In The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D. and Michael R. Licona, Ph.D. lay out five facts about Jesus that are basically beyond dispute.
These facts are nearly universally accepted by scholars, both Christian and skeptic. To those facts, I have added one of my own (#1 below). These facts are strongly attested historically, and they do not rely on the Bible being divinely inspired or even reliable to be accepted:
- Jesus existed
- Jesus died by crucifixion
- Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them
- The church persecutor, Paul, suddenly changed and became a leading Christian missionary
- The skeptic (and brother of Jesus), James, suddenly changed and became a Christian
- The tomb was empty
In this post, the second of a three-part series, we’ll address facts 3 and 4.
Fact 3: Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them
The disciples themselves made claims about Jesus’ resurrection and their interactions with him following the event. In addition, Paul made claims about his own experiences with the risen Jesus. He also reported that the disciples, several of whom he personally met (Peter, James, and John), were preaching about the resurrection.
This is important to note, because some skeptics have asserted that belief in Jesus’ resurrection and in his divine nature were late developments…that they were the products of many, many years of mythical evolution. Those assertions are demonstrably false. Jesus’ own disciples began preaching about the resurrection almost immediately, and are documented as doing so.
In addition, oral creeds regarding belief in Jesus’ resurrection were circulating in Christian communities likely within 2-3 years of the crucifixion. Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth (written in the 50’s A.D.), relates one of these creeds (1st Corinthians 15:3-5).
Ample historical evidence supports the notion that belief in Jesus’ resurrection began to develop almost immediately after his crucifixion, and that his own disciples preached it enthusiastically as they travelled throughout the Roman Empire.
Remember this, as well: Following Jesus’ crucifixion (but before the resurrection), the disciples were frightened, demoralized, and basically in hiding. Then, after their reported experiences with the risen Jesus, they pulled a complete 180-degree turn. As instructed, they went out and began to preach the gospel publicly, at great personal risk and for no gain. Nearly all were killed for their beliefs, and none…not one…ever recanted, even when facing torture and death.
Plenty of people will die for something they believe to be true. We see that in the news every day. However, nobody wants to die for something they know to be false. As self-described eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ, those disciples were in a position to know for sure the truth of their claims. They did not have to rely on what anyone else told them. They were there. And, whether Jesus actually rose or not, those disciples (or “apostles”) honestly believed that they had seen, touched, eaten with, and spoken with the resurrected Jesus.
This experience impacted the disciples greatly. Their own actions after the event are strong enough testimony. However, there are others who also testify to that fact. Several of the early church fathers, who interacted with and then succeeded the original apostles, personally witnessed these impacts and wrote about the disciples’ certainty of what they had seen. These include Clement of Rome (c. 30-c.100) and Polycarp, who was martyred at 86 years of age around the year 160 A.D.
Ignatius, a colleague of Polycarp, who was martyred himself in Rome around 107 A.D., wrote that the disciples, after seeing the risen Jesus, were so moved and encouraged that they “disregarded death.”
Tertullian, writing prior to 200 A.D., records the deaths of Peter and Paul, and adds that if anyone doubts the Christian accounts of some of the disciples’ deaths, then they could check the public records. That statement indicates that such records were extant at the time and open to scrutiny.
Origen, a later church father (c.185-c.254), wrote that the disciples’ devotion to Jesus “was attended with danger to human life” but that they “were first to manifest their disregard for its (death’s) terrors.”
So, to sum this up: belief in the resurrection came about immediately. It was not the product of mythical development. The apostles testified to it, and oral and written traditions support it. The apostles, who were in a position to know, believed in it 100% and dedicated their lives to telling about it.
Fact 4: The church persecutor, Paul, suddenly changed and became a leading Christian missionary
The figure of Paul is central to Christian history. His missionary work throughout the Roman Empire was critical in spreading Christianity throughout the Gentile (non-Jewish) population. However, Paul was not always a friend of Christianity, nor was he always “Paul.” Originally called Saul of Tarsus, he was a devoted Jew, and a Pharisee. Paul was also a Roman citizen, a coveted status in that time and area.
In the early 30’s A.D., Saul was an avowed enemy of the fledgling Christian church. He viewed it as a dangerous and heretical group that was the enemy of Judaism. As a result, he actively worked to identify and help persecute Christians.
Then, things abruptly changed sometime between the years 31-36 A.D. While travelling with some companions to Damascus, he and his companions saw a blinding light and heard a voice. Then, Paul had a stunning encounter with the risen Jesus, who asked Saul why he was persecuting him, and then issued him instructions. Stricken temporarily blind, Saul followed the instructions, regained his sight, changed his name to Paul, and began a long and dangerous mission to help spread the Christian message to the Gentiles. In the early 60’s A.D., Paul was killed for his actions, executed under authority of the Roman Emperor, Nero.
Paul’s conversion is attested by Luke in Acts of the Apostles, as well as by Paul, himself, in a number of his letters to churches throughout the empire. In addition, there seems to have been a story orally circulating about his conversion, as Paul alludes to it in a letter to the church in Galatia.
Paul’s conversion is important for several reasons:
- It’s attested in multiple sources
- It represented a complete turnaround for Paul, indicating that an event of great significance happened to cause it
- It launched the church to the Gentiles
- It happened on the basis of primary evidence
The last point above bears a little discussion. Many people convert from one religion (or none) to another. However, they most often do so on the basis secondary evidence. That means they convert based on what they have read or heard from others, and on the basis of their own rational approach to “figuring things out.” Paul said that he converted because of a direct experience that he had, and not due to anyone’s testimony or any rational exploration of his own.
Whatever his experience was, it must have been monumental to convince a dedicated Jewish Pharisee, committed to the destruction of Christianity, to become a leading Christian proponent that remained steadfast, even as he suffered imprisonment, torture, and death.
In part III, we’ll address the conversion of Jesus’ skeptical brother James. We’ll also address the empty tomb, itself.
Image Attribution: Christ at the Cross, Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1870 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons