Can We Believe in the Resurrection? Part 2: Historical Evidence

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Easter 4A, May 11, 2014, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

If you would like to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Acts 2.42-47; Psalm 23.1-6; 1 Peter 2.19-25; John 10.1-10.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we began to answer the question, how do we explain the rise of early Christianity? We saw that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not only the turning point in history, it is the absolute foundation on which our Christian faith stands. We also defined resurrection and saw that when Jesus’ contemporaries and the NT writers used the term, they always referred to some kind of new bodily existence. As Tom Wright describes it, resurrection is about life after life after death and it is our ultimate hope as Christians. We then looked at some common objections raised about the resurrection and answered each in turn. I don’t have time to review each of these objections but if you did not hear last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go to my blog and either read or listen to the sermon.

This week, I want us to focus on the positive evidence that the resurrection was an actual historical event. I want this evidence to help reinforce our resurrection faith so that we have no doubt that God really did raise Jesus from the dead in the midst of human history. This knowledge should also help us to further graciously answer our critics when they challenge our belief in the resurrection, e.g., by asking them what they propose to do with our answers to their objections or to the evidence we provide that God really did raise Jesus from the dead.

Of course, no one witnessed the resurrection directly (although if the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial shroud of our Lord, ever proves to be authentic, it will shed some fascinating scientific insight into the very nature of the resurrection, but that is a different conversation for a different day). So we have to look at historical patterns that developed in the early Christian movement that indicate the first Christians were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and was indeed God’s Messiah and the world’s true Lord. To help us think these issues through, in Surprised by Hope, Bishop Tom Wright has noted seven significant modifications to the Jewish hope of resurrection (recall from last week that resurrection was a distinctive Jewish belief and teaching) and argues these modifications demand an answer as to why these changes occurred. I will briefly summarize these modifications and then as we did last week, I will address any questions or concerns you have at sermon’s end.

The virtually unanimous Christian thinking about life after death. The first significant change to the Jewish belief in resurrection is seen in the fact that the earliest Christians (at least for the first 150 years or so) were virtually united in their thinking about life after death. This contrasts to a wide variety of thinking about resurrection among first-century Jews (some, like the Sadducees, didn’t even believe in resurrection; that’s why they were sad, you see) and the fact that pagans didn’t believe in resurrection at all. Yet the early church was made up of both converted Jews and pagans, who ditched their previously held beliefs about life after death and embraced resurrection and the new creation patterned after Jesus’ resurrection. What possibly could have caused this change other than the early Christians were convinced that Jesus had been raised from the dead and that believers would share in his glory (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-26).

The vital importance of the resurrection to early Christians. This contrasts with the thinking about the subject on the part of first-century Judaism. Resurrection was important to first-century Jews, but not that important. But for the early Christians (as well as for us), it is the central and essential feature of the faith. This difference can only be realistically explained by accepting the fact that Jesus was indeed raised from the dead and it was a game-changer for the early Christians.

The early Christian teaching about the resurrected body. In contrast to first-century Judaism, which was rather vague about what the resurrected body would look like (even though it taught that the body would be raised), from the very beginning Christians based their teaching about the resurrected body on Jesus’ resurrected body. Paul was the first to offer a massive treatise on this subject (1 Corinthians 15.1-58). He wrote that the resurrected body would be a body in some sense, but it would be a transformed body like Jesus’ that was created out of the old material from his mortal body and had new properties. Unless Paul and Jesus’ disciples had first-hand experience with Jesus’ resurrected body in which to write and teach about our future resurrected bodies, there is no other credible explanation for this new teaching.

The new Christian teaching about a two-stage resurrection. Ancient Judaism taught that the resurrection of the dead would come at the end time when God would finally return and judge the world. In other words, there would be only one resurrection and it would happen to everybody at the same time. But this was not what the first Christians taught. They taught that the resurrection of Jesus actually signaled the beginning of God’s promised new creation and it had occurred surprisingly in the midst of human history! As Paul wrote and we recite in our Easter anthems each week during the Easter season, Jesus is the first-fruits of those who have died and we who are his followers will be raised on the last day. Once again, had Jesus not been raised from the dead, there would be no credible basis for this teaching.

The early Christian teaching about participating in the end times. Based on this belief in a two-stage resurrection and the launching of God’s new creation here on earth in the middle of human history, the early Christians believed and taught that they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to work with the risen Lord to implement his achievement of new life, healing, and the forgiveness of sins that were to be part and parcel of the new creation. In working with the risen Christ in the power of the Spirit, the early Christians believed that they would embody and demonstrate their resurrection hope as they eagerly awaited the final consummation of the new creation, a belief we still share today since we too are living in the end times. They believed and acted this way because Jesus’ resurrection made them understand that creation matters to God and therefore it should matter to them!

Moreover, to declare that Jesus is Lord and to work on his behalf in defiant opposition to the worldly powers was to risk their very lives for Jesus. This makes little sense if he had not been raised from the dead. Why would they risk their lives for a lie or fabrication? As we saw last week, delusional people sometimes act on their delusions but the apostles were emphatic-ally not psychotic. The only reasonable explanation, then, is that Jesus Christ arose from the dead and interacted with the disciples in ways that convinced them beyond doubt that he was really alive, fantastic and unbelievable as that was for them to believe, and that this interaction had a radically profound impact on their teaching and the way they patterned their lives after Jesus.

The different metaphorical use of resurrection by the early Christians. Ancient Judaism used resurrection as a metaphor to speak about their hope in God’s returning to the Temple to end their exile as a nation and to defeat their pagan oppressors (cf. Ezekiel 37.1-14). When Jesus’ contemporaries used resurrection as a metaphor, it was always in this sense. They had in mind God’s restoration of the nation of Israel. Not so with the first Christians. Think especially how Paul used resurrection as a metaphor in Romans 6.5-11 and Colossians 2.11-13. This wasn’t about God restoring the nation of Israel. It was about baptism and dying and rising with Christ. Again, how else can we explain this radically different use of the term unless Jesus actually rose from the dead?

The Christian belief that Jesus was Messiah based on the resurrection. As we saw last week, none of Jesus followers expected him to be raised from the dead. And after the crucifixion, they surely would not have thought he was the Messiah because crucified Messiahs were failed Messiahs. As we saw on Palm Sunday, most Jews expected the Messiah to cleanse the Temple, drive out the pagan oppressors, and establish God’s righteous rule. Jesus had cleansed the Temple but he had not driven out the Romans. In fact, he was crucified by them. So what changed their mind about Jesus? The only possible explanation is the resurrection. Certainly there is widespread evidence that the NT writers thought Jesus had been vindicated by God when God raised him from the dead (see, e.g., Ephesians 1.20; 1 Peter 1.21) and there is no other reasonable explanation for this change in their thinking about him being the Messiah or Christ.

And lest we wonder if the gospel accounts are fabrications or stories made up by the later church to propagate its false teaching about Jesus and the resurrection, consider the following. First, consider that none of the gospel accounts use OT references in explaining the resurrection. This is almost unbelievable considering that all the gospels, especially Matthew’s, are laced with OT references throughout that interpret their various narratives about Jesus and his ministry (see, e.g., Matthew 1.22-23). Considering how central the resurrection is to the Christian faith, we have to wonder why there are no biblical references to interpret it. The most obvious answer is that the resurrection was so unexpected and so categorically different that the gospel writers and their oral traditions simply did not have any previous biblical events with which to compare it! This would also help explain the apparently confusing initial accounts of the first eyewitnesses. Their accounts express the bewilderment Jesus’ followers must have experienced that first Easter Sunday. If the later church had invented these stories rather than received them from the eyewitnesses (see below), they did a frankly lousy job in telling the stories because the four gospel accounts raise as many questions as to what happened on that first Sunday as they answer, and this is certainly no way to do apologetics!

Second, consider the fact that all the gospel writers tell us that women were the first eyewitnesses to the aftermath of the resurrection (Matthew 28.1-10; Mark 16.1-8; Luke 24.1-10; John 20.1-18). This is absolutely remarkable considering that the testimony of women was not valued at all in Jesus’ world and if the church wanted outsiders to believe an utterly fantastic story, they likely wouldn’t have identified women as their first apostles. In fact, we see the role of women quietly expunged in Paul’s recounting of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15.3-8. Paul’s letters would have preceded the gospels by several years and already by this time the women were dropped from the list of the first eyewitnesses. Yet there they are in all the gospel accounts. The only way to explain their presence is to acknowledge that the gospel writers’ sources were from the earliest eyewitnesses, which included the women’s testimonies. There is simply no way the early church would have reinserted the role of women in the gospel narratives in light of the later tradition that expunged their testimonies. The women’s testimonies were there because as Richard Bauckham masterfully demonstrated in his book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, eyewitness accounts were the gold standard for ancient historians, which would have included the evangelists. Moreover, in an oral culture folks were trained specifically to preserve the accuracy of those accounts (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.3, Greek paralambano). This premium placed on eyewitness testimony would also help explain the initial confusing accounts at the tomb because these stories represented the testimony and perspective of various individuals with all their bewilderment and wonder over a literally unbelievable event.

Third, consider the gospel writers’ descriptions of Jesus himself. Since they had nothing on which to base their accounts, with the exception of Daniel 12.3, which states that the wise (God’s people) will shine like the stars, it is remarkable that the Easter accounts do not describe Jesus’ risen body this way. We see a description like this for Jesus at his Transfiguration but not in the resurrection accounts (Matthew 17.1-2; Mark 9.2-3; Luke 9.28-29; cf. Luke 24.36-43; John 20.1-29; Matthew 28.9-10). This rules out the possibility that we looked at last week, that the gospel stories developed later from people becoming aware of the risen Jesus in some spiritual sense. But this is not what the gospel writers report. They report an empty tomb and Jesus’ risen, reconstituted body. All this suggests that the accounts we have come from our earliest sources and reflect eyewitness testimony.

Last, consider the fact that there is no connection between Jesus’ resurrection and the final hope that is ours as his followers in the resurrection narratives. The gospel writers focus on the event of resurrection and nothing else, and this is because as we have seen, it was so dramatic, unexpected, and one-of-a-kind. Had these stories been made up by the later church, we would surely expect to see our resurrection hope tied into these stories in the manner Paul did in his various epistles (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.12-26; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). But we don’t see any of this, clear evidence that the stories come from the eyewitnesses, not later fabrications.

All this leaves us with compelling evidence that the resurrection indeed occurred as advertised and that it transformed and energized Jesus’ first followers and beyond. I hope your faith has also been energized and reinforced after hearing these two sermons on the resurrection. As we saw last week, Jesus is no longer available to us in his bodily presence because he has ascended into heaven. But as our gospel lesson reminds us, he remains our Good Shepherd in the power and presence of the Spirit to lead and guide us. So my question to you is this. If you believe that the bodily resurrection of Jesus actually occurred in history to signal the launch of God’s new creation with its healing and transformation and forgiveness of sins, along with its breathtaking promise that we will one day get to live in God’s direct presence when the new heavens and earth are formed, are you living like the resurrection is a daily reality? In other words, are you living like Jesus is really alive and Lord of your life so that you are living out your resurrection hope right now in word and deed as the first Christians did? How (and how honestly) you answer this is the truest indication of your resurrection faith and hope (or lack thereof). It is my hope and prayer that each one of us has the kind of robust and energizing faith, or at least the beginning of this kind of faith, so that we all really will know we have Good News, now and for all eternity. Let us be still for a moment and pray.

Gracious God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we believe you have raised your Son from the dead and that he is present to us in the power of your Spirit to be our Good Shepherd to lead and guide us. We thank you for this.

Lord Jesus Christ, come to us in the power of your Spirit, we pray. Enlighten our minds with the knowledge of your love for us and enliven our faith so that we may be equipped to be glad and joyful kingdom workers on your behalf so that you might use us to help bring your kingdom on earth as in heaven until you return one day in great power and glory to consummate the work you started in your death and resurrection.

When we grow timid, weary, or afraid as your people, help us to remember that you are our risen and ascended Lord so that we can take comfort and strength from this knowledge. Hear our prayers, Lord Jesus, to the glory of your Name and for your tender mercy’s sake. To you be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. Amen.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

1 thought on “Can We Believe in the Resurrection? Part 2: Historical Evidence

Comments are closed.