Why we can believe the Resurrection

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning. We have many reasons for this conviction, and the present article can only mention some.

First: the tomb was found empty and no one was able to recover the body of Jesus. His opponents obviously contradicted the belief in the Resurrection but they could not come up with the body as evidence.

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Then, the first followers of Jesus were all Jews, but they stopped worshipping God on the Sabbath (= Saturday) and instead met for worship on the Sunday. What suddenly made the Sunday such an important day, even more important than the Sabbath? What had happened on that day? The Bible and the history of the Church only mention one special event: on Sunday, the first day of the week, the tomb of Jesus was empty. It was the day on which his heavenly Father had raised Jesus. If that hadn't happened, his followers would never have come to observe the Sunday.

You might object that we can't ever prove historical events. Thus we can't prove the Resurrection of Jesus either. But what we can do is bring enough arguments to make the Resurrection the best explanation of the empty tomb, of the change from Sabbath to Sunday, and generally of the existence of the Christian faith. The indirect indications are so strong that we can say with certainty that Jesus is truly risen.

How about our sources? Obviously, no TV pictures or the like are available. Yet we have no fewer than five independent ancient sources for the story of the resurrection. Critics point out that there are tensions between these resurrection narratives. They don't agree on all the details; for example, how many women were there exactly on the Easter morning at the tomb? Instead of worrying about these little differences, we should be pleased! The differences show that the evangelists and Paul did not copy the story from each other and that they did not all have the same informed source. If they did, the differences in detail would not be there.

So, for the events that took place on that morning in April of the year AD 33, our sources are the four Gospels and the apostle Paul as fifth. Each had their own source of information.

If you can, read Paul's account in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. Paul's story is quite different than that of the evangelists and sheds special light on the events. He wrote it down around the year AD 55, which is only about 22 years after that momentous Easter morning. He mentions more than 500 people had seen the Lord Jesus alive after his resurrection, of whom many were still around (verse 6). This means that each of these 500 could have been asked about the events.

Paul further writes that this tradition was handed down to him and that he had received it (verse 3). Here he uses technical terms for accurately passing on important information. Hence Paul did not dream up these facts but he is a link in the chain of tradition: the eyewitnesses have shared their experiences with him; later, Jesus also appeared personally to him (verse 8); and he had passed these things to the Corinthians during his stay with them in the years AD 50 and 51 (Acts 18).

The testimony of Paul is tremendously important for the truth of the resurrection. But did you notice what, or rather who, is missing in Paul's report? The women! The four Gospels say that some women were the very first eye-witnesses of the empty tomb. Three Gospels also say that women were the first to see Jesus alive. We don't know why Paul omits the women from his version. He may have done it on purpose, for example because the reference to women did not fit his strained relationship with the Corinthians; but it could also be accidentally.

Anyway, in the Jewish culture of that time women could not act as legal witnesses. Someone who wanted to come up with a credible story would never introduce women as witnesses. That women are the first witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus must therefore be an authentic element of the story. It suggests that the story as a whole is historic. Thus the words in Luke 24:34 are reliable: 'It is true! The Lord has risen.'

Rev Dr Pieter Lalleman is a tutor in Biblical Studies at Spurgeon's College.  

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