Christians celebrate the most joyful of days this month: Easter, the day which commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Lamb who was slain for the sins of all who will trust in Him for eternal salvation. I have been presenting the capsulized presentation of my study, Resurrection: Fact or Fiction? We have discussed the first three of the Four Easter E’s:
Exist – Did Jesus Exist?
Executed – Was Jesus Executed?
Empty Tomb – Was Jesus’ tomb Empty?
Eyewitnesses – Were there Eyewitness accounts?
We’ll conclude this series with the fourth and final E – Was Jesus Seen Alive?
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. . . . Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:32, 36).
Scholars recognize 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 as an early Christian creed that dates to within a few years of the crucifixion of Jesus. What we preach today regarding the death, resurrection, and eyewitness accounts of the risen Jesus was preached by the disciples of Christ from the very beginning of the spread of the Good News: “HE IS RISEN!”
“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 Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).
Dr. Gary Habermas teaches on the incredible importance of this early creed in his “Minimal Facts Approach.” Minimal facts are regarded as having passed the standard historical criteria, and agreed upon by a broad spectrum of scholars — including skeptics — who have written on the Resurrection from 1975 to the present. Dr. Habermas writes: “Virtually all critical scholars will admit [that] nobody questions that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, and we have him affirming in two places that he personally encountered the resurrected Christ. He says in 1 Corinthians 9:1, ‘Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?’ And he says in 1 Corinthians 15:8, ‘Last of all he appeared to me also.’”
We find three of these minimal facts contained within 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, which I have used as part of our study. The existence of Jesus as a real, historical figure is presupposed in light of these three facts:
Fact #1. Execution – Jesus’ death by crucifixion
1 Corinthians 15:3 . . . “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”
Fact #2. Empty Tomb – The tomb discovered empty on Easter morning
1 Corinthians 15:4 . . . “He was buried, [and] he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”
Fact #3. Eyewitness Accounts – Eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus
1 Corinthians 15:5 . . . “He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters 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.”
I would like to sharpen our focus on two of these eyewitness accounts: embarrassing eyewitness accounts and enemy eyewitness accounts. This approach often captures the attention of unbelievers, causing them to want to listen to what I am saying.
Embarrassing Eyewitness Accounts
The historical evidence for the Resurrection includes women being the first to discover that Jesus’ tomb was empty, which certainly “embarrassing” testimony! You see, in Jesus’ day, women were essentially relegated to the status of “second-class” citizens; the testimony of women was not admissible evidence in a court of law.
William Lane Craig puts a sharp point on the precarious predicament women faced as daughters of the Most High God in the nation of Israel.
Women occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. Compared to men, women were second-class citizens. Consider these rabbinical tests: “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women!” (Sotah 19a) and again: “Happy is he whose children are male, but unhappy is he whose children are female!” (Kiddushin 82b).
Such attitudes are repugnant to modern readers, but it is an undeniable fact that no one fabricating a story of a risen Savior in order to conceal His death would have described women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb. That would have undermined the credibility of their story. This embarrassing eyewitness testimony bears witness to the truth of the account of the risen Lord.
Enemy Eyewitness Accounts
Saul of Tarsus was an avowed enemy of Christ, fiercely committed to wiping out the early Christian church. Saul’s hatred for Christians sent him on a rampage throughout the area, arresting and imprisoning every follower of the Way he could find. But something happened to this bitter persecutor of the church; he became a tireless evangelist for the church. Saul was transformed from murderer to missionary when he had a personal encounter with the risen Christ.
“As [Saul] neared Damascus . . . a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied” (Acts 9:3-5).
Skeptics may claim that the followers of Jesus fabricated the story of the Resurrection, but how can anyone rationally explain the transformation of Saul? The only plausible explanation for the momentous change from Saul to Paul — who was beheaded for advancing the cause of the kingdom of Christ — is an encounter with the resurrected Jesus.
Another eyewitness account that comes under the heading of “enemy testimony,” although not to the level of opposition advanced by Saul, is James. We know from the gospel records that the brothers of Jesus did not believe in Him when He was alive and claiming to be the promised Messiah. They were not His disciples, nor were they in any way devoted to advancing His cause.
Why would James reject Jesus as the promised Messiah (Mark 3:21) when He was alive, and then begin preaching Jesus as the Savior of the world after His death? The only plausible answer is that 1 Corinthians 15:7’s account of Jesus appearing to James is a fact. And when given the option of death or denying Jesus as the Christ, James was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin.
As we have seen throughout our study here in the Good News, the facts surrounding the existence, execution, and empty tomb of Jesus can be investigated and confirmed historically. No scholar denies the rapid growth of the Christian church within a generation of the death of Jesus Christ, spreading to Europe, Asia, and Africa. Skeptical scholars can offer no plausible explanation for the spread of Christianity, but Christians certainly can: God raised Jesus from the dead, just as He said he would!
This is the Gospel. This is grace for your race. NEVER FORGET THAT . . . AMEN!
Tommy Boland is senior pastor of Cross Community Church in Deerfield Beach. He blogs regularly at tommyboland.com.