Tag Archives: Jesus

Can anyone prove that Jesus rose from the dead?

There is a big difference between presenting historical evidence for an event and actually proving it. Unlike the components of scientific experiments, historical events are so complicated that they can never be reproduced. So unless someone invents a time machine that allows us to travel back in the past to observe things as they were actually occurring, we will never be able to “prove” exactly what occurred in the past.

On the other hand, although absolute proof is impossible, historical evidence is often strong enough for a high degree of certainty.[1] But even a compelling level of probability requires faith. This is a key point in respect to historical evidence for such an unusual event as Jesus’s resurrection. The resurrection of a dead man is so far removed from the shared experience of most people that historical evidence—even extremely strong evidence—is not the same as scientific proof. To act as though evidence is “proof” will only alienate genuine truth-seekers. Yet, because of the tremendous amount of evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, belief is also far from a blind leap of faith.[2]

Followers of Jesus should remain mindful of the role our basic assumptions play in what we believe about Jesus’s resurrection. If we believe that a personal God purposely created the universe and revealed himself in history, we will be strongly inclined to believe Jesus’s resurrection actually occurred. By contrast, someone with an atheistic assumption that the world is governed entirely by chance and time will be more likely to disbelieve the resurrection account of Jesus.

This is why faith in Jesus’s resurrection is based as much in the heart as in the mind; as much in confidence in the meaningfulness of existence as in the quality of historical evidence (Hebrews 11:1–6). Someone must believe in the possibility of a supernatural Creator and a meaningful universe to follow the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection to its logical conclusions. (John 14:1; Psalm 43:5).[3]

[1] For example, few historians question that Julius Caesar wrote an account of his military campaigns in Gaul and Britain (The Gallic Wars) and was assassinated on March 15, 44 bc. Similarly, few historians question that Jesus was a Galilean Jew who established a reputation as a prophet, teacher, and healer, and died by crucifixion in his early to mid-30s by the order of Roman prefect Pontius Pilate.

[2] Thousands of books and articles have been written offering detailed evidence that Jesus’s resurrection really did occur. The Resurrection of the Son of God by N. T. Wright is one of the best. (See questions.org article, Did Jesus rise from the dead?)

[3] God’s personal nature is analogous to human personality only in a limited sense. Because the Lord is infinite, the qualities of his personality as far transcend ours as his knowledge transcends our knowledge. C. S. Lewis used the term “suprapersonal” in reference to God’s personal nature.

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Did Jesus rise from the dead?

Every question deserves consideration. But some questions are foundational to all the rest.

The resurrection of Jesus is one of these foundational questions. Did he really rise from the dead? The answer has huge implications for the way we set our goals or find meaning in life. The apostle Paul wrote:

“(I)f Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:17–19 ESV)

Documents written during the lifetime of witnesses to his resurrection described the events that preceded and followed it. Jewish law required Jesus’s body to be properly buried. His enemies took precautions to assure it wouldn’t be stolen (Matthew 27:62–66). Yet according to detailed accounts in the Gospels, Jesus’s tomb was empty on Sunday morning. Had Jesus’s enemies been able, they would have produced his body to refute claims of his resurrection.

It is remarkable that women were the first to visit the tomb, a fact that wouldn’t have been mentioned if the account were “invented.”[1] The next witnesses were disciples who had abandoned Jesus when he was arrested. Then there are fascinating details, like the description of his body wrappings in the grave.[2]

On the morning of Jesus’s resurrection and during the following days and weeks many witnesses reported personal encounters with him (Luke 24; John 20–21). In fact, 55 days later, Peter proclaimed Jesus’s resurrection to thousands of Jewish pilgrims in the vicinity of the Temple. In letters written just 20 to 25 years later, Paul affirmed the Gospel accounts, noting that Jesus appeared to his brother James, to all the rest of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), and to an assembled group of over 500 men and women. Many of those witnesses were still alive when Paul made his claim.

Testimony like this seems impossible to explain if Jesus’s resurrection didn’t occur. Why were friends who had abandoned him and hid from the authorities when he was arrested suddenly willing to risk their lives by testifying that he was still alive? No matter how absurd their claims seemed, early Christians were ready to confirm their faith in Jesus’s death and resurrection in the face of persecution and death (1 Corinthians 1:20–25).[3]

False messiahs preceded and followed Jesus’ life and ministry. Their credibility ended with their deaths. There is no historical precedent or parallel for such faith in the resurrection of a man who had died.

[1] At the time the Gospels were written, there was a strong prejudice against women as witnesses. They were viewed as too emotional and irrational to be reliable. This prejudice was so strong that women were generally not admissible as witnesses in Jewish courts.

[2] The folded head cloth in John 20:7 is itself an amazing piece of evidence, as described by William Barclay: “For the moment Peter was only amazed at the empty tomb; but then things began to happen in John’s mind. If someone had removed Jesus’ body, if tomb-robbers had been at work, why should they leave the grave clothes? And then something else struck John—the grave clothes were not disheveled and disarranged; they were lying there still in their folds—that is what the Greek means—the clothes for the body where the body had been; the napkin where the head had lain. The whole point of the description is that the grave clothes did not look as if they had been put off or taken off; they were lying there in their regular folds as if the body of Jesus had simply evaporated out of them and left them lying. The sight suddenly penetrated to John’s mind; he realized that had happened—and he believed. It was not what John read in scripture which convinced him that Jesus had risen; it was what with his own eyes he saw.” (The Gospel of John, Vol. 2)

 

[3] One of the many New Testament scholars who have been convinced by the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection, N. T. Wright, wrote a book that describes, among other things, the serious problems that arise when one tries to explain early Christian faith on the basis of visions and hallucinations. This is his summary of the evidence: “Historical argument alone cannot force anyone to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead; but historical argument is remarkably good at clearing away the undergrowth behind which skepticisms of various sorts have been hiding. The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivalled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, p. 718)

 

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Do those who reject Jesus really understand what they are rejecting?

Let’s face it. Jesus has been badly misrepresented by both friends and enemies. In the centuries following his ministry, his enemies described him as a sorcerer and false prophet. His followers, on the other hand, misapplied his teachings in ways that would have been deeply offensive to him. It really isn’t surprising that when people reject Jesus today, they are usually rejecting a misrepresentation of him.

Even those of us who follow Jesus have moments of doubt. There are times when we are so oppressed by the suffering, injustice, and chaos we see in the world around us that it is hard to believe his description of God as a loving “heavenly Father” is really true.

Jesus himself understood the difficulty of faith. In Matthew 8 he was surprised at the faith of a Roman centurion and noted that he hadn’t yet met even one of his fellow Jews who had such faith. He was painfully aware of the superficiality of the faith of his closest disciples and friends and wasn’t surprised when they all abandoned him at the time of his arrest (Matthew 26:56). Even after Jesus had met with a number of his disciples after his resurrection, Thomas refused to believe Jesus was alive until he saw him for himself. Jesus said, “You have believed because you have seen me. Blessed are those who believe without seeing me” (John 20:29).

In his teaching, Jesus made it clear that most unbelievers are not his enemies. He described them with the metaphor of “sheep” (Matthew 9:36; Luke 15:4). His listeners were familiar with the harmlessness, helplessness, and herd instinct of sheep. Scripture also refers to unbelievers as “ignorant” and “wayward people” (Hebrews 5:1–2), “poor,” “oppressed,” “blind,” and “captives” (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). Jesus used much harsher terminology (“serpents”; “whitewashed tombs”) to describe the self-righteous religious hypocrites who genuinely hated him and rejected the Truth he represented (Matthew 23). But even some within this group of hardcore enemies, like the apostle Paul, rejected him out of ignorance (1 Timothy 1:13).

So it’s pretty clear that we sometimes find it hard to believe in Jesus, even if deep down we really want to. It’s a good thing he is who he is because he loves us. He understands our struggle for faith.

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Can the Gospels be trusted since they are based on oral recollections?

Skeptics have long questioned the trustworthiness of the Gospels. They contend that the Gospels cannot be reliable since they are based on oral recollections of the events surrounding the life and teaching of Jesus. As political satirist Bill Maher quipped, the Judaism of his mother and the Christianity of his father are based on “a long, 2,000-year-old game of telephone.”[1]

Nearly all scholars agree that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were passed along by word of mouth for at least 20 to 60 years before being written in what we commonly call the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John).[2] But does this fact mean that they are filled with half-truths, misrepresentation, and fabrications?

More than a century has passed since popular and highly publicized scholars first began to wonder if the gospels were fairy stories based on faulty memories and exaggerations that are part and parcel with oral transmission. Today, however, studies confirm that complicated and nuanced narratives can be faithfully passed along orally. Folklorists have found examples in cultures all over the world where long oral narratives were accurately passed down over many generations. These narratives typically contain a longer plot line together with various smaller units that compose the bulk of the story. In fact, when the subject matter is highly meaningful to a community, everyone in that community—not just the storyteller—is concerned with accurately and faithfully preserving it.[3]

Additionally, memory studies tell us that people are much more likely to accurately remember events when they are unique, consequential, and image-rich—just the kinds of experiences shared by the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life and ministry.

There are two final points to consider. The first is that the Scriptures themselves tell us that the accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry were codified and established before the first four books of the New Testament were penned (Luke 1:1–2). Second, the historical distance between the original events and actual text is so short compared to other ancient texts—less than 100 years—that it seems to render this point moot.[4]

[1] In an NPR interview in 2008 http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=95210724

[2] The oldest existing biblical text fragment is dated to the 2nd century AD with places it within 100 years of the original events it describes.

[3] See The Jesus Legend (252-254) and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (305-306).

[4] The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts http://www.csntm.org/manuscript;

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Did Jesus’ Mother, Mary, Give Birth to Other Children?

 

At first glance, this question seems to fall into the “simple to answer” category: “Did you shut the garage door?” or “Is the earth round?” But when we really look into the history behind it, we find that it’s not quite that simple. In fact, Christians of different stripes have disagreed for hundreds of years about how best to answer it.

Historically, Christians in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have thought “no” while Christians in the Protestant tradition have thought “yes.”

Catholic and Orthodox Christians (and some Protestants) teach that Mary remained a virgin all her life and gave birth only to Jesus.[1] This view was almost universally accepted by the Church from approximately the 3rd to the 17th centuries AD [2] and follows four basic lines of thought:

  1. Ezekiel 44:1-3 is a prophecy about the virgin birth of Christ.[3] According to this interpretation, Mary is the gate through which Jesus and only Jesus entered the world.
  2. If Mary had other biological children, Jesus would not have entrusted her into the care of John as he was being crucified.[4]
  3. The Greek words translated “brothers” and “sisters” have a wider range of meaning than the English and can mean “cousin” or “near relative.”[5]
  4. For both Catholic and Orthodox Christians, the Church’s long-standing tradition regarding Mary’s perpetual virginity validates this belief.

Protestants who don’t accept the perpetual virginity of Mary base their belief on three primary points of evidence:

  1. The teaching that Mary and Joseph never consummated their marriage is not expressly taught in the Scriptures.
  2. The belief that Mary was “ever-virgin” is not clearly found in two of the earliest Christian theologians: Irenaeus of Lyons or Tertullian.[6]
  3. Protestants believe that the simplest and clearest reading of biblical passages like Matthew 12:46-50, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3, Luke 8:19-20, John 2:12, John 7:3-10, Acts 1:14, 1 Corinthians 9:5, and Galatians 1:19 lead us to believe that Jesus did have half-siblings.[7]

So, did Mary give birth to other children?  While we cannot know with absolute certainly whether she did or didn’t, what seems clear is that a person’s salvation and love for Christ does not depend on how they answer this question. Christians of all perspectives agree that Mary the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ occupies a unique and honored place. God chose her to carry and give birth to His Son who would save the world from its sins.

 

[1] This belief is commonly called the perpetual virginity of Mary. Some Catholic and Orthodox Christians also use the term “ever-virgin” when talking about Mary.

[2] Catholic and Orthodox believers point out that prominent Reformed theologians like Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Jean Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. See Council of Trent 1545 ad.

[3] This interpretation was common among the early church fathers. St. Augustine clearly taught that Ezekiel 44:1-3 was prophetically speaking about Mary. “The Lord said to me, ‘This gate is to remain shut. It must not be opened; no one may enter through it. It is to remain shut because the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered through it.’ ”

[4] John 19:25-27.

[5] There are three widely held opinions within Christianity regarding who these siblings/relatives were:

  1. Catholics believe that the adelphos/adelpha (brothers/sisters) were cousins or near relatives, not brothers and sisters.
  2. Orthodox believers say that they were older, non-biological half-siblings through Joseph from a previous marriage.[5]
  3. Most Protestants believe that they were younger half-siblings from the union of Mary and Joseph.

[6] In addition to the clear absence of a defense in Irenaeus and Tertullian, Helvidius wrote against the belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary prior to 383 ad.

[7] Protestant theologians also point to two additional passages as support for their position: Matthew 1:25 and Luke 2:7.

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