One Sunday morning there was a salesman who was sitting in the back of a church having trouble staying awake. Toward the end of the sermon the preacher said something that caused the salesman to wake up, sit up straight, and begin listening intently. When the preacher gave the invitation, the salesman was the first to go up front. The counselor who met him asked what the preacher had said that caused him to come forward. The salesman answered, “He mentioned ‘the great commission’!”
In Jesus’ last words to his disciples, he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you . . .” (Matt. 28:19–20). This statement has become known among Christians as “the Great Commission.”1 Sharing your faith with others can be very fulfilling when you realize that you are bringing the greatest news a person could ever hear to someone who needs to hear it. Through Jesus one can have sins forgiven and receive eternal life. This good news or “gospel” is the primary message that Christians should want to share. Its importance transcends all the politically sensitive topics into which we can get drawn with nonbelievers, from abortion to homosexuality. What is the “gospel”? Gospel is defined by a minimum of three essential facts in the book of Acts2 and Paul’s letters3: (1) the deity of Jesus; (2) the death of Jesus in our place; and (3) the resurrection of Jesus. Other facts are involved, but these three are always present or implied. The good news to the world is that the sovereign Lord of the universe has overthrown the powers of darkness by conquering death.
The apostle Paul wrote that this message “‘is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart’—that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”4 The message was that, in order to have eternal life, one must acknowledge and be committed to Jesus as the Son of God, the Sovereign over all things, and the Savior who died for us and was raised from the dead by God. This message stands in contrast to the impassioned message of many of today’s religious leaders, who believe that what one believes about God does not matter.
Proclaiming that message now can be difficult in a culture that is constantly bombarded with a potpourri of worldviews and religions to consider. Christianity is no longer the default religion of Western culture, so someone who is seeking the truth about God and religion hardly knows where to go. Islam has a certain appeal because of its unswerving dogmatism. Buddhism appeals to those intrigued with mysticism or who desire to escape material reality. Judaism has an ancient, cultural appeal. Christianity has the virtue of being better known than other faiths to people in the West. But, as we have seen, it is also the most misrepresented by the media.
For the writers of the New Testament, Jesus’ resurrection was the focal point of their teachings. Peter wrote that we have an indestructible inheritance awaiting us in heaven, made available “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”5 Paul wrote that belief in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is required for eternal life.6 In fact, Paul was so adamant about the importance of Jesus’ resurrection that he wrote, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still under condemnation for your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ have perished!”7 For Paul, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, Christianity is false, we will be judged for our sins by the true God, and Christians who have died are lost. In addition, Paul writes a few verses later, “If the dead are not raised, ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”8 In other words, if Jesus’ resurrection did not occur, we may as well live it up, because this life is all there is.
Anyone can claim anything. Jesus asserted that he was speaking truth from God. When someone makes such a lofty claim, critics rightly ask for the evidence. Jesus’ critics asked him for a sign, and he said he would give them one—his resurrection.9 It is the test by which we could know that he was telling the truth.10
Such a historical test of truth is unique to Christianity. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, he was a false prophet and a charlatan whom no rational person should follow. Conversely, if he did rise from the dead, this event confirmed his radical claim.
Let’s consider this interesting test. Notice that he did not offer some simplistic proof that has questionable importance. This is the case with some other religions. Muslims tell us to follow Islam because only God could have written the Qur<an: “And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant [Muhammad], then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true.”11 In other words, the Qur<an is such a wonderful text that it must be from God. Mormons make a similar claim about the Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.”12 According to Mormons, if you read the Book of Mormon with an open mind and ask God to show you if it is true, he will confirm it. While we can be impressed by the impact of these literary works on millions of lives, skepticism regarding these tests is warranted. All that is demanded is a subjective judgment. If one were to compare the first sura in the Qur<an with Psalm 19, many a reader would conclude that Psalm 19 is superior in almost every respect, although both perhaps contain much the same message.13 What about those who have read the Book of Mormon with a sincere heart, a real intent to know the truth, and belief that Christ will provide wisdom, yet are persuaded that this volume is not true or divinely given? In Mormonism, the data from archaeology and huge problems relating to the Book of Abraham pose serious challenges to the validity of the Mormon faith that may very well be insurmountable.14 Yet the well-intentioned Mormon interprets his subjective feelings of confidence in the validity of Mormonism on the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
Another problem with these tests is that Islam and Mormonism are mutually exclusive. In other words, they possess conflicting truth claims to be the only true way to God. Both provide different ways to God. Yet both cannot be the only true way to God. This leaves us with the conclusion that the exclusivity claims of one or both of these religions are incorrect, as are their truth tests.
Jesus’ test is different in that it leaves no room for ambiguity. Either Jesus rose from the dead confirming his claims to divinity or he was a fraud. This external test does not negate the inward assurance that Christians believe comes from God, rather it substantiates it. The Christian is not wrong to advise the seeker of religious truth to pray that God will speak through Scripture and to approach God’s Word with sincere openness. Romans 8:16 informs us that assurance from God’s Spirit comes to the Christian. What Jesus’ resurrection does is to confirm that the assurance we experience is really from God’s Spirit. The external evidence of Jesus’ resurrection confirms the truth we have received via God’s written revelation.
So what is one to do when a follower of a modern alternative spirituality movement and a Christian both claim assurance that God’s Spirit is affirming their understanding of truth? We have the external test that, if Jesus actually rose from the dead, it appears the truth of Christianity is confirmed and all adherents to conflicting beliefs must reassess whether their assurance came from a spirit other than God’s or was the result of self-delusion.
Of course, the test of Jesus’ resurrection is not very useful, if we cannot determine whether it actually occurred. Is there enough evidence for a rational person to be justified in concluding that Jesus’ resurrection was a real event in history? Christians should be delighted to find that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is extremely compelling, even when using only a small collection of strongly attested historical facts to support the event.
The resurrection is also an excellent starting point for confirming the trustworthiness of the Bible. Considering Jesus’ claims to being divine, if he rose from the dead, he may indeed be divine and have some profound things to tell us. We might anticipate that the disciples of such a man would devote themselves to spreading his teachings. Their writings and willingness to suffer and die would be a natural, expected reaction to a reality of immense importance. Where are such writings if not in the New Testament? Not only is the New Testament what we might expect it to be, but most of it comes from those who were in a position to be reliable witnesses of what Jesus said and did.
The ramifications of Jesus’ resurrection go beyond the realm of the theological into the practical. When God seems silent and far away, Jesus’ resurrection encourages us. Although we may not understand why God is being silent for the moment, we can have the assurance given in his Word that he loves us and knows our situation. We can know that our sufferings are temporary, since we have an indestructible inheritance in heaven. We can know this because if Jesus rose from the dead, Christianity is not just a nice story like Santa Claus; Christianity is true.
Thus, Jesus’ resurrection is at the spotlight of major Christian doctrine and practice. Belief in it is a requirement for salvation. By it we can be assured of God’s love, our inheritance in heaven, and the truthfulness of Christianity. And it is the foundation for an argument for the trustworthiness of the New Testament.15
Contrary to New Testament teachings, some scholars doubt that Jesus actually predicted his resurrection. However, there are at least four reasons for holding that the claims are authentic:
1. Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection are usually denied because the resurrection itself is denied as a historical event. However, if the resurrection event is historical, then the reason for rejecting Jesus’ predictions concerning it is ineffective.
2. When Jesus predicted his resurrection from the dead, we are told that the disciples did not seem to have a clue what he was talking about or simply did not believe (Mark 8:31–33; 9:31–32; 14:27–31; Luke 24:13–24). Even when his empty tomb was discovered, it is reported that the first conclusion was that someone had stolen the body (John 20:2, 13–15). When the women reported that they had seen him risen, the disciples thought they were telling an idle tale (Luke 24:10–12). Upon viewing the empty tomb, they still did not know what to think (John 20:9). Thomas simply refused to believe (John 20:24–25). Now it seems quite unlikely that the disciples or early Christians who highly respected them would invent sayings of Jesus that would place them in such a bad light. This is what is referred to as the “principle of embarrassment,” which will be discussed later, and argues strongly in favor of the authenticity of the predictions of Jesus concerning his resurrection.
3. Jesus’ use of the title “Son of Man” in reference to his resurrection predictions (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34) weighs in favor of authenticity. As argued in chapter 10 (“Who Did Jesus Think He Was?”), one reason for thinking that Jesus claimed this title is that it is recorded by multiple sources. Further, the New Testament epistles never refer to Jesus in this manner. But neither did the Jews think of the Son of Man in the sense of a suffering Messiah (see Dan. 7:13–14). So the principle of dissimilarity points to authenticity here. This criterion “focuses on words or deeds of Jesus that cannot be derived either from Judaism at the time of Jesus or from the early Church after him” (John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew, vol. 1 [New York: Doubleday, 1991], 171). For these reasons, Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection, especially when connected to the “Son of Man,” look quite authentic.
4. Jesus’ predictions concerning his resurrection are multiply attested: Matthew 12:38–40; 16:1–4, 21; 17:23; 20:19; Mark 8:31–32; 9:31; 10:33; Luke 9:22; John 2:18–21. Cf. Mark 14:58; Luke 11:29–30.
Can Jesus’ resurrection from the dead be proven? The answer may vary depending on one’s definition of what constitutes proof. When it comes to any event that occurred in antiquity, the historian attempts to decide the matter with some degree of historical certainty. He has no videotapes or photographs available to him. Rather, he employs certain criteria using the known data in order to reach conclusions. Some data are more certain than others and, therefore, carry more weight.
Plenty of events occurred in the distant or even recent past for which we have little or no data. Lack of attestation does not mean that the event did not occur, only that we have difficulty verifying it from an objective historical perspective.16 There may be, however, other reasons to hold that an event actually occurred, even though it is not strongly attested historically. Suppose that Bob claims that he was state champion in high school wrestling competition. We did not know Bob in high school and are not in a position to verify this claim, nor do we know any of Bob’s old schoolmates. His high school burned down a few years ago, destroying trophies and official records of the event. Any yearbook or newspaper account from the period could be inaccurate. Should we believe Bob? If our experience with Bob has revealed that he is a trustworthy person who has never lied to us before, then we may have reason to believe him, especially if there is no evidence to the contrary.
Likewise, we might argue that we can have assurance that many of the events described in the Bible occurred, even though historical inquiry has not yet produced confirming evidence through the spade of the archaeologist or the pen of the secular historian. In the past, the Bible has demonstrated that its accounts are trustworthy as far as they have been verified.17 Moreover, the Bible has never been controverted by solid historical data. Therefore, the benefit of the doubt should go to the Bible in places where it cannot be verified, when there is no evidence to the contrary, and when it seems clear that the author intended for us to understand the event as historical.
When it comes to history, we can only speak of probability, not 100 percent certainty. However, do not be discouraged that in historical terms Jesus’ resurrection cannot be established with absolute certainty. For one, all worldviews share the same challenge. Neither atheism nor any of the world’s religions can be demonstrated with absolute certainty. Can we know with 100 percent certainty that all of us were not created just five minutes ago, complete with our memories and the food in our stomachs? Of course not. Second, even outside of worldviews, virtually nothing can be established with 100 percent certainty. Can we know with 100 percent certainty that George Washington was the first President of the United States of America rather than a mythical figure? Perhaps documents were forged and stories invented in a conspiracy to encourage the citizens of a new country. We can know that this was not the case with a high degree of certainty. In historical inquiry, professional historians talk in terms of the strength of probability that an event occurred. In fact, we can think in terms of a line graph with a full spectrum of historical certainties.
In reference to Jesus’ resurrection, we are inquiring to see what we can know with reasonable historical certainty when historical inquiry is applied. Where does “reasonable historical certainty” start on our graph? This is a somewhat subjective question. We would place it somewhere to the right of “somewhat certain” and continue on to the “very certain” point of the spectrum.18
In historical inquiry, the historian combs through the data, considers all the possibilities, and seeks to determine which scenario best explains the data. Unlike an attorney, the historian often has no living witnesses available to cross-examine. Moreover, few historical witnesses may leave a record. Looking at the writings that are available, the historian may be able to examine and compare other writings by the same author and perhaps his or her contemporaries to determine what the author probably meant by a certain statement. Background information and principles have helped historians uncover what happened with reasonable certainty.19
Historians are also concerned with plausibility, a principle the legal community likewise employs. Annette Gordon-Reed, a law professor at New York Law School explains:
Demanding that individual items of evidence amount to proof sets a standard that can only be met in the rarest of circumstances, either in history or in the law. . . . The evidence must be considered as a whole before a realistic and fair assessment of the possible truth of this story can be made. . . . To deal with the concern that accusations are easily made (whether in a legal or nonlegal context), the burden of proof is normally allocated to the accuser. The accuser can meet the burden by offering a certain quantum of evidence, which varies depending upon the nature of the accusation, for example—in the context of legal disputes—proof beyond a reasonable doubt for criminal charges or, for civil charges, proof that makes the truth of an accusation more probable than not.20
The standards of evidence do not require that the case for something is irrefutable. Such 100 percent certainty is only possible in the rarest of circumstances. Rather, the standard requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt in criminal cases and proof that makes the truth of an accusation more probable than not in civil cases. If this is not understood, our criteria for proof may be unrealistic. Applying this to the facts about Jesus, scholar Graham Twelftree observes that “A position is demonstrated, when the reasons for accepting it ‘significantly’ outweigh the reasons for not accepting it. . . . This leaves a large gray area where positions are held to be ‘likely’ or ‘probable.’ . . . A finding of historicity is essentially a default position, meaning that we have no other reasonable way to account for the presence of a story in the text.”21
Twelftree sets the standard for belief that something was really said or truly happened at the point when the reasons for accepting it significantly outweigh the reasons for rejecting it. If there are no reasonable opposing theories, a finding of historicity is the default position.
Therefore, when it comes to proving any historical event, we must remember that we are looking for whether we can ascertain with a reasonable amount of certainty that the event occurred. Surprisingly, Jesus’ resurrection has quite a bit going for it in terms of the data, which makes it an interesting topic for historical investigation. The fact that the evidence for it is quite good, is striking.22
We would like to point out that, for the Christian, there is a difference between knowing that Jesus rose from the dead with reasonable historical certainty and living on the personal assurance that Christianity is true. Paul wrote in Romans 8:16 that “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Christian has the Holy Spirit who testifies to her that Christianity is true and that she belongs to God. The historical certainty we have of Jesus’ resurrection only reinforces that God’s Spirit has indeed spoken to us.
People seldom immediately accept Jesus as Lord or believe he rose from the dead just because the Bible says so. If they genuinely seek to know the truth, they ask tough questions. Good preparation and practice will always help you answer them. Remember Peter’s words: “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”23 Many of those with whom you talk will want evidence. Relax—this book will help you present a solid case and answer even difficult questions.
That does not mean that by answering the questions you can “reason” someone into becoming a Christian. Nothing could be further from the truth. The New Testament teaches that God alone draws people to himself for salvation. If God is not involved in the process, conversion will not take place (John 6:44; Rom. 3:11). So why be concerned with the evidence? The answer is not so much theological as it is methodological. The Great Commission of Matthew 28:19–20 explains that God has chosen us to be his messengers of salvation. While it is up to God to draw others, he has decided to involve the human element in the process and he uses our differences in personality for his glory. For example, one of the authors enjoys watching a football game on television, while his wife would prefer to immerse herself in a “chick flick.” On a long car ride his wife would rather listen to music than cassette tapes of debates on the existence of God between atheist and Christian philosophers. Some of us like to read novels, whereas others enjoy the intellectual challenge of a philosophy book or a stimulating historical documentary on television. What about the non-Christians you meet? Some readily identify with the experiential evidence of what the gospel has done in changing a person’s life. Others think, “Bah, humbug on your experiences. Adherents of other religions claim religious experiences too. Give me evidence!” For some, evidence will not matter. For others, it is all they want. The Holy Spirit can use both sorts of conversations to speak salvation to different human hearts.
The apostle Paul adjusted his preaching to match his audience. When speaking to Jews, he appealed to the Jewish Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament (Acts 17:2). He shared this common ground with his Jewish countrymen. However, when standing before a non-Jewish audience, like the intellectuals of Athens in Acts 17, he did not appeal to the Scriptures (Acts 17:16–31). Instead he cited secular writers and poets known to his audience.24 The message of the gospel never changed. The method Paul used to present it did.25 You must determine how to relate to the person with whom you share your faith, for it is up to you to do the work of sharing. But it is up to God to do the heart work and we should rely on him to produce the fruit.
Some well-meaning believers become angry that we want to give evidence to nonbelievers. They object, “Providing evidence takes away the faith factor. You should only present the gospel. We simply give them the gospel and share a testimony of how the Lord has changed our lives.” While their intent is noble, we believe they are naïve. Why is their personal testimony in addition to the gospel an “inspired” method or any different than sharing evidences when presenting the gospel? If it is wrong to present the gospel plus apologetics, then why is it right to give the gospel plus testimony? The apostles did not limit themselves to a simple statement of the gospel. They were prepared to answer the tough questions and we should too.
But no matter how good the evidence, a saving belief still requires faith. The story has been told of a high wire expert who walked over Niagara Falls. To the amazement of all, he walked a wheelbarrow filled with 150 pounds of potatoes over the rope to the other side. His 120-pound assistant removed the bags of potatoes and placed her foot in the wheelbarrow and he asked, “How many of you believe that I can place a human in the wheelbarrow and walk that person safely to the other side?” Everyone yelled, “We believe!” He then said, “Who will volunteer to get in the wheelbarrow?” Believing the facts is one thing. Acting upon them is faith.
People offer all sorts of reasons for not accepting Christ. Many times they reject Christianity just because they don’t like it for some emotional reason. They may be offended by Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven or the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual behavior. Others excuse themselves with intellectual objections, such as the impossibility of Jesus’ resurrection or the problem of evil. Whatever the superficial objection, it may only be a smoke screen for a deeper reason that the person simply does not want to believe. For someone with a hidden agenda, neither a personal testimony nor any evidence will make a difference. However, there are those God is calling and they have a genuine interest and openness, even though they may seem outwardly hostile. For these, an appropriate testimony or evidence will show them that they are safe to trust Christ.
The Holy Spirit’s work is essential in order for a person to come to Christ. Who you are and your personal testimony are also very important. Evidence is a tool in your pocket. If you are sharing your faith actively, you will find yourself reaching for it frequently.