In this week’s week’s sermon, I begin looking at evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. My goal for this this two-part series is to show that the miracle at the center of the Christian faith rests on a solid historical foundation. Among other things, this week’s sermon challenges the idea that the resurrection was a legend that developed over time.
Please note: due to technical difficulties, the last minute of the video got cut off. Sorry! See the sermon manuscript for the ending!
Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
It’s very appropriate that we’re beginning this sermon series, “Reason to Believe,” on Youth Sunday. When I was a youth myself, I had a hard time integrating what I was learning in church and reading in the Bible with what I was learning in school and the world outside of church. I remember, for example, world history class in tenth grade. Of course our teacher mentioned the birth of Jesus, and gave some basic facts about Christianity and the church. And she stressed that she wasn’t preaching, she was merely sharing historical facts. “So here are the historical facts,” she said. And when she finished her list, which emphasized Jesus’ teaching about love and compassion and self-sacrifice, she mentioned—oh, yeah—that Jesus was crucified by the Romans and that Christians believe on the third day he rose from the dead. The End.
The problem was that she was careful to distinguish the “facts” of Jesus from the resurrection of Jesus. Resurrection, she wanted us to know, is something that people have to take solely on faith—something we Christians have to believe regardless whether there’s any historical basis for such a belief. If there were an historical basis, she didn’t tell us what it was.
This confused me even because it seemed to me that if the resurrection really happened, then that would automatically make it the most important historical event of all time—far more important than, say, the fall of the Roman Empire, the Norman Conquest, the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence. Yet we never considered for a moment that the resurrection was an historical event.
So this experience taught me to feel very insecure about the historical ground on which the resurrection stood. And science classes made it worse… We were taught that science and faith were always in conflict. Poor Galileo, disciplined by the church because he argued that the earth was not the center of the universe. No… What I learned in school was that history and science deal with the “real world.” Christianity, which may be perfectly fine for providing a private spiritual experience or for installing good moral or ethical values, is something less than real.
Parents: this is the world that most of our youth live in every day when they go off to school and when they watch TV and when they’re on the internet. It will only get worse when they go off to college. We the church have a responsibility to equip our children and ourselves to handle difficult questions of faith, especially questions related to this challenging miracle that stands at the very center of our faith. Because if we don’t, who will? Certainly not the school system. Certainly not pop culture.
Before I continue, let me say: No one becomes a Christian because they’re convinced by arguments and facts and evidence alone. Being a Christian is more like falling in love than solving a math problem. When you fall in love, you can give a list of good reasons for loving that person, but ultimately love involves the heart more than the head… But the head matters. What, after all, is the greatest commandment? Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Thinking through the evidence for the resurrection is a part of what it means to love God with our minds.
The apostle Paul understood perfectly the importance of believing in the resurrection. He put it all out there for all the world to see in 1 Corinthians 15: “If Christ hasn’t been raised, then your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins, and what’s more, those who have died in Christ are gone forever. If we have a hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else.” Elsewhere, Paul writes that believing in the resurrection is part of what’s required in order to be saved. The stakes for believing in the resurrection couldn’t be higher.
Again, it takes faith—but it’s not blind faith.
The first thing that non-believers often say about resurrection is this: “The Bible is riddled with errors and contradictions and problems. I don’t believe the resurrection happened because I don’t believe the Bible.” I disagree completely with that characterization of the Bible. I believe the Bible is God’s inspired Word. Non-believers don’t. Fortunately, our arguments for resurrection don’t depend on people believing in the Bible as God’s inspired Word. When we defend our faith in the resurrection, we can treat the New Testament the same way all secular historians do: as a collection of 27 books or letters that were all written by the end of the first century.
O.K., so what are the major arguments that non-believers make about the resurrection?
Let’s start with something that a man with a very smart-sounding English accent said about the resurrection in an interview a few years ago. I’m referring to Richard Dawkins. When asked about the resurrection, He said, “Oh, these sorts of legends often sprang up in the ancient world when powerful, charismatic figures died.” Dawkins was appealing to the idea that the resurrection was simply a legend like so many other legends of people dying and coming back to life in antiquity.
Is that true? Not at all. He is completely wrong. In Roman mythology, there were legends about mythic figures like Hercules going up to heaven on the horse Pegasus to live with the gods after death. There were legends about people who weren’t really dead who escaped from the grave to resume their normal life. There were legends about people who were taken to live among the stars after death. There were legends about people becoming spirits or ghosts. Do these legends sound much like Jesus’ resurrection? There is not a single pagan legend that we know of in which a person comes back from the dead and returns to a bodily form of life. Shouldn’t there be, if these sorts of things happened all the time? Besides, even assuming the disciples knew of these life-after-death stories from pagan religions, why would these disciples—all pious Jews—be influenced by them?
Also, if resurrection legends sprang up so easily and often when charismatic leaders died, how is it that no other resurrection legend ever sprang up in first-century Palestine when there were many would-be Messiahs who promised to deliver Israel from Roman occupation. Like Jesus, they had large and devoted followings. And, like Jesus, they died at the hands of Rome—often by crucifixion. Out of all these would-be Messiahs, only followers of Jesus claimed that he was resurrected. Isn’t that strange—if these sorts of claims just happened all the time in the ancient world? See, people weren’t dumb back then: they knew as well as we do that when people died, they stayed dead!
Besides, legends take time to develop, and the Bible says that disciples started proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection two days after Jesus was buried, when they discovered the empty tomb and Jesus appeared to them in his resurrected body.
O.K., the skeptic might say, but I don’t believe the Bible, remember? Besides, the earliest resurrection account is found in Mark’s gospel, which was written around A.D. 70, some 40 years or so after Jesus’ death. Plenty of time for a legend to develop, right?
Wrong! Because the earliest written accounts discussing Jesus’ resurrection—the earliest Christian writings that we still have—are Paul’s letters, which all historians agree were written 15-20 years after Jesus’ death. And some of the most historically significant words Paul wrote are found in today’s scripture. Beginning in verse 3, Paul writes,
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
This is interesting for a few reasons. First, we’re hearing from someone who claims to be an eyewitness to the resurrected Lord himself, who we know for sure began his ministry within two or three years after Jesus’ death. We also know for sure, based on non-biblical sources, that Paul knew some of Jesus’ original disciples—as Paul himself says in his letter to the Galatians. So… when Paul says that he’s “handed on to you” what he received, we can be confident that “what he received” came directly from Jesus’ disciples and from other eyewitnesses to the events that Paul describes here.
Not only that, scholars say that Paul’s words here are likely part of a very early creed that predates Paul’s writings by many years. Paul’s repeated use of the word “that” is one clue. Many scholars, in fact, believe that Paul likely learned the creed directly from James and Peter when he was in Jerusalem within a few years of his conversion. If so, Paul learned this creed within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion—hardly time for a legend to develop! Again, we can be confident that what Paul describes here goes back to the beginning of the Christian movement.
So… we can know for sure that the apostles proclaimed from the beginning that Jesus was resurrected. It wasn’t a legend. So we can throw that theory out the window.
But the skeptic might reply: Who cares? So what if the apostles claimed that Jesus was resurrected. Either they were lying or they were mistaken. I’ll say more about that next week.
In the meantime, consider how Paul’s words in v. 5 pose a major problem for that point of view: “Then [Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” Now the skeptic might say, “I don’t believe the Bible, so it doesn’t matter what Paul says.” O.K., but Paul isn’t asking us to rely on his word. He’s saying, “If you don’t believe my word, fine. The Romans have built this wonderful infrastructure that makes travel around the Mediterranean very easy and inexpensive. You can go and talk to any or all of these disciples—including most of these 500 eyewitnesses who are still alive.” Paul is obviously very confident that these hundreds of people who also claim to have experienced the resurrected Lord will back him up. Surely, Paul’s Roman or Jewish opponents would be more than happy to discredit Paul’s words and crush the Christian movement if it were possible. Paul is practically daring them to do so. Why would he do that? Why would he be so confident?
This doesn’t prove the resurrection happened. Maybe these hundreds of eyewitnesses were suffering from some kind of delusion or mass hallucination…? But we’ll get to that next week.
For this week, I want to leave you with something that pastor and theologian Tim Keller said about the resurrection:
Sometimes people approach me and say, “I really struggle with this aspect of Christian teaching. I like this part of Christian belief, but I don’t think I can accept that part.” I usually respond: “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all he said; if he didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what he said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like this teaching but whether or not he rose from the dead.” That is how the first hearers felt who heard reports of the resurrection. They knew that if it was true it meant we can’t live our lives any way we want. It also meant we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not Roman swords, not cancer, nothing. If Jesus rose from the dead, it changes everything.
I’m sympathetic with people who don’t believe in the resurrection, even though I don’t think their skepticism stems from carefully weighing the evidence and reaching this conclusion. After all, think of what the resurrection means: if it’s really true, it means that everything changes. On the other hand, if it’s really true, it means that everything changes.
So… What if it’s it’s really true?
 1 Corinthians 15:14, 17-19.
 See Romans 10:10
 See Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2004), 90. Other ideas in this paragraph come from N.T. Wright’s Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).
 Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 202.