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).
First, let us clear the ground by answering some traditional
objections to the historical resurrection:
- 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.
- 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
- 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
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.
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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
Secondly, there is evidence `external' to the Bible.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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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