In the early 60s CBS aired a weekly news show called “Eyewitness to History.” The gist was, due to improved media coverage, the viewer could focus on a particular event and determine for themselves what had occurred, even if it happened on the other side of the planet. Zoom ahead to 2016. Now it’s possible for anyone with a smartphone to not only video a situation as it unfolds but broadcast it to the world seconds later. The irony is that the recording rarely answers all questions concerning the intricate details of what went down. We still must rely on the testimony of folks who were there in order to arrive at the truth of what actually happened. What I’m saying is that human observation continues to be our best source of info. An example is the infamous Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination. The camera captured the murder for posterity yet it only confirms the president was mortally wounded. It doesn’t reveal much more than that. In fact, it generates more questions than answers. Nowadays even high-res devices usually fail to show everything we need to know. I’m sure the same thing would apply to Jesus’ appearances after He walked out of His tomb if we had them on tape. Skeptics would insist it isn’t really Christ but an imposter, or that the pictures aren’t sharp enough to establish anything conclusively or that it’s the result of someone monkeying with the visual evidence. Today, as it was back then, we must either trust the people involved were truthful about what they witnessed firsthand or brand them liars. Only a thorough, open-minded investigation of all the available data will allow us to make an informed decision about what happened when it comes to anything we didn’t see with our own eyes.
However, when it comes to Jesus’ resurrection there’s a problem. There were absolutely no eyewitnesses to the miracle itself. By that I mean nobody was inside the tomb when our Lord took a deep breath, sat up, folded the shroud, rolled back the stone, exited the sepulcher and walked away. Now, the Roman soldiers who did see the last part (and ran like spooked rabbits) probably dutifully spilled the beans to their superiors. But, since they were admitting they’d committed the capital crime of abandoning their post, we can assume they were summarily executed and silenced. An unbeliever will say the tomb being vacant doesn’t prove Jesus was resurrected, anyway. Thus Christians must utilize the scientific method of demonstrating cause and effect. To wit: Nobody saw the dinosaurs but we know they existed because we can study the fossils. I’ve shown in previous essays that Christ definitely died on the cross and His lifeless body was definitely sealed in the tomb discovered empty three days later. Many people claimed Jesus appeared to them afterward. It’s common knowledge that, as a rule, dead people don’t do that so we must examine the available evidence to determine if the witnesses were being honest.
The most compelling is the foundational creed Christ’s church was built upon. Its importance is comparable to that of our country’s constitution. A creed is defined as “a specific statement of belief, principles or opinions on any subject.” The vast majority of scholars consider what the Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:1-7 to be a confirmation of the early church’s bottom-line creed. “Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message I preached to you – unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” This precept is extremely vital and significant. Here Paul gives names of specific people and groups of individuals who saw the risen Jesus and he wrote his letter at a time when those attestations could be checked out. The fact that Paul states he was “passing on” what he himself had been taught identifies it as a widely-accepted, fundamental creed and not just something he made up. The eminent scholar Joachim Jeremias referred to this doctrine as “the earliest tradition of all,” and Ulrich Wilckens said, “it indubitably goes back to the oldest phrase of all in the history of primitive Christianity.” How old? Many experts date it to within a few years of the resurrection because it’s logical to believe Paul received it in either Damascus or Jerusalem when he was preparing for his evangelistic ministry.
Notice Paul claims to have personally encountered the risen Messiah, too. He wrote, “…Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” (1Corinthians 9:1) and, in the verse right after the creed, “Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also” (1 Corinthians 15:8). In doing so Paul was putting the whole of his reputation and trustworthiness on the line. In other words, he wasn’t just echoing secondhand info but insisting he’d met the resurrected Savior himself. There’s more. When he described in Galatians his meeting with Peter and James in Jerusalem he employed a very revealing Greek term – historeo. It’s noteworthy because the word connotes an investigative inquiry, not a casual chat between buddies. Paul was doing some serious research. He was, in essence, examining the veracity of what the close associates of Jesus were telling him. He came away so convinced of their sincerity that in 1 Corinthians 15:11 he goes out of his way to declare he and the other apostles are in complete agreement about the Resurrection, saying “…this is the way we preach...”
A critic will inevitably point out that when it comes to Christ’s appearing before 500 folks the aforementioned creed is the sole place in ancient literature where that claim is made. It’s not in any of the four Gospels and no secular historian mentions it. They’ll say, “If it’s true why didn’t the apostles make a bigger deal out of it? Wouldn’t they?” Well, that’s pure speculation. Look, Paul’s statement may be the only source but it’s also the earliest and best-authenticated New Testament passage in existence. Plus, Paul evidently was acquainted with some of the 500 because he wrote, “…most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.” That means the majority of them were still around and could’ve easily disputed his claim. So for Paul to assume no unbeliever would bother to ask them about it would’ve been foolishness on his part. Furthermore, one can’t arbitrarily discount a source simply because it’s uncorroborated. One must consider the character of the claimant. Paul’s is admirable by any measure. And there’s nothing far-fetched about Christ addressing a crowd. (Remember, He fed 5,000 who’d gathered to hear Him preach at one point.) It was a 4-day walk from Jerusalem to the Galilee region. Matthew said Jesus last appeared to the remaining eleven disciples on a hillside there. He doesn’t say they were alone. It’s not unimaginable other believers could’ve followed them or that they might’ve told others what they were up to as they traversed the 68-mile journey. As for corroboration by an independent source it would’ve had to have come from the Jewish historian Josephus and, being a devout Jew, he would’ve had no incentive to bring it up.
Paul and the throng of 500 witnesses aside, we have the assertions of the apostles themselves and a handful of others to seriously consider. There’s Mary Magdalene and the women who accompanied her to the tomb site, Cleopas and his unnamed companion on the road to Emmaus and the 11 apostles, most of whom encountered Him on several different occasions. Their testimonies are nothing to sniff at because all of them were documented very early on. Bible scholar John Drane wrote, “The earliest evidence we have for the resurrection almost certainly goes back to the time immediately after the event is alleged to have taken place. This is the evidence contained in the early sermons in the Acts of the Apostles. …There can be no doubt that in the first few chapters its author has preserved material from very early sources.” In Acts Peter says “This Jesus God raised up, and we are all witnesses of it” (2:32) and later he exclaims to the Jews, “You killed the Originator of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this fact we are witnesses!” (3:15) To Cornelius Peter said he and his fellow disciples “…ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:41). Paul preached, “But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem. These are now his witnesses to the people” (13:30-31). Dr. Gary Habermas asserted, “The Resurrection was undoubtedly the central proclamation of the early church from the very beginning. The earliest Christians didn’t just endorse Jesus’ teachings; they were convinced they’d seen Him alive after His crucifixion. That’s what changed their lives and started the church. Certainly, since this was their centermost conviction, they would’ve made absolutely sure it was true.”
It should be obvious that the amount of testimonies that grant considerable credence to the belief Jesus not only strolled from His grave alive but then proceeded to interact with lots of people afterwards is extraordinary. Respected author Lee Strobel wrote, “To put it into perspective, if you were to call each one of the witnesses to a court of law to be cross-examined for just 15 minutes each, and you went around the clock without a break, it’d take you from breakfast on Monday until dinner on Friday to hear them all. After listening to 129 straight hours of eyewitness testimony, who could possibly walk away unconvinced?” British High Court judge Sir Edward Clarke, regarding the reports of personal encounters with the risen Christ, said, “To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. As a lawyer I accept the gospel evidence unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts that they were able to substantiate.”
However, the hardcore skeptic won’t be swayed an inch by profound proclamations like those. They’ll aver there are several just-as-plausible alternatives to consider. One is their tired-but-predictable fallback position of it all being a concocted-over-time fable. They might mention that Mark’s Gospel doesn’t speak of any appearances at all and Matthew only a few. That while Luke cites some and John the most of all it gives the impression of a legend evolving in increments over a number of years. But they’re assuming Mark was written first and that contested scholarly issue has still not been settled definitively. Plus their anemic theory doesn’t obliterate the fact something supernatural happened concerning Jesus that caused the apostles to designate His Resurrection the cornerstone tenet of the church they were risking their lives to establish. And then there’s the creed I discussed earlier. It predates all four Gospels, showing the Resurrection wasn’t being touted as “wishful thinking” but as a rock-solid fact. Lastly, the myth theory still doesn’t explain why the tomb was empty on Sunday morning.
Another hypothesis is that the witnesses truly believed they’d seen Jesus but were suffering from grief-fueled hallucinations. That makes for an easy explanation but it doesn’t hold water. Advances in psychology have given us a clearer understanding of the phenomenon. Dr. Gary Collins said, “Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. It’s not something a group can see together. Nor can a person somehow induce a hallucination in someone else. Since a hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it’s obvious that others cannot witness it.” Notice there were usually two or more people around when Jesus made an appearance. Another truth to chew on is that folks who experience a hallucination are likely in a state of positive, hopeful anticipation. In contrast, the followers of Christ were scared, depressed and discouraged after the crucifixion. Plus, hallucinations are rare and, more often than not, induced by drugs or physical deprivation of some kind. It’s a tenuous stretch to believe that over a span of weeks folks from a variety of backgrounds, temperaments and an assortment of environments all shared the exact same hallucination. One must also take under advisement none of the witnesses said they’d seen some kind of a wispy, translucent apparition. Have you ever heard of someone eating supper with a ghost? Or even touching one for that matter? Or walking beside one, carrying on a conversation? What about Thomas? He refused to believe unless he could feel his Master’s wounds with his own fingers. It’s unlikely he was coerced into seeing a “vision” and then wholeheartedly accepting it as the genuine article.
Of course for non-believers there’s still the ever-pesky dilemma of the empty tomb to solve. If all those sightings of Jesus were merely cases of people “seeing things” then wouldn’t Christ’s body still have been decomposing in Joseph’s sepulcher? The hallucination theory collapses under the weight of its own unsustainable suppositions. Theologian Carl Braaten wrote, “Even the more skeptical historians agree that for primitive Christianity… the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was a real event in history, the very foundation of faith, and not a mythical idea arising out of the creative imagination of believers.” British author Michael Green wrote, “The appearances of Jesus are as well authenticated as anything in antiquity… There can be no rational doubt they occurred, and that the main reason why Christians became sure of the resurrection in the earliest days was just this: They could say with assurance, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ They knew it was He.”
I’ve never seen Jesus. Nor has anyone I’ve ever met. But I’ve been through three separate experiences when I knew God Almighty was intervening in my life. While each one could be attributed (by an unbiased party) to being no more than a convergence of unlikely circumstances they’ll never convince me God didn’t personally step in. Those events are beyond my ability to put into satisfactory words. Yet I know what I know. My mind wasn’t playing tricks and my senses weren’t being fooled. God was beside me on that median strip that day. He was in the car with me that night. He was guiding my hand when I opened the Bible at random that morning. I was there and so was He. That’s why I have no difficulty believing all those people saw the living, breathing, risen Christ standing right before them. What others may or may not have seen and heard didn’t really matter to them because they knew without a doubt what they’d seen and heard. And it changed them permanently. In my case it took a bit longer to absorb what God had done for me, to eventually surrender my prideful will and allow Him to transform me. But bear in mind I didn’t come face-to-face with Jesus, either. (Else I might’ve had a stupefying, life-altering epiphany similar to Saul-the-Christian-hunter’s).
Both my parents have passed on. Mom in 2003. Dad four years later. I miss them both but they did live good, long lives. All my aunts and uncles are gone, too. Along the way I’ve lost some friends to accidents and disease. But almost 6 years ago my wife’s son died unexpectedly and it still breaks our hearts to think of him because his death makes no sense. He’d made a lot of bad decisions in his life but he’d finally gotten born again and was ready to get his new life underway when he was taken home. I loved that kid. Everyone did. If I could’ve confronted God that tragic day I would’ve asked Him “Why him and why now?” I have a feeling the Lord would’ve responded with a question of His own: “Rollie, did I raise my Son from the dead?” Because I know the answer is unequivocally “yes” I’m at peace. For if there’s a resurrection, there’s a heaven and if Jesus was raised, our boy Jack was raised. I’ll rise up someday, too. Then I’ll see all my loved ones again.