In Sydney, Australia, a few years ago, an evangelist told his audience about a conversation he had with a male high school student. The student said, “I’d believe in God if I could see him”. The evangelist replied “You’re too late. You’ve missed him. He was here 2000 years ago and he lived for 33 years as a Jew in Palestine”.
It always amazes me when people say they’d believe in God if they could see him. Ask them if they believe that Julius Caesar existed, or Alexander the Great, or Hannibal, or any other historical figure, and they’d look at you as if you were an idiot. “Of course I believe in them; I learned about them at school; I’ve read their books or the books about them; of course I believe they existed and were real people, just as the literature says about them”. But then they say that the Bible is a “religious text”, therefore it’s not true objectively or historically; it was written so that people would have a god to worship. Religion is for fools and we don’t believe all that stuff anymore. The bible has been disproved and we believe in science now, they say. I won’t believe in a god I can’t see.
Who were the witnesses of the Resurrection?
The apostles and their companions
The witnesses who testified to and recorded the resurrection of Christ from death were “the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:2-3). These apostles were chosen by Christ at the beginning of his ministry; and in Luke 6:12-16 they are named.
The apostle Paul writes “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again on the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time” (1 Cor 15:3-8). Paul here includes the unnamed apostles i.e. Matthew, John, and Jude, as well as Peter and James, and himself. All these wrote the New Testament gospels and epistles between them. There was also a large number of other people who saw the resurrected Jesus, but none of them wrote any scripture.
The apostle John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled,of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)” (1 John 1:1-2). He wrote this towards the end of the first century and therefore after the ascension of Jesus to heaven, so he wasn’t just writing about the incarnation of Jesus but his death, resurrection and ascension. He is also very specific and detailed in this testimony because by this time the heretical group known as the Docetists were around, and they claimed that Jesus was not a real body, merely a phantom in human form. There was also another heretical group called Ebionites, one of several Adoptionist groups, who believed that Jesus was just a man and that at his baptism the Christ came on him. And because God cannot die, when Jesus was being crucified, the Christ ascended and left him to die. John thus says that he and others had heard him speak and touched him with their hands. And he warns, “Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is the spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world” (1 Jn 4:2-3).
All four gospels tell us that certain of the women of his circle of family, friends, and followers were the first to see the resurrected Jesus. For example the first gospel says “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it…..the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay. And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead….behold, Jesus met them, saying, All hail. And they came and held him by the feet, and worshipped him” (Matt 28:1-2, 5-9).
Implications of Jesus’ Resurrection
Proves deity of Jesus Christ
The New Testament is the written testimonies of those who saw the risen Jesus Christ. They had been with Jesus every day for three years. They had witnessed his miracles, heard his teaching, heard his astonishing claims of deity by calling himself the Son of Man and the Son of God; and they had watched him die a brutal death, seen his burial, and for forty days had seen and spoken and eaten with him after he rose from death. And then they saw him miraculously ascend into heaven, followed by the statement of two angels that he would be returning to earth at a future date. If this is not worthy of being recorded, what is? If ever anything written needed to be taken seriously and investigated, the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is that thing.
So Paul tells us that Christ, by his resurrection, has proved his claim to be God; and consequently he, Paul, was sent by God to bring all people to faith and obedience to God. Jesus didn’t just die and rise from death to show us the biggest party trick of all time; he came to bring us to right and loving relationship with God from whom we are all estranged and with whom we are all at enmity. Jesus’ death was for us, and in our place.
In his letter to the Roman church, he wrote “…Concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; And declared to be the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:1-5).
Heralds the coming Judgment
“And the times of this ignorance God winked at [overlooked]; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31).
The prophet Isaiah foretold the death, burial and resurrection of Christ in his great prophecy of the coming of Jesus to fulfil the Father’s plan to save his people. Part of the prophecy says “…by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors” (Isa 53:11-12).
So Jesus’ dying and rising from death demonstrates that Jesus is who he claimed to be; therefore he has both power and authority as God to forgive us our sins against him; and to make the way clear to God by taking away the sin that separates us from him and prevents us from approaching him. In this sense therefore is the bible a religious text; it makes a stupendous claim, gives overwhelming evidence for it, and as a result, makes a demand on us to serve God from whom we have been separated.
A Religious Text
Reconciles sinners to God
However, when atheists and sceptics call the bible a religious text, in their minds that reduces it to nothing more than a sentimental book for weak-minded people. Sometimes they condescendingly say it does have some wonderful principles, and the world does need more love and happiness, and that Jesus was a good man, but really, you can’t take it seriously; that would be intellectual suicide.
But in a proper sense, the bible is a religious text in that it tells us about God and how we are to relate to him; it consists of two sections, neither of which are mythological; the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, which is largely historical narrative, with events and places that can be proved by archaeology and records from the contemporary nations; and largely prophecy concerning the nations around Israel and about the coming of God’s Messiah to save his people. And the New Testament was written to show how Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of the Old Testament law, sacrifices, and prophecies. The New Testament is an historical document i.e. it describes real events, people, and places in history, and gives evidence for its claims about Jesus. It does not ask us to have blind faith; it isn’t a crutch to support weak character; rather, it gives us evidence which in turn gives us confidence to believe its claims.
In the bible, God makes demands of every person who has ever lived or who will ever live. Having provided witnesses to the stupendous events surrounding Jesus Christ, God expects a response from us. Paul tells us, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new….God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them….For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor 5:17-21).
And the apostle John urges, “many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31).
Matthew the apostle, writing of Jesus’ birth, tells us of the angel who told Mary, “…thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).
And Jesus’ final instruction to his Church just before he ascended was: “Go ye into all the world, and proclaim the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mark 16:15-16); and “…lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt 28:20).
“They Came to Understand….”
Clarrie Briese is a distinguished Australian citizen. He has multiple degrees and qualifications in the practice of law. From 1979 to 1990 he was the Chief Magistrate of NSW, and also served as Commissioner on the NSW Crime Commission. In a tract, he wrote on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I here quote a section of it which I have taken from a book written by another Australian lawyer and Christian, Ross Clifford: “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” p. 132-135, by Ross Clifford (Albatross Books 1991).
“Now we would all agree that to claim to be God is a pretty staggering claim for a human being to make. People who make such claims like that today are dismissed by us as mad or eccentric. We in the courts put many of them in mental institutions, diagnosing them to be suffering from schizophrenia or paranoia.
But this man Jesus cannot be so easily dismissed in that way. In a relatively short period of time after his death, his followers changed the world. And today they are still influencing and changing it……
……Now the reason that Jesus’ immediate followers were finally convinced that Jesus was what he claimed to be, namely God, was, as they tell us, that they were eyewitnesses to the monumentally staggering fact that Jesus, whom they saw to have been dead and buried, had risen from the dead. They saw and experienced this. It was for them a mind-shattering event. And no wonder. It clearly and finally demonstrated to them that his claim to have been not just a mere man but God in human flesh was in fact the truth. At least that is their evidence.
Now if this evidence of these witnesses is true, not only must it be the fact that there is a God of this world, but he must be found and can only be found in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ. It further follows that you and I are not accidents in the world, arriving here by chance. We are the creation of an Almighty God and therefore accountable to that God.
Well now, all of what I have just said depends on the reliability of the witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection……At the end of our examination, putting our witnesses through Judge Chandler’s five tests, one is left to say that the only rational conclusion is that the witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ are witnesses of the highest credibility. If we are unable to accept their histories, why would we accept the histories of any other incident of the human race?……
…….When first confronted with this fact (the Resurrection), they were initially staggered, dumbfounded. Some of them couldn’t believe it to be true – for example, Thomas. But when the truth did finally bear in on them and they knew it to be a fact through their own senses, their reaction was one of enormous joy. And no wonder! They now recognised fully who he was, the scales fell from their eyes and they understood what the prophecies of the Old Testament scriptures had been saying.
And mind-boggling as it was, they knew that these prophecies had been fulfilled before their very eyes. Jesus was that Messiah whom God through the centuries of history of the Old Testament period had promised to send to his people in the fullness of time. They came to understand that Jesus had come to redeem not only the Jewish people, but the Gentiles as well – that is, the whole of humankind. And they had actually seen it happen; they were witnesses – eyewitnesses”.
What’s the Difference?
So why is it that people accept the written accounts of secular historians such as Thucydides, Xenophon, Pliny the Younger, Livy, Julius Caesar etc.; but when it comes to the writers of the Christian gospels, they dismiss them and call them “religious texts” rather than dignifying them by regarding them as historical records, as if that means they’re inferior and not to be trusted as reliable witnesses?; as if, being Christian documents, they are dishonest, incapable, or simple. As I’ve shown above, the gospel writers wrote what they saw; they gathered eye-witness accounts of others who had seen; they directed attention to hundreds of other witnesses still living who had seen the resurrected Jesus and who could therefore be questioned.
Papyrus 75 is one of the Bodmer Papyri (c200 C.E.). It contains most of the gospels of Luke and John, and is the earliest surviving manuscript of these gospels. Academic consensus among evangelical scholars is that Luke wrote his gospel between 60 and 80 C.E. Therefore Papyrus 75 is within 30-50 years of the original gospel. There is no secular history which has a witness anywhere near as close to the original as this. And Luke tells us how he came to write his gospel. In his dedication of it he writes: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses,and ministers of the word; It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very beginning, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed” (Luke 1:1-4). So Luke tells Theophilus, to whom he dedicated his gospel, and we, the readers, how he got his information and what his purpose was in writing. His use of previously written accounts, interviewing of eye-witnesses, and his own careful research, have given posterity a trustworthy and carefully researched account of the resurrection of Jesus. But modern man, in his wisdom has decided that the gospels are religious and are therefore not to be taken seriously.
Compare this with the secular Roman historian Livy. His stated purpose for writing his multi-volume history of Rome was to restore Roman citizens to their original moral values and religion. This was because the eastern religions which were gaining huge popularity in Rome were corrupting its citizens, as were the enormous wealth and power of the State, thereby weakening Rome and the empire. He saw that a return to the original values of Rome was the only way to restore Roman strength. He also tells us that he made use of the written histories at his disposal for the writing of his own. Thus his purpose was also religious; yet today his history is regarded as trustworthy and accurate – as it should be.
So why is Livy acceptable, and Luke and the other gospel writers unacceptable? Why are Livy’s books regarded as history while the New Testament documents are regarded as religious texts and therefore lack credibility? What is the difference? It is one of bigotry – people don’t want the New Testament to be true because, first of all, they have already made up their minds that it isn’t; they have already decided that Jesus isn’t who he claimed to be. And secondly, if Jesus is true, if he is who he claimed to be, i.e. God, then they are obligated to bow down and worship and obey him – and that would never do.
The Testimony for the Resurrection Would be Admissible in a Court of Law
The following is a selection of lawyers’ statements which state that the testimony of the New Testament writers would be admissible in a court of law. They are taken from a wider selection which can be found in “Leading Lawyers Look at the Resurrection” by Ross Clifford (Albatross Books 1991, p 125-131).
“(c) Sir Edward Clarke, a former King’s Counsel, wrote the following:
As a lawyer I have made a prolonged study of the evidences for the events of the first Easter Day. To me the evidence is conclusive, and over and over again in the High Court I have secured the verdict on evidence not nearly so compelling. Inference follows on evidence, and a truthful witness is always artless and disdains effect. The Gospel evidence for the resurrection is of this class and, as a lawyer, I accept it unreservedly as the testimony of truthful men to facts they were able to substantiate.
(d) Charles Colson is a lawyer and was Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon. He became involved in the political scandal, Watergate, gave his life to Christ and is the founder of Prison Fellowship. He wrote:
Take it from one who was inside the Watergate web looking out, who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is. Nothing less than a witness as awesome as the resurrected Christ could have caused these men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and Lord.
(e) Dale Foreman, a graduate of Harvard Law School and a lawyer in Washington State, is author of Crucify Him: A Lawyer Looks at the Trial of Jesus:
These facts [the trial, crucifixion and death of Christ], I believe, are clear and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Whether you can take one step further and believe the miracle of his resurrection is something only you can decide. Still, the reliability of the rest of the Gospel is so plain that it is but a small step to believe in the resurrected Christ. And what’s more, it would be hard to believe that a man could have such an influence on the world if he had not overcome the ultimate enemy – death.
The teachings of Jesus have changed the world. In 2000 years not a day has gone by when the influence of this itinerant teacher from Nazareth has not been felt. As a trial lawyer, trained to be rational, sceptical and critical, I believe it improbable that any fraud or false Messiah could have made such a profound impression for good. The most reasonable conclusion, and the most satisfying, is that Jesus was indeed the Son of God, that he was who he claimed to be and that he did come back to life.
(i) Sir Leslie Herron was Chief Justice of NSW, Australia. In an address given on Palm Sunday, 1970, he stated:
Let any objective reader put side by side the four Gospels and add them to the account in Acts of the Apostles and he will be struck , as any judge accustomed to evaluate evidence is always struck, with one outstanding fact. It is this: that while there may be a great variety of detail or form of expression or narration of or emphasis put on occurrences, underneath it all, the substance and weight of the narration are true.
(j) Francis Lamb was a lawyer from Wisconsin, USA, who wrote the work, Miracle and Science, which examines Bible miracles by legal tests:
Tested by the standards and ordeals of jural science by which questions of fact are ascertained and demonstrated in contested questions of right between man and man in courts of justice, the resurrection of Jesus stands a demonstrated fact.
(n) Stephen D. Williams was a Detroit, USA lawyer and author of the popular book, The Bible in Court or Truth vs Error, in which he wrote:
We have been asked many times if the proof of the resurrection of Jesus was as complete and convincing from a legal standpoint, as that afforded by the record of the other events in his life narrated in the Gospel. To this question we must answer: Yes. The proof is to be found in the same record, supplied by the same witnesses”
The statements in the New Testament by witnesses who knew Jesus Christ for the three years leading up to his death, burial, resurrection and ascension, were telling the truth: that Jesus did rise from the grave and, after forty days with them, ascended to heaven. They saw him after he rose, they talked with him, ate with him. They knew he had been killed and that he had been buried; and they wrote down what they saw. These written accounts form the foundation of the New Testament. The Bible is its own proof.