Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Can we believe in the resurrection?

Christianity is built of a belief not in the spiritual or metaphorical resurrection of Christ but in his bodily resurrection. That is, on a Friday sometime between 29-33A.D., Jesus who was truly dead through crucifixion, was buried in a sealed, secured and protected tomb and on the following Sunday, was found to be resurrected. That it was a bodily resurrection is clear from accounts of his eating with the disciples (Lk 24:42) and in Paul's defence of the bodily resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.

While there are no witnesses to the moment of resurrection, there are a number of indicators that the resurrection really happened. That is, Jesus the crucified man was raised from the dead to be Jesus the resurrected man.

In his resurrected state he was like a man in that he had the same essential body shape, had scars from his pre-death experience, remembered his pre-death life, ate, drank, walked, talked and interacted with those he knew. However, he was also able to go beyond normal human physicality able to translate from one context to another, to go through walls and doors and seemingly disappeared for long periods of time. Finally he defied gravity in his ascension.

1. The Empty Tomb: The problem of the empty tomb has never been resolved. Where was Jesus body on the morning of the resurrection? While this is not conclusive, this points to the question of what happened to his body?

2. The improbability of other alternatives? There are essentially only two other alternatives. Firstly, that Jesus was not dead, came to in the tomb, got out and when they came to the tomb he was gone. Secondly, that Jesus was dead and his disciples entered the tomb and took his body and then made up the story that Jesus was raised. The first idea that Jesus got out can be ruled out emphatically for these reasons.
a. The notion that the experiences were merely hallucinations can be ruled out due to the number of experiences across such a wide variety of appearances.
b. If Jesus was not dead, then he needed to have the strength to get out of the linen cloths soaked in spices which swathed his body (this would have suffocated him), pushed aside the large sealed rock from the inside in the dark and snuck or forced his way past the Roman soldiers guarding the tomb.
c. That Jesus was thoroughly dead is evidenced by the soldiers not needing to break his legs to hasten death and the separated blood which flowed from his side when he was speared.

The second idea that the disciples stole his body can also be ruled out because the disciples would have had to sneak past the soldiers, roll away the stone, unwrap Jesus and get away without being seen! Then they would have had hide the body from the authorities and others.

3. The problem of the missing body: While it is theoretically possible, even if highly unlikely that the body was taken, it is still theoretical at best as no body has been found which fits the description.

4. Appearances: In the bible five documents (Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 21, 1 Corinthians 15:3-8)give specific and detailed accounts of appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples. The best explanation of these accounts is that the risen Jesus was seen as recorded.

5. Inconsistencies in the accounts: Some would argue that the inconsistencies in the accounts suggest a lack of reliability and perhaps collusion. However, I would argue that the inconsistencies point to genuineness in the eye-witness recollections and honesty in recording the accounts. That is, the differences point away from any collusion and suggest honesty in seeking to record what happened. They read like eye-witness accounts much in the same way one might gather data from a crime scene.

6. The martyrdom of the witnesses and subsequent generations: The subsequent history of the church suggests that most if not all the disciples, and thousands of subsequent generations, died at the hands of the Jews and Romans for their claim that Jesus died. Would these people be prepared to die for a lie? Now people are prepared to face potential death for a lie if it gains them money, power etc. However, these disciples in the early days of the church gained nothing except social ostracism, suffering and death. It was not until the 4th century that it was highly profitable to be a Christian!

7. The monotheistic nature of the people involved: We also have to remember who these people were. They were radical monotheists who believed in one God, and not unlike contemporary extreme Muslims, rejected the notion of God becoming flesh, suffering and dying on a cross. For a Jew, one was cursed if they were crucified (Deut 21:23). It was inconceivable that the Messiah from God would be killed by Gentiles! Yet, these people, including one who set out to systematically destroy Christianity (Paul in Acts 9), turned to faith in a crucified-resurrected Messiah. This suggests that the resurrection is to be seen as a reality.

8. The testimony of the women: One of the most amazing features of the resurrection accounts is the retention of Mary Magdalene as the first witness in John, Luke's and the longer ending of Mark's accounts. It was commonly held that a woman's testimony was worthless and it would have been of no value. Yet, they retained this in the accounts. It would have been to their advantage in terms of evangelisation of the Greeks, for the early Christians to remove this. However, they did not do so. Again this points to the authenticity of the accounts.

9. Greco-Roman disbelief in bodily resurrection: N.T. Wright's book 'The resurrection of the Son of God' has gone through carefully the Greco-Roman view of life after death and has concluded that there was no belief in the resurrection of the dead in bodily terms in the Greco-Roman world. Hence it cannot be argued that the notion of bodily resurrection was placed back into the accounts to make them more palatable to the Greco-Roman world or that the accounts are reworked Greco-Roman myths. Rather, it points again to a determined attempt to hold onto to their experience of the bodily-resurrected Christ corpse at the centre of the faith. This speaks strongly to a bodily resurrection.

10. Other historical accounts: Negatively and positively the resurrection is supported historically. Negatively there is no counter historical account contemporaneous with the biblical accounts that provide evidence that the resurrection did not occur, or that there is a suitable alternative explanation. Positively, there is the intriguing statement of the Jewish historian Josephus that Jesus rose from the dead (see Josephus, Antiquities xviii. 33). While some dispute this as a later interpolation, no extant document exists without this reference, meaning there is no real textual evidence that it is a fraud.

11. The incredible impact of Christ: When one examines the amazing expansion of the Christian faith in the first three centuries it must be concluded something amazing happened. This is especially so when one considers that Christians did not take up arms to achieve this. The use of military force again came later, when the Christian faith became tied up with Roman military and political might. In the first few years the faith spread as the Christians were persecuted terribly and showed love to those in need, shared the message of Christ and showed love to those who persecuted them. The manner in which Christianity became the religious belief of the Roman empire is utterly incredible and suggests the reality of the resurrection!

12. The testimony of million: The personal stories of millions of Christians who give personal accounts of the way in which Jesus changed their lives indicates that he lives.

13. The ethic of honesty: People do plead honesty but lie. However, it would be rather surprising for those first Christians to build their testimony on a lie while preaching honesty for no gain. If they had made a lot of money or gained great social or political power through such infidelity one might think that they were charlatans. However, they did not gain much for many years. That being the case, those who preached 'do not lie' to me were unlikely to lie and die for the lie.

I conclude than that the best explanation of the evidence that exists is that Jesus did rise from the dead in a bodily and real form. If Jesus rose from the dead he is unique and worthy of the claims made about him. He is God, the risen Saviour and Lord of the universe. We should believe in him because it is a totally unique event in human history and points us to Jesus as the one we should follow.

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