For many years I took for granted that the resurrection of Jesus was an actual historical event. It never occurred to me that we would have good historical evidence to corroborate the Bible’s detailing of events. I just believed by faith without considering the actual implications of a bodily resurrection.
But over the last few years, I have desired to better understand what I say I believe. For those who struggle with questions, being told to “just have faith” is not helpful. They need to understand what they are putting their faith in. And we should be able to tell them, especially during a holiday that celebrates a miraculous event that defies the natural laws of the universe.
Because without the resurrection of Christ, our faith means nothing.
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”1 Corinthians 15:14, NIV
In other words, everything we believe as Christians (our faith) rests on one event: the resurrection.
Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus
Do we really believe it? In a world of “you be you” and “own your truth,” do we really even believe that Jesus’ heart stopped beating on the cross, that He was wrapped and laid in a tomb, and that hours later His heart began to beat again, and He walked out of that tomb alive?
Or do we just say we believe it but really harbor some intellectual doubt? Because if this season has become focused on hunting eggs and buying new clothes with a passing glance at a special service on Sunday, I have to wonder what we really believe.
Will we get into the Word at home with our families and talk about the power of the resurrection? Will we allow the Holy Spirit to confirm these truths in our hearts in a way that makes this holy day really about Jesus and not about us?
Will we meditate on the cross of Christ and the power of His resurrection to make us new? Will we allow the hope of Christ to carry us through difficulties and share that hope with others?
That’s how the early church responded.
How do we know? The best verification for historical documents is early evidence and eyewitness evidence. We have both.
Even if we use the latest dates that critics all agree on, we have early evidence for the resurrection. We know Jesus’ death took place around AD 30. The latest dates for the Gospels would be around 60 for Mark, 80 for Matthew, 85 for Luke, and 95 for John.
Even with the later dates, that’s very early for historical documentation. (Compare Alexander the Great’s historical testament coming 280 years after his death.)
But even earlier than that, we have the church creeds found in the New Testament. We have to remember that 70-90% of Jesus’s followers were illiterate.
The early church creeds contained the Gospel message as a way to know what they believed through oral tradition. Here’s an example:
“Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you have received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that 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 Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers 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, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”1 Corinthians 15:1-8
Paul says here that he had passed on (when he first visited Corinth in 51) what he had received (prior to that), and then he shares the creed. This creed, which proclaims the life, death, resurrection, and appearances of Christ, had to at the very least date back to before AD 51.
I don’t know about you, but my son was born 25 years ago. I still recall every detail of his birth. Likewise, the resurrection of Christ would have been a major event in their lives that they wouldn’t have forgotten.
Add to that the fact that Paul received that creed probably when he visited Jerusalem after his conversion on the road to Damascus, and we have a creed proclaiming the life, death, resurrection, and appearances of Jesus even earlier, within a decade of it happening.
For the early church to declare less than ten years after Jesus’ death that He was risen from the dead and seen by over 500 people is significant. Many of those people were still alive to dispute the church’s claims, but they didn’t.
Some scholars agree that the creeds date even further back than that, probably to within five years of the resurrection. And all historians will agree that early dating is one of the most significant factors in verifying the reliability of a text.
The second is eyewitnesses. Again, most of these eyewitnesses were still alive and could testify to Jesus’ resurrection, and they did. That’s how the church grew. That’s why they were willing to die for something that could easily have been disproven if it were not true. They were there. They knew it was true.
Those are the facts. But along with those facts, we also have our faith in God. We have our testimony of what He has done in our lives. We once were lost and dead in our sins, but we have been given new life through the resurrection of Jesus and His victory over death, hell, and the grave.
Do you remember what your life was like and where you were headed apart from Christ? Do you remember what He saved you from and how He has made you new? Do you remember the price He paid to give you the new life you now have?
This season, go ahead and enjoy the bunnies and cantatas and candy if you want. But let’s also commit to spend this week remembering the cross of Christ. We can reflect on what Jesus has done for us in His life, death, and resurrection.
Let’s remember that His resurrection is what brings us hope and share that hope with those around us.
And let’s be sure we know what we believe and why we believe it, because this holy day is about the resurrection of Jesus.
And if we believe that to really be true, our celebrations of it should never be the same.