The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the heart and centre of Christian faith. So certain and cherished was their conviction, it is said that early Christians would habitually greet each other with the triumphant words, “He is risen!”
The apostle Paul said that, along with the crucifixion, this belief formed the bedrock teaching of the Christian faith: “I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins . . . and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” (1 Corinthians 15:3,4).
It is sometimes suggested that the resurrection accounts in the gospels are just “made-up stories”, mere metaphors describing the change that took place in the minds of the disciples as they came to sense Jesus’ continuing presence in their lives. However, even a cursory reading of the New Testament leaves little doubt that the resurrection accounts are meant to be taken literally. Even more significant is the fact that within those accounts we find convincing evidence to support the conclusion that the bodily resurrection of Jesus is grounded in truth. Here is some of that evidence.
More than 500 people are reported to have seen Him alive after His resurrection.
How credible is this claim?
Most people think Jesus was on Earth for only a short time after His resurrection. In fact, He is recorded as remaining on the Earth for about six weeks before His ascension (Acts 1:3). During this time He is reported to have been seen by hundreds of people! Writing in what is acknowledged to be one of the earliest Christian documents, Paul lists some of the people to whom the risen Christ appeared. “[He] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that he appeared to more than 500 of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1 Corinthians 15:5,6).
The highly significant thing here is not so much the claim that He appeared to hundreds of witnesses but that most of those witnesses were still alive! Do you see what Paul is saying? He is saying, “If you don’t believe me, take a trip to Palestine, and there you will be able to speak to literally hundreds of people who actually saw Jesus after He rose from the dead!”
We mustn’t think that Paul’s challenge would be ignored. The Corinthian church gave Paul more heartaches and headaches than any other church he ministered to. It was not unlikely that sceptical members of this difficult congregation would board a ship and sail to Palestine to test his word. Remember this was a Greek congregation. Greek philosophy taught that at the moment of death the immortal soul was freed from the despicable body of flesh. Resurrection of the body was an idea repugnant to most Greeks. Paul’s bold and confident challenge is powerful evidence for the reality of the resurrection.
The unbelievable conversion of Jesus’ brothers.
Many are surprised to learn that Jesus had brothers and sisters. Some of His brothers are even named (see Mark 6:3). John’s gospel reveals that Jesus’ own brothers were sceptical of His claims: “For even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5). A close reading of Mark (thought to be the earliest gospel) reveals that some of His own family went so far as to question His sanity (Mark 3:21).
As we read on we come upon an astounding detail that takes us by surprise. In the first chapter of Acts we discover that His brothers had suddenly, for some reason, become devout believers: “. . .all joined together in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers” (Acts 1:14).
Why? What had happened? What had changed these brothers from sneering sceptics into devout, praying believers? The crucifixion should only have confirmed their scepticism. Something had happened between the crucifixion and the gathering in the upper room that had changed their minds. Only the resurrection of their Brother from the dead and His subsequent miraculous appearances can account for this unbelievable change of heart. But the brothers of Jesus were not the only ones to experience change.
"The highly significant thing here is . . . that most of those witnesses were still alive."
The new-found courage of the disciples.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that, when confronted by a violent mob and the armed temple police in the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples “. . . all deserted him and fled” (Matthew 26:56). Yet a few weeks later we find these same men courageously standing before thousands and proclaiming that Jesus is alive. They are even bold enough to accuse their listeners of murdering the Messiah (Acts 2:36). Henceforth these men risk their lives in proclaiming the message of a risen Lord. Most die excruciating deaths. Peter is crucified upside down. James is stoned. Paul endures unbelievable hardship before he is beheaded. There is never a whisper in the historical records that any recanted or admitted under duress that they had lied.
Is it likely they would endure such hardship for something they knew was not true? The transformation of the disciples is further powerful evidence of the reality of the resurrection.
Christianity began in Jerusalem, the place where it was most under threat. Why?
Assuming the disciples were able to overcome their fears and the devastating loss of their Leader, why would they commence their mission in what, to them, was the most dangerous place on Earth? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to start a new movement in a safer place?
Galilee was where Jesus had conducted most of His ministry and where most of His followers lived. In Galilee they would be relatively safe from attack. Why, then, Jerusalem? Why so soon? Because in Jerusalem was the best evidence that He was alive. An empty tomb in a garden bore mute witness to the fact that Jesus was what He claimed to be. Is it any wonder that when Peter preached that first Christian sermon just six weeks after the resurrection he was able to fearlessly say, “God has raised Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32)? When Peter said “we” he was including his listeners. For six weeks the people of Jerusalem had flocked to that empty tomb and heard the mysterious words that Jesus had actually been seen alive! The evidence was so overwhelming that on that day it is recorded that more than 3000 people declared their faith in a risen Lord.
What does the resurrection mean?
The implications are earth-shattering. The resurrection of Christ means He was who He claimed to be: the divine Son of God. When He was crucified on the Friday, it appeared His claims to be the Messiah were sheer delusion. His glorious resurrection on the Sunday was God’s great amen to Jesus. No wonder Paul says Jesus was “powerfully declared to be the son of God . . . by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:4).
His resurrection means His mission was accomplished. On the Friday, when Jesus said “It is finished”, there was little to confirm the greatest victory of all time had been won. The resurrection was God’s declaration that the powers of darkness had been defeated. The great sacrifice had been accepted and atonement completed. The believer can exult in the work of Christ and rejoice in the assurance that they are fully accepted because of what Christ accomplished. This is the very essence of the Christian message.
The resurrection of Jesus brought unbelievable happiness and purpose to His shattered followers. It was the happiest day in their lives and in the history of the universe. A careful reading of the New Testament reveals compelling evidence—good reason to place our faith in Jesus. He is still alive and still comes to those who place their faith in Him.
Winston Mcharg holds a Bachelors degree in Theology. A retired cabinetmaker, he writes from Kilaben Bay, Lake Macquarie, NSW.