Theological FAQ:

Is the resurrection of Jesus historical?

The resurrection is many things. It is important to distinguish them.

The resurrection is real. The disciples' testimony about Jesus' resurrection from the dead presents the event in everyday terms. The man who was crucified on Friday was back on Sunday, showing his scars to his friends, eating lunch with them, teaching them how his death and resurrection fulfilled Scripture and speaking of the Kingdom of God. Christian testimony about the reality of Jesus' resurrection is unanimous that it really happened. Furthermore, this testimony is distinguishable even from the worship of Jesus that usually followed reflection on the significance of Jesus' story. Matthew 28:17 hints at a debate between witnesses to the resurrection over whether the risen one should be worshipped: "When they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted." The rest of the chapter suggests that the worshippers prevailed in that debate, but the fact that the debate happened in the first place suggests an important distinction between the reality of the resurrection and its possible interpretation.

Under the influence of Kantian idealism, the idea has gained cultural currency that "facts" are distinguishable from "values," and intellectual pressure from this conviction has sometimes pushed the resurrection into the category of merely mythical events. (Helpful, accessible reading here is Lesslie Newbigin's The Gospel in a Pluralist Society.) Many Christians who have shared the unfortunate and mistaken dischotomy of fact and value (or objectivity and subjectivity) still rightly insist that the resurrection of Jesus is not merely a value-judgment or a subjective interpretation. To present the event that way is to turn it into something else. If the resurrection of Jesus was anything at all, it was the resurrection of real flesh and bone (Luke 24:39). That is what the word means in its original first-century Jewish context. That is what Paul means by connecting Jesus' bodily resurrection to the bodily resurrection of all believers (1 Cor. 15:12-58). Paul himself could not be more emphatic about this when he tells the Corinthians that

if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If 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 for this life only we have hoped in Christ, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

That is what it means today when Christians confess that we believe "in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting." We may be mistaken about that, but what we would be mistaken about would be the truth of an irreducibly real event, not its reality. The resurrection might be explained away, but it refuses to be mythologized or spiritualized away. It must be more than a parable.

The resurrection is historical. By this I mean that the past events of Jesus' death and resurrection appearances are remembered as history. History is not just "the past," but faithful remembrance of the past. Many things happen that are forgotten or never known in the first place. The writer of John suggests that this is true of Jesus' life too: "There are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). The resurrection is not one of those unknown or forgotten events. Indeed, it is one of a few events to which the Church committed itself from its beginning never to forget (Luke 24:45-48, Acts 1:21-25).

We see this emphasis in a small and sacred creed that Paul himself learned from the apostles while in Jerusalem, and that he entrusted to his own congregations:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast – unless you believed in vain. [That last clause addresses an issue to which Paul's citation of the text is directed; it will concern us later, but not here.] For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that

Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,
that he as buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the Twelve,
then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me (1 Cor. 15:3-8).

Much ink has been spilled as to where the fragment he learned at Jerusalem stops and Paul's own comments begin. I think the portions I have italicized are pretty obvious insertions. It may also be that his mention of Jesus' appearance to James and to all the apostles is also a Pauline addition, but I do not think so.

What is beyond serious debate is that the beginning of the quote, from "Christ" to "Twelve," comes not originally from Paul but from the Church in Jerusalem. You can see that by Paul's way of introducing it (a way that is repeated with Paul's appeal to Jesus' words of institution at the Last Supper in 1 Cor. 11:23). You can also see it in the way Paul calls Peter "Cephas," using an Aramaic name for "rock" rather than the Greek name that would have been familiar to his readers. (Very helpful reading here is Wolfhart Pannenberg's Jesus – God and Man.)

The remembrance of Jesus' resurrection goes back to those who knew and traveled with Jesus, who went with him to Jerusalem and to whom he appeared after his death. It goes with Christians wherever we go, for it is the historical basis for and shape of all our hope.

Jesus might have been raised and never appeared to anyone, in which case the world's reconciliation with God would have been remained hidden. But from the beginning the apostles were distinguished as such by the fact that they were eyewitnesses to the resurrection and sent to proclaim it (Acts 1:21-22). If they are to be believed, it is only because the risen Jesus appeared to them.

That the Bible also employs other, more purely mythical ways to remember the past is irrelevant. If Jonah is a fable, if Job is fiction, if Eden is mythology, then so be it. The Bible includes many different genres of literature: narrative, parable, law, poetry, music, proverb, prophecy, apocalyptic. I became infamous in one of my classes for claiming that "the Bible is a musical." (Read Luke 1 and you'll see what I mean.) But musicals feature more than just music. The New Testament testimonies to Jesus' resurrection are not fable, fiction, or mythology. The earliest and most sacred ones are simple, straightforward historical narratives: "He died ... he was buried ... he was raised ... he appeared." This is how the witnesses chose to remember and relate what they had seen.

The resurrection is significant. Christians are adamant that the resurrection of Jesus is not just some random act with no meaning beyond itself. This is the event that makes sense of all of Jesus' life as God's vindication of his outrageous claims. It is a renewal that makes sense of all creation, forcing the Church back to creation language to describe it adequately (Col. 1:15-20, 2 Cor. 5:17, Rev. 21:5). This is the event that confirms God's being and perfectly loving, just character, the awesome threat of sin, God's irrevocable choice of Israel, the true human image of God in Jesus, the Trinity of God, the exaltation and Lordship of Jesus, the rectitude of Jesus' past and future judgment both against and on behalf of the world, the effectiveness of his atoning work, the reality of God's kingdom and the Church as a sign of that reign ... of all things' oneness in him.

This means that if Christians are wrong about Jesus' death and resurrection, we are basically wrong about everything. Imagine a world where Jesus were not raised from the dead. The God of Israel would be nonexistent. Or God would be detached from the world. Or God would be evil (having refused to intervene on behalf of an innocent Jesus). Or Jesus would have been the blasphemer, false prophet, and charlatan he was charged with being, in which case his example and teaching would not be an image of God's lovingkindness at all, but its opposite.

The resurrection is transformative. In fact, Christians are right about the resurrection. "Jesus has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20). Jesus' resurrection is the inaugural event of the end of the age. Pannenberg, ever the historian, looks to the historical context of a Jew's resurrection and finds it the sign that God's promised end-times have begun. Having been judged by humanity and found guilty, Jesus has now been judged by the Father and found innocent. For him the judgment is over. The last test has been passed. Christ is free. So are those entrusted to him: "I died, and behold I live," the risen Jesus says in Rev. 1:18, echoing Deut. 32:39-40 and appropriating it to himself, "and I have the keys to death and the grave."

So the resurrection does more than supply the necessary context to understand Jesus' life. It begins the new creation. As Newbigin puts it,

What happened on that day is, according to the Christian tradition, only to be understood by analogy with what happened on the day the cosmos came into being. It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics cease to apply. It is the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as the creation itself (11).

In philosophical jargon, the first Easter changes everything ontologically, not just epistemologically – it changes the way things are, not just the way we know them. It introduces a new world to us.

The resurrection is axiomatic. Jesus' resurrection intrudes into an old world as something odd, unprecedented, and problematic. But in the new world it introduces, it is central, typical, and foundational. Again Newbigin puts it well:

It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point. ... [A]ccepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a wholly new way of understanding our human experience, a way which – in the long run – makes more sense of human experience as a whole than does the reigning plausibility structure. That the crucified Jesus was raised from death to be the firstfruit of a new creation is – in the proper sense – dogma. It is something given, offered for acceptance in faith, providing the starting point for a new way of understanding which, instead of being finally defined by the impassable boundary of death (our personal deaths and the final death of the cosmos), moves from death outward to an open world of infinite possibilities beckoning us into ever fresh regions of joy" (11-12).

Jesus' death and resurrection have worked this way since the Church's beginning. In my Christian theology classes I assign a project where students research the ways the New Testament writers draw conclusions from Jesus' death and resurrection to all aspects of their life. Christian memory of Jesus' resurrection is more than unforgettable; it is fundamental. In our faith, it is an independent variable.

The resurrection is demonstrable. That the resurrection is historical means that at one time the resurrection was demonstrable. The Church remembers Jesus as one who submitted "proofs" of his identity after his resurrection. The story of Jesus appearing to "Doubting Thomas" and showing him his scars shows the Church remembering Jesus as one willing to let the Church's central claim – "Jesus is risen" – be radically questioned.

I do not mean this to imply that only those Christian beliefs that can be demonstrated are legitimate. If the evidence were weaker, it would not necessarily disprove the reality or even the historicity of the resurrection. Many Christians accept Jesus as raised from the dead on grounds besides the kind of evidence to which I will appeal. Jesus makes himself known to some by dreams, personal appearances, inner conviction, indoctrination, and the like. Belief grounded in these things is not thereby disqualified. After Thomas learned Jesus was risen, he learned further that "blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe" (John 20:29).

If evidence of the resurrection were no longer extant, then we might have to take it on the authority of witnesses to whom the evidence was extant. However, at least from my own cultural location in late western modernity, the resurrection remains demonstrable. I find this fact a great blessing, for as faith goes, my own is relatively weak. There are times when I fall back into a world that demands signs as proof, and finds it difficult to accept as signs phenomena with no analogy in the present. I fall back into a world where the resurrection is a dependent variable. While Jesus does not just jump through our epistemological hoops – he does offer one sign, "the sign of Jonah", to satisfy skeptics. "'For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth'" (Matt. 12:38-40).

I do not mean this as a claim that all rational people everywhere must accept the reality of his resurrection. This is because the persuasive demonstration of a thing depends on the plausibility structures of those to whom it is demonstrated. There is no demonstrating the resurrection to a David Hume or a Thomas Jefferson who rejects violations of so-called natural law a priori. There is no demonstrating the resurrection to a Muslim who refuses to accept the historicity of Jesus' death. There is no demonstrating the resurrection to one who believes that the physical world is an illusion. In all of these cases, the audience lives in a world that can't even imagine the possibility. That is not the Christian faith's problem.

What in our intellectual culture demonstrates the resurrection?

1. The Church itself. One of my New Testament professors said it better than I have ever heard it said: "Where there's smoke there's fire. The smoke is the faith of the Church." There is simply no other adequate explanation for the change between how the disciples remember themselves before the resurrection appearances and what they are like afterward.

Some have tried to explain the change as mass psychosis, as a collective exercise in wishful thinking. However, this doesn't fit the apostolic testimony. Nowhere is this kind of inspiration or psychological uplift credited with turning around the discouraged, divided disciples. Nor is hysteria consistent with the gospels' and Paul's conflicting traditions of Jesus appearing multiple times to different people in different locations.

Some have tried to explain the change as the adoption of a Greco-Roman religious myth, the myth of the "dying-and-rising-god." However, this doesn't fit the testimony either. The first believers are Jews, not pagans; in fact, they are not even cosmopolitan Jews. They firmly believe in a real, Jewish-style resurrection of the dead. Furthermore, they maintain this belief following Jesus' death. Jesus' apocalyptic teaching of an imminent end of the world is taken so seriously that Paul takes it over a few years later, as do the gospels and the later letters of the New Testament. The eschatological character of the Christian message is inconsistent with a "mythologization" of the resurrection.

2. First-hand reports of Jesus' appearances. Here let me appeal not to some apologetics book, but to the work of E.P. Sanders of Duke University. If Sanders has a theological agenda, I have never been able to guess what it is. His The Historical Figure of Jesus begins with an outline of

statements that meet two standards: they are almost beyond dispute; and they belong to the framework of his life, and especially of his public career....

Jesus was born c. 4 BCE, near the time of the death of Herod the Great;
he spent his childhood and early adult years in Nazareth, a Galilean village;
he was baptized by John the Baptist;
he called disciples;
he taught in the towns, villages and countryside of Galilee (apparently not the cities);
he preached 'the kingdom of God';
about the year 30 he went to Jerusalem for Passover;
he created a disturbance in the Temple area;
he had a final meal with the disciples;
he was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities, specifically the high priest;
he was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.

It should be said that Sanders' method privileges public events rather than sayings as historically reliable, since the latter are easier to fabricate and change than the former.

After this list, Sanders offers another, "a short list of equally secure facts about the aftermath of Jesus' life:"

his disciples at first fled;
they saw him (in what sense is not certain) after his death;
as a consequence, they believed that he would return to found the kingdom;
they formed a community to await his return and sought to win others to faith in him as God's Messiah

At the end of the book Sanders says more about the historically verifiable aspects of Jesus' appearances: Jesus did not appear as a ghost, nor as a resuscitated corpse, but as something else: "a spiritual body". The reports in the gospels agree in some generalities, but conflict in details (order and location of appearances), so that "we are left with an intractable problem. The followers of Jesus were sure that he was raised from the dead, but they did not agree on who had seen him" (278-279). Sanders' bottom line is that

That Jesus' followers (and later Paul) had resurrection appearances is, in my experience, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.

Even when we keep a realistically critical distance from the New Testament writings, we are left with appearances of the risen Jesus that are fundamentally formative of the Christian tradition as we know it. A historian like Sanders cannot explain them. Nor can he explain them away.

Sanders' view may seem an overly equivocal assessment of the demonstrability of the resurrection. Keep in mind that it comes from a historian of the Greco-Roman world whose highest loyalty is not to a particular notion of Jesus of Nazareth, but to the modern canons of historiography. Sanders' judgment touches Newbigin's where modern history touches Christian theology. The resurrection moves moderns out of what turns out to be an overly confining ideology into a larger world. To quote Newbigin again, the resurrection "is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics cease to apply." It is the twilight that dispels historicism's night and ushers in the Lord's day.

Another helpful resource for judging the demonstrability of the resurrection is Terry L. Miethe, ed., Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate. It chronicles a debate between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew held at Liberty University in 1985:

All parties agreed ... to limit the debate to a single issue, that of the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus. The debate was not to be concerned with issues such as God's existence, revelation (such as the Bible), or miracles in general. These issues could, however, be addressed in the question and answer session following the formal debate.

Because audiences are perennially interested in who the experts choose as the winner of a public debate, we organized two panels of experts in their respective areas of specialty to render a verdict on the present subject matter. One panel consisted of five philosophers, who were instructed to judge the content of the debate and render a winner. The second panel consisted of five professional debate judges, who were asked to judge the argumentation technique of the debaters. All ten participants serve on the faculties of American universities and colleges such as the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Virginia, Western Kentucky University, James Madison University, George Mason University, Randolph-Macon College (Ashland, Virginia), Sweet Briar College, and Liberty University. We attempted to choose persons of a wide spectrum of views and persuasions.

The decisions of our judges were as follows. The panel of philosophers, judging content, cast four votes for Habermas, none for Flew, and one draw. ...

The panel of professional debate judges voted three to two, also in favor of Habermas, this time regarding the method of argumentation technique.

The book features handy afterwords, one by Pannenberg which summarizes the historiographical approach to Christology he pioneered in Jesus – God and Man.

3. The empty tomb tradition. This is the weakest ground so far, but it is not entirely dismissable. It is true that the gospels' empty tomb traditions are being recorded at least three or four decades after Jesus' death. However, Matthew records a legend spread "to this day" by Christians' opponents alleging that the disciples stole Jesus' body. In Matthew's Jewish-Christian circles the empty tomb tradition must already predate the stolen body tradition. A more important consideration is the odd phrase "he was buried" in the historical fragment Paul passes along in 1 Cor. 15:3-7. It follows the claim "he died for our sins according to the Scriptures," and it precedes the claim "he rose on the third day and appeared." Unless the phrase is simply redundant – and that seems far-fetched in such a compact creed – it refers to something important between and besides death and resurrection. I suspect it refers indirectly to the empty-tomb tradition. This explanation would fit well with the other suggestions of Jesus' real, historical, significant, demonstrable resurrection from the dead.

4. "Living Jesus." For some this evidence of Jesus' new life will seem entirely out of place here, even ridiculous. For others, it will seem the most compelling of all.

The disciples who saw him after his death continued to sense his presence. Two thousand years later, a powerful conviction of Jesus' presence in gathered worship characterizes most every Christian community. "Where two or three are gathered together" in judgment, Jesus says, "there I am also" (Matt. 18:20). Paul's communities meet together "with the power of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:4). This happens in corporate prayer, individual prayer, contemplation, communion, biblical practice, mission, mercy ministry, dreams and visions, healings and words of prophecy, and countless other ways. Such modes of presence may not convince skeptics, but they are entirely consistent with a Jesus who lives, ascended to the Father (whatever that means!) and reigning through the power of the Holy Spirit of whose presence the Church is equally sure. Good reading from a biblical scholar on such spirituality is Luke Timothy Johnson, Living Jesus: Learning the Heart of the Gospel. Johnson at times opposes the so-called "Jesus of history" and the so-called "Christ of faith," but this project of drawing connections between the two is healthy and scholastically careful.

As I have said, everything does not hinge on the present demonstrability of the resurrection (except to weaklings slike me). However, for those who need it, the empirical effects of Jesus' resurrection build a bridge that transports us from an age of empiricism and historicism into one of living Christian faith, in which the old boundary event has become axiomatic. It did not have to be so. God's providence is extraordinary.

One last aspect:

The resurrection is insufficient. It should be clear that Christian faith radically depends on the reality of the resurrection, whether or not every culture or every audience finds it demonstrable. Something else should be clear: Christian faith radically depends on more. Specifically, it depends on the disciple's confession of Jesus as Lord and Christ. Confession is of course integrally related to resurrection. Each supports the other. However, neither one reduces to the other.

You can see both the relationship and the distinction in such famous texts as Philippians 2:5-11, Romans 10:9-10, and John 20:27:

He became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed upon him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If you confessed with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believed in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you would be saved. For one believes with his or her heart and is justified, and confesses with his or lips and so is saved.

"Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be unbelieving, but believing." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

It is not only in the Bible that I have seen the distinction between acknowledgement of Jesus' resurrection and confession of him as Lord and Christ. I saw it in a friend and student who became convinced of the reality of the resurrection, but still refused to entrust her future to the risen one. It is simply not enough to see that God raised Jesus from the dead.

However, it is certainly a start.

Grace and peace, Telford