Recently around the time of Easter, I was contemplating an important question. Perhaps the most important question ever: Are Christians justified in celebrating the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? While the secular culture would have us believe that Easter is all about chocolate and bunnies, it’s actually much more important than this. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like chocolate and I tolerate bunnies (except for those Peeps–those are nasty!). But why do we celebrate Easter Sunday? It’s perhaps the most important Christian holiday, where those who are followers of Jesus of Nazareth celebrate his resurrection from the dead. But are Christians justified in this celebration? In other words, what good evidence do we have that Jesus actually rose from the dead? Is this just some sort of myth invented by the ancient church? Is it some kind of mass hallucination experienced by Jesus’ disciples? Or perhaps it’s a story invented by Jesus’ followers. Actually, none of these explanations really make sense if you look carefully at the historical record.
There are a number historical facts surrounding the death of Jesus on which the majority of scholars agree. I’m talking about credentialed, historians with terminal degrees (i.e.: PhD’s), not Internet nay-sayers. I won’t go into the detail of all of them (at least 12), but here is a set of only four:
- Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and died on a Roman cross, and he was buried in a tomb on a Friday.*
- Shortly after his death, his followers had real experiences of what they believed were actual appearances of Jesus. Importantly, these include (at least) two prior skeptics of the Christian message: James the half-brother of Jesus and Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul), who prior to his conversion was actually persecuting and killing Christians.
- The lives of those who proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection were radically changed, and they were even willing to face extreme hardship including death for their proclamation of the resurrection message.
- These things were taught very early in the history of the Christian church, with some scholars saying the teachings and early creeds about the resurrection of Christ dating to within months of the cross.
Again, these minimal facts are are agreed upon by the vast majority of scholars, including those who do not claim to be Christian. So what are we to do with these historical facts? What is the best inference to the evidence to explain these facts?
The fact that Jesus actually died is hard to dispute. He was beaten, scourged, and hung on a cross naked on a hilltop. He had a spear thrust in his side. And a battle-hardened Roman Centurion, who certainly knew what a dead man looked like (and who would face his own punishment for failing to carry out an ordered execution), had Jesus removed from the cross. He was laid in a tomb, wrapped in many layers of burial cloth. Jesus was, without a doubt, really and truly dead.
What about his post mortem appearances? Could those be, say, hallucination? Wishful thinking? Mistaken identity? These naturalistic theories don’t hold much weight. Hallucinations are personal experiences. Even if one argues that some of Jesus’ followers had hallucinations of his resurrection, this doesn’t explain how all of them did (over 400). And what about Paul (Saul) and James? James was doubtful and Paul was actually an enemy of “The Way” (as early Christians described their movement). Jesus’ Jewish followers had no real preconceived idea of an individual resurrection before the end of the age. This was counter to Jewish teaching. And his closest followers spent about three years with Jesus–surely they would know him when they saw him, so mistaken identity doesn’t really work. Given that their lives were transformed, and they were willing to die (and some did) for proclaiming the message of his resurrection, this is hardly something they would make up. People will die for a lie they think is true, but they won’t die for a lie that they know is a lie.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul writes:
“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 [Peter], 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 15:3-7, ESV)
This is an early Christian creed that Paul is quoting as something he was given early (“…of first importance what I also received…”) . This creed is something Paul learned shortly after his conversion (his road to Damascus encounter with Christ). Thus this teaching was very early in the history of the church.
These four minimal facts cry out for an explanation. What is the best explanation for these facts? Not myth or legend, no mistaken belief or hallucination. No, the best explanation for these facts is that Jesus of Nazareth really was bodily raised from the dead, and this is a testament to his ministry, his claims to divinity, and his claims to be the only way to salvation if one simply puts their trust in him.
This is the real message of Easter!
*Some may ask, “What about the empty tomb”? This historic fact is only agreed upon by about 75 to 80 percent of scholars–but suffice to say, if the tomb wasn’t empty, all the Jewish or Roman authorities would have to do is produce the body of Jesus and the fledgling Christian movement would be over. But no body was ever produced because the tomb actually was empty!