits that the Buddha is dead and gone because its faith is built around his teachings, not the man himself. Muslims are not disturbed that Muhammad died because the words of the prophet are what is important, not the man. But when it comes to Christianity, everything stands or falls upon the claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. His physical resurrection from the dead has always been the prime verification of that central doctrine. Therefore: no resurrection, no Christianity. It’s that simple.
Yet if the resurrection of Jesus is a fact of history, then the reverse is also true. All Jesus’ claims would be shown to be true and the world would have to deal with him, not as a teacher, but as God incarnate. Perhaps that explains why for twenty centuries some have attempted to explain away the very strong evidence for the resurrection. Consider the powerful facts which the early church presented to substantiate their announcement that Jesus is alive:
First, consider the evidence of the women. A group of women who had been followers of Jesus observed his hasty burial on Friday afternoon. Early on Sunday morning they went to the tomb to finish preparing the body for final burial. As they walked to the tomb these faithful women had no inkling that their Rabbi would rise from the dead. When they arrived they found the massive stone which had sealed the tomb cast aside from the entrance. The Roman guard was in shock. The tomb itself was empty. They were completely bewildered by this and could only think that perhaps someone had removed Jesus’ body. The women then encountered angels who told them Jesus was risen. One of them named Mary Magdalene, actually saw and touched him.
The evidence of the disciples confirms that of the women. They did not have a clue as to the resurrection either. So when this news was relayed to them, they dismissed it in the very same way many critics of the resurrection dismiss it today: hysteria. Peter and John decided to see what the situation was at the tomb and so ran the short distance to investigate. Like the women, they saw the stone removed, the Roman guard dispersed and tomb empty. Peter actually went inside the cave and found the linen bands which the body had been wrapped in—still in place and glued with the spices—but empty of the body. This still did not convince these men that Jesus was alive. It was not until later that Jesus also appeared to them and demonstrated the reality of his physical life by eating food and allowing them to touch him.
How about the evidence of the soldiers who had guarded the tomb against the eventuality that Jesus’ followers might fake a resurrection by stealing the body? They left the tomb unguarded after less than 36 hours and reported to the Jewish council that there had been an earthquake and that the tomb was open and empty. They were bribed by the council and told to spread the story that the disciples had succeeded in stealing the body. Yet, this story itself is hardly believable. It simply boggles the mind that the disciples, who were terrified for their own lives, could overcome a detachment of veteran Roman soldiers, enter the sealed tomb and remove the body, carefully re-wrapping the grave cloths and leaving them in place. Then they were able to successfully conceal the body elsewhere without anyone getting injured or killed in the process. All this so that they could fake a resurrection they didn’t believe in!
Consider this as well: the early church preached the resurrection of Jesus in the weeks and months following these events in the very place where the events occurred. There were many people still alive who testified to having actually seen and touched the risen Jesus. The empty tomb was a matter of public knowledge. It could be verified by anyone who wished to do so. If the body had been removed and hidden, surely someone would have observed it. The soldiers or other eyewitnesses could have tipped off the opponents of the gospel to the hiding place and the body could have been produced as evidence against the rumor of the resurrection. No body was ever found, which is hard to imagine given the very public and sensational nature of these events.
Unless —the resurrection actually happened.
Finally, for those who still harbor doubts, consider the evidence of subsequent history. Tens of thousands living near Jerusalem during the time when all of this occurred rendered their verdict by believing in Jesus and paying the high price of that belief. What about the unflinching martyrdom of the very men and women who supposedly faked a resurrection they knew never happened? How about the almost inconceivable survival and spread of the early Church under extreme persecution? How can you account for the millions of people whose lives have been changed by the power of Christ during the past twenty centuries? Can this all be explained as wishful thinking?
Many people find the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus to be extremely compelling. In view of such strong evidence, enduring the sarcasm and ridicule of certain skeptics today is a small price to pay for following the risen Christ.