Author: Gary Habermas, Ph.D
During this season of the year the thoughts of Christians around the world turn to Easter and to the event which this holiday celebrates – the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the capstone of our faith. Indeed, Paul says that without it, there would be no faith at all (I Cor. 15:14).
With an event as important as this, many have wondered how can we know it is real? Can we be sure that Christ rose triumphant from the grave? If we can be positive, then it is most assuredly a demonstration of God’s power and the promise that we will be raised in the same manner becomes even more real (II Cor. 4:14).
The early church apparently had no doubts as to the validity of its claim. There are over 100 verses in the New Testament pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus and the promises given to Christians because of it. Paul uses this event more than once to prove the Christian claims. In Romans 1:4 he relates to his readers that this occurrence confirms the fact that Jesus is the very Son of God. In Acts 17:22-31 Paul uses the resurrection to validate the entire Christian message.
Many today in our educated and sophisticated scientific world reject the resurrection as an impossible event. However, what often is not realized is that many scientific concepts have changed in the 2Oth century. No longer can events be ruled out as being impossible a priori.
In the 19th century the concept of a “closed universe” was very popular. The universe was conceived of as being closed to any supernatural workings from God. The world was therefore believed to be a closed system in which causality ruled. Events could not interfere from the outside. Thus, miracles were held as being impossibilities.
In the 2Oth century, the closed universe is seen more-or-less as an outdated worldview. No longer can one speak in terms of scientific absolutes which are able to rule out certain events before any study of them. Causality was dropped by science in the last century. Today science speaks in terms of probabilities, as many curious and unpredictable things can and do happen.
The significance of this for Christian apologetics is tremendous. We cannot actually speak in terms of science accepting the miraculous. But neither can miracles, such as the resurrection, be ruled out simply because they are supernatural. In other words, the objection that our scientific worldview does not allow for the resurrection can no longer be properly used.
Therefore, the object is no longer to ascertain if science rules out miracles, for it cannot do so a priori. Rather, a historical investigation is needed to determine if these events actually occurred. One must examine the known facts to see which explanation best accounts for the data and is therefore the most probable.
As science cannot rule out any event because it is miraculous, neither can history. One must look at the facts and then decide if the resurrection occurred. However, the reverse is too often done and many rule out the possibility of it happening beforehand. To date, almost 2000 years’ worth of alternate theories, however “ingenious,” have failed to prove the Christian belief to be false.
Could the disciples have stolen the body? This appears to be the earliest theory advanced, as it is recorded in Matt. 28:11-15 and in early Christian history. But it makes little sense today. Would the disciples have sacrificed their own lives for what they knew to be a falsehood? Could they have so faithfully preached the Christian message of eternal life if they knew that the Person it revolved around could not even conquer death? No, deception was not the New Testament message. The changed lives of the disciples and the fact that none ever recanted of his belief points to the resurrection. Even critical theology admits that the disciples really believed that Jesus had risen. These facts would not be possible if such fraud had been perpetrated.
Could Christ have survived the Cross and simply recovered sufficiently to appear to the disciples? In the Gospels we have the express testimony of Pilate, who checked the Centurion at the crucifixion and found Jesus to be dead (Mark 15:44,45). In addition, John records that the Roman soldiers, just to make sure, pierced His side with a spear, causing blood and water to flow out (John 19:32-37). The common medical explanation is that the spear went through the pericardium, a sac enclosing the heart and containing water-like fluid, and then into the heart itself. Thus, Christ was assuredly dead.
But, the main reason this theory could not be true is that if Jesus had come limping out of the tomb (from the nails), badly in need of a physician ‘s help, He could not have convinced anyone of His glorious resurrection from the dead. The disciples would rather have been inclined to get a doctor than to proclaim Him risen.
Could the disciples have seen a vision or hallucination? Modern psychology tells us that actual hallucinations are rare and normally limited to one person. But Paul tells us that 500 people saw Christ at one time and that his readers could check the eyewitnesses themselves, for most of these people were still alive at that time (1 Cor. 15:6).
Moreover, in visions, one has to believe something so badly that he produces the image himself. To the contrary, when the disciples heard that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had appeared to the women, they still did not believe (Matt. 28:17, Luke 23:11.25, John 20:24-29). In fact, it occurred to them that they were having just such a vision, and it was only after Jesus proved this to be false that they believed (Luke 24:36-40).
Could it all just have been a nice story, made up like a children’s tale and therefore a legend? Paul tells us that the disciples preached the resurrection right from the beginning (1 Cor. 15:3-12) and the book of Acts corroborates this (Acts 1:21.22, 2:24.32, 3:15.26, 4:10, 5:30, ect.). The disciples did not die for a fairy tale!
When the facts are examined such naturalistic theories are found to fail. None is capable of explaining what happened on the first Easter morning. The most probable solution is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. The transformation of the disciples from cowardly fishermen into bold preachers points to an event of great magnitude. The birth of the church, the change of the worship day from Saturday to Sunday, and the empty tomb also point to this event. But the biggest demonstration of Jesus’ resurrection was His appearance to the disciples and to other early believers.
No other alternative, scientific or historical explanation can explain these facts. Therefore, the resurrection is the most probable solution. Since it does best explain what occurred, it must be viewed as an historical fact even today.
Thus we have seen that attempts to do away with the resurrection have failed. Paul says that without this event, there is no Christian faith (1 Cor. 15:12). In addition, if Christ did not rise from the dead, we are still in our sins, never having been forgiven (verse 17) and those who have died have no hope of resurrection themselves (verse 18).
But Christ did rise from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20)! He thus has provided the greatest demonstration of God’s existence and of our own salvation. Also, we know that if we commit our lives to Him, then we, likewise, will be raised from the dead (Rom. 8:11). This is indeed a precious truth, made even more so by this guarantee.
Throughout the history of our faith, the empty tomb has baffled the critics and served to encourage the Christians everywhere. When the women found the stone rolled away and Jesus’ body missing; they did not know what to think at first. Later they found that Jesus was alive.
As Christians, we are commanded to be ready to give a reasonable answer to those who ask us why we have responded to God in faith (1 Peter 3:15) and the resurrection is one such answer. As mentioned earlier, it clearly demonstrates that Jesus is the Son of God (Rom. 1:4) and it proves the Christian message of salvation to be true (Acts 17:22-31). In this respect it should bring comfort to every believer.
But we must also be aware of the fact that God doesn’t want us to believe in Him because we have proof of His existence, but because we trust Him. Faith is what gains us eternal life, not proof (Eph. 2:8.9 and Heb. 11:6).
We must, therefore, have faith in the One who alone can save us. Jesus shed His blood for our sins (Mark 14:24, Heb. 9:12), giving Himself as a substitute for us (Mark 10:45,1 Cor. 15:3). Eternal life is gained by our surrender of our own lives to Him in faith, trusting His death on the cross to forgive and save us (John 1:12.13,3:16).
The word “believe” in the New Testament is very strong. It requires commitment of our lives to God through Jesus Christ. The resulting salvation also means a life of obedience to Christ (1 John 2:3-6). No wonder Paul said, “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9).
Copyright © 1976 Bible Science Newsletter, Gary Habermas, Ph.D. Creation Moments, Inc. PO Box 260 Zimmerman, MN 55398 800-422-4253 www.creationmoments.com