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Has Christ in Fact Risen?


By Gary F. Zeolla

In this verse (1Cor 15:17), Paul declares the resurrection of Jesus Christ to be an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. But has Christ in fact risen?

The Reliability of the Gospels and Acts

Before studying the resurrection itself, the general reliability of the four Gospels and the Book of Acts found in the New Testament needs to be assessed.

Jesus and the early Christians are referred to in several non-Christian documents written within a century of Jesus' death. These records mention the following points about Jesus:

1) He lived during the reign of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1,23).

2) He preached a high, ethical code of conduct (Matt 5:21-48).

3) Jewish leaders claimed He "practiced sorcery" (Matt 12:22-24).

4) He was crucified during the Jewish Passover (Matt 26:2).

5) He was crucified under Pontius Pilate (Matt 27:1-26).

6) Darkness covered the land during His crucifixion (Matt 27:45).

7) His followers worshipped Him (Matt 28:17).

8) Shortly after His death, His disciples said He was alive (Acts 2:22-32).

9) He was referred to as "Christus" (Latin for Christ; Acts 2:36).

10) His disciples were persecuted for their preaching (Acts 5:40-42).

11) His followers were called "Christians" (Acts 11:26).

12) He had followers in Rome within 30 years of His death (Acts 28:16-31).

The above information is from Jewish and Roman sources. So collaboration for important events recorded in the Gospels and the Book of Acts is found in documents written by the very groups that persecuted the early Church (Habermas, pp.87-101)

Alternate Theories

But what about the resurrection itself? Through the centuries, skeptics have proposed many alternate theories. Can any of these account for ALL the known historical facts and hold up under critical evaluation?

The first alternate theory put forth is seen in the Gospel of Matthew. Here, after the body of Jesus was found missing, the soldiers who were guarding the tomb were told to say, "His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept" (28:13). Paul Little remarks, "That story is so obviously false that Matthew doesn't even bother to refute it! ... Who knows what goes on while he is asleep?" (p.25).

Another proposal is the disciples had such a strong desire to see Jesus alive they only imagined seeing Him. However, even a causal reading of the Gospels shows that, although Jesus predicted His death and resurrection on several occasions, the disciples failed to comprehend and/ or accept what He was saying. Thus, they were not expecting to see Him alive again (see Mark 8:31-33; Luke 9:22; 24:9-12; John 20:25).

Closely related to the above theory is one saying the disciples suffered from hallucinations. But Jesus appeared to many people in various places, at different times, under varying circumstances over a period of forty days; then the appearances stopped. This is not the pattern of hallucinations. They are very individualistic and occur over extended periods of time (McDowell, Resurrection. pp.82-89).

Another idea is the apostle Paul adapted into his preaching ideas from Gnostic and mystery religions which were prevalent in the early centuries. These religions believed in an annual dying and rising savior. However, this idea ignores the previously mentioned known historical facts.

ScrollMoreover, Paul is not the only NT writer who mentions the resurrection (see Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-14; Luke 24:1-43; John 20:1-10; Acts 1:3; 2:22-32; 1Pet 1:3).

Furthermore, "All the extant manuscripts with Gnostic Redeemer Hymns are from AD 140 or later" (Nash, p.288). Meanwhile, the New Testament Gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul were all written in the first century (Guthrie, pp.17-19, 643-657).

Muslim Theories

Two theories have been developed by Muslims in an attempt to explain a passage in The Koran (or Quran). This is the holy book of the Islamic religion. It was written about 632 AD. Sura 4:156 reads, "They did not kill him [Jesus], nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did" (p.382).

The first theory put forth by Muslims to explain this passage is Jesus just swooned on the cross. Then, in the coolness of the tomb, He revived. However, "All of the earliest records are emphatic about Jesus' death" (Little, pp.26,27). And, as previously mentioned, these records include Christian and non-Christian documents.

The second proposal is Judas was crucified in Jesus' place. But this idea contradicts the eye-witness testimony of Matthew that Judas committed suicide (Matt 27:5). Further, Jesus was seen by thousands during His ministry; surely, someone would have noticed the mistake (McDowell, Islam. pp.103-115).

Conclusion  Empty tomb

It is not possible in a short article like this one to evaluate all of the imaginative theories skeptics have proposed over the centuries. And even more creative ideas always seem to keep popping up. However, of all the theories this writer has investigated, in the words of Josh McDowell:

"Only one conclusion takes into account all the facts
and does not adjust them to preconceived notions.
It is the conclusion that CHRIST HAS IN FACT RISEN ..."
(Resurrection, p.102; emphases added; see 1Cor 15:20).

For a more detailed discussion on this subject
see the two-part article
What Actually Happened in 30 AD?.

All Scripture references from: New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1970.
Habermas, Gary. Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984.
The Koran. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1986.
Little, Paul. Know Why You Believe. Downer's Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979.
McDowell, Josh. The Islam Debate. San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers, 1983.
    The Resurrection Factor. San Bernardino, CA: Here's Life Publishers, 1981. Books-A-Million does not have these two books by McDowell, but it does have many other books by him. One such book that would contain material from these books is Best of Josh McDowell: A Ready Defense
Nash, Ronald. Christianity and the Hellenistic World. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.

Has Christ in Fact Risen? Copyright 1999 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).

An earlier version of the above article appeared in The Shield newsletter in 1989.
The above, revised version appeared in Darkness to Light newsletter in 1994.
It was posted on this website in July 1996.

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