The Fact of the Resurrection Part 3 - Eyewitnesses
The last few days we've been studying the resurrection of Jesus as history. Of course, the resurrection is the most compelling evidence we have to show that it is the Christian God to whom we refer when we speak of God's existence. It validates Jesus' teaching and His claims of deity.
We've already shown how the resurrection accounts read more like history than myth, and how the written accounts are so close to the proximity of the events they record that any myths or legends creeping into them is highly improbable. Today, I'd like to more closely examine the idea of eyewitness testimony and how it also supports the resurrection as a matter of historic fact.
Eyewitness Testimony From Live WitnessesThe four gospels are believed to be written by eyewitnesses of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection (Matthew and John) or by people who spoke directly with eyewitnesses (Mark and Luke). The gospels themselves contain reports of Jesus appearing to many different people in the forty days after He was raised from the dead.
Some skeptics believe that the gospel writers fabricated the resurrection in order to help them establish their new religion. Others claim that the witnesses were suffering from some type of mass-hysteria or communal hallucination. But a careful study of the gospels shows why these theories don't make sense.
Because the gospels were written approximately 30 to 50 years after the events they record, many of the people who are offered as witnesses to the resurrection were still alive when they were circulated. This means that as people heard or read about the resurrection, they weren't left to "just take the matter by faith." Anyone who had reason to doubt the resurrection could ask the witnesses themselves if the events recorded in the gospels were true. Because the many different witnesses were available to corroborate the testimony of the gospels, any hallucination or wishful thinking would be quickly pointed out and the claims made by the apostles would be dismissed.
Now, because the testimonies by Jesus' disciples agree doesn't make that testimony unimpeachable. It doesn't rule out the idea of a conspiracy to lie about the resurrection. However there exists an even more compelling argument that answers this objection - the existence of hostile witnesses.
The Existence of Antagonistic EyewitnessesBecause Christianity represented a danger to the power structures of the Sanhedrin, the leaders and chief priests did everything they could to extinguish this new movement within Judaism. They were vehement in stopping the apostles from spreading tales of the resurrection. They beat and imprisoned Peter and John and stoned Steven to death.
However, the easiest way to quash this new religious movement would have been to demonstrate that the apostles were lying when they claimed that Jesus rose from the dead - by producing a corpse! The Sanhedrin could easily counter the testimony of the eyewitnesses by saying "Look, you know that we took the body and put it in a potter's grave" or "here is the tomb where Jesus' body lies." They said nothing of the kind. They admitted that His body was no longer in the tomb when they created the story of the apostles' stealing it. (There are many reasons why this is implausible which we will cover in an upcoming post.) By claiming that Jesus' body was stolen they corroborate the fact that Jesus' tomb was indeed empty.
In fact, any discrepancy or inaccuracy from Jesus' disciples would have been immediately exploited by the Jewish leaders of the day as proof that the tales told by the believers were false. Considering that not only were these leaders intimately involved with the crucifixion and its resulting events, but they had every opportunity to counter the claims of Jesus' followers and offered nothing tangible in their defense, the truth of the resurrection is compelling.
Appeal to the FactsThe last group of witnesses we will examine are the multitudes in Jerusalem. Jesus attracted many disciples, most of whom did not continue to follow Him after His death. He also was known by many more of the general public. His crucifixion, a public execution before a high feast-day, would have been a very visible spectacle.
If the disciples were playing fast and loose with the truth, the people they were preaching to would have objected, knowing that their tale was fictional. However in Acts 2:22 we see something completely different. The disciples appealed to the knowledge of the crowd in order to support their claims of resurrection. Peter used the phrase "as you yourselves know" when speaking at Pentecost. He knew what he was saying was true and the facts were on his side. Even more telling was that the people listening responded to his claims by being "pricked in their hearts" and repenting, not by contradicting them.
The fact that we have many first-hand accounts of Jesus' resurrection makes the argument for the resurrection credible. The fact that these eyewitnesses were giving testimony while facing a hostile audience makes it stronger. The fact that the enemies of the apostles could offer no evidence to contradict their testimony makes it beyond merely reasonable to hold the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. The resurrection becomes as trustworthy a piece of history as any other. Next time, we'll look at how the changed lives of the disciples also bolster our case. God bless until then