Resurrection: Fact or fallacy?
Is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ a fact of history or a mere legend?
Most Christians believe Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead after having been crucified by the Roman government of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
No other religion makes such a claim about its founder.
If it is true, it merits careful consideration.
While some facts of history are difficult to dispute, others are difficult to prove.
Take the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, the assassination of John Kennedy, or man’s first walk on the moon.
Many of us were alive when these events occurred and remember them vividly. We have no trouble believing they occurred.
But in order to believe John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln, we rely on the records of historians. Eyewitness accounts were recorded and preserved, eventually making up the body of knowledge concerning the event.
A much earlier moment in history is being celebrated in Christian churches on this Easter Sunday.
Although there were apparently no witnesses to the actual Resurrection, there were people who had seen the Crucifixion and then helped bury Jesus. And many of those same people saw the resurrected Christ, according to accounts in the Bible.
But these eyewitness accounts are disputed for two reasons. First, they proclaim a miraculous occurrence. People don’t generally rise from the dead.
Second, the accounts are contained in the New Testament, the sacred writings which form the body of doctrine for the Christian faith. Those who do not accept the New Testament have little reason to believe the Resurrection occurred.
Whether the Resurrection is believed or not, no one can deny something special happened in Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago.
Christians, Jews and Muslims, along with most secular historians, believe a man called Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught in Palestine, but what they believe about him is vastly different.
“There were many different itinerant preachers at the time,” says Rabbi David J. Radinsky of Congregation Brith Shalom Beth Israel. “There was oppression of the Jews from Rome and many men were claiming to be the Messiah. We see Jesus as one of those false Messiahs.”
The Jewish concept of a Messiah is completely different from the Christian concept, Radinsky says.
“The Christian belief turns the Messiah into god. With that comes the doctrine of the Trinity; the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We don’t believe the Messiah will be God.”
False Messiahs have appeared throughout the history of Judaism, he says. “The most recent was in the 17th century. A man named Shabtai Tzvi claimed to be the Messiah. He had about 100,000 followers.”
Jews still await the promised Messiah, Radinsky says.
“He’ll be a descendant of David, but he won’t be God. He’ll be a human being who will die and be buried. He will be gifted. He will help bring universal peace and reestablish the kingdom of Israel.”
Some Christians say Jewish beliefs about the Messiah add to the credibility of the Resurrection.
“The evidence for the Resurrection is even stronger when you realize there was no Jewish tradition or prophecy that anticipated a dying and resurrected Messiah,” says Dr. A.J. Conyers, chairman of the department of religion and theology at Baptist College of Charleston.
Although some Old Testament passages are seen by Christians as predicting the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Messiah, Jews do not interpret those passages as Christians do.
If the Jews had expected a resurrected Messiah, the reasoning goes, then the disciples might have staged a fake resurrection in order to revive their cause.
Conyers offers several other arguments for the Resurrection. “First, there are four separate, independent accounts in the Gospels. Although there is some variety within the accounts, they basically substantiate each other.
“Second, it is something which evidently had a profound effect on the Christian community. It changed the whole tenor of the disciples. They were discouraged at first, because of his death. Suddenly, they became bold and outgoing, proclaiming their message despite persecution.”
Earliest preaching of the Resurrection was done in Jerusalem, Conyers says. “That’s where the death of Jesus had occurred, which serves to make it even more likely that it had, in fact, taken place.
“If it could have been easily disproved, it probably would have been. But all those who witnessed the resurrected Christ were convinced by it and continued to proclaim it, even though they were persecuted for their belief.”
The most convincing argument in favor of the Resurrection, Conyers says, is to be found in the 1 Corinthians 15. “This was the earliest account of the Resurrection, written about 25 years after it happened. In this account, Paul says more than 500 people, many of whom were still alive, had seen the resurrected Christ.
“No one doubts that Paul wrote that letter,” he says. “What makes it convincing is that he wasn’t writing it to convince people that the Resurrection had occurred. He was assuring his readers that they would be raised from the dead, too, in the general resurrection.
“Paul was arguing from the familiar to the unfamiliar, using something that everyone accepted and understood to prove something people did not understand.”
Historically, the Resurrection can’t be proven, says Dr. Fred Brandfon, a professor of religion at the College of Charleston.
“Basically, the only evidence we have is the text of the New Testament. A great deal of historical study of the New Testament was begun some 100 years ago. These devoted Christian scholars reached the conclusion that there is a vast portion of the Gospels that are not accessible to historical inquiry.”
Christians, he says, should agree on the Resurrection, but that doesn’t mean it happened. “They have to make that jump of faith,” he says.
If the Resurrection was proven to have been a historical occurrence, it would be very significant, Brandfon says. “It would mean that someone died and lived again. But that would not necessarily make him God.”
Several theories have been proposed to explain the events of the Resurrection.
The earliest theory, according to Matthew 28:11–15, is the Stolen Body Theory. It was devised by the Jewish chief priest who paid soldiers to spread the idea that the disciples had stolen the body.
The Swoon Theory holds that Christ never actually died on the cross, but only swooned. According to this theory, Christ lost consciousness while on the cross and was revived in the cool environment of the tomb.
According the the Wrong Tomb Theory, Jesus’ followers went to the wrong tomb on that first Easter morning.
Yet another theory holds that all the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ were hallucinations
All of the theories put forth to explain the Resurrection have been refuted by Christian apologists, but since much of the refutation is based on the New Testament, skeptics remained unconvinced.
Josh McDowell, author of “Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” was himself a skeptic. He set about the task of investigating the Resurrection with the idea of proving it to have been a hoax.
As he studied, he concluded that the evidence favored the actual occurrence of the Resurrection. He’s become a well-known speaker and writer in Christian circles.
Frank Morrison, a British journalist, also wanted to prove the story of Christ’s Resurrection was a myth. As a result of his investigation, he became a Christian. His book, “Who Moved the Stone?,” is considered a classic in Christian apologetics.
And C.S. Lewis, who is known as the apostle to the skeptics, belittled Christians until his conversion in 1931. His book, “Mere Christianity,” has led many to faith, including former White House aide Charles Colson, who says he became a Christian after having read Lewis’ book.
The current “liberal versus conservative” controversy dividing many Christian denominations has much to do with the inerrancy of Scripture, with liberals taking the position that many of the stories in the Bible are myths while conservatives maintain the stories are true.
Conservatives are concerned that attempts to portray some of the Biblical stories, such as Jonah’s having spent three days in the belly of a whale, as myths will have the net effect of making the whole Bible seem like a mere collection of legends, including the stories of the Resurrection.
Is it important for Christians to believe the Resurrection occurred?
The apostle Paul apparently thought it was. Writing to fellow Christians in 1 Corinthians 15, he says, “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
Most contemporary Christians agree.
“It’s very important to know that he rose bodily,” says the Rev. Daniel Johnson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Mount Pleasant. “If he didn’t arise, he’s still in the ground and he’s just another Bhudda or Confucius. I think it is very important to know that our savior conquered death and is alive.”
And the Rev. James Martin, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Metropolitan Community Church, says, “I certainly do believe he rose from the dead. It is an article of faith with me.”
Although he won’t argue with Christians who have trouble believing the Resurrection actually occurred, Baptist College’s Conyers says, “It’s important for Christians to believe God could have done it if he wanted to.”
Originally published: Sunday, April 3, 1988
The Sunday Post-Courier — Charleston, South Carolina