Some people challenge the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but Christians have an excellent response.
According to any religious or secular criteria, Jesus Christ is the most influential person in Western culture. Two millennia after His life on earth, we divide human history into two parts: before Christ and after Christ (B.C. and A.D.). Throughout the centuries, science, art, politics, economics, and ethics have been influenced by the religion He founded.
No one debates whether Jesus was a historical person. But some scholars doubt that Jesus actually rose from the dead and state that Jesus’ legacy is confined to His moral teachings. Based on this doubt, they suggest that Christianity should downplay or eliminate the doctrine of the Resurrection. They explain the Resurrection story as a myth created by the disciples as they dealt with the disappointment of Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman soldiers. They suggest that the Resurrection story was a conspiracy hatched by desperate disciples whose motive was to hide their shame in discovering that they had followed a false Messiah.
At this time of the year, our attention is focused on the belief that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected and returned to heaven. Christians believe that because Jesus was resurrected, He can offer everlasting life to those who believe in Him. How should we respond to the claims that a literal resurrection of Jesus did not occur?
Fortunately the Bible record presents convincing evidence that the Resurrection was an actual event—an event that makes an enormous difference to every believer. Let’s look at three objections to the Resurrection and then examine their validity.
Objection 1: Whether the Resurrection literally happened is irrelevant to Christianity.
The apostle Paul, the most prolific New Testament writer, explained that without the Resurrection of Christ, the Christian religion was pointless. “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. . . . If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”1 Paul makes it clear that belief in a literal resurrection is not optional for the Christian. And Paul’s claim is not an isolated statement; it is supported by scores of texts from the Gospels, Acts, and the epistles that refer to the resurrection of Jesus. For Christianity, the Resurrection is fundamental. Jesus Himself declared: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”2
Objection 2: The Resurrection account is a myth.
Studies demonstrate that at least two generations are needed to corrupt a story to the point of turning it into a myth. No more than 20 years had passed since the death of Jesus when the facts of His death and resurrection were documented: “What I received I passed on to you as of first importance: 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.”3 This statement was penned around A.D. 57. At that early date, if the story of the Resurrection had been false, it would have been relatively easy to deny. Eyewitnesses would have made it difficult for false accounts to flourish, and the historical proximity to the events would have allowed any inaccuracies to be exposed.
Objection 3: The Resurrection story was a conspiracy created by the Jesus’ disciples.
The idea that the Resurrection story was a conspiracy is one of the more popular objections. But several facts invalidate the conspiracy argument.
The idea that the Messiah would die and be raised from the dead was not part of Jewish tradition or beliefs. The anticipated Messiah was expected to be a political and military hero who would liberate the Jews from foreign occupation. Even though Jesus had predicted His death and resurrection, the disciples’ preconceptions prevented them from understanding what He told them. Consequently, they were astonished and bewildered at the women’s story of finding Jesus’ tomb empty. The disciples were unlikely to explain the empty tomb by creating a story about a Messiah being resurrected.
The second fact that supports the truth of the Resurrection is that women were used as witnesses to confirm the Resurrection. In ancient Jewish society, Gentiles, shepherds, and women were disqualified as witnesses in legal matters. Their testimony was not considered reliable. If the disciples were trying to sell a conspiracy, it would have been more reasonable to employ witnesses who were deemed more trustworthy than women—unless the story were actually true.
A third fact supporting the Resurrection story is the response of the Roman and Jewish officials. If the tomb was empty because His body had been stolen, the authorities would have quickly uncovered the “conspiracy,” located Jesus’ body, and displayed it to the public. They certainly had the motivation and the means to extract confessions from any suspects or perpetrators. However, we have no record, either Roman or Jewish, of a search for Jesus’ body or prosecution of the disciples as robbers.
Even if Jesus’ body had been stolen and then recovered, we would have to ask why no one seemed to know the location of Jesus’ final resting place. We would also have to explain the transformation of the timid disciples, hiding in the upper room in fear of Jesus’ executioners, into valiant witnesses willing to proclaim a risen Savior at any cost. It would be most unusual for the disciples, having denied following Jesus when He was arrested, to have been willing to die proclaiming the truth of the Resurrection had they known it to be myth they themselves had created. History reveals that all of the disciples except John died for refusing to renounce their convictions.
It’s simply inexplicable that Christianity flourished if its founder was killed and the story of His resurrection was false. Recent historians point out that the Romans crucified at least half-a-dozen Jewish leaders who purported to be the Messiah. What resulted from those executions? Their movements and their followers quickly disintegrated and disappeared. With Christianity, the story is different: The same Roman Empire that condemned Jesus was ultimately converted. Today a third of the world’s inhabitants are Christians.
The reasonable explanation for the growth of Christianity is that the disciples of Jesus witnessed a resurrected Jesus Christ. The authenticity of the Resurrection changed their lives, and not only theirs but also the lives of the generations that followed.
During this Easter Week, many will congregate to celebrate the Resurrection. According to some statistics, 78 percent of Americans believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, and 80 percent of the general population professes to be Christian. For those who celebrate this week, the Resurrection offers the promise of everlasting life. It offers the certainty that death doesn’t have the last word but that life in heaven awaits the believer.
What does Jesus’ Resurrection mean to you? Will it transform the empty tomb of your life as it transformed that of the first disciples from skeptics and captives to fear, into persons so full of enthusiasm that they revolutionized empires? Will you join the Scripture’s first writer, Job, in declaring: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know, that in my flesh I shall see God”?4
Angel H. Hernandez teaches religion at Pacific Union College, in Angwin, California.