1 – Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you,which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
2 – By this gospel you are saved,if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 – For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 – that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 – and that He appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.
6 – After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 – Then He appeared to James,then to all the apostles,
8 – and last of all He appeared to me also,as to one abnormally born.
As you may know, during this Holy Week we’ve been basing our sermons on talking points that originated in the new movie about the life of former atheist, Lee Strobel. Since becoming a Christian Strobel has written several books and I don’t know if you realize this but for a while he also had his own TV show called, Faith Under Fire. On that program, he had all kinds of interesting spiritual conversations with all kinds of interesting people—including an interview with the publisher of Playboy magazine, Hugh Hefner.
Here’s how that particular conversation unfolded. They both sate in the living room of Hefner’s opulent Los Angeles mansion—and Strobel asked him very direct questions about his spiritual beliefs. Hefner said he had a minimal belief in God and referred to our Heavenly Father as “the beginning of it all” and the “great unknown,”—but he said he did not believe in the God of Christianity. In fact, Hefner said, “I don’t think that Jesus is any more the Son of God than we are.”
But, when Strobel brought up the resurrection of Jesus, Hefner instantly saw the supreme relevance of it. This aging playboy said, “If anyone had any real evidence that, indeed, Jesus did return from the dead, then that is the beginning of a dropping of a series of dominoes—that takes us to all kinds of wonderful things, It assures an afterlife and all kinds of things that we would all hope are true.” But in spite of his admission of the importance of the resurrection, Hefner admitted he had never investigated the historical evidence for it.
Well, Hefner has been wrong about pretty much everything else in his life—but he was right about this one thing: If the resurrection is true, it changes everything. It confirms Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God and opens the door to eternal life for anyone who will truly follow Him—or as Hefner put it, “all kinds of things that we could hope are true.”
On the other hand, if Jesus’ resurrection is a legend or a lie, then Jesus is, at best, just another unfortunate crucifixion victim—in a long line of failed revolutionaries and false messiahs.
That’s why, as we saw in The Case for Christ movie, Strobel honed in with such a laser focus on the question of whether or not Jesus really rose from the dead. Even as an atheist he recognized that this issue is, as some have called it, “the lynchpin of Christianity.” And he was right. I mean, if the evidence for the resurrection stands, then the Christian faith stands; but if the evidence falls, then so does Christianity—which is the outcome Strobel was hoping for prior to his conversion.
In the verses following our text the apostle Paul acknowledged the pivotal nature of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible. In verse 14 he says, “If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile; we are still in our sins.” Paul went on to explain that if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we, as Jesus’ followers, are hopelessly lost and, as he put it in verse 19 we are, “of all people most to be pitied.” So—JESUS’ RESURRECTION IS A VERY BIG DEAL!
Well, as Lee Strobel asked in the movie, and as Hefner later asked Strobel, is there any real evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? That’s the question we’re going to explore on this Easter Sunday morning. Much of the information we’ll talk about comes from Strobel’s hours of research, reading, talking to experts, and searching Scripture. In his search, he discovered there are incredibly intelligent people who commit their whole lives to studying and understanding this. The historical sources are many and the arguments can get complex. In fact, it seemed in the movie that he was able to gather all this info in a few months—but it actually took Strobel nearly two years. So, we obviously can’t cover everything in our short time together. But—good news—as Strobel points out, we can boil down the issue of Jesus’ resurrection to three simple questions:
- First, was Jesus alive at Point A?
- Second, was Jesus dead at Point B?
- And third, was Jesus alive again at Point C?
I mean, if the answer to these three questions is yes, then Jesus did rise from the dead, He is the Son of God, Christianity is true and we are not wasting our time being here today! So, let’s get to it.
QUESTION #1 – Was Jesus ALIVE at Point A?
In other words, was Jesus a REAL person Who walked this planet in the first few years of the first century? Well, virtually every scholar, secular and Christian, would say “YES!”
But in spite of this the Internet is alive with the claim of many who say that Jesus never lived at all. On top of that, there are claims that Christianity is a copycat religion that stole its beliefs from earlier mythology. In other words, people say Christianity—including the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is merely a story that the first Christians plagiarized from ancient myths.
If you read Dan Brown’s popular book: The Da Vinci Code, you may remember it reflecting this belief by saying, “Nothing in Christianity is original.” But the truth is even Brown’s statement wasn’t original—it was recycled from writings by skeptics in the nineteenth century, skeptics who influenced Vladimir Lenin—and consequently, formed the atheistic dogma of the former Soviet Union.
Now—when this statement is first presented, the evidence for this claim sounds strong. For example, proponents of this way of thinking will tell you there was a mythological god named Mithras—who was worshiped long before Jesus lived. They say that Mithras was born of a virgin—in a cave—on December 25. They say he was considered a great traveling teacher who had twelve disciples. They say Mithras sacrificed himself for world peace and that he was buried in a tomb from which he rose three days later. Sound familiar?
Well, if that’s all you hear—you would have to admit that perhaps Christianity is nothing but plagiarism—that it stole its beliefs about Jesus from this mystery religion. But an eminent historian named Dr. Edwin Yamauchi examined these claims and I want us to review what he found—but I want to have a little fun with it so, here’s what we’ll do.
I’ll share the statement that foolish people believe about Mithras and you respond with a version of the popular, “Oh, no he didn’t” Wave your finger back and forth and everything—but instead of saying, “Oh no he didn’t”—you say, “Oh no he wasn’t!” Let’s practice once. Everyone wiggle your finger and say, “Oh no he wasn’t”—you can even make the “s” silent if you want. GOOD! Let’s go. First false statement:
- Mithras was born of a virgin in a cave.
“Oh no he wasn’t!”
Right! When you go back to the original myth, Mithras supposedly emerged fully-grown out of a rock. There was no virgin and no cave. Besides—nowhere does the Bible say Jesus was born in a cave. FALSE STATEMENT TWO:
- Mithras was a traveling teacher with twelve disciples.
“Oh no he wasn’t!”
Right! He was supposedly a god, not a teacher, and the Iranian Mithras had one follower while the Roman Mithras had two—but never twelve. FALSE STATEMENT THREE:
- Mithras was sacrificed for world peace.
“Oh no he wasn’t!”
Again right. He was known for killing a bull. He didn’t sacrifice himself for anyone or anything. FALSE STATEMENT FOUR.
- Mithras was buried in a tomb and resurrected after three days.
“Oh no he wasn’t!”
Right! there’s no record of any belief about his death, so there’s no story about a resurrection. STATEMENT FIVE.
- Mithras was born on December 25.
“Oh no he wasn’t!”
Actually—a better answer would be— “Who cares!” because, while that’s the date we celebrate Jesus’ birth, the Bible doesn’t tell us the date Jesus was born. Some think it was in the spring; others think it was in January. It wasn’t until centuries after Jesus lived that Christians chose December 25 as the date to celebrate his birth, as a way to influence the pagan holidays around the winter solstice. But the bottom line is that we don’t know the actual date Jesus was born.
So, look at what happened—when we examine these claims in depth, the parallels with Christianity simply evaporate. In fact, when we really investigate it all—we see it’s not Christianity that plagiarized the cult of Mithras—it’s the other way around!
Listen to what senior Swedish scholar T. N. D. Mettinger says about all this: “The nearly universal consensus of scholars around the world is that—there are no examples of any mythological gods dying and rising from the dead that came before Jesus. These resurrection myths came after Christianity, so Christianity could not have done the borrowing.” Mettinger added, “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct.”
Okay, what about those who try to deny that Jesus ever lived? Well, even Bart Ehrman, the agnostic New Testament scholar who’s no friend of Christianity, wrote a book attacking that idea. He said, “The claim that Jesus was simply made up falters on every ground.” Historian Paul Maier is even more blunt. He writes: “The total evidence is so overpowering, so absolute that only the shallowest of intellects would dare to deny Jesus’ existence.”
So—there’s no question about the first question in our investigation: Jesus was alive at Point A. He was a real person. Okay, let’s move on to our second question one that Kevin dealt with at our Maundy Thursday service.
Question #2 – Was Jesus was DEAD at Point B?
This is important because of course for the resurrection to be true, Jesus had to really die.
Well, even though both the Bible and history tell us he was executed by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate—some deny the death of Christ, including most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims who cite a verse in the Qur’an [Surah 4:157-158]. So, who is correct? Once again, we turn to historical evidence for the answer. And before we do—let me remind you that it’s been said that we’re lucky in the study of ancient history if we have one or two solid sources to confirm a fact. In the case of the execution of Jesus, however, we have far more than that. Not only to do we have reports in all four biographies of Jesus in the New Testament—the Gospels—each written within the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries—we also have five ancient sources outside the Bible: Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and the Talmud. Plus—the cruel, degrading, and humiliating killing of their leader on a cross would not have been something that Jesus’ followers would have invented if it were not true. The Muslim teaching that Jesus didn’t die on the cross comes from Muhammad’s claim, six hundred years after Jesus lived, that an angel in a cave told him it wasn’t true. No historical evidence of this was offered, and the eyewitness accounts were ignored.
But set aside religion—just purely from a historical standpoint, where does the evidence point? Well, it points to the crucifixion of Jesus. And as for the question of whether Jesus could have lived through his suffering on the cross—the evidence shows there’s no way Jesus survived the efficient brutality of Roman execution. Remember, as Kevin pointed out at our Maundy Thursday service, BEFORE the cross, Jesus was tied to a post and beaten dozens of times with whips that had jagged bones and balls of lead woven into them. Dr. Alexander Metherell said a witness described Roman floggings like this: “The sufferer’s veins were laid bare, and the very muscles and tendons and bowels of the victim were open to exposure.” Have you ever heard of hypovolemic shock? That’s shock from a great loss of blood. That’s Jesus’ condition BEFORE the cross. He was in critical condition. He was already dying before the spikes were driven through His wrists and feet. Now as Kevin said, for a healthy man—crucifixion is an agonizingly slow death not by blood loss but by asphyxiation, because when a person is hung on a cross—-the position he is nailed in puts stress on the chest and locks the lungs into the inhaled position. So—to exhale, the victim has to push up to lessen the stress. He would push up and sag down until exhaustion took over, and he would die from the effects of not being able to breathe. And—as I said, the Romans were VERY good at this. There is NO RECORD of anyone EVER surviving crucifixion. You may remember the Bible tells us that to hasten death that day—the soldiers did what they apparently often did. To make the inevitable death come sooner they broke the leg bones of their victims—which would make it impossible for the person to push up—and breathe. Death would then come quickly. Well, the Roman soldier—who was VERY FAMILIAR with what death looked like saw that Jesus was already dead. But just to make sure he plunged a spear between Jesus’ ribs into His chest, puncturing his lungs and heart, and then the expert Roman executioners confirmed that he was dead. By the way it’s not just Christian scholars who believe Jesus died. Agnostic New Testament scholar James Tabor said, “I think we need have no doubt that given Jesus’ execution by Roman crucifixion, He was truly dead.”
Well, the answer to this one is YES as well! There are two strands of evidence that establish that Jesus came back to life: the fact that His tomb was empty, and that He appeared to people.
Let’s start with the first. Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb belonging to a Pharisee named Joseph of Arimathea. The tomb was sealed, and Matthew says it was guarded—yet it was discovered empty on that first Easter morning. Well,—how do we know that? How do we know Jesus’ tomb was empty?
First, there’s what Strobel calls “The Jerusalem Factor.”
The site of Jesus’ tomb was known to people living in Jerusalem–Christians and non-Christians alike. So, if the claim was false, if the tomb was not empty—it would have been highly unlikely for a movement founded on Jesus’ resurrection to explode or even exist in the same city where Jesus had been publicly executed. The anti-Jesus faction in Jerusalem could have simply opened his tomb and shown that Jesus’ decaying body was still there—in the same place where they had laid him to rest days earlier. This would have effectively ended the Christian faith.
And then second, there’s the “Criterion of Embarrassment.”
The reason we use the word “embarrassment” is because women discovered the empty tomb. That’s what the gospels tell us. Well, this would be embarrassing because in first-century Jewish and Roman culture, the testimony of women was not considered reliable. In that day—in that culture—women had low status. Their testimony was not admissible evidence in court, neither in Roman jurisprudence nor in Jewish jurisprudence—so if you were MAKING UP a story about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you would never put women in there as the first eyewitnesses. It would undermine the plausibility of the account with any of the hearers or the readers of the time—and therefore the only reason that Luke could have possibly put women in as the first eyewitnesses is if they really were the eyewitnesses. There’s no other motivation he would have had to put them in there.
Here’s something else. These eyewitnesses were Jews and Jewish people were the last people on the face of the earth to be open to the idea that a human being could be God. You might say they had a cultural paradigm that prevented this. Or you could say it was their worldview that a human could not be God. I mean, they couldn’t even say the NAME of God out loud. To them God was so far above being a man that when they got around to putting vowels in the Old Testament Hebrew documents—they didn’t even dare do that to the name of God. Yet we know that immediately after the resurrection they were worshipping a man—a man! How did that happen? Something must have happened; something must have shattered their paradigm—destroyed their world view. And you know what it was? They saw Jesus risen—ALIVE. They walked with Him, talked with Him, touched Him, ate with Him! They EXPERIENCED the fact that He is RISEN! He is risen INDEED
Third, there’s “Enemy Attestation.”
In other words, even the enemies of Jesus admitted the tomb was empty. Do you remember what the skeptics in Jesus’ day said? They said the disciples stole Jesus’ body. This was reported by Matthew, Justin Martyr, and Tertullian. Well why would they say someone stole the body if it was still in the tomb? They’re implicitly admitting the tomb was empty, but they’re trying to explain how it got empty. It’s as if you’re a teacher and a student says the dog ate his homework. He’s implicitly admitting he doesn’t have his homework, but he’s saying the dog ate it. It’s the same thing! This is just a cover story. Even the enemies of Jesus admitted the tomb was vacant. They still do. Anthony Flew, one of the most respected atheistic philosophers within the last fifty or sixty years claims: “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstandingly different in quality and quantity from the evidence offered for the occurrence of most other supposedly miraculous events.”
The real question is: How did the tomb get empty? Well, the Romans weren’t about to steal the body; they WANTED Jesus dead. And the Jewish leaders weren’t about to do that either—they wanted Jesus to STAY DEAD. The disciples didn’t have the motive, means, or opportunity to steal the body. Besides, we have seven ancient sources affirming that the disciples lived lives of deprivation and suffering as a result of their proclamation that Jesus had risen. Why would they have done that if they knew it was all a lie?
Of course, the empty tomb alone isn’t enough to establish that Jesus was alive again. Thankfully, we also have the NUMEROUS APPEARANCES OF THE RISEN JESUS to a variety of people in a variety of settings. And get this: We have 11 ancient sources confirming that the disciples were convinced Jesus had risen and that He appeared to them. Here they are:
The 1st Corinthians 15 Creed.
In our text for this morning the apostle Paul reported an early creed of the church. Do you remember it? “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried—that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter] and then to the Twelve. After that, He appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
Here’s the timeline as to how this creed came about: Jesus was crucified in AD 30 or 33.
Paul wrote 1st Corinthians in about AD 54 or 55—within twenty-five years of Jesus’ execution. Paul used the past tense, which suggests he had given the church in Corinth the creed earlier—which gives the creed even more credibility. But we can go even earlier still—even closer in time to the actual resurrection. Remember? Paul used to be Saul of Tarsus, a hater and persecutor of Christians. One to three years after Jesus’ death, he was on the road to Damascus when he encountered the risen Christ and became the apostle Paul. Immediately, he went into Damascus and met with some apostles. Many scholars believe this is when he was given this creed that he eventually gave the church in Corinth. But other scholars believe he received it three years later—when he went to Jerusalem and met for fifteen days with two people specifically named in the creed as eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus: Peter and James. Paul described this meeting in Galatians 1:18–19, using the Greek word “historeo”— which suggests this was a personal inquiry or investigation. Many believe this is when Peter and James gave him the creed but either way, this means Paul was given the creed one to six years after the crucifixion—but most probably between AD 34 and 36 AD! By then, it was already in creedal form, and therefore the beliefs that make up the creed go back even further!
Historian James D. G. Dunn concluded, “This tradition, we can be entirely confident, was formulated as tradition within months of Jesus’ death.” So, there’s no big time gap between the death of Jesus and the subsequent development of a legend that he rose from the dead. This is like discovering a twitter written by someone at the scene! The creed’s historical credentials are so impressive that even one of the few Jewish New Testament scholars, Pinchas Lapide, says that it, “may be considered as a statement of eyewitnesses.”
Our second ancient source is Paul’s testimony about the disciples.
Paul came to know some of the apostles personally, including Peter, James, and John.
Regarding Jesus’ resurrection Paul said in 1st Corinthians 15:11 that “whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” So—Paul was confirming the belief of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus.
Sermon Summaries in Acts.
Even skeptical scholars will admit that the book of Acts contains summaries of the sermons of the early church. And what were they focused on? The resurrection. Peter himself said in Acts 2:32: “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.” Three thousand people agreed—and the church was born.
E. F. G, and H. The Four Gospels.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John confirm that the disciples encountered the risen Jesus.
Craig Evans said, “There’s every reason to conclude that the Gospels have fairly and accurately reported the essential elements of Jesus’ teachings, life, death—and resurrection. They’re early enough, they’re rooted into the right streams that go back to Jesus and the original people, there’s continuity, there’s proximity—there’s verification of certain distinct points with archaeology and other documents, and then there’s the inner logic.”
He was a church father who knew the apostles personally and heard what they taught about the resurrection. He was ordained by Peter and he wrote a letter to the Corinthians in the first century, saying: “[The apostles had] complete certainty caused by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
He was another early church father—appointed by John as bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians in which he mentioned the resurrection no fewer than five times. Referring to Paul and the other apostles, he said: “For they did not love the present age, but Him who died for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God.”
K. US—you and me—and all Christians.
Every believer knows Jesus personally—today 2000 years after His crucifixion. We experience the difference our risen indwelling Jesus makes in our day to day lives. We know firsthand the peace of His still small voice. We know how He calms our fears!
We know the results of His guidance in life’s decisions. We know the power He gives us to live abundant lives! We KNOW Jesus lives—because He lives in our hearts.
So here we have eleven sources including multiple early testimonies to the disciples’ conviction that they had encountered the resurrected Jesus. The evidence is powerful and persuasive—and, I might add, almost overwhelming. Okay, let me sum up what we’ve learned:
- Jesus Was Alive at Point A.
- Jesus Was Dead at Point B.
- Jesus Was Alive Again at Point C.
Jesus really did rise from the dead, and this proves that He was who He claimed to be—the unique Son of God. It means His teachings have authority for our lives today. And it means Jesus has opened heaven to everyone who will receive the free gift of forgiveness and eternal life He purchased for us on the cross.
Well, why? Why did He do it? You might remember from a scene in the movie, in which Strobel was looking at the replica of the Shroud of Turin—and asked the priest in the scene that very question. Why did He do it? The priest wisely replied—LOVE. The God of the universe loves you and me with such intensity and power that He willingly entered our world and endured torture and death in order to redeem us. I hope you’ve encountered that love and forgiveness with God. But if not, you can do so today. With all the evidence we’ve given—it’s not that big of a step. Just talk to God right now. Tell Him you are convinced. You believe Jesus is His Son and that He died on a cross and rose from the dead—because He loves you. Ask Him to come into your heart and life. Then come share that decision with me or Kevin. Christians looking for a church home—this is a great day to join Redland. As we stand and sing, let’s all respond as God leads.