Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, said that “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testify about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised.” Without a doubt, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the most important Christian doctrine. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that the first Christian sermons and writings were primarily interested in showing the truth of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There are many arguments that can be brought forward to prove that Jesus rose from the dead, and these proofs are all interrelated. However, in this article, I would like to concentrate on one particular proof of the resurrection – the fact that the disciples actually believed that Jesus rose from the dead. That this is a proof of the resurrection may come as a surprise to some, however, it is one of the most interesting proofs of the resurrection.
Before I lay out the argument, I would like to make some preliminary comments. First of all, due to the nature of the subject, we are not looking for a demonstration that proves with mathematical certainty that Jesus rose from the dead. When we deal with historical proofs we are looking, like a lawyer in a court case, for a probable argument that is reasonable and explains all of the evidence that we have on hand. Secondly, it is not necessary to presuppose that the Bible is inspired, inerrant, or infallible, nor that any of the miracles mentioned actually happened, I will simply assume that the New Testament does give valuable information about the disciples’ reactions to the events in question.
The argument that I am proposing can be delineated as follows:
- If the disciples did believe that Jesus rose from the dead, then something caused them to hold this belief.
- The disciples did believe that Jesus rose from the dead.
- Therefore something caused them to hold this belief.
- Either this belief (a) was caused by an intentional falsehood (a lie), (b) was caused by psychological wish fulfillment, (c) was caused by a psychological reaction based upon being incapable of dealing with the death of Jesus (such as a hallucination), or (d) was caused by a literal resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
- The belief was not caused by options (a), (b), or (c).
- Therefore, the cause of the disciple’s belief that Jesus rose from the dead is option (d) – that Jesus was actually resurrected.
The argument unfolds in two main steps: premises 1-3 and premises 4-6. The first two premises are uncontroversial, and premise 3 follows necessarily from the first two premises. Premises 4-6 form a complicated, but valid, disjunction, which means that if premises 4 and 5 are true, then the conclusion is true. The only objections that can be brought against premise 4 is that it either does not exhaust the possibilities, or that one of the possibilities cannot be considered as a possibility (for example, that the resurrection actually happening is not a viable option). I am fully open to someone trying to bring another possibility to the table, and we will examine it, but all that it does is add one more possibility to the disjunction. Premise 5 is the important premise, as it makes the controversial claim that the first three options are not likely candidates for the cause of the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead. If it can be shown that each of these options fail to explain the disciples’ belief, then premise 5 is true, and the conclusion follows necessarily. In order to defend premise 5, we need to show that none of the first three options could be a historically probable cause for the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead.
Each of the first three options have been treated in great detail in other works on apologetics, so I will only give each point a summary treatment and point the reader to other sources. The first option is that the story of the resurrection was a lie. This theory can account for the belief, but not for the other important facts. In light of the lives and teachings of the disciples this option seems to be more impossible than the resurrection itself. The disciples constantly taught the importance of the telling the truth and living virtuous lives, and they all showed that they would rather die than deny that Jesus rose from the dead. Finally, there were enough eyewitnesses around the very busy Jerusalem such that if the disciples had been lying, the lie would have been immediately revealed (especially seeing as the Pharisees wanted desperately to squelch this new belief).
The second and third options can be treated together by simply showing that the disciples not only had no hope for the resurrection, but that they were, in fact, the first skeptics about the claim that Jesus had risen from the dead. First of all, the disciples did not expect that Jesus would die. They expected him to liberate Israel from the Romans. Secondly, the Gospels tell us that when Jesus was arrested the disciples went into hiding, and stayed in hiding even after the crucifixion. We do not see here the courageous disciples who would preach to the entire world that Jesus had risen from the dead. Something caused a major transformation. Third, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise from the dead. Jesus had prophesied on many occasions that he would rise from the dead, but the disciples, according to their own testimony, did not understand these prophecies. Fourth, when the women went and told the disciples that they had seen the risen Lord, the disciples did not believe them; after all, the dead do not rise. It wasn’t just the testimony of the women that was not believed, Mark tells us that two disciples saw Jesus when they were walking in the country, but the other disciples still would not believe them. In fact, fifthly, when the disciples first heard that the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb, they did not immediately think of the resurrection, rather, they became quite depressed. Interestingly enough, the very first theory that one of the followers of Jesus thought of was that the body had been stolen or moved.
Finally, even after the disciples had heard the testimonies of those who had seen Jesus, and even after they had seen the empty tomb, they still did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact, when Jesus appeared to the disciples in the room where they were hiding out, their first theory was that they were seeing a ghost, not that Jesus had risen from the dead. They were so convinced that they were seeing a ghost, that Jesus had to convince them that it was really him by eating food and letting them touch him. Everyone is familiar with Thomas, who not having been there the first time, refused to believe even the testimony of all the other disciples and the women. It wasn’t until he saw Jesus and was challenged to put his hands in the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet that he believed that Jesus was really alive. The evidence that we have in the New Testament accounts of the disciples’ reactions to the events surrounding the resurrection, leads us to believe that the disciples were the very first skeptics. Even when Jesus presented himself to them, they preferred to believe that he was a ghost, rather than to believe that he had risen from the dead. It seems, therefore, that the second and third options are not possible explanations for the disciples’ belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. Therefore premise 5 is true.
As we noted above, if all of the possibilities are exhausted in premise four, and premise five is true, then the conclusion follows necessarily; that the only possible cause for the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose from the dead, is that Jesus actually rose from the dead. The very fact that the disciples went from scared and discouraged skeptics to courageous preachers of the resurrection of Christ is a fact that needs to be explained. I have advanced an argument by which I claim that the only possible explanation for this change of character and change of belief is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
David Haines, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Theology and Philosophy
- Praise the Lord for his faithfulness to us through the resurrection.
- Pray for our hearts and minds to be tuned to Christ as we approach Holy Week.
- Pray that the Lord would bring the students he has for us in Fall 2023.
- Praise the Lord with us for his faithfulness and pray that he would provide the remaining funds for our On The Double match.
1. Cor. 15:14-15. All Bible quotations are from the ESV, unless otherwise noted.
2. As I do not have the time to defend the reliability of the New Testament, I will simply assume that the reader is familiar with the relevant books on the subject. Cf. F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are they Reliable?, 6th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1981). Norman L. Geisler & William E. Nix, From God to Us: How we got our Bible, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012). Bruce Manning Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964). William M. Ramsay, St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen, 15th ed., ed. Mark Wilson (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2001). Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2006).
3. To claim that the resurrection is not a viable option is to beg the question against the argument; therefore such a claim is logically fallacious.
4. Cf. Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 252-253.
5. Cf. Jn. 19:35. 1 Jn. 2:3-6. 1 Jn. 3:4-10. Tit. 1:10. Eph. 5:9. 1 Tim. 8-10. In fact, according to Rev. 21:8 and Rev. 22:15, if the disciples lied about the resurrection of Jesus, then they are condemned to everlasting hell. McDowell, 270.
6. Cf. Acts 12:1-2. John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Philadelphia, PA: Universal Book and Bible House, 1926). McDowell, 271.
7. Though wish-fulfillment and hallucination are different theories, they are both sufficiently excluded as possibilities by the combination of the following points. Furthermore, the hallucination theory is refuted by the vast amount of recorded appearances of the resurrected Christ, including 500 people at the same time, as listed in 1 Cor. 15:3-7.
8. Cf. Lk. 24:21. William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, eds., To 1500, vol. 1 of Christian Apologetics past and present: A primary Source Reader (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 12.
9. Cf. Mk. 14:50-52. Mt. 26:56.
10. Cf. Jn. 20:19.
11. The Gospel of John actually implies that the disciples, even after seeing the resurrected Christ, had no thought of « going into all the world »; rather, they went fishing (Jn. 21:1-14). It took numerous resurrection appearances and specific commands from the resurrected Christ to convince the disciples to preach the Gospel.
12. Cf. Jn. 2:18-20, 10:17-18.
13. Cf. Jn. 2:21-22, 20:9.
14. Cf. Mk. 16:11. Lk. 24:10-12.
15. Cf. Mk. 16:12-13.1
16. Cf. Lk. 24:17. Jn. 20:14-15.
17. Cf. Jn. 20:15.
18. Cf. Lk. 24:36-37.
19. Cf. Mk. 16:14. Lk. 24:38-43. Jn. 20:20.
20. Cf. Jn. 20:24-28.
21. We have only considered the probable cause of the disciple’s belief that Jesus rose from the dead. There are two other New Testament people whose change of belief seems even more miraculous than that of the disciples – Saul of Tarsus (who was a prominent Pharisee and actively killed and persecuted any Christians who wouldn’t renounce, until Jesus appeared to him – Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-6, 1 Cor. 15:8. Cf. George Lyttleton, Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul (London: Joseph Crukshank, 1785).), and James the brother of Jesus (who was against Jesus prior to his death, became a leader in the Jerusalem church after Jesus appeared to him, and died for his new belief –Jn. 7:5, 1 Cor. 15:7, Acts 12:1-2). The only option that accounts for the fact that Saul and James believed that Jesus rose from the dead is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.