The Resurrection

Without doubt, many people who dismiss the 'supernatural' elements in Christianity like the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus, do so without ever investigating them. This is an unreasonable procedure! And Christianity is not an unreasonable faith. The purpose of this CROSSFIRE is to sketch, in outline study, the reasons for believing that the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus are solid historical facts. This is no side-issue. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, Christians are pinning their hopes on a corpse, are praying to a dead man, and the Bible is a manifestly unreliable document. As Paul put it plainly, "If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain" (1 Cor.15; 14).

Traditional Objections

First, let us clear the ground by answering some traditional objections to the historical resurrection:

  1. It has been said that Jesus never really died on the cross, that He merely fainted, and then revived in the cool of the tomb. However, Roman soldiers knew how to execute a man. They were going to break Jesus' legs in order to hasten His death, but it was unnecessary, for they could see that He was already dead. It is inconceivable that one who had been scourged, then crucified for several hours, then bandaged tightly with graveclothes, could have pushed back the big stone, escaped the notice of the tomb guard, and appeared to His followers in a fit, strong condition.
  2. Another idea is that Jesus' disciples stole the body in order to vindicate their master's predictions that He would be raised. But the tomb was guarded for the precise purpose of keeping off grave-robbers. And the disciples were in no state of mind to do such a thing. They had all run away; they were sad, defeated men. Yet subsequently, they risked their necks - and most of them died for it - by consistently preaching the Resurrection. Can it be believed that they would spend all their energy on proclaiming something which they knew to be a hoax set up by themselves?
  3. Others have suggested that the Resurrection appearances were the hallucinations of people who loved Jesus so much that they couldn't bear to lose Him. But a hallucination is normally an individual experience: these `hallucinations' came to many people at once. Again,it is a strange hallucination that lasts for only forty days and then completely stops. Most striking of all, however, is the obstinate fact of the empty tomb. Where was the body? If anyone had produced it before the authorities, the whole of Christianity would have been snuffedout like a candle. But no body was found. And just as no body was found in the time of Pontius Pilate, no body was found in later years. There is no historical evidence whatever to suggest that Jesus walked the earth after the period of forty days (following His death) was completed. If the miracle of ascension can be credited, the miracle of ascension is exactly the sort of consequence that we might expect to follow.

What is the Historical Proof

What constitutes historical `proof'? If, for example, we wanted to demonstrate the historical `fact' that Elizabeth I died in 1603, how would we go about it? Her expiring moments have not been preserved on celluloid; and even if there existed a piece of film that was claimed to record her death, doubt might be cast upon its authenticity! The only way that we could satisfactorily be persuaded that she died in 1603 is by submitting ourselves to the cumulative effect of evidence pointing in that direction. We would consult many books, ancient and modern, until we had amassed so much evidence that to doubt the event any longer would be preposterous.

If we adopt this historical method, the following points can be weighed together as evidence for the fact of Jesus' resurrection, and, by implication, of His ascension.

Internal Evidence

First, there is `internal evidence' from the Bible. If it is objected that the Bible writers were biased because they were Christians and too close to the events, it might equally well be objected that the witnesses to a bank robbery were too close to the events to offer valuable testimony to what happened.
  1. The deity of Jesus. Without any doubt, Jesus claimed to be God. All Jews knew that only God could forgive sins, yet Jesus repeatedly took this honour upon Himself. He said "I and the Father are one" (John 10; 30) and "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14; 9) Claims, of course, can only be taken as evidence if they are substantiated; but Jesus' claim to deity is strongly substantiated by
  2. His wonderful life. His life on earth was flawless; not merely with respect, negatively, to the absence of sinfulness, but with respect, positively, to the driving power of His love, the force of His personal magnetism, and the breathtaking penetration of His teaching and personal example. Many an atheist has been forced to admit that His teachings centre upon Himself. Take away from them the force of "follow me" and there is really nothing left. This is either egocentric lunacy, or it is the voice of God. It cannot be both. And if it is the voice of God, it immediately heightens the possibility of resurrection and ascension.
  3. The disciples' assertion that Jesus was raised and later ascended, is an impressive assertion. They were eye-witnesses: it is not second-hand testimony. Their writings reveal them to be honourable men: wewould expect the followers of an honourable master to be such. They offer independent accounts of the resurrection, and this gives the accounts an authentic flavour. If the records were the products of literary collaboration, the details would interlock tightly; but this is not the case.
  4. The disciples themselves were changed men after the resurrection Beforehand, Peter denied Jesus, browbeaten by a servant girl. He went back to his former occupation of fishing. But only a few weeks later, he was preaching fearlessly in public, in Jerusalem, the very city were Jesus had been put to death. His message? "This Jesus.....God raised up" (Acts 2; 23 & 24). `Doubting' Thomas said to the other disciples, "unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe" (John 20; 25). Later, he met Jesus, touched Him and was immediately convinced. We can be thankful that Thomas was such a persistent doubter: if he could believe, he must have had good reason. Perhaps most dramatic of all was the change in Paul: a strict Pharisee, convinced that Christianity was a pernicious heresy, he knew Deuteronomy 21; 23, "Cursed be every man that hangs on a tree" To Paul, how could Jesus be anything other than cursed by God? But this great persecutor of Christians became the great evangelist. Why? Because he met the risen Christ. He was convinced by that encounter, and the testimony of a man of Paul's ability cannot be lightly brushed aside.

Jesus' original band of followers were very ordinary men. At the time of Jesus' death they were utterly demoralised, in fear of their lives. But, within weeks, their preaching was winning thousands of converts. Can anything apart from the resurrection (with the ascension as its corollary) account for such a change?

External Evidence

Secondly, there is evidence `external' to the Bible.

  1. The Jewish historian Josephus , writing towards the end of thefirst century A.D., includes these remarks in his "Antiquities": "Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man....This man was the Christ. And when Pilate had condemned Him to the Cross....those who had loved Him from the first did not forsake Him,for He appeared to them alive on the third day." What Josephus made of this we do not know, but it is impressive to read these words from the pen of a non-Christian.
  2. The existence of the Church has to be explained. The church may have been, and may continue to be, a much blemished phenomenon, but its impact upon the last two millennia of world history has been incalculable. To what can such a mighty force owe its origin? A deluded (or worse, deluding), not-very-talented little band of men trying to make their voices heard in a hostile Jerusalem that had just executed their leader? And how can we account for the growth of the church? Some colossal thrust must lie behind it. It has been well said that"the existence of Christianity requires the miracle of the Resurrection of Christ." Nothing less can satisfactorily explain it.
  3. Christians throughout the ages have spoken of their personalexperience of encountering the living Christ and of being radically changed by him. While some may write this off as subjectivity or even auto-suggestion, it is nevertheless an obstinate fact and cannot be evaded. Christians claim that the power and reality of Christ, living not dead, works a fundamental transformation in them, reversing their former values, re-ordering their priorities, and pervading the very depths of their characters. The most objective sociological study would reveal beyond any doubt whatever that millions of Christians the world over claim, and indeed demonstrate, remarkably changed lives. The cause of this must be sought, and the possible implications faced.

Implications

If the Resurrection and Ascension are true facts, the implications are very great. Jesus taught in John's gospel that after His ascension, the Holy Spirit - no less divine than Father or Son - would come to dwell in Christian men and women (so that, when Christians talk of the "power of Christ in my life," they mean the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit within them, rather than of Jesus; for the New Testament teaches that Jesus is now seated at God's right hand in Heaven - He is clearly not here on earth as a man any more.) The Holy Spirit, then is given to us, as the transforming power for living as a disciple of Jesus today. It is the Holy Spirit who touches every part of our lives, bringing a delight, a peace, and a new perception that was denied us beforehand. What is more, the Resurrection and Ascension have eternal implications for us. Jesus is described as "the first fruits of the harvest of the dead" (1 Cor. 15; 20, NEB). This is a highly suggestive phrase. It pictures a field containing many dead men. Jesus is the first to spring up to life and be harvested. The `first fruits' or `first picking' guarantees the many others that are to follow. In other words, Christians can be confident that the God who harvested Jesus from death to life will harvest us too. Jesus' resurrection guarantees our own. The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in April 1945 because of his opposition to Hitler. Just before his death he wrote these words to the Bishop of Chichester: "This is not the end, but for me, the beginning of life".

For further reading : Who Moved the Stone? Frank Morison The Reliability of the New Testament Documents F.F. Bruce

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