Doctrine of Christ (Part 46)March 21, 2018
Today we want to bring to a close our study of the resurrection of Jesus. We’ve seen that the resurrection hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead provides the best explanation for the facts of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and the origin of the disciples’ faith in his resurrection. Before we look at some application of this truth to our lives, I want to say a couple of words about sharing this material with other persons.
Obviously you can’t be expected to memorize all of the sub-points and the details that we’ve been through in this class. But I do think that at least each of you should be able to explain to someone the two stages of giving a historical argument for Jesus’ resurrection. The first stage is assembling the facts to be explained – what is the evidence. Then the second stage is asking what is the best explanation of those facts. When it comes to the facts to be explained I think each of us should have memorized that these are the facts of the discovery of the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances to various individuals and groups, and then the very origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. If you know those three facts then that summarizes well the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
I want to clarify because there has been some misunderstanding on this head that this is not to advocate what has been called a minimal facts approach to the evidence for the resurrection. The minimal facts approach to the resurrection is something championed by Gary Habermas which holds that we should only appeal to facts which enjoy a near-consensus – a virtual consensus – among contemporary New Testament scholars. That is not the approach that I am taking. Indeed, for that reason Gary does not include the empty tomb among the facts to be explained because, although it is held to by the majority of scholars, it is not a near consensus. Therefore he leaves the empty tomb out of account, whereas I think this is a critical piece of evidence that cries out for explanation.
The misimpression that I hold to a minimal facts approach arises, I think, because I constantly appeal to these three facts, especially in debates, as the basis for inferring that the resurrection of Jesus occurred. But what you need to understand is that these three points are simply summaries of the evidence. When I finished my work at the University of Munich on the resurrection of Jesus I thought, “How could one conveniently summarize all of this evidence in a succinct way?” It seemed to me that all of the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus could be classified under these three headings – the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. So these are not intended to be minimal facts. They are just outline headings, as it were, for classifying the evidence. As I think about the evidence, it does seem to summarize or capture all of the relevant evidence.
Sometimes people will suggest other facts to be explained. For example, what about the fact that the early Christians came to worship on Sunday rather than on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath? Why would these Jewish Christians abandon Sabbath worship which had been commanded by God and instead start worshiping on Sunday? The claim is it is the resurrection that occurred on Sunday, and that is what caused the change from Sabbath worship to Sunday worship. That would be an independent piece of evidence for the resurrection. I think that is a powerful point, but what does it really prove? It doesn’t prove the resurrection. What it proves is that the earliest Christians were firmly convinced that the resurrection had occurred. It was because they believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead that they began to worship on Sunday rather than on Saturday. That fits under the third fact. That would be classified under the fact that the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection – one piece of evidence in support of that would be the change from Sabbath worship to Sunday worship. You can see that would be nicely captured under that third point.
Or, again, someone might say what about the conversion of the apostle Paul? Isn’t that another piece of evidence for the resurrection? Well, I certainly think that is important but I would say that is clearly under the second fact – that various individuals and groups experienced postmortem appearances of Jesus. It was the appearance to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus Road that led him to become a Christian. The conversion of Paul certainly is important, but it falls under that second heading of the postmortem appearances.
As I think about the evidence for the resurrection, it seems to me that it can be nicely summarized under these three points. That is what these are – just summary points. They are not intended to be a minimal facts approach to the resurrection.
In fact, it wasn’t until my work in Munich was complete and ready to be published that it suddenly dawned on me that all of those three points represent the majority view in contemporary New Testament scholarship! I had come to them simply because I was convinced of them on the basis of the evidence, but then it hit me that this isn’t a peculiar opinion of mine or of evangelical or conservative scholars. This is by far the majority view of New Testament historians today – that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers, that individuals and groups did experience postmortem appearances of Jesus, and that the original disciples came to believe that God had raised him from the dead despite having every predisposition to the contrary. So I will often appeal in debates where I don’t have time to explain the evidence to saying simply this represents the wide majority of contemporary scholarly views on these subjects. But that is not why you believe them. You believe them on the basis of the evidence which we have gone through in this class in considerable detail. So don’t confuse the approach that we’ve taken here with the minimal facts approach. Rather, what we are talking about here is just a summation of the evidence conveniently under these three main facts. These facts need to be explained by any adequate historical hypothesis about what happened to Jesus after his crucifixion.
The second step of the explanation will be to argue that the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation. Here, again, whether or not you have the time to memorize the critiques of these defunct theories like the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis, the wrong tomb hypothesis is up to you, but basically what you can say here is that when compared to its rivals, the resurrection hypothesis does a far better job of explaining the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief. Just keep hammering those three points. That will give you, I think, an effective apologetic for sharing with a non-believer why you are a Christian – why you believe in Jesus.
Student: Would you say that the conversion of Paul then is evidence of that second point that Jesus did appear to people postmortem and that that in turn in a chain supports the resurrection.
Dr. Craig: Yes, that is right. This would be one of many resurrection appearances, and one of the most dramatic because in this case we have eyewitness testimony to this appearance in Paul’s own letters.
Student: That is helpful because I’ve always found evidence for the postmortem appearances to be lacking in my own understanding. So that helps me to fit Paul’s conversion and his change after his conversion into the right category.
Dr. Craig: Yes, very good.
Student: In regards to a remark you said about the scholarly views now about your three summaries, you also mention that Gary Habermas has said that the empty tomb is not as universally regarded to be a minimal fact as he would like it to be so he doesn’t include it in his main four, I believe. Would you say in the ten years or so since his book was released with Mike Licona that the tide has shifted a little more towards the empty tomb being more universally accepted?
Dr. Craig: I asked Gary about that very recently because his estimate earlier was that 75% of the literature he had surveyed indicated that the empty tomb was accepted by 75% of scholars who had written on the subject. I said, Have you continued this bibliographical study that you are doing? And he said, Yes, I have, and it is up over several thousand articles and books now. And he said roughly the percentages remained the same. So somewhere around 75% of the scholars who have written on this adhere to the historicity of the empty tomb.
Student: Is there anything in the majority scholarly opinion that contravenes any of these three points that you are aware of?
Dr. Craig: In the majority? No. That is, I think, why it gives the impression that I am advocating this minimal facts approach, but, no, the wide majority holds to these three points. The least would be 75% according to Habermas’ estimate for the empty tomb, but the other two would be like 98% or 99%. It is just almost virtually universal.
What application does the historical resurrection of Jesus have for us today? I am convinced that this is far, far more than just a dry fact of history but is a fact which is pregnant with significance for our lives. I’d like to mention five such applications.
1. The resurrection vindicates Christ’s person and work.
First, it vindicates Christ’s personal claims to divinity whereby he put himself in the very place of God. Jesus’ execution was instigated by the Jewish authorities because of his blasphemous claims whereby he arrogated to himself prerogatives properly belonging only to God. God’s raising him from the dead is dramatic confirmation of the validity of those allegedly blasphemous claims. Wolfhart Pannenberg, who supervised my work at the University of Munich on the resurrection has written as follows:
The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning, not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead, but because it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God. If this man was raised from the dead, then that plainly means that the God whom he had supposedly blasphemed has committed Himself to him. . . . The resurrection can only be understood as the divine vindication of the man whom the Jews had rejected as a blasphemer.
The resurrection is a dramatic vindication of the person of Christ.
But not only that, it is also a vindication of Christ’s work. Christ’s atoning work on the cross is vindicated by his resurrection from the dead. The resurrection shows that Christ’s sacrificial death for our sins is accepted by God and that therefore the penalty for sin has been paid. Indeed, the resurrection shows that divine justice has been fully satisfied. Because Christ has fully paid the penalty for sin he cannot remain dead but must be raised from the dead in the same way that a condemned prisoner who fully serves his sentence must be released from prison because he has satisfied the demands of justice. It would be unjust for him to be further imprisoned despite his having satisfied justice. In exactly the same way, the resurrection of Jesus shows clearly that divine justice has been satisfied. Christ has paid the penalty for our sins, it has been accepted by God, and so he has been released from the bondage to death.
2. The resurrection makes possible a relationship with the living Lord today.
The resurrection means that Jesus Christ is not dead. He is alive. According to the New Testament, God has exalted him to a position of glory and honor at his right hand. Because Jesus lives it is possible for those who place their trust in him to enter into a living relationship with him right now. In fact, the union with Christ that is wrought by this relationship constitutes the essence of Christian salvation. In 1 John 5:11-12 it says, “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who has not the Son of God has not life.” The relationship with Christ that is constituted by this knowledge of the living Lord is the essence of salvation.
What this means is that there is a way of knowing that Christ is risen from the dead wholly apart from historical evidence. Even the simplest believer who has neither the education, nor the library resources, nor the leisure time to study the evidence for the resurrection can know with confidence that Jesus is risen because of a living relationship with the Lord today. As the Easter hymn writer says, You ask me how I know he lives; he lives within my heart. The shifting sands of evidence change over history with the contingencies of one’s situation. But the witness of the living Christ remains constant throughout every generation. Whatever the state of the historical evidence might be, we can be sure that the resurrection is an event of history because of the living presence of the Lord himself. Ultimately, we need to come to grips not simply with evidence but with the living Lord himself.
3. Jesus’ resurrection brings us hope in the face of death.
As the one who decisively conquered death, it is to Jesus that we must turn for the solution to our most dreaded enemy. On the subject of death and immortality, Jesus speaks with the authority of one who has conquered death. He said, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” So this implies that the grave is not the end, and that means that the choices that we make during this life are imbued with an eternal significance. Jesus’ teaching on the resurrection thus holds out hope for us in the face of death. The grave is not the end. We shall live forever. And that gives eternal significance and meaning to our lives right now. The resurrection of Jesus guarantees the facts of both the existence of God who raised him from the dead and immortality beyond the grave through his resurrecting power. These are the conditions, I think, that are both necessary and sufficient for a meaningful and significance life right now.
4. Jesus’ resurrection promises physical and psychological healing.
Jesus’ resurrection was the forerunner of our own resurrection. For this reason Paul calls Christ “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The first fruits were a sample of the harvest that was coming. Paul says, “He will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Philippians 3:21). Christ’s resurrection body is the model for the resurrection body that we shall someday receive.
So Jesus’ resurrection holds out hope for a remedy of all of the manifold physical shortcomings of our earthly existence, including our own evil, disease, aging, and death. At history’s end we shall be raised up by God and simultaneously transformed into persons with glorious, immortal, resurrection bodies. We shall never again experience deformity, or disease, or physical aging. We will have powers which the present body in no way possesses, as was evident from the powers that Jesus had in his resurrection body. We will apparently overcome the limits of space so that travel from one point to another can be achieved instantaneously without traversing the distance in between. But, at the same time, we will still be recognizable to one another just as Jesus was recognizable when he appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. Evil will be vanquished along with all of the ugly sins that people have committed against each other. Selfishness will have disappeared. We will live in love for one another. Death will be vanquished forever, never again to hold sway over us. This is what Paul describes so magnificently in 1 Corinthians 15:51-57. Paul writes,
]Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
But not only will there be complete physical healing of our bodies and perfection, but there is more. There will also be complete psychological healing and restoration as well. We shall have not only a new resurrection body but also a new resurrection psyche as well. Even the healthiest of us bear the emotional scars of our past. Everyone of us is in some way psychologically broken indelibly marked by the patterns of our past however we might try to alleviate their effects. Only with the resurrection will complete psychological healing come with complete integration of our personalities. We shall be whole persons free from feelings of inferiority, depression, suspicion, obsessiveness, selfishness, and the whole host of neuroses that plague us. All of these will be vanquished. We will relate to one another as transparent, loving individuals free from every defect of body and mind. What a glorious prospect!
5. Jesus’ resurrection is the guarantee of his personal return in glory.
The expectation of the return of Christ is a hope that permeates the New Testament. To give just one example, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica in 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 this admonition:
For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
Many modern theologians regard this hope as so mythological that it can no longer be entertained literally. Rather, the second coming of Christ is reinterpreted to mean something like “the triumph of Christianity throughout the globe,” “the recognition of all peoples of the Lordship of Christ.” But the resurrection of Jesus as a literal historical event I think precludes demythologizing the second coming for the resurrection shows that the incarnation of Jesus was not limited to his thirty-year earthly sojourn but is a permanent condition of the second person of the Trinity. So when Jesus comes again it will be in the same body in which he was raised from the dead.
The resurrection of Jesus, then, is not just some past event of history but it has theological and practical implications that extend to the present day and beyond. It was an act of God that vindicated Jesus’ personal claims to divinity. It completes the atoning work of the cross by revealing its saving significance and by breaking the power of sin, death, and hell. It makes possible a personal relationship with the living Lord today. It holds out the prospect of personal immortality for each one of us thereby filling our present lives with eternal significance. It serves to rectify the manifold shortcomings of this earthly life by promising a resurrection life to come with complete physical and psychological healing. And, finally, it guarantees Christ’s personal return to establish his reign over all creation. The resurrection of Jesus, then, is not a dead dogma of the church; it is an exciting and energizing truth that ought to fill and guide our lives today.