Every week the whole world is reminded of what happened on the first Easter 2,000 years ago. Jesus Christ, who was crucified by the Roman Empire, rose from the dead. The atheist who sleeps in each Sunday morning pays indirect homage to the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead that first Easter.
Through His atoning death on Friday and His bodily resurrection on Sunday, Jesus solved the two biggest problems we have as human beings:
- How can we, as sinful people, be accepted by a holy, perfect God?
- How do we deal with life’s biggest threat, which is death?
It’s common among skeptics to believe that Christianity is not based on actual history. But is that view based on actual history?
Sam Lamerson of Knox Theological Seminary once told me, “Many assume that Christianity is a historical myth much like Apollos or some of the Greek myths, but Christianity is based on historical events that can be verified both archeologically and literarily.”
Several years ago, Newsweek had a cover story that said of the Gospels in general: “These are books that meant to declare religious truths, not historical facts.”
I asked Paul L. Maier, professor emeritus of ancient history from Western Michigan University, about the idea of separating “religious truths” from “historical facts.”
He said: “You cannot separate the two. If you do, it’s no longer spiritual or religious truth that has any value. Rather, [the biblical accounts] must be an honest case of reporting of what happened in the case of Jesus.”
Maier said that historians cannot prove things like Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (How can you prove a miracle?), but they can validate the facts that point to it, such as the empty tomb. Even sources hostile to the message of Jesus and His resurrection testify that His heavily guarded tomb was empty that first Easter morning.
Like Maier and Lamerson, there are many conservative, well-informed Bible scholars today who hold to the veracity of Christ’s resurrection. But what about the genuine Bible scholars who do not believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Ultimately, they chafe at the idea of miracles.
As one legal scholar wrote: “Miracles, say the objectors, are impossible; and therefore the evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were either deceivers or deceived; and in either case their narratives are unworthy of belief. … The argument supposes that the creator of all things first made a code of laws, and then put it out of his own power to change them.”
Who is this? Some backwoods rube? No, it was the eminent Simon Greenleaf (1783-1853), professor at Harvard Law School, who contributed a great deal to the school, expanding it, including its library.
Greenleaf wrote the book on legal evidence. Literally. His three-volume textbook, “A Treatise on the Law of Evidence,” set the standard for decades and was reprinted through 16 editions. Later, he applied these legal principles to the biblical Gospels.
Some people have mistakenly claimed that Greenleaf was converted to Christianity by his examination of the evidence. That is not accurate – he was already a committed Episcopalian – but his investigation of the Gospels and the resurrection from an evidentiary standpoint was still a landmark.
That investigation was his 1846 book “The Testimony of the Evangelists: The Gospel Examined by the Rules of Evidence.” The evangelists, of course, are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. As he applied the rules of evidence to the Gospels, he found them reliable.
Greenleaf notes what hurdles the apostles had before them in proclaiming a crucified and risen Jesus: “The fashion of the world was against them. Propagating this new faith, even in the most inoffensive and peaceful manner, they could expect nothing but contempt, opposition, revilings, bitter persecutions, stripes, imprisonments, torments and cruel deaths. Yet this faith they zealously did propagate; and all these miseries they enduring dismayed, nay, rejoicing … one after another was put to a miserable death.”
He adds: “The annals of military warfare afford scarcely an example of the like heroic constancy, patience, and unblenching courage. They had every possible motive to review carefully the grounds of their faith, and the evidences of the great facts and truths which they asserted. … It was therefore impossible that they could have persisted in affirming the truths they have narrated, had not Jesus actually risen from the dead, and had they not known this fact as certainly as they knew any other fact” (emphasis added).
As biblical scholar Mike Licona said recently in our D. James Kennedy Ministries television special “Who Is This Jesus: If Jesus rose from the dead, it’s game, set, match. Christianity is true.” By Christ’s rising from the dead, He proved He is who He said He is.
He is risen indeed.
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