If someone asked you why you believe Jesus rose from the dead, could you give them a coherent, well thought out answer?
In 1 Peter 3:15 that we are commanded to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” This is especially important today when there are so many people, like the Jesus Seminar, running around who are just delighted to tell people how the resurrection is just a myth, a story made up generations after the death of Jesus. But Peter tells us in his second book, “we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2Pet 1:16). Not only was the gospel not invented, it was a story no one would have made up. Why not? Let’s look at 1Cor 15:3-8:
“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.”
This is a great passage to memorize; if you can’t memorize it, try to memorize the address. It makes an excellent outline for sharing the evidence for the resurrection.
Background: Bible scholars believe that this passage is from a creed of the early church. First Corinthians was written in the mid-50s AD. Paul says he gave them this creed when he was there, which was in about 51AD. That means this creed is less than 20 years from the resurrection at most – far too short for any real legendary embellishment. More than that, many scholars say that the language of this passage suggests that this is something Paul learned when he first became a Christian and was probably in use within 2-5 years after the resurrection. This is far, far too short for legendary development as this is well within the lifetime and memory of the witnesses. (Strobel, p230)
In chapter 15, Paul is arguing that there is a resurrection of the dead. He bases that argument on the fact that Christ was resurrected, and this passage is his proof. So let’s look at it in detail. Today we will examine the first section.
Died, buried and raised: The creed starts with the statement that Christ died, was buried, and then was raised from the dead. First let’s consider His death. The cross has become something of a romantic symbol for us. It held none of that romance then. Jesus’ death was the most shameful death available in that era. For a modern parallel, consider these modes of death: car accident, gun shot wound, electric chair. The first is emotionally neutral; the second may in some cases actually raise a person’s status; the third is reserved for criminals – only those convicted of vile crimes. No one would make up a story where the religious leader dies in the electric chair because such a death would taint the leader and the whole movement. Crucifixion was the same way. Unless it was true, the apostles would not have taught that Jesus died on a Roman cross. (This may relate especially to the "Jesus never existed" crowd.)
Regarding the burial, some today will claim that there was no tomb – that Jesus, like all crucified criminals, would have been buried in a mass grave if at all. This can be dismissed by the fact that history shows us that the Jewish response to “the tomb is empty” was not “what tomb?” but “the disciples stole the body" (seen in Matthew 28:11-15 and in Justin's Dialogue with Trypho).
Regarding the resurrection, no one questions that the Christian church started in Jerusalem, where Jesus was killed and buried. If there was still a body in his tomb, the Jewish leaders would have been all to happy to drag it out for all to see. The fact that they never did this as they persecuted the Church is evidence that the tomb was in fact empty. Peter's earliest sermon proclaims an empty tomb (Acts 2:29-32), something that could not have been done unless it were demonstrably true.
We can also dismiss modern claims that the resurrection the disciples claimed occurred was a spiritual or metaphorical resurrection simply because that was a nonsense in Jewish thought of that day. William Lane Craig says that the Jews had no concept of a nonphysical resurrection; they preserved their bones because they believed they would one day have life in them again (Strobel, p211).
We can see that the very nature of the claim they made – of a crucified and risen Christ – is something that they would not have made up. Next time we’ll look at some of the appearances and what they tell us about the veracity of the story.
Strobel, Lee, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998).