In Weymouth’s translation of Acts 25:19 we find “They quarreled with him about … one Jesus who had died, but—so Paul persistently maintained—is now alive.” Christians even before Paul’s day “persistently maintained” that Jesus is alive. The Christian church would not have begun had it not been for this assurance. Kenneth S. Latourette, a first rank historian, says, “It was the conviction of the resurrection of Jesus which lifted his followers out of the despair into which his death had cast them and which led to the perpetuation of the movement begun by him. But for their profound belief that the crucified had risen from the dead and that they had seen him and talked with him, the death of Jesus and even Jesus himself would probably have been all but forgotten (History of Expansion of Christianity, Harper, New York, 1937, Vol. I, p. 59).

Person And Event

The New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd writes, “The resurrection remains an event within history, though we may not be able to state precisely what happened.… The assumption that the whole course of Christian history is a massive pyramid balanced upon the apex of some trivial occurrence is surely a less probable one than that the whole event, the occurrence plus the meaning inherent in it, did actually occupy a place in history at least comparable with that which the New Testament assigns to it” (History and the Gospels, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1938, pp. 108 f.).

But to consider, what sort of person is this testimony to the Resurrection about? In the first century there were those who believed that Nero would return to life and resume his demonic activities. In the Middle Ages it was thought that Frederick Barbarossa would awaken in a cave to lead his people in time of stress. Yet, of all of the sons of men in history, was there anyone whose life remotely approached that of Jesus of Nazareth’s as being worthy of a resurrection? The New Testament scholar John Knox says, “It was not the fact that a man had risen from the dead but that a particular man had done so which launched the Christian movement.… The character of Jesus was its deeper cause” (The Man Christ Jesus, pp. 13 f.).

Biblical Teaching

When we are investigating ancient historical documents, we ask, “Are they trustworthy, accurate, and in sufficient number?” There are over four thousand manuscripts or major parts of manuscripts of the New Testament! We have two complete New Testaments from the middle of the fourth century. There is a fragment of the Gospel of John that New Testament scholars date as early as 117 A.D. This is within 25 years of the time that Gospel was written, if we assume a date for it late in the first century.

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Paul of Tarsus gives us the earliest written testimony to the Resurrection. He was a persecutor of the Christians who, of course, became an ardent follower of Christ. Perhaps the most brilliant intellect of the first century, he was a theologically trained Jewish monotheist who became utterly convinced that Jesus was God’s Messiah raised from the dead by the Eternal and alive forevermore. The physical suffering Paul later bore for this testimony is extraordinary. He tells us that five times he received 39 lashes, three times was he beaten with rods, once stoned, and three times shipwrecked. The fact of the Resurrection is the heart of a letter written by Paul to the Corinthian Church not more than 25 years after the event. This letter is admitted by all scholars, even the most radical, to be an authentic letter of the Apostle.

All four of the Gospels have extended accounts of the Resurrection. Mark, the earliest Gospel, was certainly written within 40 years of the life of our Lord. John, usually considered the latest Gospel, was composed within 65 years of that time. We find the Resurrection a part and parcel of every one of the New Testament books. No other books have been studied with such minute and scholarly care, and their substantial accuracy has long since been assured. The Dead Sea Scrolls also corroborate the type of life and faith we find described in the writings of the New Testament.

The records themselves bear every evidence of genuineness. The artlessness and simplicity of the four accounts argue strongly for the reality of their content. They agree in broad outline and yet there are a number of minor difficulties in the Gospels that preclude collusion on the part of the writers. The story could not have been fabricated in order to prove a philosophical doctrine of the Resurrection, for in such a hypothetical fabrication we would not have been told that some “did not believe.” Jesus would have been made to appear to other than his disciples. Mary would have recognized Jesus at once in the garden. The two disciples on the way to Emmaus would not have been described as so slow of heart to believe.

The Resurrection story is in keeping with our knowledge of the characters involved. Mary Magdalene, who had wept as she anointed the feet of Jesus, weeps as she stands by the empty tomb. Peter and John run to the tomb to verify the story of the women. John outruns his older companion, but John the spiritual hesitates to go into the tomb. When the impetuous Peter lumbers up he barges right in. Later as the disciples were fishing on the Lake of Galilee it is the spiritually-minded John who recognizes Jesus on the shore.

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One of the most remarkable details that establishes the action as in keeping with the characters is the record telling that the napkin wrapped about the head of Jesus was found in a place by itself (John 20:7). Here we find Jesus in complete character with what we know of him. He is the master of every situation from the wedding at Cana to the trial before Pilate. On that first Easter morning when the spirit reanimated his body, Jesus was not perturbed in the least. He carefully folded the cloth in a place by itself. This is what we would expect Jesus to do. Lord of the tempest, he was Lord also of the grave.

Eyewitnesses And Contemporaries

An historian always takes into account the type of man who records the events. More reliance, for instance, is placed upon statements of Tacitus than those of Josephus. But in connection with the resurrection of Jesus, we have eyewitnesses and contemporaries of the event. Eleven disciples plus some women actually saw the risen Lord under circumstances which give every evidence of genuineness. Paul claims to have seen him and refers to more than 500 others who likewise had seen him, half of whom were alive at the time Paul wrote (1 Cor. 15:6–8).

Every one of these witnesses were men who loved the truth passionately. Honest to the core, they could not have perpetrated a “pious fraud.” Jesus rightly said that a tree brings forth fruit after its kind. It would have been psychologically impossible for the disoiples to have invented the account of the Resurrection. Robertson Nicoll said long ago, “Christianity as a moral phenomenon could not have been built on rottenness.” Conclusive testimony on this question comes from the Jewish scholar, Joseph Klausner: “It is impossible to suppose that there was any conscious deception: the nineteen hundred years’ faith of millions is not founded on deception. There can be no question but that some of the ardent Galileans saw their Lord and Messiah in a vision” (Jesus of Nazareth, p. 359).

Hallucination Theory

In endeavoring to account for the disciples’ insistence upon having seen the risen Lord, some have tried to claim that they had had hallucinations. It is well to remember that the disciples themselves did not at first believe in the Resurrection. Psychology teaches that hallucinations are the product of previous brain states. Of this E. Y. Mullins wrote, “But there were no brain states produced by previous experience to furnish the contents of this extraordinary hallucination. Resurrection appearances were not a staple of Jewish history. Jerusalem was the last place in which the morbid imagination of a woman could convert a large group of cowardly men into moral heroes.” For those who maintain that it was psychological, that it happened in the minds of early Christians and of Paul as a sort of intensification of their memory of Jesus, we can comment: you could not say this of Paul, for he probably had not known Jesus in the flesh. There is a shallowness of psychologism about this view.

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People who have hallucinations, dream dreams and see visions, keep on having them. Jesus appeared at least 10 times through a period of 40 days and then the appearances ceased as abruptly as they had begun. Hallucinations never come to over 500 people at one time, and men who are subject to hallucinations never become moral heroes. The effect of the resurrection of Jesus in transformed lives was continuous, and most of these early witnesses went to their deaths for proclaiming this truth.

Denial Of Death

Before there could have been any resurrection of course, there must have been a death. A clever writer once tried to prove that Jesus had not actually died, that he had fainted and that the dampness of the tomb had resuscitated him. But what does the record say? When his side was pierced with the spear, blood and water came out. Medical men tell us that this condition probably came from a ruptured heart, the blood filling the pericardium and then separating into plasma and the heavier red corpuscles. Roman soldiers were familiar with death; they knew when a man was dead, and they reported the death of Jesus to Pontius Pilate.

Long ago this “swoon theory” was completely discounted by Strauss, himself an unbeliever in the Resurrection, when he said, “It is impossible that a being who had stolen half dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, without bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given his disciples the impression that he was a conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of life—an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he had made upon them in life and in death; at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could have by no possibility changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”

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Spirit Manifestation

There are those today who do not believe that life returned to the physical body of Jesus. According to their view it was the spirit of Jesus that convinced the disciples that he was alive and lives today. Now, although we must minimize in no way the spiritual nature of the Resurrection, we are aware that a spiritual or psychical resurrection is not sufficient to account for the facts given in the record. If there occurred no “physical” resurrection, what became of the body of Jesus? “Physical,” of course, is not a fully accurate term in this connection for it carries no connotation of what Paul refers to as a “spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44), which is certainly what Jesus possessed in his resurrection appearances. But “physical” is nevertheless used here because it best defends the reality of the resurrection body of our Lord. There can be no doubt about the fact of the empty tomb. It was a specific new tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea. If there had been confusion about tombs, Joseph would have had to settle the matter to his own satisfaction. Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jewish enemies of Jesus knew in which tomb he had been buried.

But we ask again, what could have become of the body of Jesus had there been no resurrection? It was certainly to the interest of the Jews that they produce the body, for that would have put an end to the preaching of the Resurrection. It was to the interest of the Romans to produce the body also, because they were legally involved. And the disciples desired to have the body because, according to their custom, they wished to anoint it. If they had removed it, they would have taken the grave clothes (John 20:6, 7). Being honest as well as good men, it is certain that they could never have believed in the Resurrection had any of them had the slightest idea as to the location of the body.

Thus, according to the record of Scripture, Jesus’ body was resurrected, and was not only one that could perform certain physical functions such as eating (Luke 24:43), preparing food (John 21:9 f.) and teaching (Luke 24:27 f.), but a body marvelously changed, that could pass through closed doors at will. Karl Barth, in the forefront of leading contemporary theologians, points out that in all other stories of resurrections death has never been transcended. It has merely been postponed. But in the resurrection of Christ, a new form of life appears. The risen Christ is clearly independent of space. He appears behind closed doors. He vanishes at will. He is independent of time. And seemingly his presence can be both on the road to Emmaus and with Peter. But he is not spirit apart from body. Jesus says: “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). The disciples touch him. He eats before them. The existence of his real body is just as certain as any other, and yet in its new form it is impossible for us to describe the nature of it (Holmes Ralston, A Conservative Looks to Barth and Brunner, Cokesbury, Nashville, 1933, p. 34). Here are the words of Barth: “We must not transmute the resurrection into a spiritual event. We must listen to it and let it tell us the story how there was an empty grave (italics ours), that new life beyond death did become visible” (Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, Philosophical Library, New York, 1949, p. 123).

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When you begin to employ rationalistic explanations for the event, you run into dead-ends for each. If there was a physical resuscitation as with Lazarus, then there must be a tomb somewhere with the body of Jesus put there after a few more weeks or years of life. Oscar Cullmann calls the resurrection of Christ a new creation, “The Christian doctrine of the resurrection is the calling into new life by the power of God. The doctrine of the resurrection connects it with sin. Death comes as a result of sin. Death can be conquered only as sin is atoned.… Death as such is the enemy of God. God is life … the resurrection of the body is a new act of creation … (italics ours) it is tied to the whole act of redemption. Christ’s body was the first resurrection body” (Harvard Ingersoll Lecture, April 26, 1955).

Fact And Event

Finally, in our consideration we must remember that the Resurrection was an event as well as fact. By event we mean that all the factors in the history of God’s dealing with Israel culminated in the wondrous birth, life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that the founding of the Church came about through faith that the totality of these experiences did establish him as the long-promised Messiah, the Saviour of the world.

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Albert Outler of Yale tells us, “The Gospel’s declaration of man’s redemption still stands or falls with the Christian conviction of the reality of the Resurrection as event rather than myth.” To quote John Knox again, “The resurrection is as truly a part of the event as the event itself.… Just as memory had an objective occasion in Jesus so memory had an objective fact in the resurrection.… The resurrection undoubtedly occurred.… The resurrection is a mighty sign of the entire event—it represented a unique act of God designed for our salvation” (Harvard Lecture, April, 1947).

A crowning proof of the Resurrection is the amazing change that was wrought in the disciples themselves. One day they had been hopeless, “Let us go that we may die with him.” Another day they had been cowardly, “And they all forsook him and fled.” Even Peter, who had vehemently avowed his loyalty, had later denied Jesus with oaths and curses. But after the Resurrection these same men became fearless and bold and brave. Except for the fact and event of the Resurrection, no adequate psychological cause can account for the change in Peter that transformed him in six weeks from a craven, cursing, denying fisherman to a bold protagonist saying to the religious leaders of Jerusalem, “Ye have taken (Jesus) and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up.…”

The continuing proof of Christ’s resurrection is, of course, in what happens to the lives of those who have believed, and believe today, that God did not allow his Holy One to see corruption but raised him from the dead through his own power and majesty. He continually raises us from the death of sin into the life of righteousness, and gives us assurance that we too shall some day rise to live forever with him. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. And the risen Christ, the Son of God, sitting at God’s right hand, evermore saves to this end.

Hillyer H. Straton is Pastor of First Baptist Church of Malden, Mass. Born in Waco, Texas, son of Dr. John Roach Straton, he attended Mercer, Columbia, and Harvard, Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Andover-Newton Theological School. His next book will be A Guide to the Parables of Jesus.

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