By Alex McElroy
If you are creating a building, the structure is important, but the foundation is most important. If a rock goes through the window, it can be replaced. If there is a leak in the roof, it can be patched. However, if there is a crack in the foundation, the building will be condemned. The foundation is the most vital part of the structure. In the Christian worldview, that foundation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. What happens if that foundation is removed? Would Christianity exist without it? The answer is no. Christianity would not have expanded if the earliest and closest followers of Jesus weren’t certain that He was no longer dead but alive. There is no rise in Christianity if He is not risen.
It often seems like skeptics feel that simply disbelieving in or disagreeing with the resurrection is enough to invalidate it. I was with Vince Vitale, Director of RZIM (Ravi Zacharias International Ministries), and heard him say, “Disagreement is ok but disagreement without an alternative is empty.” Because Christianity does exist many have engaged in revisionist history to explain away the obvious reasons, among which are that people who knew Jesus Christ believed that they had encountered a risen Christ days after they saw Him die. The underlying premise being, we know there was no resurrection, so why did these Jewish men make up this claim and start a new religion? The fact is – they wouldn’t. The first-century Jews who became the earliest followers of Christ, later called Christians at Antioch had nothing to gain by ‘inventing’ a religion.
The non-Christian may assume that they wanted a Messiah so badly that they picked this guy, Jesus. However, the Jewish people were good with God. They thought of themselves as God’s chosen nation. Nobody makes up a conspiracy in order to have a worse life full of familial abandonment, torture, financial struggle, and eventual martyrdom.
Therefore, the question isn’t just ‘did Jesus Christ rise from the grave’ but why does Christianity exist at all? The rise of Christianity is foundationally centered on the claim that Jesus is risen. Christians didn’t create an event and then write about it. The event created Christians.
Is He Risen
In The Case For The Resurrection of Jesus, Prof. Gary Habermas writes, “There is a virtual consensus among scholars who study Jesus’ resurrection that, subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples really believed that he appeared to them risen from the dead. This conclusion has been reached by
data that suggest that (1) the disciples themselves claimed that the risen Jesus had appeared to them, and (2) subsequent to Jesus’ death by crucifixion, his disciples were radically transformed from fearful, cowering individuals who denied and abandoned him at his arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord. They remained steadfast in the face of imprisonment, torture, and martyrdom. It is very clear that they sincerely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.”
In first Corinthians, a letter that even the harshest critics and the most liberal theologians agree is most assuredly a Pauline epistle, the Apostle Paul writes, “Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that, He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remains to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that, He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all, He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”
When people lie, they don’t place such an enormous burden of proof on themselves as Paul did. Paul claims that as he is writing, there are close to five hundred people alive and well who can verify or refute his statement. Furthermore, this passage is an early Christian creed who some say can be dated to within 8 months of Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Rise Occurs Because He Is Risen
This brings us to what is probably the most difficult issue for the skeptic to explain away. Why was this belief in Christ being God in the flesh and the savior of the world being preached from Jerusalem to Rome before any New Testament documents existed? In almost all other religions, the text creates the followers. Think of the Book of Mormon, the Quran (although Mohammed did have adherents before his death), or the Sutras and The Tripitaka. The earliest Christians had no text to follow because none had yet been composed. However, Christianity spread far and wide in spite of that.
Furthermore, why were people who knew Jesus in the flesh and would certainly have recognized if someone else was impersonating Him be willing to die for their belief that they had seen, encountered, ate with and learned from a risen Christ? Not just to die, but to die in horrible ways.
Additionally, the geographic distance that separated the earliest and closest followers of Jesus prevented them from knowing if their peers had given up “the lie.” All of them died a martyr’s death in places such as India, Africa, Italy, and other territories, fully convinced that the message they were sharing was true. Under the torture and oppression that each of them experienced, someone would have caved had this actually been a conspiracy.
Jesus’ claim was also easily falsifiable, which means that Christianity could easily have been stamped out at the outset. All the Sanhedrin or Jewish authorities had to do was go to His tomb, get His body, and drag it through the streets. The only logical reason why they didn’t do this is because His body wasn’t there. This has caused some to speculate that the body was stolen or that He wasn’t fully dead and somehow got up at night moved the boulder and walked out of His tomb, a beaten and bloodied mess. And that he did this in front of Roman guards. This seems unlikely at best.
If He Is Risen
I understand that belief in a bodily resurrection can be difficult. However, if we compile the evidence as any good detective would do and that evidence points to the most reasonable explanation being a bodily resurrection (assuming one does not have an unfounded disbelief in the miraculous), it seems logical to accept what the evidence suggests. Here, that is that Jesus of Nazareth walked out of His tomb alive and well.
Some may not like the implications of the fact of the resurrection. If Jesus did rise from the grave, solidifying His claim of being our Savior and God incarnate, then that means He deserves our love, loyalty, and life. Much more evidence could and has been offered through a myriad of historians and theologians, but many still remain unconvinced. At the end of the day, belief in a risen Christ may not be a head issue, but a heart issue.
Recommended resources related to the topic:
Cold Case Resurrection Set by J. Warner Wallace (books)
Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? By Dr. Gary Habermas (book)
Jesus, You and the Essentials of Christianity – Episode 14 Video DOWNLOAD by Frank Turek (DVD)
Alex McElroy is an international speaker, author, blogger, leadership advisor, and the Pastor of Education at New Life Covenant Southeast Church, with over 20,000 members led by Pastor John F. Hannah. Alex has been serving in both youth and teaching ministries at New Life for over 12 years. In his role, he teaches Discipleship class designed for adults to learn, fellowship, and grow in their faith within a small group setting. Alex also trains hundreds of teachers and ministers to deliver lessons in proper lifestyle, Biblical study, focused preparation, and Apologetics in order to maximize their effectiveness in and for the Kingdom of God.