Transcript: Podcast 12- Special Edition: The Resurrection

8 November 2007

For today’s special-edition episode I am posting a live recording of a talk I gave on the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I’ll also take a look at The Son Rises by William Lane Craig for the book review. First, let’s take a quick look at the news.


The Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church is being brought to court in a civil case for the first time. The Westboro church is a small group that has gained great notoriety because the members frequently picket events with extremely offensive picket signs. One of their most frequent targets is military funerals. They picket at the funerals of fallen American soldiers with signs that read “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” Apparently, their justification for picketing at funerals is that they are outraged that the U.S. military allows homosexuals to serve.

In any case, this group is obviously almost universally despised but has never before been brought to court. Now, Albert Snyder, who is the father of Matthew Snyder and a victim of a picketing protest by the Westboro church, is claiming that the demonstration worsened his depression and led to health complications. He is seeking recovery in a civil case.

On a personal note, I think I speak for just about everyone when I say that I am disgusted with the activities these Christians are engaged in. In fact, as a Christian myself I am particularly disturbed, because it is these kinds of things that make Christianity look like an ignorant and hateful cult.

More news concerning the war in Iraq- A U.S. soldier who said that his Christian beliefs compelled him to love his enemies rather than kill them, was honorably discharged with conscientious objector status. According to Captain Peter Brown,

“In following Jesus’ example, I could not have fired my weapon at another human being, even if he were shooting at me,”

Brown’s honorable discharge brings the question of pacifism to the forefront. As Christians, can we consistently fight in wars and kill other human beings even though we are called to love our enemies? Personally, I think that we can still serve in just wars and kill others if we have sufficient justification. Indeed, sometimes we are morally obligated to use lethal force when the situation requires it. For example, pacifism in the face of monstrous tyrants like Hitler cannot be justified. Pacifism in these cases will just lead to the deaths of more innocents, and there is no clear condemnation of just war or even capital punishment found in the Bible. However, the church does have a strong history of pacifistic ideals, as many of the first Christians interpreted Christ’s teachings as requiring total pacifism.

The last thing I’d like to mention is a Pew global survey that was released in early October which shows a remarkable relationship between wealth and religiosity. Wealthy nations tend to be much less religious and poor nations tend to be much, much more religious. Interestingly, the United States is a significant outlier, being much more religious than our wealth and resources would predict.

This data lends support to the idea that some level of suffering can actually increase the chance that someone will have faith in God. When all material needs are met, it is easy to be self-sufficient. However, when people are poor and desperate, the illusion of self-sufficiency is quickly swept away.

Main Feature: Evidence for the Resurrection

So, last week Professor Koperski gave a message on the reliability of the New Testament, and he demonstrated that, as far as historical documents are concerned, the books of the Bible hold up very well and can be trusted as a whole. How many of you were here for Koperski’s talk last week? In order to play off of what he talked about, this week I wanted to give a brief overview of the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think that many people are unaware that there even is any evidence for the resurrection, and many Christians probably think that it is something you just take by faith.

So for the remainder of the night I want to present a case for the resurrection of Jesus Christ based on 4 facts that can be established on the basis of historical evidence. For the talk tonight I am going to use the books of the Bible as purely historical documents, not as the inspired word of God. So, even if you thought that the books of the Bible weren’t particularly reliable, the evidence presented tonight would still stand. It’s also quite remarkable that all 4 of the facts are actually confirmed by the majority of New Testament critics, even amongst nonbelievers. We will then see how the facts we know about Jesus and the early church are best explained by a literal, bodily resurrection.

Fact 1: The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ

I won’t spend too much time discussing this point, because the historical consensus that Jesus died in the first century by Roman crucifixion is pretty much unanimous. In addition to being confirmed throughout the New Testament, this fact is also recorded by secular historians, such as the Roman historian Tacitus, who is regarded to be quite reliable.

Fact 2: The Empty Tomb

I will try to defend this second fact in more detail, since of all the four facts this one is least-supported, even though it is still affirmed by the majority of critics.

1.) The burial tradition is historical

There are many lines of evidence for the truth of the basic burial account found in the Gospels, according to which Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus an honorable burial in a tomb. But, if this story is true, then this also counts as strong evidence in favor of the empty tomb, since the burial account demonstrates that the location of Jesus’ tomb would have been easy to find, and it would be pretty difficult to convince people that Jesus had risen from the dead when his body was still there. I’m going to read Marks account of the burial to bring us all up to speed.

Mark 15:43-46-

“Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him is Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.”

  • Points in favor of the burial story.

a.) It is a very simple, straightforward account that lacks legendary development.

b.) Joseph of Arimathea almost certainly buried Jesus.

- Member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a Jewish supreme court that was very prestigious and exclusive (70 members). – If the Gospel writers made him up, it would be obvious that they were lying. – It is very unlikely that the gospel writers would invent a Jewish member of the Sanhedrin to do something noble and give Jesus an honorable burial, given the animosity the earliest Christians would have had toward Jewish leaders.

c.) There are no other alternative burial stories to be found, even among opponents of Christianity.

  • Points in favor of the empty tomb

Moving on, there are a lot of other lines of evidence for the empty tomb account found in the Gospels. I’ll read Mark’s account of the empty tomb, found in Chapter 16, verses 1-8;

“When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’

Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

a.) Like the burial account, the empty tomb account is very simple and doesn’t contain any legendary developments. This is especially obvious when we compare it with accounts we find outside the Bible, like the one in the second century document the Gospel of Peter;

“Now in the night in which the Lord’s day dawned, when the soldiers, two by two in every watch, were keeping guard, there rang out a loud voice in heaven, and they saw the heavens opened and two men come down from there in a great brightness and draw nigh to the sepulchre. The stone which had been laid against the entrance to the sepulchre started of itself to roll and gave way to the side, and the sepulchre was opened, and both the young men entered in. When now those soldiers saw this, they awakened the centurion and the elders- for they also were there to assist at the watch. And whilst they were relating what they had seen, they saw again three men come out from the sepulchre, and two of them sustaining the other, and a cross following them, and the heads of the two reaching to heaven, but that of him who was led of them by the hand overpassing the heavens. And they heard a voice out of the heavens crying, ‘Thou hast preached to them that sleep,’ and from the cross there was heard the answer, ‘Yea.’”

b.) The discovery of the tomb by women confirms the accuracy of the account.

It is interesting to note that in the empty tomb account, all of the disciples had fled the scene and it was actually a band of women followers who were courageous enough to honor Jesus and visit his tomb. In his talk last week, Professor Koperski mentioned the criterion of embarrassment. The idea here is that people may tell a lie if it builds them up or makes them look good, but nobody will tell a lie that makes them look like an idiot. So, when historians look at ancients texts, they grant a great probability of accuracy to reported facts that would embarrass the authors.

In this account, it is bad enough that Peter and the disciples have abandoned Jesus- what is even worse is the fact that women discovered the empty tomb. In ancient Jewish culture, women were not regarded as reliable witnesses, and as Koperski noted last week, they were not even allowed to testify in court! In our modern, arguably more egalitarian society, we read this empty tomb account and don’t skip a beat, but in the first century the fact that women had discovered the tomb would have brought the whole account under suspicion. Why then would the authors of the Gospels report that women found the tomb empty, unless they were forced to because, like it or not, it was the women who discovered the tomb while the men disciples were fleeing in cowardice?

c.) If the tomb were not empty, nobody would have listened to the disciples.

The Christian faith spread quickly, but it also arose and flourished in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was publicly executed and buried. The Jewish authorities, who considered Christianity to be an annoying and dangerous heresy, would have loved to crush the movement, and they would have been able to do so if Jesus’ body could be found, even if the traditional burial story is false. The fact that Christianity spread in Jerusalem despite heavy opposition is great evidence for the empty tomb.

d.) The early Jewish rebuttals to Christians assumed the empty tomb.

Fact 3: The Appearances of Jesus

Virtually all scholars grant that some of the early followers of Jesus experienced appearances of him risen. There are several reasons for the judgment, but probably the main evidence is the evidence we receive from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8;

“For 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, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Professor Koperski mentioned last week that scholars have determined that this passage actually contains a creed that dates back to within 10 years after the crucifixion, perhaps much earlier. In historical terms, that makes this extremely early evidence from Paul concerning the appearances of Jesus Christ.

This account is fascinating, because is informs us that Jesus appeared to individuals and to groups, one group which was very large. It tells us that James, the brother of Jesus saw an appearance, and this is significant because James was a skeptic of Christianity before Christ’s death. This account also contains Paul’s testimony of his own vision, and Paul was a vicious enemy of Christianity. So we have early evidence for appearances to individuals and groups, skeptics and followers.

Also note that Paul mentions some of the 500 brothers are still living, which is essentially an invitation for people to question these witnesses to confirm their account.

In addition to those mentioned in this early account, we also have great evidence for some women followers experiencing the risen Christ. They are not included in this account, but the fact that the Gospels report the embarrassing fact that women saw the risen Christ first practically guarantees that they really did see him.

Fact 4: The Origin of the Christian Faith

Whatever one thinks about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is hard to deny that the belief in the resurrection was the heart of the Christian faith, and it was this faith that continued to spread relentlessly in the wake of Christ’s death. In order to appreciate the importance of this point, we need to recognize just how improbable the success of the Christian religion was. I am just going to mention 3 factors that made the spread of Christianity very unlikely.

1.) Factor 1: The Crucifixion

Crucifixion was an extremely dishonorable way to die in the first century, called ‘the most wretched of deaths’ by the Jewish historian Josephus. The ancient world was what is known as an ‘honor-shame’ culture, similar to modern day Japan in many respects. In these types of cultures, honor is of primary importance. The idea of a crucified Messiah would therefore seem absurd on the face of it. Indeed, early critics of Christianity like Celsus made fun of Christians for believing in a crucified Messiah.

The crucifixion would have crushed any hope the disciples had that Jesus was the Messiah, and we find in the Biblical record evidence that the disciples did indeed flee initially and entertained no illusions of starting a new religion.

2.) Factor 2: Preaching a Physical Resurrection

In Gentile philosophical thinking of the day, matter was regarded as evil. Therefore, a physical, bodily resurrection would not seem to be a very attractive message. Christianity could have spread easier if it simply taught that Jesus ascended to heaven like Elijah.

As far as Jewish thinking was concerned, Jesus’ resurrection went against expectations. They always conceived of the resurrection occurring at the end of the world with all people. Jesus’ resurrection, on the contrary, happened within history and of one person.

3.) Factor 3: An Innovative Religion

In the ancient world, the primary test for truth in religious matters was custom and tradition. Christianity was an exclusivist innovator.

With these factors in mind, why did Christianity succeed? The dishonorable death of Jesus should have ended the whole thing. Professor C.F.D. Moule puts it nicely,

“If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?… the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church… remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.”

Now, the secular historian may try to stop up this hole by saying that the disciples mistakenly believed Jesus was raised from the dead because of hallucinations and that the tomb was found empty due to theft by grave robbers. Based on their experiences, the disciples then mistakenly proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead.

Even this explanation will not suffice, however, to explain the belief in a physical resurrection. We’ve already seen that Jews would not expect a resurrection of a single person in history, so Jesus’ resurrection went against all expectations. Therefore, even if the disciples hallucinated visions of Jesus, they would have assumed that he had been translated to heaven, not that he was raised from the dead. Direct translation has Biblical precedent in the stories of Enoch and Elijah.

[Question and Answer Segment]

Book Reviews

The Son Rises

This episode we are going to take a look at The Son Rises by William Lane Craig, which was published in 2001. This book is actually a less technical and less detailed version of his book Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus which, unfortunately I have not yet read because the book is out of print and now costs well over $100. Nevertheless, The Son Rises is an affordable, readable, and useful treatment of the evidence for the Resurrection.

Craig bases his historical case on three facts which he claims enjoy widespread scholarly acceptance as well as great historical attestation. The three facts are the empty tomb, post-crucifixion appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. On the basis of these three facts, Craig contends that we have powerful reasons to believe that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead.

Craig also spends a chapter addressing alternative theories, like the idea that the disciples stole the body, and the swoon theory. Unfortunately, I felt that this chapter was awkwardly placed in the book, because he addresses alternative theories before he gives a positive case for the three facts. Moreover, this is the section of the book that could have been expanded quite a bit.

In addition to the meat of his argument, Craig also discusses a few peripheral issues. In the opening chapter, which I found very enjoyable, he discusses the dilemma of modern man and his struggle to find a meaning to existence. In the final chapter, Craig explains the consequences of Christ’s resurrection, claiming that it can help us find that meaning which we so desperately need. He discusses the importance of Christianity and appeals to the reader to accept Christ and transform their lives.

Overall, Craig’s writing is fantastic and his arguments are powerful. This book is an important addition to anyone’s library who is interested in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And, given the importance of the subject matter, that should be everybody’s library. My rating for this book is 4 and 1/2 stars out of 5.

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