It takes faith to believe in the resurrection, but it isn’t blind faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ rests on a firm historical foundation. In Part 2 of this series, I have a conversation with a skeptic—or at least a lawyer who knows how to ask tough questions. And he asks the ones that skeptics most frequently ask. Listen to my responses.
What questions do you have? Let me know!
Sermon Text: Matthew 28:11-20
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
I argued last week that we can know for sure that the resurrection of Jesus was not simply a legend that emerged over time, like other legends of people dying and rising in the ancient world. We know for sure that the disciples said Jesus was resurrected from the beginning.
TIM: So what? I can accept that the disciples said that Jesus was resurrected. But what if they were mistaken. Maybe they just wanted to make it look like Jesus had been resurrected, so they stole the body.
BRENT: It’s interesting you say that, because we know from both the Bible and sources outside the Bible that the “stolen body theory” was the first conspiracy theory put forward by Jesus’ enemies. This theory is wrong, but it tells us something very important.
TIM: What’s that?
BRENT: That the tomb was really empty on Easter. Here’s what I mean… I ask my wife, Lisa, every week if she liked my sermon. She always—always—answers yes. She’s probably a little biased. As hard as it is to imagine, suppose, hypothetically, that someone out there can’t stand my preaching, always hates my sermons, and is always very critical.
TIM: Do you want a list of names? Because I’ll be happy to…
BRENT: No, no, no! My point is, if such a hypothetical person agrees with Lisa that my sermon is good, it must be good! The same principle is true here: The fact that Jesus’ enemies said that the body was stolen means that they agree that the tomb was empty. Besides… it’s a no-brainer that the tomb was empty. If the resurrection didn’t happen, the Roman or Jewish opponents of Christianity could stop the young movement dead in its tracks by opening the tomb and producing the corpse.
TIM: O.K., but that doesn’t mean the disciples didn’t steal the body.
BRENT: That’s true. The Bible reports that Mary Magdalene herself thought that the body was stolen when she saw the empty tomb. Like all the other disciples except one, she didn’t believe in the resurrection until after she saw the risen Lord herself. So the disciples would have to not only steal the body but also fake all the resurrection appearances—if they wanted people to believe in the resurrection.
TIM: But you’re basing that on what the Bible says. What if I don’t believe the Bible?
BRENT: That’s fine, but consider this: When modern historians try to determine whether an event really happened in the past, one of the principles they use is the “principle of embarrassment.” The disciples wouldn’t invent a story that embarrasses them, makes them look bad, or hurts their case for the resurrection.
TIM: How does this story embarrass them or hurt their case?
BRENT: Well, in a couple of ways. First, the gospels tell us that Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. In spite of this prediction, the disciples act clueless on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Mary mistakes Jesus for a gardener. We know about the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 who don’t recognize Jesus at first. We know about “doubting Thomas” in John 20. And today’s scripture reports that some of Jesus’ disciples “doubted” even after he appeared to them in Galilee.
These details don’t flatter the disciples. If you want the world to believe that Jesus was resurrected, why show them failing to believe his predictions or struggling to recognize him? It seems like the gospel writers—far from trying to deceive people—go out of their way to report these events with honesty and candor.
Not only that: the resurrection story includes the embarrassing fact that the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and resurrection were women. Women had very low social status in the ancient world; their testimony was not considered credible. If the disciples were going to invent a resurrection story, wouldn’t they rather have men like Peter, James, and John be the first eyewitnesses? Of course! But they didn’t tell the story that way because that’s not the way it happened. The inconvenient fact is that women were the first eyewitnesses. If the gospels tell the truth about that, doesn’t it seem more likely that they were telling the truth about everything else?
TIM: But while we’re on the subject of the gospels, aren’t there a lot of discrepancies and contradictions in the different resurrection accounts—the number of women at the tomb, the number of angels, where the resurrection appearances occurred…?
BRENT: Well, yeah… details differ between the four accounts—and, if you’re interested, plenty of Bible scholars have reconciled these differences. But let’s not miss the forest for the trees: All four gospels agree on the central facts: the women at the tomb on Sunday morning, the empty tomb, the angelic announcement, and the resurrection appearances by Jesus. I know we modern people all wish that Fox News and CNN had filmed the resurrection while it was happening, but those things didn’t exist back then!
Besides, from an historian’s point of view, the fact that the gospel accounts differ means that each gospel writer had access to independent sources. Multiple, independent sources for an historical event mean it’s more likely to have happened.
TIM: O.K., but it doesn’t have to be a conspiracy. What if Jesus didn’t really die—maybe he went into a coma on the cross. And in the cool of tomb, he revived and came out.
BRENT: You doubt the Romans knew how to properly kill people? They were really good at it! The process of crucifixion was brutal. The scourging that preceded the crucifixion was intended to nearly kill the person. Once on the cross, a victim would have to constantly push up on his nailed feet in order to breathe. You could only take a breath in the “up” position. But the pain in your feet would be so severe that you’d want to return to the down position, alleviating the pain. When victims had no more strength, they stopped moving and died of asphyxiation. But to make sure, soldiers punctured the victim’s heart with a spear, which they did for Jesus in John 20:34.
Even if it were possible to survive all that—and there’s no evidence that this ever happened—this theory asks us to believe that a limping, bloody, pale Jesus, whose hands and feet were broken, somehow rolled the stone away and staggered out of the tomb. And upon seeing this horribly wounded man, his disciples believed that he had been resurrected—and looked forward to their own resurrection! They would have taken one look at Jesus and said, “Let’s get you to a doctor—and fast!” Does this theory, called the “swoon theory,” seem plausible?
BRENT: Look… Whatever happened on Easter was enough to convince the original disciples to willingly die because of what they experienced. We know for sure that most of them died for their faith. Why would they do that for a lie?
TIM: Are you kidding? It happens all the time! Think of those terrorists on 9/11! Think of Jonestown; think of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians…
BRENT: By all means, people die for mistaken beliefs all the time, but not for beliefs that they know are mistaken. They die for what they sincerely believe to be true. Conspiracy theorists ask us to believe that these disciples knew that Jesus was a fraud and that the resurrection was a sham. In spite of this, they gave up their lives anyway. That’s far-fetched, wouldn’t you say?
TIM: Maybe so. But couldn’t they have simply been mistaken? What if they wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was resurrected that their mind played tricks on them? In other words, they imagined that they had seen the risen Lord.
BRENT: Like a hallucination?
TIM: Well, a hallucination or vision of some kind.
BRENT: O.K., but you agreed with me earlier that the tomb was empty. How does a vision explain that?
TIM: I don’t know, but I know that the mind is a powerful thing.
BRENT: That’s true. I had very vivid dreams of my father shortly after he died, and he seemed as real to me as you sitting there. But when I woke up I never once mistook this dream or vision for a physical appearance by my father. I knew it was a dream. This “vision” theory, by contrast, asks us to imagine that all of the eyewitnesses had the same vision at the same time, and on multiple occasions, and each time they failed to figure out that it was only a vision or dream. Instead they reported that Jesus ate and drank with them, touched them, made physical contact with them. Does that seem likely to you that this was some kind of mind game
Besides, as you suggested, skeptics who make this claim describe the resurrection as wish-fulfillment. The disciples wanted to believe that Jesus was resurrected, and they deluded themselves into thinking that he was resurrected. And they were willing to die for it.
But this can’t explain the Apostle Paul. We know for sure that he was a persecutor of the early Christian movement before he converted. He didn’t expect or want Jesus to be resurrected. And what about James, the brother of Jesus? James thought his brother was crazy. He wasn’t expecting the resurrection. Didn’t believe in it! Yet both men were so convinced that they encountered the resurrected Lord that they turned their lives around. And we know for sure that both of them suffered and died because of their faith.
Let me make one more important point about all these alternate theories—whether it’s the “legend theory,” the “stolen body” theory, the “swoon theory,” or the “hallucination theory.” They all share one badly mistaken premise.
TIM: Which is…?
BRENT: The idea that these disciples would end up telling a story about Jesus being resurrected in the first place. Resurrection was a very strange, very unlikely thing to claim.
BRENT: Because who would believe them? In the Greco-Roman world, people believed that the body was mostly a bad thing—a cage from which your soul longed to be set free. To proclaim that someone died and came back… in a new, physical body? For all eternity? That idea was crazy to Greek and Roman thought.
And this might surprise you: Jews would have a major problem with it, too.
TIM: Why? Isn’t the Bible filled with people being resurrected? What about Lazarus, for example?
BRENT: There are a few examples of Jesus’ raising the dead—like Lazarus. The Old Testament describes Elijah and Elisha doing the same—as do Peter and Paul in the Book of Acts. But these aren’t resurrections. These are resuscitations. Each person who died started breathing again and resumed the life they had before. Each one died again later. That’s not what resurrection means. Jesus’ resurrected body was transformed—no longer able to suffer death or decay. Jesus’ resurrected body was physical… but more than physical. That’s why we see him not only eating and drinking like a normal person, but also walking through locked doors and disappearing and reappearing at will.
But not only that: First-century Jews believed that resurrection was something that would happen to everyone at the end of history—when God would finally establish his kingdom on earth and peace and justice would reign. Prior to Jesus, no one believed that resurrection would happen to one person in the middle of history—especially not as long as Rome still ruled in Palestine. I like the way Tim Keller puts it:
If someone had said to any first-century Jew, “So-and-so has been resurrected from the dead!” the response would be, “Are you crazy? How could that be? Has disease and death ended? Is true justice established in the world? Has the wolf lain down with the lamb? Ridiculous!” The very idea of an individual resurrection would have been as impossible to imagine to a Jew as to a Greek.
The most likely reason that the disciples claimed that Jesus was resurrected is that Jesus was resurrected. These disciples experienced it for themselves, believed it, preached it everywhere they went, and willingly suffered and died because of it. The conclusion that best fits all the evidence is that Jesus was resurrected.
TIM: What about science? Doesn’t science disprove the resurrection?
BRENT: No. Science can neither confirm nor deny any historical event. Science also can’t prove that that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, or that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, or that the Enola Gay dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The resurrection, like any historical event, only happened once. A scientist may claim that the resurrection didn’t happen, but they’re not speaking scientifically when they do. Besides, according to a recent survey, forty percent of scientists in America—higher than the general population—go to church every Sunday, so they obviously don’t see the disconnect between science and resurrection.
TIM: I don’t know… I guess I just have a hard time believing in miracles.
BRENT: But why? Because there’s no evidence?
Now there is! If Jesus were resurrected, the evidence that we have for the resurrection is exactly the evidence that we should expect. The question is, What are you going to do with it?
Hear this good news: God created this good world. He created us to be in a relationship with him. Sin damaged that relationship, and we have a God-shaped hole in the center of our being that can never be filled apart from God. But God loved us too much to leave us that way. So he sent his Son, who was God-in-the-flesh, to destroy the power of sin and evil through the cross and make forgiveness of sin possible. And through resurrection, God defeated death and gave us eternal life—for those who place our faith in him.
In the context of this God’s amazing love, the resurrection of Jesus just makes sense.