by Matt Lefebvre

What Makes Christianity Different? The Resurrection of Jesus Christ

In talking about the resurrection of Jesus, there is a lot that could be said, but I want to talk about two questions that sound quite similar: what made Christianity different from all the other claims at its very beginning and what makes it different from all the other claims now?  For both the honest skeptic and the honest Christian it is an incredibly valid line of questioning to consider what, if anything, is special about this truth claim.  Indeed, there are many who would say “Nothing”, implying that all religions are basically the same, but I suggest that it would not take more than five minutes of talking with various religious people about their respective religious beliefs to see that this is simply not the case.  However, this is beside the point, for I do not wish to merely point out that there are major differences between religions, but that there is a monumental distinguishing factor that singles out Christianity like a lighthouse for a wayward ship.  If there is anything that can be readily observed, it is that there is no shortage of things to believe in, whether deities, ideals, causes, or whatever, but the fact that there might be one unparalleled belief is simply too important to ignore.  That there might be a claim so audacious and so foreign to the contemporary mind that it would go beyond even being made, must less shown to be true, is an event that cannot be left unnoticed.  In Christianity we have the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which, if true, holds the weight of eternal significance.  The Bible is straightforward in saying that if the resurrection did not take place, then faith in Christ is worthless (1 Corinthians 15:13-19), so in addition to emphasizing that this belief really is as central as it gets and thus astronomically significant, it should also lead us to inquire as to the validity of such a belief.  The latter part of that sentence may seem contradictory, since some believe (I used that word intentionally) that in order to believe something, you cannot have evidence, for if you had evidence, it would not be belief, Richard Dawkins being the most notable of these.[i]

Some agree that faith and reason complement each other very well, and some would even go further to say that you cannot even be reasonable without faith, such as Joe Boot in his book Why I Still Believe, but there are also those who see faith and reason as complete polar opposites.  However, what is so wonderful about the resurrection of Jesus Christ is that, even accepting that not everybody agrees about what happened or even what could have happened, it is the evidence surrounding such an event that cannot be ignored and must be answered.  Perhaps you are familiar with the claim that Jesus was raised from the dead as described in the Bible, particularly in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and while this speaks strongly to those who believe the Bible to be the word of God, it likely does not do much to convince those who do not.  Facing such an obstacle, there are a few directions that can be taken: a Christian can try to defend the Bible as the word of God, try to change the subject, or try to present evidence that is accepted by the vast majority of scholars, both Christians and skeptics.  Now while I like to discuss the trustworthiness of the Bible and know that sometimes a change of subject is required when you are going in circles without gaining any common ground, in the case of the resurrection, I would say that the latter suggestion may be the most effective.  For not only is the resurrection a one-of-a-kind event, but it is a great step toward showing the validity of Jesus’ words as truth, some of those being words that claim the reliability of the Bible, and as I have explained above, the resurrection is the central issue, so changing the subject from this point without reaching a conclusion would likely be detrimental to coming to believe Christ as Lord.  Keeping this in mind, I will intend to present an approach that can be found in the works of Gary Habermas, termed as a minimal facts approach.  On page 44 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona and Gary Habermas the approach is explained.  “This approach considers only those data that are so strongly attested historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the rather skeptical ones.”  Some may think this sounds like a possibly exaggerated claim based on a poll, generalization, or even a guess, but he actually went through the pain-staking process of checking their views individually.  In another book, The Historical Jesus, Habermas lists 129 facts that can be ascertained from 45 ancient sources on page 250, including 17 non-Christian sources, but in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus 4 facts are presented that are in the high 90’s in percentage when it comes to contemporary scholarly support for it being historical and 1 fact that is a bit lower, having 75% of scholars accepting it as historical fact.  This does not mean that the New Testament is not used as a source, but it simply does not have to be considered the inspired word of God for the argument to stand, because critical historians treat New Testament documents as they would treat any other ancient document.  To be clear, it is not that I consider all the other facts to be bogus nor that I personally reject the inspiration of the New Testament as God’s word, but simply that the attestation to these minimal facts creates a strong case for the resurrection, for not only are they sufficient to refute opposing theories, but they can also be used to attest to the resurrection as being the most plausible explanation of the historical situation.  So I am sure the question on your mind, if you are new to this concept, is “What are they?”, so I will quickly list them and proceed to make a short discussion of each one, after an interlude from the book of Acts, which I hope to use to connect the dots.

Acts 5:28-39

“We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this name, and yet, you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” 29But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. 31He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses of these things; and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.” 33But when they heard this, they were cut to the quick and intended to kill them. 34But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the Law, respected by all the people, stood up in the Council and gave orders to put the men outside for a short time. 35And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you propose to do with these men. 36For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about four hundred men joined up with him. But he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. 37After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census and drew away some people after him; he too perished, and all those who followed him were scattered. 38So in the present case, I say to you, stay away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; 39but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”

Jesus died by crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them, the church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed, the skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed, and the tomb of Jesus was empty.


Jesus died by crucifixion

In response to the charge of bringing Jesus’ blood on the religious leaders, the response was that God raised Jesus, whom they put to death on a cross.  It goes without saying that if Jesus were to be raised from the dead, He would first have to die.  As described on page 101 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, the cause of death for a crucifixion victim would mostly likely come by asphyxiation, or in other words, not being able to exhale.  In order to breathe, a crucified person would have to push up on the nailed feet, causing intense pain.  The criminal could survive as long as they had the strength to push up, but it did not take long in the down position before the inability to breathe would kill a person.  If the Romans desired to speed up the process, they would break the legs to prevent the victim from exhaling.  Quintilian, a Roman author, reports the procedure of thrusting a spear into the crucifixion victims.  John 19:34-35 records Jesus being stabbed, with blood and water flowing, which was probably due to rupturing the pericardium, the sac that surrounds the heart (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.102).  So according to what we can gather from this information, Jesus was dead and the Romans had ways of making sure.  Now I could understand if a skeptic rejected the testimony of the apostles about Jesus’ death, judging their testimony as biased or made up altogether, but I would still not consider such an opinion informed.  First of all, if Jesus did not in fact die on a cross, it would defy logic to think of making it appear that way, because it was not the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would suffer and die.  Secondly, crucifixion was a very shameful and public way to die, which would certainly not be fitting for one proclaimed king and certainly would be something that many in Jerusalem would be aware of, for it would not be done in secret.  However, even with such considerations put aside, Jesus’ death by crucifixion can be found in five ancient, non-Christian sources, which leads even the highly critical scholar of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan, to write on page 145 of Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography “That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”  So if the question is not whether it happened or not, the next question might be “So what?”  The passage from Acts hints at it in saying that there were a couple other guys who had a following, claiming to be somebody, but when they died, the movement came to nothing.  However, in the case of Jesus, He died, but not His following.  This would seem to suggest that a significant event was introduced into the timeline to convince disillusioned disciples that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Christ.  People looking at this today might point to a religion like Islam, which certainly continued after the founder, Mohammed, died, and think that Jesus and Christianity are no different.  However, the difference lies in claiming to be somebody, for Jesus claimed to be the Jewish Messiah and sources outside the Bible confirm that this is what His followers held Him to be, worshipping Him as God, calling Him Christus, which means Anointed One, or the Hebrew Messiah.  That Jesus was different can be seen in the view expressed in Luke 24:19-24, for it first describes Jesus as a prophet, but since being crucified, it seemed as though the hopes of these two disciples were shattered regarding the belief that He might redeem Israel.  Mohammed is also described as a prophet, and indeed, if Jesus had just died and that was it, He might well be put right alongside of him.  However, it is precisely the fact that Jesus claimed to be more, and that His disciples all of a sudden started preaching that He was raised from the dead and that He was indeed the awaited Messiah that should grab our attention.  It is to that point I now turn.

Jesus’ disciples believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them

I have a book written by a man named Frank Morison, a skeptic of the resurrection who set out to discount the historicity of it and ended up writing quite a different book.  In the first chapter of his book Who Moved The Stone? he describes the book that refused to be written.  He proceeded to present the findings of his investigation and how he had changed his opinion about whether the resurrection happened or not.  On page 127-128 he looks at why Christianity won.  Part of this is considering why Christianity started in the first place, because if you grant the point above and have no room for resurrection or even an alternate theory, the complete turn-around in the disciples is unexplainable.  Their leader was dead and they themselves were afraid for their lives, so what happened?  In addition to the starting point, what requires adequate explanation is that Christianity kept growing, in spite of persecution.  How do we know that they taught the resurrection early on?  The earliest source for the resurrection account is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul describes the appearances of the risen Jesus to His disciples, 500 people at once, James, and Paul himself, and if you know about the date for this book, it is around 55A.D., which is about 25 years after Jesus is said to have risen.  Now, if this seems like a long time to you, you may want to consider that historians often spoke of events they were centuries removed from and they are still considered to be good historical sources, but that is not my major contention.  The testimony itself has been shown to be earlier than Paul’s writing, for Paul himself says that he received it and the language does not reflect his other writing, but rather reflects an early creed.  “In fact, many critical scholars hold that Paul received it from the disciples Peter and James…three years after his conversion.”(p.52, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus) which would put this within five years of Jesus’ crucifixion and from the disciples themselves.  In addition to other early creeds, oral traditions, there are also the New Testament Gospels attesting to the same message, as well as the early church fathers Clement and Polycarp, people who knew the disciples themselves and also attested to the message, as recorded on page 53-55 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.  So it can be shown that they claimed it, even though they did not seem to have natural reason for doing so, but how do we know that they believed it?  Many people made claims around the same time, some for less than honourable reasons, and some of these claims can even be seen in the New Testament, so what made the claims of the disciples different?  Well, again found in Acts 5, we find that the religious leaders warned the disciples not to teach these radical claims and if we go back to Acts 4, we can see this threat spoken by these leaders against the teaching of Jesus’ resurrection.  Moving on past the quoted text from Acts 5 above, it can be seen that the disciples were beaten and again ordered to not speak in the name of Jesus.  This and 6 other ancient sources record that the disciples were willing to suffer and even die for their beliefs.  On page 60 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus Habermas records his study of more than 1400 sources on the resurrection published since 1975, in which he found that “perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus.”  So the dispute, from atheists to the most Bible-believing Christians, is not whether the disciples experienced something, but what that actually was.  They held on to their belief that Jesus was the Christ and had appeared to them to the end and there is no evidence of any recantation.  At this point, a caution is in order, as might be arising in several minds.  The modern mind does not have to stretch far to think of people dying for their beliefs, since I can once again mention Islam and images of the twin towers might come swiftly to mind.  Dying for beliefs does not establish truth of such beliefs, but it does establish that the people who died for them honestly believed them.  How is Christianity different?  Muslim terrorists or Buddhist monks are giving their lives for what has been told to them, through writings and teachings, but the disciples were giving their lives for what they had seen and touched.  It would be foolishness to suggest that they fabricated this belief and then died for it, because liars make bad martyrs, so unlike people dying for their beliefs today, the disciples were in a position to attest to this miracle.  If the disciples did not experience anything, the very foundation of Christianity would be missing, and its rapid growth would be entirely inexplicable.  As Josh McDowell puts it on page 76 of More Than A Carpenter, “Yes, a lot of people have died for a good cause, but the good cause of the apostles died on the cross.  Only the resurrection and resultant contact with Christ convinced his followers he was the Messiah.  To this they testified not only with their lips and lives, but with their deaths.”  If this movement was not of God, Gamaliel said it would come to nothing, but if it was, no one would overthrow it and such people trying would be fighting against God, which brings us to our next point.

The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed

Ironically, the statement made by Gamaliel is one that fits his student, Paul, in a very unique way (Acts 22:3 describes Paul as being educated by him).  The book of Acts describes a few times how Paul was changed from formerly being a zealous persecutor of Christians to becoming a Christian himself.  If that is not enough, we also have Paul’s own personal testimony to that effect in 1 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, 3 undisputed Pauline letters.  In fact, after he describes his conversion in Galatians 1, he expresses that the churches in Judea did not know him personally, but had only heard, “He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith which he once tried to destroy.”  There might be a glimmer of hope in saying that the Gospel writers were biased (which by the way does not necessarily mean that their reports are inaccurate), but it is something else altogether for a ferocious enemy to turn 180 degrees to embrace the belief they were so vehement in opposing and immediately preach it.  On page 65 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus it is conceded that many people have converted from one set of beliefs to another, so what is the difference between people today changing their religion and Paul doing it then?  Perhaps you have guessed it already, but as I pointed out above, people today believe based on secondary evidence, or in other words, a person can read some scriptures or hear a teaching.  Paul, on the other hand, was changed by what he described as a revelation of Jesus Christ.  Adding to this is the fact that it was not just a simple belief that Paul had to accept.  In his mind Jesus was a blasphemer, a false prophet, a destroyer of the law he had grown up with.  Having been hung on a tree in crucifixion, He was under God’s curse, as Paul describes in Galatians 3.  Would a theological conversation convert such a zealous persecutor?  Stephen presented a whole defense in the book of Acts and Paul was unmoved.  Anything short of an appearance of the risen Jesus would remain thoroughly unconvincing to such a staunch opponent of Christianity.  In the same way as the disciples of Jesus were willing to suffer for their message of Jesus being raised from the dead, Paul suffered and died for his faith, also recorded in 7 different sources.  Claims can always be made and there are plenty of people who report seeing visions of God or angels, but can these claims be verified, even by those who are not sympathetic to the movement.  To take Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr. claimed revelation from God and later an angel, being exalted as a prophet and having witnesses of gold plates that he translated.  However, the movement went through relocations and schisms in its early history, until Joseph Smith himself was killed by a mob while awaiting trial, followed by the ensuing succession struggle.  These factors seem to point to anything but uniformity and multiple attestation of claims.  There could be varying interpretations of the events from different perspectives, but on the other hand, what we have in the testimony of the church persecutor Paul is evidence that the claim of the resurrection was not just another idea or doctrine, but a life-altering message made possible only through an appearance of the glorious Lord Jesus.  What gave someone authority in the church was not claiming to have secret knowledge, but rather being of those who witnessed the risen Christ with their own eyes.  Paul even said in Galatians 1 that if they or even an angel from heaven should preach a gospel contrary to what they first preached, that one would be accursed.  No, the message of the gospel did not change, but came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.  If even an enemy cannot deny a truth and holds it firmly as something that cannot be altered, coming from the revelation of the risen Christ, it is something that cannot be ignored.  This is a significant point, but I will not say unparalleled, because as we will see in the next point, Paul was not the only unbeliever to change his belief.

The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed

Because this point is similar to the last one, I will not spend much time on it, but it is an important point, as with the conversion of Paul.  John 7:5 describes how Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him, James being one of His brothers (compare Mark 6:3-4), and in addition, Hegesippus reported that James was a pious Jew who followed the Jewish law strictly, quoted in The Historical Jesus on page 67-68.  There is no indication that James would have any sympathy toward what was seen as a Jewish sect, Christianity, if in fact he was not compelled to change his opinion toward Jesus as the Christ.  What we have from the early oral tradition mentioned above and used by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 is that verse 7 reports an appearance to James.  In addition, we also have testimony from Acts that James became a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:13-21, Galatians 1:19/2:9).  Reginald Fuller wrote on page 37 of Resurrection Narratives “It might be said that if there were no record of an appearance to James the Lord’s brother in the New Testament we should have to invent one in order to account for his post-resurrection conversion and rapid advance.”  So this conversion is again based on his sincere belief that the resurrected Jesus has appeared to him, and though we do not have as many sources for the life of James, his martyrdom for his beliefs is recorded in 3 ancient sources.  James was not as extreme as Paul, but it is still significant that he was transformed.  In Acts 5, the apostles claimed to be witnesses, along with the Holy Spirit, to the resurrection of Christ, and the fact that James was an eyewitness and that he changed his belief adds to the case for this, for he was in a position to oppose these views if they were untrue and if he thought they were contrary to the Jewish law he clearly revered.  He was called James the Just and his character is not in question, so what remains is that he truly believed that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, but had been resurrected, which brings us to our last point.

The tomb was empty

While not being a minimal fact, enjoying almost unanimous acceptance in the scholarly community, the empty tomb is affirmed by 75%, which is still significant, and there are certainly reasons why it is affirmed by the majority.  In Acts 5 the religious leaders said that the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their teaching, and that teaching, as it goes on to expound, is that God raised Jesus, whom the religious leaders had put to death.  As I have said, this teaching is very important, but in this case, it is not only the content, but also the location that holds ample significance.  The earliest preaching of Christianity took place in Jerusalem, which just happens to be where Jesus was crucified and buried.  So if you follow the logic, it would have been virtually impossible for a risen Christ to be proclaimed in the very city He was publicly executed in if His body was still in the tomb.  The Jewish authorities would certainly make every effort to make this fact publicly known, if it were a fact, but even just skeptics or curious people would not be put out of their way to walk 15 or 20 minutes to see if the claim of the apostles really checked out.  However, what actually happened was somewhat the opposite of what might be expected if the tomb was still occupied.  The Jewish response was to say that Jesus’ disciples stole the body (recorded in 3 ancient sources), which immediately does not make sense of their willingness to suffer and die for their belief, but aside from that, it indirectly affirms the empty tomb.  Just think about why you would need an explanation of what happened to the body if the body was still in the tomb.  No, as explained in The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus on page 71, this is the only early opposing theory from Jesus’ enemies and it is intended to give an alternate account to that of the disciples, but still using the same evidence of the empty tomb.  Finally, in all four Gospels, women are listed as the first witnesses to the empty tomb.  Considering the modern view of women, you might be wondering what significance this bears on the attestation to the empty tomb, but it needs to be understood that in the first century women were lowly esteemed in both Roman and Jewish cultures and their testimony was regarded as questionable, and certainly not as good as a man’s (The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, p.72).  If this story were made up, the question of why the authors would make women the principle witnesses to this central fact is inexplicable.  Surely a fabricated story would include male witnesses to ensure that the testimony would be universally accepted, but that is not the case with the Gospels.  The difference is as easy to see today as it was back in the time of Jesus.  The tomb of Buddha is occupied, the tomb of Confucius is occupied, the tomb of Mohammed is occupied, but the tomb of Jesus is empty.   This, however, is not the only difference, for there is also what the state of the tomb means, as Frank Morison points out on page 122 of Who Moved The Stone? “It is impossible to read the records of the period without being profoundly impressed by the way in which, for friend and foe alike, the tomb of Jesus sinks into utter and undisturbed oblivion.  No one in later years seems to have gone to Joseph’s garden, and looking at the rock-hewn cave, to have said: ‘This is the place where the Lord is buried.’  No hostile investigation seems to have been made to show that the martyred remains of the great Teacher still lay where they were deposited some days, weeks, or months earlier. Still more strikingly, no one pretending to have an intimate and special knowledge seems to have said- ‘Not here was He ultimately buried, but there.’ Instead of these quite natural consequences flowing from so extraordinary an event, we get this stony appearance of indifference. From the moment that the women return from the Garden, the tomb of Jesus passes, historically, into complete oblivion.”  Though those in later centuries found the desire to raise a monument, the earliest Christians seem to acknowledge that the tomb was indeed empty and leave the discussion of the tomb at that.  For the real message was more than just the empty tomb, because that could have different explanations, but that Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to them; a message they clung to on through to death in this world, but based on their faith in the risen Christ, life in the next.

I hope I have succeeded in demonstrating that the Christian faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is more than just different from any other claim, but it is in fact unparalleled and significantly evidenced for being an ancient event, both by Christian and non-Christian sources.  As it says on page 65 of The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus “no other founder of a major religion is believed to have been raised from the dead, let alone have provided any evidence for such an event.”  There are, of course, alternate theories about what happened, but they also need to account for these minimal facts, and as I said earlier, the minimal facts can be used to refute the other theories.  In the first edition of this article, I said it would be worth my time to write about the opposing views in the future, for if this is really as important as I made it out to be, it is certainly worth defending.  Well, that time has come, as I have written a follow up article dealing with objections to the resurrection, which you can see by clicking here.

Since I have used Acts 5 as a framework for presenting the evidence, it is only fitting that I leave you with the words of wise old Gamaliel in order to get you to think about what difference it made then, and therefore, what difference it makes now, for you in your own life.   “for if this plan or action is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them; or else you may even be found fighting against God.”

In a previous article, I spent some time explaining that belief not only has to do with evidence in founding it, but it is also something that is inevitable for everyone, including atheists, whether they know it (or like it) or not.  This would mostly be in When The Sun Has Risen Part 1, but I can also refer you to the other articles on this site called Faith and Reason (Part1 and Part 2), which are written by Dima Zhyvov, for more of an understanding of the relationship between the two concepts.
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