Christianity rests on certain events that took place in history. It stakes its claim to truthfulness on historical events open to critical investigation. This is especially true where the Resurrection is concerned. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a central event of history and the very cornerstone of the Christian faith. Jesus was killed by [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ– the historical facts


Christianity rests on certain events that took place in history. It stakes its claim to truthfulness on historical events open to critical investigation. This is especially true where the Resurrection is concerned. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is a central event of history and the very cornerstone of the Christian faith.

Jesus was killed by crucifixion – To start with, all four gospel writers (Mathew, Mark, Luke and John) mention this fact. We can accept the gospels, treating them purely as a set of ancient documents that can be subjected to historical scrutiny. As Bishop John A.T.Robinson (1919-1983), author of Honest to God- 1963, observes, the New Testament must have been written prior to AD 70, which is the historically authenticated date for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This event is not mentioned in the NT as something that happened, but as an event that will occur in the future – (in Redating the New Testament- 1976). Regarding the crucifixion and the resurrection accounts in the gospels, we find that the core beliefs are the same; the differences are in the details. This is usual when different people write about the same event without consulting each other.

There are a number of non-Christian sources that corroborate the crucifixion – Flavius Josephus (AD 37-100), Roman-Jewish historian, says in Jewish Antiquities, that Pilate ‘condemned him to be crucified.’ Historian Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56-117) says that Jesus ‘suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.’ Lucian of Samosata (ca AD 125-180), a Greek satirist, mentions the crucifixion.

That Jesus was crucified, and died as a result, there can be no doubt. The earliest accounts are emphatic about this. As Michael Licona, a New Testament historian says “The scholarly consensus – again, even amongst those who are sceptical toward the resurrection – is absolutely overwhelming. To deny it, would be to take a marginal position that would get you laughed out of the academic world.”

Jesus’s appearances to the disciples – the disciples testified that Jesus returned from the dead, and appeared to them in various places, and various times, for a period of about 40 days. Ancient people relied on verbal transmission for passing along what happened, until it was written down. Scholars have identified oral ‘creeds’, formulated and used by the early church in the NT. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, about AD 56 – (I Cor. 15: 3-7), mentions one. He says, “What I received I passed on to you ……. That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve……”.

This creed also spells out the post-Easter appearances of Jesus, including at one point to about 500 people. Scholars believe that Paul received this creed from Peter and James while visiting them in Jerusalem, three years after his conversion – about 15 to 20 years after the crucifixion. That is extremely early! Belief in the resurrection was there from the very beginning of the church.

We also have the writings of the Church Fathers who came after the passing away of the original disciples. Of these, Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp lived in the latter part of the 1st century AD; Ireneaus, Justin Martyr in 2nd century; Tertullian and Origen in the 3rd century. Some of them had conversed with the apostles or were close to others who had. Their writings reflect the teachings of the disciples themselves. They all testify that the apostles were dramatically impacted by Jesus’ resurrection.

One good evidence for the resurrection is the change that came over the disciples following the resurrection appearances. Immediately following the crucifixion, the disciples were thoroughly demoralized and in hiding. They changed six weeks later, after the resurrection appearances. Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus, boldly proclaimed the Resurrection in the city of Jerusalem itself. Why did these people change? Why were they prepared to die for what they believed in? The disciples, were prepared to die for the truth of the resurrection (having personally seen the Risen Christ). They knew for a fact that the resurrection had truly occurred – and knowing the truth, they were willing to die for that belief. Of the disciples, only the Apostle John died a natural death. The rest were all martyred for their faith.

Evidence of the Sceptics – Saul of Tarsus (later Paul the Apostle), was committed to persecuting the early Christians. He witnessed the martyrdom by stoning, of Stephen the first Christian martyr (Acts 7: 58). He was converted after encountering the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. It was not a hallucination, as his companions were witnesses to this – (Acts 9:7). You can’t have simultaneous collective hallucinations (it is individual). Saul was a most unlikely candidate for conversion. He had nothing to gain by believing in Jesus but suffering and martyrdom.

Jesus’s half-brother James was also not a follower of Jesus during Jesus’s life-time. He too was converted after a post-resurrection appearance. He later became leader of the Jerusalem church. James and Paul went on to willingly suffer and die for their eye-witness testimony.

Even in modern times several sceptics have studied the resurrection with the idea of disproving it. Most of them ended up as believers, and later wrote books about it. Best known among them, (all lawyers), are Professor Simon Greenleaf, founder of Harvard Law School (The Testimony of the Evangelists – 1846), Frank Morrison (Who Moved the Stone – 1930), Val Greve (The Verdict – 1988).

The Empty Tomb – The vast majority of scholars regard this as a historical fact – (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 2004). Christianity would never have got off the ground if Jesus’s corpse was still in the tomb. All that the Roman and Jewish authorities had to do, was to go to the tomb and view the corpse and debunk the resurrection story. Instead, what they said was that the disciples stole the body. This is mentioned in Mathew’s Gospel, and also by Justin Martyr and Tertullion.

Not only was the tomb empty, the grave clothes were left undisturbed – (John 20: 6-8). It seemed as though the body of Jesus had vapourised and passed through the grave-clothes.

Another fact, mentioned in all four Gospels, is that the first witnesses to the empty tomb are women. In the then Jewish and Roman cultures, women’s evidence was regarded as questionable and not valid. Now, if you were going to concoct a story in order to fool others, you would only damage your credibility in those days, by citing women as first witnesses – unless of course, it was the naked truth!

The best evidence for the resurrection is undoubtedly the existence of Christianity 2000 years later. Christianity would never have taken root if not for the resurrection. If you disbelieve the resurrection, then you have the difficulty of explaining how the Christian church got started at all. His ministry lasted only three years. Until the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in AD 312, Christianity was a banned and persecuted religion. Yet today He is venerated by one third of humanity. More books have been written about Him than anyone in human history. The greatest paradox is that the cross, on which He died, for hundreds of years the mode of execution of criminals in the Roman Empire, found today in every church, and worn round the necks of millions of people, is today transformed after His death into a symbol of life and salvation.

As Rev.John Stott (1921-2011), well-known theologian, has said, “There is no adequate explanation for these events other than the Christian Easter affirmation – ‘the Lord is risen, He is risen indeed’” – (Basic Christianity, 1969)

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