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Biblical Studies Journal Volume 3, Number 4

August 9, 1999

Reasonable Resurrection

This article, by Greg Tidwell, is the first of several defenses of the Christian faith which we plan to publish. These are the thoughts that Greg shared with one struggling with questions of faith.  We do not assume that this article will address all questions posed by those seriously considering the claims of Jesus of Nazareth.  If you have specific areas that you'd like to see covered in upcoming articles, please let us know.  --ed.


In the spring of 1999, I was involved in an online debate with C.D., a skeptic living in Washington State. This article has been drawn from that discussion.

I was challenged to debate the claim, "Jesus of Nazareth Resurrected from Death." I affirmed three propositions:

  1. There is a supernatural reality beyond the physical world, which makes it possible that someone could come back to life on the third day following his death.
  2. The historical record makes the fact of Jesus' resurrection probable.
  3. A moral imperative compels belief that the resurrection absolutely had to occur.

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The Supernatural Reality

The first proposition is essential; if it were impossible for a resurrection to happen under any circumstances, then the evidence pointing to the resurrection of Jesus must be explained away. If, however, it is granted that a resurrection could have occurred, then either the second or the third proposition is sufficient to compel belief that Jesus of Nazareth did, indeed, rise from the dead.

Consider, then, the spiritual reality which must exist for there to be real meaning and values.

For skeptics, belief in a supernatural reality is baseless because within a materialistic system, humanity is part of a self-contained natural order. However, meaning is not possible in a totally materialistic system; without faith in a transcendent reality beyond the physical world, all facts are meaningless details.

Without God there can be no universal explanation; instead of knowledge, we are left with inane experience -- an absurd world in which intellect and reason are irrelevant because no conclusive meaning is defensible.

We recoil from such a description. Yet, unless there is a spiritual reality to provide meaning and value to human life, how do we escape irrelevance? B. F. Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity noted that in the materialistic frame he advanced, there was no room for transcendent value: "To man qua man we readily say good riddance. Only by dispossessing him can we turn to the real causes of human behavior. Only then can we turn from the inferred to the observed, from the miraculous to the natural, from the inaccessible to the manipulatible."

As Jean-Paul Sartre observed in Existentialism and Human Emotions: "Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to." Sartre explains, "if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct." The materialistic system has not yet provided a basis for human dignity, nor can it. Transcendental values require a transcendental God.

As long as God's existence is possible, then it is equally possible that He resurrected Jesus, in which case the question simply becomes whether such an event really took place.

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Historical Truth of the Resurrection

Accepting the possibility of resurrection, as outlined last week, let us turn to factual evidence of the event. Not only is resurrection a theoretical option, the resurrection of Jesus is well attested historically.

First, consider the evidence of the resurrection appearances. In 1 Corinthians 15: 3-5 Paul recounts a narrative he accepted: 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 was 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 brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.

According to Paul, the existence of witnesses to the resurrected Christ reaches back to the days following the event. This confirms the accounts of the Gospel narratives that on isolated occasions diverse individuals and assemblies saw Jesus after His resurrection. The text of the New Testament was written and circulated within the first generation, during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses -- meager time for significant embellishment.

Second, consider the evidence of the empty tomb. The burial accounts of the New Testament show the location of Jesus' grave was public; if the tomb were not empty and the burial site was known, the disciples would never have claimed the resurrection of Jesus, for if they had their Jewish adversaries would have debunked the assertion. The surest rebuttal to the claim of the resurrection would have been to exhibit His occupied grave.

The burial accounts support the historicity of the empty tomb, and the burial story is one of the most certain accounts we have concerning Jesus. The story is unadorned, without legendary garnish.

The incipient Jewish answer to the claim of resurrection was to explain away, not to deny the empty tomb. Thus, the evidence of the disciples' adversaries provides documentation of the empty tomb.

Third, consider the origin of Christianity, which depends on the conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead.

The disciples would never have come up with such an idea as Jesus' resurrection on their own. Here is a belief that cannot be explained by previous historical influences -- a belief that a large number of people firmly held. The resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the origin of the Christian religion.

These three clear indications -- the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the origin of Christianity -- point to the historic event of the resurrection of Jesus.

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The Moral Necessity of the Resurrection

Having addressed the philosophic possibility and historic probability of Jesus' resurrection over the past two weeks, I would like to close with a brief sketch of the moral necessity of the event.

Common human experience inescapably agrees: things are not right in the world, nor in ourselves. As noted before, it is universal to the human condition to act as if transcendent values exist. Corollary to this conviction is the incontestable conclusion that these values have been violated.

How then to make right what is wrong? The Christian truth of the atonement -- which includes the bodily resurrection of Christ -- is the only viable option by which wrongs may be paid for and sins forgiven.

The materialist system is unprepared to address moral values and, thus, has no way of escaping personal and societal failure. Without a spiritual reality, there can be no way of salvation. Other religious systems attempt to address the moral dilemma, but outside of the Christian atonement, no satisfactory answer can be found.

In the atonement, God maintains His justice by punishing sin, yet shows His mercy in forgiving the sinner.

As the apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23-26: Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies him who has faith in Jesus.

There is a moral imperative to address the sin problem. The sacrificial death and victorious resurrection of the Son of God is the only viable option on the table. Thus, I find the resurrection of Jesus conceivable, reasonable and irrefutable

        - Greg Tidwell

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