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The Resurrection of Jesus- Myth or History?

By Dr. Peter Amerman
The 2016 movie, “Risen”, tells the story of a Roman Soldier, Clavius, who investigated the rumors of the resurrection of Jesus, to determine what had actually happened on that first Easter morning. Was this rumor of Jesus resurrection a myth, or an event that had actually occurred in space-time history? This movie itself was a fictional story; but, it illustrates a very important point- the events surrounding the death and resurrection of Jesus were historically accurate, and could very well have been investigated by a Roman soldier, a member of the Sanhedrin, or you or me, for that matter.
Christianity is by nature a historical religion. It stands or falls on certain historical facts. Hugh Ross, a skeptic who converted to Christianity, and founder of the “Reasons to Believe” ministry, said in his series, “An Astronomer’s Quest”- “If you study the other religions of the world, you will find that most of them are based on ideas and teachings and the philosophy of their founders. But, this is not the case with Christianity. The basis for Christianity is on certain historical principles- names, places, events- which can be tested, and can be proven to be true by historical inquiry; and, the principles of faith that it teaches are all based on these historical events, not just on ideas or philosophies of its founder.”
Exactly! Jesus’ teachings focused mostly on Himself, not just His ideas; and, the most important historical event which he pointed to as validating who He was– was the resurrection. If you disprove the resurrection, you have disproved Christianity, and the entire system or beliefs of the Christian religion, the entire creed, the entire New Testament, the entire church will collapse.
More than once, I read or heard- even from professors who were supposedly Christian- “Even if we are not sure that the resurrection happened, even if we can’t be sure that Jesus had really risen from the dead, Christianity would be just a valid a religion. It was really the ideas of Jesus, His teachings, and His example of selfless love– especially His sacrificial love shown on the cross– that are really important.”
I couldn’t disagree more! The resurrection is the cornerstone truth of the gospel itself, and without the resurrection, there is no gospel!
Josh McDowell, writer of the two volume works, “Evidence that Demands a Verdict”, wrote an article entitled, “If I had Faked the Resurrection.” Here are a few of the points that he made:
“If I had been some first century propagandist trying to fake the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I would have done a number of things differently (from the way Matthew, Mark, Luke and John reported it):

  • I would wait a prudent period after the events before ‘publishing’ my account.
  • I would publish my account far from the venue where it supposedly happened.
  • I would select my ‘witnesses’ very carefully- avoiding using any names at all in my account, and I would certainly avoid citing prominent personalities as witnesses.
  • I would disguise the location of the tomb or spectacularly destroy it in my account.
  • I would try to squelch inquiry or investigation, and would not cite more than 500 people who witnessed the risen Christ along with this statement- ‘…most of whom are alive now…’- in other word, ‘If you do not believe me, you can ask them.’
  • I would not preach a message of repentance in the light of the resurrection.
  • And, I would stop short of dying for my lie…”

In other words, it would have been a whole lot easier for the early Christians if they had not based their faith on one certain historical event- the resurrection- unless it happened.
Jesus made a challenge to His disciples- He told them of their resurrection, and that He was going to prepare a place for them in heaven- and, He made this statement- “If it were not so, I would have told you.” But, their own doubts had to have occasionally gotten the better of them. What if it were not so? What if Jesus was not raised from the dead? Let’s entertain that thought for a while today- for the sake of the skeptics- like Clavius, or maybe someone who is reading this article.
In 1 Corinthians 15:12-20, Paul took on the challenge of those who said that it was not so. If it were not so, we would have to conclude at least 7 things about Jesus Christ and the Christian religion:
 

  • If it were not so, then our preaching is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14)

Preaching is only as good as the content which it proclaims. Christian preaching is not dependent upon great preachers; nor is it dependent upon great delivery, great illustrations, or dramatic effect. Christian preaching is dependent ultimately dependent upon the factual nature of the truth that it is proclaiming. And, the most basic principle that Christians proclaim is that Jesus Christ is risen! He is alive. You take that out of our preaching, and there is no Christian preaching. It is all for nothing; it is all worthless.
Not only is preaching today useless “If it were not so”, but also the preaching of the apostles was useless. Within 6 weeks of the crucifixion, the apostles were proclaiming the good news of Jesus and the resurrection. You take the resurrection out of their preaching, and you have no preaching.
Not only is the preaching of the apostles useless “if it were not so”, but also the preaching of Jesus was useless. At least a dozen times in the gospels, we read Jesus specific teaching that he would suffer, be killed and be raised up on the 3rd day. (Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31 & Mark 10:33, John 2:19-21)
Jesus issued this challenge in John 3:12- “If I tell you earthly things, and you will not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” In other words, if I tell you about an actual event- my resurrection- something that can be verified in recorded history- and you will not believe, how will you believe me about anything else I teach you? If He lied here, then we are left to wonder if He lied about any of His other promises.

  • If it were not so, then our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14)

As preaching is only as good as the content it proclaims, so also faith is only as good as the object of that faith.
I read about a person in the 1800’s who made a pair of wings so that he could fly like a bird. He couldn’t try them out by just jumping off the roof of his barn because it wasn’t high enough. So, he climbed the Eiffel tower in Paris with these great wings, and a great crowd gathered. And, as he got to the top, he looked down at the great gap between him and the ground. Now he was faced with the dilemma- he could get down and assure that his life would be spared- but, he would never know if his wings would fly. Or, he could jump, and demonstrate great faith in these wings- but, if they didn’t hold him, that would be the end of him. The man jumped. Now, he demonstrated great faith in these wings by doing that; but, he ended carving out an imprint on the pavement below of himself and a pair of wings. The wings didn’t fly. More important than the greatness of his faith was the object of his faith.
For the Christian, the object of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ. We call him “God, the Son” on what basis? On the basis of a fact in history- the resurrection. Our faith is based on the facts. But, one may say, “But, I don’t know all the facts; therefore I can’t believe.” You do not need all the facts to believe. Build on what you know to be true. I don’t know all the facts about electricity and incandescent lighting; but, I do know how to turn on the switch for the light in my room! And, I must admit, there are a lot of things in the Christian faith that I don’t understand; but, I do not let them ruin what I do understand. And, the one thing I know for certain is this- Jesus Christ was raised from the dead! He is alive. That is where faith begins!
 

  • If it were not so, then we are false witnesses of God (1 Corinthians 15:15)

Notice that Paul lists the witnesses to whom Christ appeared- 1 Corinthians 15: 4-8- “…that He (Christ) was raised on the 3rd day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (that is, Peter), and to the 12 (the apostles), and to more than 500 brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living…then to James (Jesus’ half brother)…then, to me (Paul)…”
In Jewish law, all you needed to confirm an event was 7 witnesses. Paul listed over 520 witnesses, some of them even by name, and issued the challenge- “…most of whom are still living…” In other words, “If you don’t believe me, then ask them yourselves!
Not only would the apostles and followers of Jesus found to be false witnesses, but so would many of the non-Christian historians who wrote in Jesus day, for instance, Josephus, a reputable 1st century Jewish historian wrote about Jesus, and said, that “He appeared to the disciples alive again on the third day.” Other non-Christian ancient historians also wrote about the resurrection of Christ.
So also, many Old Testament prophets would be found to be false witnesses, such as Isaiah, David, and Job. (Isaiah 53:10, Psalm 16:10, Psalm 49:15, Job 19:25-27)
 

  • If it were not so, then our faith is futile, and we are still in our sins (1 Corinthians 15:17)

If it were not so, then the idea that I can be forgiven of sins, or being washed in the blood of the lamb is worthless. Then, the blood of Jesus Christ is no more cleansing to us than lamb’s blood. Then, I cannot truly pray, “Forgive us our sins” and believe it. Then, Romans 1:18 is the final word- “For the wrath of God is revealed against all unrighteousness.” Then, the death of Jesus Christ was for His own sins, and not ours.
 

  • If it were not so, then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost (1 Corinthians 15:18)

Death in the bible is not seen as a “natural process.” Death is a result of the presence of sin. Death is an enemy to be overcome. It is a fearsome enemy. But, if Christ has not been raised, then we have no hope at all for eternal life. Death is at best, the end of life; and, at worst, facing the judgment of God for all eternity.
I remember talking with a man, and I asked him if he knew that he had eternal life. His response? “I don’t believe in eternal life as a concept.” And, I responded, “My friend, the question is not whether eternal life is a valid concept, but rather, a valid fact in history.” If Christ has not been raised, then all of our talk of eternal life is just a vague, unrealistic concept; but, if Christ has been raised, then eternal life is a valid fact, and a real possibility.
 

  • If it were not so, then we have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:19)

Our hope is a present hope. Christians say, “Jesus Christ is alive today.” We take seriously his words, Matthew 18:20- “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them”, or Matthew 28:20- “Surely, I am with you, even to the end of the world.” If Jesus has not been raised from the dead, then these words are only wishful thinking. When I say, “Christ is with us today”, I have no more credibility than someone who says, “The Easter Bunny is with us today.”
So also, our hope is a future hope. For those who have stood at a graveside, and wondered what hope we can find at a moment like this, we hold on to Jesus’ words in John 14:19- “Because I live, you shall live also”, or John 11:25-26-I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, even though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die…” Then, he follows with a question- not only to Mary and Martha, but to you and me as well- “Do you believe this?” Do you still have hope- can you still trust him at a graveside? Do you have hope for your own resurrection? But, if Christ has not been raised, then when we have about as much hope as one who hopes to find Aladdin’s lamp, and rub it, and have a genie appear and grant us three wishes.
 

  • If it were not so, then Christianity is a pitiable religion (1 Corinthians 15:19)

If there is no empty grave in Joseph of Arimathea’s garden in Jerusalem, Israel, in the first century, then the Christian religion is a poor excuse for a religion today. Then, when we tell the story of the resurrection on Easter Sunday, we might just as well present the story of Alice in wonderland. Then, when we sing a songs such as “He arose!” or “Amazing Grace”, we might just as well sing, “Fairy tales can come true- it can happen to you.” If the resurrection falls, the church falls.
But, now, notice what Paul says in vs. 20- “But now, Christ has been raised from the dead!” And, I would encourage all skeptics today, or all who have the slightest shadow of a doubt regarding the resurrection of Jesus- examine the evidence! The Bible challenges you not to believe in a myth, but in a fact of history– Jesus Christ is risen!
Examine the textual evidence- the bible is the most credible collection of books ever of ancient history. We have more manuscript evidence for the Bible than all the other books and works of ancient history combined- Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Homer, Josephus, Eusebius.
Examine the empty tomb! The site is still there, in Jerusalem, Israel, and you will find that it is empty. Nowhere do we find a tomb that says, “Here lies Jesus of Nazareth.”
Examine the changed lives of the disciples who all were willing to suffer and even die for their belief in the resurrection!
Examine the testimonials of skeptics who set out to disprove the historicity of the resurrection, such as Josh McDowell, Simon Greenleaf, Lee Strobel, Hugh Ross or C. S. Lewis- and, how each one came to the conclusion that the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested fact of ancient history ever.
Examine the evidence and see for yourselves- Jesus Christ is alive. This is real. This is true. This is the entire basis for our faith as Christians, and you can count on it!
“But now, Christ has been raised from the dead!”
Because it is true, our preaching is not useless, but powerful.
Because it is true, our faith is not useless, but based on a real event in history.
Because it is true, we are not false witnesses, but witnesses of the truth.
Because it is true, then, we are not still in our sins, but rather we are forgiven forever.
Because it is true, then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have not perished, but alive forever.
Because it is true, we are not hopeless, but rather we have a great, living hope.
Because it is true, then, we as Christians are not a pitiable lot, but rather, we are more than conquerors through Christ who loved us, and we can be sure that neither death, nor life…nor any other created thing will be able to separate us from the love of Jesus Christ.
But, vs. 20 continues- “But now, Christ has been raised, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” That means that Christ was raised not only as a sign, or an example, but as a “prototype”- that those who follow Him in faith will also be raised from the dead. Do you know Him- Christ, the resurrected one- today? Have you received Him personally as your Lord and Savior, and His death on the cross as payment for your sins? “If it were not so”- if Christ has not been raised from the dead, I could understand why you wouldn’t want to do that; but, because it is so, because He is alive, and promises eternal life to all who will simply put their trust in him, I can’t see why you would want to do anything else!
 

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Peter Amerman, M.DIV., D.MIN.
Chair of Biblical Studies  Associate Professor of Biblical Studies  [email protected]

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