05 / 06


Veritas Forum interviews William Lane Craig

Time : 00:49:12

William Lane Craig answers why the resurrection of Jesus is so significant.


QUESTION: Dr. Craig, from your perspective, what is the significance of Jesus’ resurrection?

ANSWER: The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive significance because it is not just someone or anyone that has been raised from the dead but because it is Jesus of Nazareth who was publically executed and crucified on the basis of the blasphemous personal claims that he had made. The resurrection of Jesus is significant because of the religio-historical context in which it occurred; namely, Jesus’ own unparalleled life, ministry, teachings, and personal claims to be the unique Son of God, the absolute revelation of God, the father to mankind, to be able to forgive sins, to stand and speak in God’s place, to be the herald of the in-breaking Kingdom of God. I think that the resurrection of Jesus coming at the climax to such a life and death stands as God’s vindication of those claims for which he was executed as a blasphemer. It is, as it were, a divine imprimatur that these claims are not blasphemous but are justified; that they are correct and are confirmed by the God of Israel who was allegedly blasphemed by Jesus.

QUESTION: What did the Jews at the time believe about a physical resurrection?

ANSWER: The belief in resurrection from the dead is a belief that is attested about three times in the Old Testament – in Ezekiel 37, in Isaiah 26, and in Daniel 12, I believe. During the intertestamental period, this belief in resurrection from the dead flowered and became a widespread belief in Judaism. During Jesus’ own day, the doctrine of the resurrection from the dead was held by the party of the Pharisees, although it was rejected by the party of the Sadducees. Jesus sided with the Pharisees on this score in opposition to the Sadducees. He believed in the resurrection and argued that the Pharisees were correct in this matter.

The Jewish belief in resurrection from the dead was always belief in a physical resurrection – that it was the material body that was raised. In fact, sometimes these could be grossly materialistic in nature in terms of actually assembling the original particles of the body to be raised again from the dead. On other occasions such as, for example, in the pseudepigraphical book of Baruch, the resurrection involves the physical resurrection of the body in the tomb but then the body is transformed into a glorified body taking on a sort of heavenly glory; so not all of the conceptions of resurrection were grossly materialistic, sometimes they would have this notion of a transformation that would occur at the resurrection to make the body fit for eternal habitation.

On the typical Jewish view of the resurrection, when the body dies the flesh decomposes and the bones are then preserved for the day of the resurrection. It was primarily the bones that were the object of the resurrection so the Jews were very careful to preserve the bones of the dead in ossuaries or jars until the final day of the resurrection. Meanwhile, the soul of the departed person would go to be with God and would, in some way, be kept by God in a secure way until the final resurrection at the end of history. Then, at the end of the world, at the end of the human age, the body (or the bones more precisely) would be raised to new life clothed with flesh, this resurrection body would appear and the soul would be infused into the resurrection body again and the person would then be fit for eternal habitation. [1]

It is interesting to notice that the Christian view of the resurrection, particularly as taught by Paul, is almost 100% similar to this Jewish concept of the resurrection involving the departure of the soul to God, the body going back to the ground, being laid in the earth, and then the body in the grave being raised at the last day upon the return of Christ and being reunited with the soul and then rising transformed from the dead to go into the new heavens and the new earth. The principle difference between Paul’s conception and the Jewish conception is Christ. When a person dies – a Christian dies – Paul felt that he goes to be into a blissful, conscious fellowship with Christ. To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord and he says it is better to depart from this body and to be with the Lord in this state of blissful communion. [2] Then the departed souls of the righteous dead who are with Jesus will accompany Christ at the time of his second coming when those who are living upon the earth at that time will then be immediately transformed into the resurrected state. But the addition of this Christological element to the doctrine of the resurrection doesn’t change the essential notion of the resurrection for Paul as being a physical resurrection of the remains of the dead person in the tomb and that person’s body being reunited with his departed spirit or soul.

QUESTION: Why did the Christian movement come into being?

ANSWER: All scholars agree that the Christian faith, or the Christian movement, – “The Way” as it was called at the first – came into existence because the original disciples firmly and sincerely believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. They proclaimed this message everywhere that they went. Indeed, Christianity could not have come into existence without this prior belief. It is difficult to exaggerate what a disaster the crucifixion was for these first disciples. It didn’t simply mean that their beloved master was dead and gone. It was far more than that. Under Old Testament law, anyone who was executed by hanging was literally under the curse of God. [3] He was a man accursed by God. The Jews applied this Deuteronomic passage to crucifixion as well. So what the crucifixion of Jesus revealed, in effect, was that the Pharisees were right after all; that for these three years, these disciples had been following a man under the malediction of God, a man who was a heretic, a Jewish schismatic, an accursed man. So the crucifixion put a tremendous question mark behind everything that they had believed and trusted their lives to. Therefore, the crucifixion for these disciples was literally a catastrophe. The resurrection of Jesus is what enabled them to believe that Jesus was Messiah after all; that God had vindicated Jesus by raising him from the dead despite the fact that the Jewish leaders had crucified him for blasphemy. It showed that his claims were true after all.

So without this prior belief in the resurrection of Jesus the Christian movement could never have sprung into being; it could never have come to exist. The question then becomes: where in the world did the disciples come up with this outlandish belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead? If you deny that Jesus really did rise from the dead, then you have got to explain the origin of the disciples’ beliefs in terms of either Christian influences, pagan influences, or Jewish influences on them. Obviously, it could not have been the result of Christian influences for the simple reason that there wasn’t any Christianity yet. Since the belief in Jesus’ resurrection was foundational for Christianity, it cannot be explained as the later retrojection of the Christian church back into the records because there would not have been any Christian church had they not believed in the resurrection to begin with.

But neither can it be plausibly explained from the side of pagan influences. Back around the turn of the century in the heyday of the so-called history of religion schools, many comparative religious scholars ransacked the literature of paganism and comparative religion to try to show parallels to certain Christian beliefs in other world religions including beliefs like the resurrection. Some thought to explain the origin of the disciples’ beliefs as the result of the influence of these pagan beliefs. The movement however soon collapsed and principally for two reasons. [4] First of all, the parallels were spurious. The myths of dying and rising gods such as Adonis and Osiris in pagan mythology are not attached to historical persons at all. Rather, these gods are merely symbols for the passage of the seasons as in winter the god dies and then in spring he comes back to life again as the new crops come up and the spring brings new birth again. These are merely symbols for the passage of the seasons and it would be simply unthinkable for the original disciples to believe that their compatriot Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead on the basis of these myths about dying and rising seasonal gods. But in any case, secondly, there was simply no causal link between these supposed parallels and the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, there is actually no trace at all, historically, of these myths of dying and rising gods in first century Palestine. The disciples simply had no contact with these sorts of things and therefore the causal link is simply missing. Thirdly, what about Jewish beliefs in the resurrection? Well, again, I’ve described a moment ago how radically different from the resurrection of Jesus the Jewish beliefs about resurrection were. In fact, Joachim Jeremias, a famous German New Testament scholar, has said that there is nothing in ancient Judaism which is even comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Given their Jewish beliefs about life after death and so forth, confronted with the crucifixion of Jesus, at most the disciples could have simply kept their master’s tomb as a shrine, preserved his bones until the day of the resurrection at the end of the world when they would hope to be rejoined with him and all the righteous of Israel in the Kingdom of God. But given their Jewish beliefs, they would not have come up with the absurd idea that God had raised him from the dead already.

None of these factors serve to account for the origin of the disciples’ belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead. We have here a belief which nothing in terms of antecedent historical influences can account for. Therefore, it seems to me that the best explanation for the origin of this belief and the origin of the Christian movement itself is that the belief was true – Jesus did rise from the dead. That explains the origin of the Christian faith.

QUESTION: What evidence is there for the empty tomb?

ANSWER: In my book I lay out about ten lines of evidence for the empty tomb so I couldn’t possibly hope to summarize it all here. Let me just mention a couple of points.

One of the most important facts, I think, undergirding the empty tomb is oddly enough the burial story of Jesus. If the burial story of Jesus is accurate, then that means that the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to both Jew and Christian alike in Jerusalem. But if that is the case then it seems to me that the inference that the tomb was found empty is very near at hand. For if the burial site of Jesus were known then it would have been impossible for the disciples to believe in the resurrection of Jesus and proclaim this in Jerusalem when Jesus’ corpse still lay in the tomb. If the resurrection was preached in Jerusalem itself, as it was, the very city where Jesus was publically executed, where his grave remained and was publically known, the disciples could not possibly have believed that he was risen from the dead in the face of a closed tomb. Even if they had, scarcely anybody else would have believed them if they proclaimed anything so silly. For a first century Jew, the idea that you could have a spiritual resurrection while the corpse still lay in the tomb was simply unknown. That is an invention of 20th century theology, not first century Judaism. In any case, the Jewish authorities certainly could have made an end to the whole affair by simply pointing to the closed tomb of Jesus and said, “Look! The grave is occupied, he is not risen from the dead” and that would have been the end of it. Therefore, the accuracy of the burial story, I think, provides powerful grounds for affirming the historicity of the empty tomb account. Unfortunately, for those who wish to deny the empty tomb, the burial of Jesus is widely recognized to be one of the most historically credible facts that we have about the historical person Jesus of Nazareth. So those who deny the empty tomb are also forced to deny the burial story which is a desperate expedience since it is so historically well attested. That would be just one aspect. [5]

Another aspect of the empty tomb narrative itself, as it is found in the Gospel of Mark, is that this portion of the narrative was probably part of Mark’s early source material that he used for describing the passion and the death of Jesus – the last week of Jesus’ life and his crucifixion. The burial story marked the close of the passion of Jesus as he is laid in the tomb and the stone is rolled across its entrance. The empty tomb story was probably part of that passion story because that story would not have been circulated without victory at its end. Without the empty tomb, the passion story is incomplete. Also, the empty tomb story is connected to the burial account by syntactical and linguistic ties. For example, the pronouns used in the empty tomb story have their antecedents in the burial story so it is really one smooth account. When you remember that Mark is the earliest of our Gospels, that means that his source material was even older and this passion narrative that included the empty tomb story could have gone back to within the AD 30s even. Remember Jesus was crucified about AD 30 so we are talking about a source that is extremely old and is therefore a valuable source of historical information.

Also, the empty tomb story itself, thirdly, is extremely simple and lacks any signs of legendary development. I think the best way to appreciate this would be to compare it to accounts of the empty tomb that are found in apocryphal gospels – that is, forgeries dating from the second century such as the so-called Gospel of Peter. In the Gospel of Peter, the narrative describes the resurrection of Jesus itself – coming out of the tomb. The narrative proceeds by saying that during the night there is a loud voice that rings out from heaven and then the stone across the entrance to the tomb rolls back by itself then two men are seen coming out of heaven and going into the tomb. Then three men come out of the tomb, two of them holding up the third man. The heads of the two men stretch up to the clouds but the head of the third man overpasses the clouds. Then a cross comes out of the tomb and a voice from heaven asks, “Hast thou preached to them that sleep?” And the cross answers, “Yea.” Now, these are how real legends look. You see they are colored by all sorts of theological and apologetical motifs. These are noticeably lacking from the Markan empty tomb account which seems to be basically a straightforward report of what actually happened.

If I might just mention a couple of other points that I think are significant. The empty tomb was probably discovered by women. I think this is evident when you contemplate two aspects of the role of women in first century Jewish society. First of all, women occupied, quite frankly, a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. They were second class citizens in first century Palestine. This is evident from such Jewish rabbinical sayings as the following: “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women” or “Whoa to him whose children are female, but blessings on him whose children are male.” Women were not as highly regarded as males in that society. Secondly, the witness of women was regarded as so worthless that they were not even allowed to serve as witnesses in a legal court of law. If a man were seen committing a crime by a group of women, he could not be convicted on the basis of their testimony because their witness was thought to be so unreliable that it wouldn’t even be admitted into court. Now, in light of those two facts, how remarkable must it be that the empty tomb story describes the discovery of the empty tomb by women? The fact that it is women rather than men who discovered Jesus’ tomb empty suggests that this is a historically credible account. Any later legend would have certainly made the male disciples to discover the empty tomb – Peter and John, for example. The fact that it is women that discovered the empty tomb – women whose witness was worthless and counted for nothing – is best explained by the fact that, like it or not, they were the ones who found the empty tomb and the Gospels faithfully record this fact.

One final piece of evidence that might be mentioned would be the fact that the earliest Jewish polemic, or anti-Christian propaganda, itself presupposes the empty tomb. [6]  The earliest Jewish polemic that was launched against the Christian proclamation “He is risen from the dead” was to state that the disciples came by night and stole away his body; then the Christians responded to that that there was a guard at the tomb and they would have prevented the theft and so on and so forth. [7] The interesting thing in this dispute is not the historicity of the presence of the guard. Rather the interesting thing is what the Jewish polemic was saying in response to the Christian proclamation “He is risen from the dead.” Were they saying these men are drunk with new wine or his tomb is still out there on the hillside? No, they were saying the disciples came and stole away his body. Think about that for a minute. What that implies is that the body was missing. The earliest Jewish polemic was itself an attempt to explain away the empty tomb. Thus, we have evidence for the empty tomb which comes not from the Christians but from the very enemies of the earliest Christians themselves which is historical evidence of first rate quality because it comes not from the sources which believed in the resurrection but from those which disputed it.

So on the basis of reasons like this and many others the majority of New Testament critics today affirm the historicity of the empty tomb story.

QUESTION: What is the evidence that Jesus appeared alive after his death?

ANSWER: The primary evidence that we have for Jesus’ post-mortem appearances would come first of all from Paul’s list of witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15. There he says that when Christ rose from the dead he appeared to Cephas (or Peter), then to the twelve disciples, then to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom were still alive at the time of his writing though some had died, then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and then last of all, says Paul, “he appeared also to me.” So we have here a list of witnesses that Paul gives who had seen Jesus alive after his death. Certain of these can be correlated with appearances in the Gospels. For example, the appearance to Peter is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke chapter 24 when the Emmaus disciples come back to Jerusalem, they meet the twelve disciples, or The Eleven, gathered together and they say, “The Lord is risen indeed and has appeared to Simon.” [8] So we have here two independent testimonies to the fact of an early appearance to Peter as well as a reference to this perhaps in Mark where, in the angel’s words, he says, “Go to Galilee and tell Peter and his disciples he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him.” [9] So virtually every New Testament scholar that I know of agrees that Peter did experience a resurrection appearance of Jesus shortly after his death.

The appearance to the Twelve mentioned by Paul next is the best attested appearance in the Gospels. This is attested independently in the Gospel of Luke and in the Gospel of John and concerns Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in the upper room. [10] We also have an appearance to the disciples mentioned in Matthew on a mountaintop in Galilee. [11] Whether or not this is to be identified with the appearance to the twelve depends upon whether or not you think the circumstances of its location are legendary or factual – part of the factual narrative. If the location in Jerusalem is factual, such as is attested in both Luke and John, then I think the mountaintop appearance in Galilee may well be another appearance. In fact, it could be the next appearance mentioned by Paul, the appearance to the five hundred brethren. We have no explicit narrative of this in the Gospels but an appearance to five hundred people would have to take place out of doors given the number involved, perhaps on a hillside in Galilee where the thousands had flocked to hear Jesus preach during his lifetime. It is interesting to notice that the mountaintop appearance in Matthew is different than all the other appearances in that, while all the other ones were unexpected and were by surprise, the mountaintop appearance in Matthew is by appointment. It says that the disciples went to the mountain to which Jesus had appointed them to rendezvous with him. So it may well be that the twelve were not alone when they met Jesus on the mountaintop. Indeed, the message given to the angel is communicated to the women – “tell Peter and his disciples he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him as he told you.” It may well be, I think, that the women accompanied the disciples to Galilee and also witnessed this appearance. [12] In fact, in Matthew’s story, you will recall he has that cryptic phrase that when Jesus appeared to them on the mountaintop he said “they worshipped him, but some doubted.” Now, could it be that this is a reference to a broader group of people that assembled with the twelve on the mountaintop to meet Jesus at the rendezvoused time? I think this is not at all implausible. It could be that the Matthean appearance is in fact the appearance of the five hundred brethren. In any case, I think we have good grounds for accepting the historicity of the appearance to the five hundred because of Paul’s first hand contact with them. This was not just a legendary story that Paul had received or heard about because he knew that some of these people had died in the interim and he was aware that most of them were still alive and he is saying, in effect, they are still there to be questioned; you can talk to the witnesses. He could never have made that kind of challenge if this event had not occurred. So I think we have good grounds for affirming the appearance to the five hundred on the basis of what Paul says.

Next he says that Jesus appeared to James, the brother of Jesus. It is interesting that James and Peter, the two mentioned in the list in 1 Corinthians 15, are the two people that Paul met with when he first went up to Jerusalem after his conversion, after being in Damascus for three years. He spent two weeks in Jerusalem on a fact finding trip during which time he said he met with Peter and James and those are the two men that he refers to in the list. Now, we don’t have any independent narrative of the appearance of Jesus to his younger brother James, but I think we have very good grounds for affirming its historicity. Why? Simply because neither James nor, indeed, any of the brothers of Jesus were apparently believers in Jesus during his lifetime. [13] We have good evidence in the Gospels that show that none of Jesus’ brothers thought that Jesus was the Messiah or the Lord or anybody particularly special. In fact, we have one fairly vicious story where the brothers of Jesus try to goad him into a death trap by showing himself publically at a feast when they knew that the Jewish leaders were trying to persecute and kill him. [14] Yet, we know also that later on in the early church, James the brother of Jesus emerges as one of the pillars of the New Testament church and finally one of the leaders of the church. [15] R. H. Fuller, who is a fairly liberal New Testament critic, has said that even if there were not an appearance to James mentioned by Paul we should have to invent one to explain the transformation that occurred in James between the time of his unbelieving days when Jesus was alive on earth and his leadership in the early church. I mean, most of us have brothers. What would it take to make you believe that your brother is the Lord such that you would be willing to go to your death for this belief as James did when he was martyred in AD 67 by the Jewish Sanhedrin for his belief that Jesus was in fact Lord, Son of God, and Messiah? Can there be any doubt that the reason for this change in James is what Paul says – “then he appeared to James.”

Then Paul mentions the appearance to all the apostles. We don’t know exactly what group this was; probably a group somewhat wider than the twelve. Luke says that Jesus appeared during a period of forty days to the disciples and this was probably some appearance during that time.

Finally Paul says, “He appeared also to me.” This is again a conversion as remarkable as James. Saul was a Jewish Pharisee, he was a persecutor of the church, he hated the Christian heresy, and he was determined to do everything in his power to stamp it out. He was actually responsible for the deaths of Christian men and women simply because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Then it all turned around for this man because on the road to Damascus he saw this appearance of Jesus. And he said, “I saw Jesus our Lord” and this is what caused Saul the Pharisee to be transformed into Paul the Apostle and missionary of early Christianity. This is undeniably attested in his own letters in the first hand.

So we have in Paul’s information very good grounds for believing that various individuals and groups of people under various circumstances saw appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. The Gospel accounts, I think, provide confirmation and attestation that goes to confirm and fill out the details of these appearance stories. [16]

QUESTION: Couldn’t the appearances of Jesus after his crucifixion have been hallucinations?

ANSWER: This has been suggested by a number of critics but I think there are some insuperable problems with the hallucination hypothesis. Number one, the wide variety of the locations, the circumstances, and the witnesses to these appearances belie the hallucination hypothesis. Jesus was not just seen on one occasion but on many occasions. Not just by one individual but by many persons. Not just by single persons but by actual groups of people. Not at one locale and circumstance but in many different places and under many different circumstances. This wide variety of circumstances, people, locale, and so forth, I think, simply makes the hallucination hypothesis quite improbable.

A second problem with the hallucination hypothesis is that I think we have good grounds for affirming the historical credibility of the Gospel accounts of these appearances. These appearances were clearly physical and bodily appearances. I do not think that you can dismiss this element of the narrative as being merely legendary because it is unanimous throughout the narratives, it is consistent, and also the date of the Gospels is too close to the time of the events recorded to have allowed such a total corruption of non-physical appearances into this consistent and unanimous tradition of physical appearances. So the very physicality of the resurrection appearances, I think, undercuts the hallucination hypothesis.

A third problem with the hallucination theory is that I do not think it accounts for why the disciples came to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. You see, the Jewish concept of resurrection differed from the resurrection of Jesus in that the Jewish conception was always a resurrection after the end of the world at the end of history. And it was always a general resurrection of all the people, never of an isolated individual. But in Jesus’ case, you had the resurrection of an isolated individual within history – something which was simply unknown in Judaism. The Jewish frame of thought had another category which would have nicely explained hallucinations if the disciples had had them; namely, the notion of assumption into heaven or translation into heaven. Certain Old Testament figures such as Enoch and Elijah did not physically die but were assumed directly into heaven. This category could be applied to recently deceased persons as well as living ones. So had the disciples seen hallucinations of Jesus, they would have seen hallucinations of Jesus glorified in Abrahams bosoms or in paradise. This is where the souls of the righteous dead went to be with God when they died. Seeing hallucinations of Jesus glorified like this would at most have lead the disciples to proclaim the assumption, or the translation, of Jesus into heaven not his resurrection from the dead which went decisively contrary to Jewish thinking in at least those two fundamental respects.

Finally, number four, the hallucination hypothesis says nothing to explain the fact of the empty tomb. You have to conjoin some additional independent hypothesis to the hallucination theory in order to explain the empty tomb. But the single hypothesis of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead explains both the appearances and the empty tomb and therefore has greater explanatory scope and simplicity and is therefore the preferred explanation.

Therefore, for reasons such as these, I think that the hallucination hypothesis is not the best explanation of the evidence.

QUESTION: Do other New Testament writers provide confirming or conflicting evidence to that of the Evangelists?

ANSWER: I think that the writings of the Evangelists are confirmed by what we have in what is sometimes called the “fifth Gospel;” namely, the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul was a Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, who was involved in the persecution of the early church and in an incredible turnaround he because a Christian because he claimed to have seen an appearance of the risen Jesus. This turned this man’s life upside down. From a Pharisee and persecutor of the early church he became an ardent Christian missionary who entered into a life of incredible hardship, suffering, and labor and ultimately made the final sacrifice when he was martyred for his faith in Rome. [17] Paul hands down to us certain crucial pieces of information, very early traditions about the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, some of the earliest material concerning the resurrection is delivered by Paul in the first letter than he wrote to the church in Corinth – in the fifteenth chapter of his letter to the Corinthians. He cites there a tradition which he says he himself received and then handed on to the Corinthian church. The words here are the technical rabbinical terms for the transmission of Jewish tradition. The saying that follows this introduction is then a very stylized and non-Pauline tradition in which Paul says Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, he was buried, he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then after that, Paul goes on to continue piling up other eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus including an appearance to some five hundred people most of whom Paul says are still alive at the time of his writing, around AD 55, though he said some have died. Paul is saying in effect the witnesses are still alive; they are still there to be questioned even though Paul knew that some had past away in the meantime. So this information that Paul gives us about the resurrection appearances, I think, is very important because it refers to some of the same appearances that we have mentioned in the Gospels, particularly the appearance to the twelve disciples, which is also related in Luke and John and provides an early incontrovertible attestation to the historicity of those appearances so these cannot be written off as later legends that the Evangelists eventually committed to writing.

I also think that Paul’s information furnishes good grounds for belief in the empty tomb as well. Paul’s letters are what might be called accidental letters in the sense that he is not writing systematic theological treatises nor is he writing a history or a life of Jesus – they are not Gospels. The letters are accidental in the sense that they respond to various particular situations and questions and problems in the churches that he pastored. So he doesn’t have occasion to specifically mention the empty tomb as such. But I think that Paul implies the empty tomb in a couple of the things that he says. In this tradition that he cites in 1 Corinthians 15, the phrase “he was buried” followed by the phrase “and he was raised” implies an empty grave. No first century Jew, and particularly Pharisee, could have thought otherwise. The idea that a man was buried and then raised by God from the dead but that his corpse still lay in the tomb would have been an impossible contradiction for a first century Jew. For a first century Jew, there was simply no difference in meaning between a resurrection and a physical grave emptying resurrection. So in citing these chronological events – he was executed, he was crucified, he was buried, he was raised, he appeared – Paul in effect implies an empty tomb.

This is confirmed, I think, when you compare the four lines of this tradition to the preaching in the book of Acts, the early apostolic sermons, and when you compare it to the narratives in the Gospels. [18] What you find is that this four line tradition handed on by Paul is in effect an outline of the early apostolic preaching. When you compare it to the preaching in the book of Acts, these early apostolic sermons, the first line corresponds to the event of the crucifixion, the second line “he was buried” corresponds to Jesus’ being laid in the tomb, the third line “and he was raised” corresponds to the empty tomb narrative. So I think that this is a summary of the story of the empty tomb. Paul knew the tradition surrounding the material that he delivered. We know this, for example, from the information he gives about the Lord ’s Supper where he speaks of how he passed on to the Corinthians what he received about the Lord on the night that he was betrayed, took bread, etc. [19] In that story, Paul mentions that this was the night Jesus was betrayed. Well, now the betrayal story is not part of the Last Supper story. That is part of its context. In mentioning the betrayal, Paul shows us that he knows not just the isolated event but he knows the context of the traditions that he delivered. [20] Therefore, in relating this tradition about the burial, the resurrection of Jesus, I think it is quite certain that Paul knew the context of this and knew the empty tomb story.

A second indication that Paul gives, I think, of the empty tomb is the dating of the resurrection on the third day when he says that Christ was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. Where do we get this phrase on the third day? Well, I think the most likely explanation is that this is a time indicator for the discovery of the empty tomb by the women who came early Sunday morning which, after Jewish reckoning, was on the third day after the crucifixion. So the resurrection naturally came to be dated on the third day because this was the day that the empty tomb was discovered by the women followers of Jesus.

So I think that implicit in the information delivered by Paul is the fact of the empty tomb as well as his explicit mention of the resurrection appearances. Paul’s information, I think, would be the most important material in the New Testament outside the Gospels that goes to confirm what the Gospels say.

QUESTION: How do you respond to critics who say the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not necessary; it is enough to believe that Jesus’ “spirit” was raised from the dead?

ANSWER: I think, in fact, that the idea of a spiritual resurrection is an oxymoron. It is really a contradiction in terms. I would challenge any critical scholar to explain to me clearly and carefully what the difference is between the resurrection of an immaterial, unextended, intangible, invisible body and the immortality of Jesus’ soul. Everyone agrees that the New Testament and in particularly Paul did not teach the mere immortality of Jesus’ soul. But I cannot understand for the life of me what the difference is between this supposed spiritual resurrection body and the simple idea of the immortality of the soul. The immortality of the soul is a Greek notion; it is not a New Testament notion in terms of the final state of immortality. Therefore, I think that the fact that so many people find themselves averse to this physicality of the resurrection is a sort of vestige of Greek philosophy. It is a hangover of the depreciation of the material body, the physical body, and a sort of longing for a spiritual heavenly existence – the soul escaping from the prison house of the body – that is simply, I think, unbiblical. So I would say in the first place that the idea of a spiritual resurrection really cannot be sustained because it is not distinct from the immortality of Jesus’ soul.

In addition to that, however, I would argue that the New Testament quite clearly teaches the resurrection of the body. Paul is very clear that it is the body that is buried, the body that is sown, that is the same body that will be raised. It is numerically identical. There is not the replacement of the earthly body with a new body – a substitute body. There is numerical identity but a transformation that occurs between the earthly body and the resurrection body. A transformation that involves a transition from mortality to immortality, dishonor to glory, from corruptibility to incorruptibility, and so forth. But there is no suggestion that the earthly body is rescued from materiality. For Paul to talk about an unextended, invisible, intangible, immaterial body would simply be a contradiction in terms. So the very notion that Paul is talking about a resurrection body, I think, indicates the physicality of the resurrection state.

QUESTION: What role do one’s philosophical assumptions play in doing historical resource, particularly related to the resurrection of Jesus?

ANSWER: I think that one’s philosophical presuppositions will be an important guide in doing historical work with respect to the New Testament narratives because these narratives overtly present a supernatural Jesus, a Jesus who performs miracles, and a Jesus who rises from the dead. And if you come to these narratives with a presupposition of scientific naturalism or even methodological naturalism – that is to say that as a historian you will not allow supernatural causes to enter the picture – then these events will be ruled out of court in advance regardless of the evidence. [21] I think this is fundamentally the problem with the methodology employed by the infamous Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute in California. In the introduction to their edition of The Five Gospels, they make it very clear that for them the first pillar of scholarly wisdom, as they put it, is scientific naturalism. They point out that Strauss in the last century distinguished between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history precisely on the criterion of supernaturalism and that anything that had supernatural aspects to it was, by definition, relegated to myth rather than history. Now this is not a matter of argument, it is not a matter of evidence; this is simply a matter of definition. The supernatural is defined as being in the category of mythical not historical. And if you begin with those sorts of presuppositions, then of course the resurrection will be evaluated as unhistorical because you have defined it to be unhistorical. So when the Seminar comes, for example, to the words spoken by the risen Jesus, they state, by definition, the words ascribed to the risen Christ cannot be historically verified. But, they add, sometimes words spoken during Jesus’ lifetime are placed on the lips of the risen Jesus and so they say we will evaluate these sayings as though they were uttered by a historical person. Well, it couldn’t be clearer that they think of the risen Christ as not a historical individual and that this is done so not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of presuppositions. So these presuppositions are going to be critical. R. T. France, who is a British New Testament scholar, has remarked that on the level of their literary and historical quality, the Gospels deserve to be taken seriously as sources for the life of Jesus. He says that compared to the sources for ancient history and Greco-Roman times the Gospels compare very favorably. But he points out the degree to which one will be ready to trust these documents depends more upon one’s openness to a supernatural worldview than it does upon their literary and historical qualities. I think this is absolutely crucial.

And I suppose what needs to be added here is that, philosophically, I see no reason to adopt such a philosophical naturalism. It seems to me that only an atheist could be justified in saying that miracles are impossible because unless you have some proof of atheism you have to be open to the possibility that God exists and if that is even possible then it is possible that he has acted in history. So in the absence of any proof for atheism, which I don’t think anyone has, we have to be open to the possibility of the supernatural and let the evidence speak for itself.

QUESTION: What is the personal significance of the resurrection?

ANSWER: I think that the personal significance of the resurrection of Jesus lies in the fact that it means that Jesus holds the key that unlocks the door to eternal life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” and I believe that Jesus’ resurrection shows that he holds the solution to this most difficult of all human predicaments, namely, death itself. It shows us that through Jesus Christ we also can hope for life beyond the grave and hope for a life therefore of meaningful and eternal significance through him. So I think that the resurrection of Jesus has its personal significance in solving this existential problem of death and the meaning of life. [22]

  • [1]


  • [2]

    cf. 2 Corinthians 5:6-8

  • [3]

    cf. Deuteronomy 21:22-23

  • [4]


  • [5]


  • [6]


  • [7]

    cf. Matthew 28:11-15

  • [8]

    cf. Luke 24:33-34

  • [9]

    cf. Mark 16:5-7

  • [10]

    John 20:19; Luke 24:36

  • [11]

    Matthew 28:16-17

  • [12]


  • [13]

    cf. John 7:5

  • [14]

    cf. Mark 3:20-35

  • [15]

    cf. Galatians 2:9; Acts 21:18

  • [16]


  • [17]


  • [18]

    cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-5; Acts 13:28-31; Mark 15:37-16:7

  • [19]

    cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23

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  • [21]


  • [22]

    Total Running Time: 49:12