Where Then Is My Hope? (Job 15-21)

Job asks a very important question: “Where Then Is My Hope?” Where can hope be found in a world in which everyone dies? Where can meaning be found? Pastor Brian Watson tries to answer those questions as he preaches through the second round of dialogue between Job and his friends.

Can a Man Be in the Right? (Job 4-14)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Job 4-14. These chapters show Job in dialogue with his three friends, who accuse him of sins he didn’t commit. How do we respond to other people’s tragedies? How do we respond to our own? When bad things happen to us, we may feel that God is punishing us. How can we be in the right before God?

I Have No Rest (Job 3)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Job 3. He shows how Christianity recognizes the pain and suffering in a fallen world and how Christianity invites lament and even wrestling with God. This way of grieving is compared with other views on pain, suffering, and evil. Job lamented his pain and wished he was never born. So did the prophet Jeremiah. Jesus was a man of sorrow who cried and knew what it was like to suffer and lament. Christianity teaches us that it is okay to grieve and lament, and it also shows how we do that in faith and in hope that God will ultimately fix everything.

The Lord Gave, and the Lord Has Taken Away (Job 1-2)

Pastor Brian Watson begins a sermon series through the book of Job. He shows what happens in the first two chapters, which give us some indication of why there is evil and suffering in the world and how we can respond to it.

Love Your Neighbor (Luke 10:25-37)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 10:25-37, which includes the famous “Parable of the Good Samaritan.” Jesus tells us to love God with everything and love our neighbor as ourselves. The problem is that we don’t do that. But Jesus is the true Good Samaritan who rescues us and enables us to love God and others.

Living Waters (John 4)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message about Jesus’ famous encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. He shows that when we try to make anything other God our greatest desire, we will feel empty. Only Jesus and his gift of the Holy Spirit satisfy the soul.

Born Again (John 3:1-21)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon based on John 3:1-21. This passage shows us that not everyone knows exactly who Jesus is, that we need to be transformed by God to know Jesus, that Jesus is our only hope, and that in order to become Christians we must come into the light.

Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth? (John 1:43-51)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Nathanael’s skeptical question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Can we really believe that God’s answer to the world’s problems came out of a corner of the Middle East two thousand years ago?

Restorer of Life (Ruth 4)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches the conclusion to our study of the book of Ruth. Boaz marries Ruth and they have a child, who is to Naomi a redeemer and a restorer of life. This story indicates how God will restore his creation through Jesus. It reminds us of the story of Christmas.

The Light Shines in the Darkness (John 1:1-18)

Perhaps the best way to learn about Christianity is to learn about the message of Christmas. The best way to learn about that is to study one of the Gospels, the four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as “the Word” and as light. What does this mean? Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on John 1:1-18 at the Christmas Eve service at West Bridgewater Community Church.

Redemption (Ruth 3)

Pastor Brian Watson talks about redemption in the third chapter of the book of Ruth, in the Bible, and in our lives. What would you like restored in your life? What would like to be bought back? The story of Ruth is a story of redemption, and it points to the larger story of redemption in the whole Bible, a story of how God is restoring a broken world, “purchasing” people for himself through Jesus.

Favor, Providence, and Kindness (Ruth 2)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Ruth 2. He focuses on three words that sum up what God is doing in this chapter: favor, providence, and kindness. He also shows how Christianity accounts for why we should be generous and kind to one another, and how a competing worldview (naturalism) does not.

On Discipline

Pastor Brian Watson presents a message on church discipline. Correcting each other, holding each other accountable, and even confronting each other is good for us as individuals, it’s good for the church, and it’s good for Jesus’ reputation. Passages examined include Matthew 18:15-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, and 1 Timothy 5:19-20.

Striving Side by Side

Pastor Brian Watson drew from Philippians 1-2 to talk about the importance of being involved in the local church. If all Christians marched side-by-side and contributed their talents, spiritual gifts, and everything else that God has given them, each local church (and the universal church) would be stronger.

There Will Be No Loss of Life among You (Acts 27)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 27 titled, “There Will Be No Loss of Life among You.” The apostle Paul’s journey from Caesarea to Rome was dangerous, but even though his ship went through a great storm, he reached safety. Our lives are a lot like that. We sail through uncertain waters, but we’re able to make it to the other shore because of Jesus. Listen to this sermon to learn about how Acts 27 is a picture of Jesus’ sacrifice, and how the life of faith is like a journey.

True and Rational Words (Acts 25-26)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 25-26 titled, “True and Rational Words.” In this passage, Paul is on trial before the governor, Festus, and he presents the case for Christianity to Herod Agrippa II. When Christianity is on trial, we see that it is true because it is the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament and the resurrection of Jesus is supported by eyewitness testimony.

A Clear Conscience (Acts 23:12-24:27)

Pastor Brian preaches a message titled, “A Clear Conscience.” The message is an exposition of Acts 23:12-24:27, in which Paul is on trial, falsely accused. Pastor Brian explores the gospel, accusations, hostility towards Christians, and how we can have a clear conscience.

Let the Will of the Lord Be Done (Acts 21:1-23:11)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message based on Acts 21:1-23:11. This passage is about what happens to the apostle Paul when he returns to Jerusalem. He faces opposition from non-Christian Jews at the temple (much like Jesus had). We can learn from Paul how to follow Jesus no matter the cost.

Declaring to You the Whole Counsel of God (Acts 20)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Acts 20 titled, “Declaring to You the Whole Counsel of God.” In this message, we see the importance of preaching and teaching the whole truth that God has revealed to us. The word of God brings life and health, but there are false teachers who are “speaking twisted things.” Leaders of churches need to protect the church by teaching truth and refuting lies. They also need to practice what they preach.

Do Not Be Afraid, but Go on Speaking (Acts 18:1-23)

Pastor Brian preaches a message on Acts 18:1-23. The apostle Paul’s place, God’s promise, God’s provision, and Paul’s perseverance were vital to Paul’s task of telling others the good news about Jesus. These things (our place, God’s promises and provision, and our perseverance) are needed for evangelism today and they are important to our lives.

The Case for Reading: Why Christians Should Be Readers

I believe, along with Jesus, that Christians should use all their minds to love God (Matt. 22:37). One of the best ways of loving God with all our minds is to read. I believe that all Christians should be, on some level, readers. The following is my argument for why we should be readers. Of course, there’s a danger in trying to convince people who don’t normally read to read, because in order to do so, those people have to read this article. If you don’t read much, please take a few minutes to read this article. I’ll try to be clear and brief.

God Gave Us a Book

The first reason why we should read is that God gave us a book, or an anthology of 66 books. Of course, I’m talking about God’s written Word, the Bible. Think about this: God could have ordered and arranged history so that, instead of the Bible, we had a collection of pictures to look at, or a set of DVDs to watch. But God didn’t do that. He gave us a book. God chose to reveal himself in specific ways through the written word. Yes, the heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). Yes, creation points to a powerful, eternal, divine Creator (Rom. 1:20). Yes, even our consciences testify to the existence of God (Rom. 2:14-15). But those things don’t give us many details about who God is, who we are, what our problem is, and how that problem can be solved. If we want to know anything specific about God and how to relate to him, we need to read the Bible.

The fact that God has chosen to reveal himself to us through his written Word, the Bible, gives us a hint that there’s something about the written word that is important. God could have revealed himself to us in a series of pictures, or in a number of videos, or even through his audible voice (he could speak an individualized message to us each day). So what is it that sets the written word apart from pictures, audio, and video?

Why the Written Word Is Special

The written word is more specific than pictures. Sure, God could communicate to us in a series of pictures that, when put together, present a story. But a series of pictures would leave too much to our interpretation. We would have to guess at the meaning. We need God’s message to be clearer, more specific, and more precise.

Then why didn’t God give us audio or video? Wouldn’t it be great to see video of Jesus performing miracles? Wouldn’t it be great to at least hear his voice on a CD or on an MP3 recording? Well, yes, these things would be great. But I think the written word is even better for the following reasons.

One, when we watch videos, we are passively engaged. It’s very easy to watch TV, movies, or clips on YouTube without thinking too much. Video doesn’t require us to think critically. We sit back and the images wash over us. The same can happen when we listen to recordings. But when we read, we are actively engaged. Unless we force our eyes to continue moving and our brains to continue thinking, we won’t continue to read. Also, reading forces us to use our critical thinking abilities as well as our imagination. In order to follow an author’s argument, we have to think. Concentrated thinking is what we need in this age of distraction.

Two, when we read, we must pay attention to everything the author writes. Have you ever tried listening to an audio book while driving a car? How often do you “space out” and not pay attention? Have you ever spaced out (or nodded off) during a sermon? If you’re like me, your attention may drift. I’ve listened to audio books while driving, walking the dog, or doing yard work. Sometimes, I focus well. At other times, my attention wanders. When I catch myself drifting, I could try to rewind and go back to the place when I last paid attention. But that is difficult to do. (If we’re listening to or watching something live, it’s impossible to do that.) Also, when listening to an audio book, or sermon, or lecture, I will hear something that forces me to stop and think. Perhaps the author/speaker says something that I haven’t heard before, or something that requires me to chew on for a bit in order to process the information. When I’m listening to a recording, it’s not always easy to pause. But when I read, if I am to continue, I must pay attention. Every once in a while, I may find myself thinking about something else while my eyes glaze over the words on a page in front of me. But I catch myself and I can easily go back and re-read what I had been reading inattentively. If I read something that I need to think deeply about, I can re-read that sentence or paragraph. Or I can stop and think for a while and then continue when I’m ready.

Three, when something is written down, it’s easier to refer back to it. The written world is also public information. (That’s why the written word is better than some private, audible voice from God. If only we heard that, how could we prove to others that God spoke to us?) We can easily quote the Bible by providing the book, chapter, and verse. We can quote other books by referring to page numbers. And when we see something written, we can read it again and again. Think about Paul’s letters to Timothy. In his second letter to his younger colleague, he writes, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything” (2 Tim. 2:7). How could Timothy think over what Paul said if he didn’t have Paul’s words written down? Sure, we can think when we hear or see something. But the written word demands thought. Paul’s desire to continue learning and thinking is demonstrated in his command to Timothy in that same letter: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13). Whether Paul had Scripture or other writings in mind, we don’t know. But it seems clear that he wanted to read while he was in prison.

Four, reading helps us to have a deeper understanding of an issue. News stories on TV and radio only go so deep. Sound bites and memes only go so far. If we want to learn more, we’ll have to read. Reading is simply the best way to gather information.

We Read to Sharpen the Mind

Now that I’ve given us some reasons to see why the written word is different from, and superior to, video and audio, let’s think about why we should read.

Let’s go back to the idea of loving God with all our minds (Matt. 22:37; Mark 12:30; Luke 10:27). In order to love God and live for him, we need to learn how to think well. We need to discern what is true and what is false. We need to learn the content of the Bible, how to interpret that content, and how to apply it to every area of our lives. That requires learning and thinking. It is through the renewal of our minds that we are transformed (Rom. 12:2). That transformation won’t occur unless we learn how to think Christianly. And learning how to think as Christians probably won’t happen apart from reading.

We Read to Know God’s Word

The most important book we will read is the Bible. The Bible is a long book, and it takes a while to read. The Bible has 1189 chapters. According to one count, there are 757,058 words in the English Standard Version.[1] There are about 550 words on this page. That means that if the Bible were printed with the type-setting you see on this page, it would be 1,376 pages. If you want to read the Bible in one year, you have to read 3.26 chapters per day, or 3.77 pages per day. That’s certainly possible. But you won’t read the whole Bible if you don’t read on a regular basis. And if you don’t know the Bible, you are essentially gagging God. He has spoken in his Word. Are you listening? If you want to know God, read the whole Bible, and when you finish, read it again.

We Read to Know How to Read God’s Word

I’ve benefitted enormously from reading other books besides the Bible. Yes, these books are not inerrant and infallible. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn from others. After all, Jesus has given the church, among other people, “teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (Eph. 4:11-14). I have read a number of books that have taught me how to read the Bible. Besides being long, the Bible is complicated and was written in different times and cultures than ours. That means we have a bit of homework to do to read the Bible well. If you want to read the Bible well, you probably need to read some other books, too.

We Read to Know How to Apply God’s Word

In addition to knowing God’s Word and how to read it, we need to know how to apply biblical principles to all of life. We can benefit from the writings of those who have thought long and hard about how the Bible applies to marriage, raising children, politics, finances, work, and a number of other issues. The core message of Christianity is so simple that a child can grasp it. Yet its implications are so extensive that it takes a lifetime to understand how it relates to all of life.[2]

We Read to Know More about God’s World

As I indicated above, God has revealed something of himself in his world. So, the more we know about God’s world, the more we can be amazed at how great God is. When we learn about science, such as the complexity of the laws of physics or the design of our bodies, we can be in awe of God’s creative powers. When we read about history, we can wonder at God’s providence. When we read biographies of creative and heroic people, we see the image of God reflected in their lives.

We Read to Develop Our Imaginations

Reading fiction is important, because it helps us understand human nature better. The best authors of fiction force us to reflect more deeply on real life. And fiction also helps us to imagine what the world could be. However, we must read good quality fiction. Quality Christian fiction should cause us to reflect on God’s world in powerful ways. We can also learn from non-Christian fiction, too. The doctrine of common grace shows us that even non-Christians have a grasp of truth. (That’s why Paul can quote two Greek poets in Acts 17:28.)

What if I’m Not a Good Reader?

I don’t expect us all to read an equal amount. Some of us are faster readers than others. Some of us are more interested in reading than others. But I still think everyone should read. Think about this: We should all take care of our bodies. God gave us our bodies. They are good gifts to be used for his glory. Paul indicates that exercise is of some value (1 Tim. 4:8). We all know we should eat a healthy diet and exercise. That doesn’t mean all of us will be nutritionists and athletes. But we should still try to eat healthy food and get some exercise, even if it’s just walking. If we take care of our bodies, we can use our bodies to work for God’s kingdom. In the same way, all of us can read a bit, even if we’re not academics or pastors or Bible teachers. We can all use our minds for the work of God’s kingdom.

Some of us are better listeners than readers. Some of us are too busy to read a lot. In that case, I would recommend listening to audio books. You can borrow audio books from your local library or buy them through various retailers. Christianaudio.com sells audio books and they offer a free book in a digital format each month. You can download the files to a computer and put them on CDs, your smart phone, or your MP3 player. Christianaudio.com also offers an app so your audio books can be downloaded directly to your phone or tablet.

My last word of encouragement: If you don’t actively read something that is good for your mind, you will be shaped and affected by something. And most of the messages and information that comes our way is not Christian and not true. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated.”[3] But not all the world is Christian. Therefore, we have to “prepare our minds for action” (1 Pet. 1:13) and learn how to discern truth from lies. The unread mind is an unarmed mind.

What Should I Read?

Not all books are worth reading, so choose wisely. Feel free to ask me for book recommendations. We have a list of recommended books on our website: https://wbcommunity.org/reading. WORLD, a Christian magazine, honors what they believe to be the best books of the year.[4] The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association has annual award winners, too.[5] You can also look at the titles in our library in the foyer. I plan to write more about the library in the very near future.

Notes

  1. “Bible Statistics,” True Paradigm, August 26, 2012, http://bethyada.blogspot.com/2012/08/bible-statistics.html.
  2. One of my favorite theologians, D. A. Carson, puts it this way: “This massive worldview touches everything, embraces everything. It can be simply put, for it has a center; it can be endlessly expounded and lived out, for in its scope it has no restrictive perimeter.” D. A. Carson, “Athens Revisited,” in Telling the Truth: Evangelizing Postmoderns, ed. D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 387.
  3. “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 58.
  4. https://world.wng.org/2016/06/2016_books_of_the_year.
  5. http://christianbookexpo.com/christianbookawards/winners2016.php.

The God Who Made the World and Everything in It (Acts 17:22-34)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message titled, “The God Who Made the World and Everything in It,” based on Acts 17:22-34. He demonstrates the truth of the Christian worldview and how it accounts for important things like human rights.

When Was Jesus Born?

It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.

Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”

What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?

To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:

The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”[1]

There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.

Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet.[2] Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.”[3] According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.”[4] One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.

It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.

Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:

The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.[5]

In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar.[6] This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.

What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year.[7] It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.

None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.

There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.

The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.

We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.

It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.[8]

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.

Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.”[9] Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.

There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[10] This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”[11]

In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”

Notes

  1. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564. 
  2. S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370. 
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134. 
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36. 
  5. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239. 
  6. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333. 
  7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904. 
  8. Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378. 
  9. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906. 
  10. The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.” 
  11. This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118. 

 

Are There Contradictions in the Bible?

It is often alleged that there are many errors and contradictions in the Bible. In a previous piece (“When Was Jesus Born?”), I addressed the issue of an alleged error in the Bible: the time of Jesus’ birth, particularly with respect to the census conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Here, I will deal with a supposed contradiction: the different genealogies of Jesus, found in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38, respectively.

The Nature of Contradictions

Before looking at the text, we should take time to think about what a contradiction actually is. According to philosopher Simon Blackburn, a contradiction is, “The conjunction of a proposition and its negation. The law of non-contradiction provides that no such conjunction can be true: not (p & not-p).”[1] In other words, a contradiction is when one says that something is and is not. It is impossible to be a bachelor and a married man (a not-bachelor, if you will). However, philosophers often allow more nuance into what is called the law of non-contradiction. As Aristotle famously writes, “It is impossible for the same attribute at once to belong and not to belong to the same thing and in the same relation”[2] So, turning our attention to the two genealogies of Jesus found in the Bible, we can say that Joseph is Jesus’ father and not Jesus’ father, and this is not a logical contradiction. How is that possible? The ways that Joseph is father to Jesus and is not-father to Jesus differ in relation, or sense. Joseph, Mary’s husband, is Jesus’ father in the sense that he raised Jesus and served as his human father. We would say he adopted Jesus. Joseph is not Jesus’ father in the sense that he is not his biological father. He is not Jesus’ true father: the Father, the first person of the Trinity.

Differences in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. When looking at the two, there are clearly differences: Matthew starts from Abraham and, going in chronological order, ends with Jesus. There appear to be forty-one different names (if we don’t county any names twice, and if we don’t include Mary). David tells us, in verse 17, that these names represent a total of 42 generations: fourteen from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from that exile to Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, gives his genealogy in reverse chronological order, starting with Jesus and going all the way back to Adam. His list contains seventy-seven names, with no discernible set of groupings.

A closer look yields something else: there are different names in these two genealogies. Both lists have some commonalities (such as the Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-Judah-Perez-Hezron and Boaz-Obed-Jesse-David sections). But between David and Jesus, there are thirty-eight names that differ. It should be obvious that, if both of these genealogies are intended to be true in the same sense, we have a logical contradiction. However, if they are different in sense (or relation, to use Aristotle’s term), then there is no logical contradiction.

The Different Purposes of Matthew’s and Luke’s Genealogies

Before we look at a very likely solution to this problem, we must acknowledge that these genealogies serve slightly different functions in these two Gospels. Though there are four Gospels in the Bible, all telling the same general story of Jesus, they differ in details, structure, and themes. These differences do not mean they contradict each other; rather, the four Gospels complement one another. This fourfold depiction of Jesus enriches our understanding of who he is and what he did for us.

Matthew starts his Gospel with this sentence: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Interestingly, the second word in the original Greek is geneseōs, which might intentionally evoke the beginning of the Bible, the book of Genesis, along with its tôledôt formula: “These are the generations…” (Gen. 2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2). The Gospels of Mark and John also recall the beginning of Genesis.

More clearly, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. In other words, he wants us to know that Jesus is the long-awaited offspring promised to Abraham (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; cf. Gal. 3:16) and the long-awaited son of David (2 Sam. 7:12-16). Jesus is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, and he is the fulfillment of the covenant God made with David. This is part of Matthew’s emphasis on fulfillment (Matt. 1:22; 2:15, 17, 23; 3:15; 4:14; 5:17; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:54, 56; 27:9). Matthew is highlighting the fact that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah.

Matthew’s arrangement of this genealogy is clearly intentional, for he eliminates some names. In verse 8, he moves from Joram to Uzziah, though we know from 1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles that Ahaziah, Joash, and Amaziah reigned in between Joram and Uzziah. Matthew is clearly doing this for a purpose. (We should note that “was the father of” [egennēsen] can be used of forefathers, such as grandfathers and great-grandfathers.) Perhaps it is to accommodate his three groups of fourteen generations. As Craig Blomberg explains, “Even though the Old Testament mentions several additional ancestors, Matthew arranges his names into three groups of fourteen, with David as the fourteenth. In Hebrew the gematria (the sum of the numerical equivalents of the consonants in a word) for David was 14 (D+V+D = 4+6+4). Given the popularity of various creative uses of gematria in ancient Judaism, Matthew may well have employed this device to stylize his genealogy and stress Jesus as Son of David.”[3]

Vern Poythress observes something else in Matthew’s genealogy: there are some alternate spellings of the names of kings. This is not an error, as it preserves the same referents (the same individuals) and, as anyone who has read the Bible knows, often people have different names by which they are known. But Matthew might have had deeper theological purposes for these spellings:

By spelling “Asa” as “Asaph,” Matthew refers to king Asa, the son of Abijah; at the same time, on top of this main connection, it creates a literary allusion to or reminiscence of Asaph, of the tribe of Levi, the head of the Levitical singers (1 Chron. 25:1). This allusion subtly suggests that Jesus is not only literally the heir to the kingly line of David, through king Asa, but figuratively and spiritually heir to the Levitical line of priestly activity. By spelling “Amon” as “Amos,” Matthew refers to king Amon, the son of Manasseh and at the same time creates a literary allusion to Amos the prophet. It suggests that Jesus is spiritually the heir to the Old Testament prophets.[4]

This may seem odd to us, but we have no right to demand that Matthew or the other biblical authors write history the way that we would. Any written history is shaped by an author for a particular purpose. This is true of modern biographies as well as ancient ones. The writers of the Gospels shaped their stories according to theological purposes. This does not make their writing any less true or historical.

Luke, on the other hand, does not begin his Gospel with a genealogy. He places his genealogy between two important events in Jesus’ life: his baptism and his temptations in the wilderness. Jesus was baptized to identify himself with sinful humanity, which originated with Adam and Eve and their original sin. This event may also recall the beginning of Jesus: the three persons of the Trinity are present (the Father, the Word [=Jesus], the Spirit). Jesus is, in various ways, depicted in the New Testament as the inauguration of a new creation, one without sin. So, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters at creation (Gen. 1:2), he descends on Jesus while he is in the water of baptism. Just as God declares his creation to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), the Father says of Jesus, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).

After his genealogy, Luke writes of how Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Adam and Eve succumbed to Satan’s temptation in the garden of Eden (Gen. 3:1-6). Israel gave into temptation many times in their wilderness wanderings, between the time of the exodus out of Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land (see the book of Numbers, in particular). Jesus, however, as the true Son of God, did not sin when tempted. It seems that Luke is showing that Jesus is not only the hope of Israel, but the hope of the world. Jesus is the one who will crush Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; cr. Rom. 16:20).

According to I. Howard Marshall, “the point of the genealogy is rather to show that Jesus has his place in the human race created by God. The fact that the genealogy is carried back to Adam, as the son of God, may perhaps point a contrast between this disobedient son of God and the obedient Son of God, Jesus.”[5]

A Solution to an Alleged Contradiction

Some theologians have claimed that Matthew presents Joseph’s genealogy, whereas Luke presents Mary’s. This explanation is unconvincing, however, since both genealogies lead to Joseph. The more likely explanation, one that suits both the Gospel writers’ respective purposes, is that Matthew is presenting a genealogy of the royal heritage of Jesus and Luke is presenting Jesus’ biological genealogy. (Actually, it’s Joseph’s biological genealogy. As Darrell Bock observes, “In the first century, legal status depended on the father, so the most natural way to take the reference to Joseph is as a genealogical reference.”[6]) If Jesus is the true Son of David, the true King, he would be the rightful heir to the throne. So, Matthew indicates this with his genealogy. If Jesus is the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:45) and the offspring of Abraham, he must be a legal descendant. So, Luke indicates that.

How can these genealogies diverge? Shouldn’t these genealogies be one and the same?

Gerald Bray, a British theologian, demonstrates how genealogies can diverge by using an example from his homeland:

To understand just how complex genealogies can be, we need look no further than that of the British royal family. Queen Elizabeth II can trace her ancestry back more or less directly to the accession of George I in 1714, but there is not a straightforward succession from father to son. When we go back to the Tudors (1485-1603) and Stuarts (1603-1714), we find that of the twelve rulers they produced between them, the present queen is descended from only two—Henry VII (1485-1509) and James I (1603-1625). Ironically, although she cannot claim the first Elizabeth as her ancestor, she can include Elizabeth’s great rival, Mary Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth I executed for her pretensions to the throne of England! Legal and physical descent are very different, and if we do not know the details, we might easily think that one (or both) of the competing genealogies had been made up. We do not have the background information we need to decide what the different genealogies of Jesus mean, but the British example is a warning that we must be careful not to draw conclusions that may seem obvious on the surface but that are actually quite mistaken.[7]

Bray includes a footnote to that passage: “Of the eleven monarchs since 1714, George II was succeeded by his grandson (1760), George IV by his brother (1830), William IV by his niece (1837), and Edward VIII by his brother (1936).”[8] The point Bray is making is that biological and royal ancestry are not always one and the same. This historical example demonstrates that the suggestion that Matthew and Luke are using two different genealogies—both true in their own senses—is possible.

If this solution is true, then the royal and biological genealogies converge upon Joseph because the one with the royal heritage (Jacob, listed as Joseph’s father in Matt. 1:16) died childless, and his next of kin would be Joseph. It is possible that Jacob and Heli (Joseph’s actual father, according to Luke 3:23) were related or otherwise very close. Perhaps if Heli had died, Joseph would have become Jacob’s heir. An alternate view here is that Matthan, the father of Jacob, father of Joseph (Matt. 1:15-16) is the same person as Matthat, father of Heli, father of Joseph (Luke 3:23-24). Perhaps Matthan/Matthat have two different fathers listed (Eleazar in Matthew; Levi in Luke) because of a levirate marriage,[9] in which case Eleazar, heir to the royal throne, died with child. Eleazar’s brother Levi then married his widow, and they had Matthan/Matthat as a son, who was the biological child of Levi and the royal heir of Eleazar. Given that scenario, then if Jacob, son of Matthan/Matthat, died without child, his nephew, Joseph, son of Heli, would become his heir. These are but two possible (albeit complicated) ways that these genealogies could converge.[10]

We may ever know exactly why Matthew and Luke use differing genealogies. There may be another proposal that makes better sense of the evidence, or more evidence may come to light in the future. However, there is no reason to assume that we have found a real contradiction here. As is so often the case, the Gospels present different pieces of information that complement, not contradict, each other.

Notes

  1. Simon Blackburn, Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. rev. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 78.
  2. Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b 19-20, in Aristotle in 23 Volumes, vols.17, 18, trans. Hugh Tredennick (Medford, MA: Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1933, 1989).
  3. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 233.
  4. Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 70-71.
  5. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 161.
  6. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 352. I. Howard Marshall adds, “From the legal point of view, Joseph was the earthly father of Jesus, and there was no other way of reckoning his descent” (The Gospel of Luke, 157).
  7. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 565.
  8. Ibid., 565 n. 26.
  9. Details of a levirate marriage are found in Deut. 25:5-10. Vv. 6-7 state, “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” This way, the inheritance and legacy of the man who died without a son could continue.
  10. For more information, see D. A. Carson, Matthew, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 9:88-94.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[1] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century AD.[2] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.[3] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[4] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[5]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era. The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around AD 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century BC, and the oldest manuscript is dated around AD 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 BC, and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[6] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[7] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[8] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[9] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[10]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting.

Notes

  1. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  2. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  3. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  4. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  5. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  6. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  7. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  8. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  9. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  10. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.

Tips on Reading the Bible

1. Start with a good tool. God’s Word is worth more than your house, your car, and your jewelry. It’s worth spending some money on a good Bible. At the least, get a Bible that will last, preferably one with a genuine leather cover. Get a Bible that has cross references, a concordance, and maps. I think it’s also very good to get a study Bible. The notes below the text are not inerrant or infallible, but they help us understand the meaning of the text. I highly recommend the ESV Study Bible. It’s the English Standard Version with notes and articles by many evangelical theologians. The NIV Study Bible is also very helpful. I have heard that the ESV Gospel Transformation Study Bible is a good one, too. There are very few other study Bibles that I would recommend.

2. Read larger chunks of the Bible at once. At a minimum, read one chapter at once. Do not read one verse in isolation. When you read larger chunks of the Bible at once, you understand what is happening in a narrative better, or you understand the flow of an epistle better.

3. Context matters. Don’t take one verse out of context. “A text without context is a pretext for a prooftext.” In other words, if you take one verse out of context, you are probably giving it a wrong meaning. Words gain their meaning in context. So do phrases and sentences. So, don’t read just one verse. Read the verses around it. Understand where one verse fits within the larger plot of the book of the Bible, and understand where that book fits within the whole of the big story of the Bible.

4. Read according to genre. The Bible consists of different genres, or styles, of writing. There are narratives (stories), laws, proverbs, poems (the Psalms and much of the prophets), letters, and apocalyptic writing (the second half of Daniel, some bits of the prophets, and the book of Revelation). You don’t read a recipe the way you read a love letter. You read a history book differently than you read a novel. You don’t think about this, but if you’re a good reader, you read these styles of writing differently. I think the easiest books of the Bible to read, understand, and apply to our lives are the letters of the New Testament. Perhaps the hardest styles of writing to understand are poems and apocalyptic literature.

5. Don’t lose the forest for the trees. Well-intentioned Christians, understanding that the Bible is God’s Word, try to peer into every word for meaning. That’s fine, but first look for the big points of the Bible. As you read a chapter of the Bible, or even a whole book, ask yourself some questions: Why is this here in the Bible? What is God’s purpose for this passage? What does the author intend to communicate to the reader? How does this passage fit into the big story of the Bible?

6. The whole Bible is about Jesus. See Matthew 5:17; Luke 24:27, 44-47; John 5:39, 46. When reading the Old Testament, ask how this passage is about Jesus. Is there a prophecy about Jesus? Does it show the need for Jesus? Is something a type of Jesus? A type (or shadow) is a person, event, or institution that foreshadows the coming of Jesus. The tabernacle, the Passover, sacrifices, miraculous births of children, David slaying Goliath—all of these things anticipate Jesus.

7. Where does this passage fit in the big story of the Bible? Is it before sin entered the world or after? Is it a passage about the Israelites “under the law”? Is it in the New Testament? This affects how you understand and apply the passage.

8. What does this passage teach about God? Some people jump to application, how they can live in light of this passage. But the problem with that approach is that the Bible is not primarily about us. God is the central character of the Bible. First, try to understand what the Bible teaches about God. Then, try to understand what it says about humans. After that, ask how the passage affects your life.

9. Remember that the Bible wasn’t written directly to us. The Bible was written anywhere from almost two thousand years ago to almost thirty-five hundred years ago. This means the Bible will contain some things that the original audiences understand that we don’t understand. These things can involve cultural practices, idioms, and symbols that we don’t understand. The same thing is true of our own language today. We understand what it means for someone to say, “He really hit a home run today.” But Moses wouldn’t have understood that; neither would David or Paul. A good study Bible will help you understand many of these issues. But study Bibles don’t cover everything.

10. You won’t understand everything when you read the Bible. I don’t intend for that to discourage you. Much of what you read in the Bible will be easy to understand. But not everything. And that’s okay. You will understand more and more as you keep reading. The more times you read through the Bible, the more you will understand it. It’s a process. If you understand this up front, you won’t be as discouraged.

11. Write down any questions you have. If you have a question, and you can’t find the answer in any resources you have, write the question down. Don’t spend all day worrying about it. You can always come back to the question later. Or, you can ask your pastor if he knows the answer. He may not know the answer, but he can look it up for you, or give you a resource so you can look it up yourself.

12. Be cautious about using the Internet. If you type a question into a search engine online, you will find a lot of answers. Some may be helpful. Some may even be right answers. But the Internet also has a lot of worthless stuff, particularly when it comes to the Bible.

13. Read a good book on how to understand the Good Book. The following titles are recommended. (The same list appears on WBCC’s website.)

Mark Dever, What Does God Want of Us Anyway? An Overview of the Whole Bible
Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth
George Guthrie, Read the Bible for Life
Tremper Longman, Reading the Bible with Heart & Mind
Robert Plummer, 40 Questions about Interpreting the Bible
Vaughan Roberts, God’s Big Picture
Robert Stein, Playing by the Rules: A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible
Michael Williams, How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens

14. Meditate on the passage. Don’t just read the passage, check it off your to-do list, and move on. Think about it. Think about how it should affect your life. Think about it during the day. Dwell on it.

15. Finally, pray over the passage. Pray before you read. Ask God to help you understand what you’re reading. After reading, pray that God would help you live your life in light of the passage. Let God’s Word mold and shape your head, heart, and hands.

Evidence for the Resurrection

The following is a longer version of a case for the evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. You can read a shorter version here. You can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Son of God, the Messiah, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know that his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4; notice also the presence of all three Persons in the Trinity in that verse).[1] In that way, the resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). According to theologian Wayne Grudem, “By raising Christ from the dead, God the Father was in effect saying that he approved of Christ’s work of suffering and dying for our sins, that his work was completed, and that Christ no longer had any need to remain dead. There was no penalty left to pay for sin, no more wrath of God to bear, no more guilt of liability to punishment—all had been completely paid for, and no guilt remained.”[2] Similarly, Tim Keller writes, “Jesus had risen, just as he told them he would. After a criminal does his time in jail and satisfies the sentence, the law has no more claim on him and he walks out free. Jesus Christ came to pay the penalty for our sins. That was an infinite sentence, but he must have satisfied it fully, because on Easter Sunday he walked out free. The resurrection was God’s way of stamping paid in full right across history so that nobody could miss it.”[3]

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures ours. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history (as opposed to revivified, which is what happened to Lazarus and a handful of others who were brought back to life, only to die again), all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns. Like Jesus, we will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shos that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17-19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too.

Unfortunately for us, we can’t go back and time and see what happened. Like any historical event, we don’t have access to it. And like all historical events before the advent of photography and video, we can’t see it. Sometimes we have physical, archaeological evidence; sometimes we do not. Often, we must rely solely on the reporting of eyewitnesses and ancient historians. Fortunately for us, there is excellent evidence that the resurrection of Jesus Christ is an historical event. In order to understand this evidence, we’ll look at various sources, and then conclude what historical facts can be known about the death and literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus. There are three broad categories of sources: the New Testament, extra-biblical Christian writings, and non-Christian historical documents.

Why We Can Trust the New Testament

The best sources for knowing Jesus are the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. It would be a mistake to say that the New Testament is one witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Rather, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven separate documents, written by nine different authors (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, the unknown author of Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude). These authors did not sit down together and decide what they were going to write about. In other words, they didn’t conspire to write a myth or a legend, something they knew to be false. Rather, each one wrote, independently of the others, about what they had seen and heard, and what God revealed to them. We know that they didn’t write together because sometimes they had significant disagreements, as can be seen in Galatians 2:11.

The amazing thing is that these authors produced a very cohesive, unified document. And they did this while writing at different times, from different places, to different locations. This is what James White calls “multifocality.”[4] If the authors of these books were not inspired by God to write these books, they would not be so unified in thought. To understand the importance of having multiple witnesses writing in multiple locations, to multiple destinations, at various times, we can compare the origin of the New Testament to the origin of the Qur’an or the Book of Mormon and other works that Joseph Smith wrote. The story of the Qur’an is that the angel Gabriel supposedly appeared to Muhammad and revealed certain teachings, which he recited to his community. These teachings were memorized and written down after Muhammad’s death. Similarly, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a message from an angel, who revealed to him golden plates that only he could read, through the assistance of “seer stones.” He then translated the “Reformed Egyptian” of those plates into English. These stories are rather suspicious because they both involve one man and an angel. By contrast, the New Testament was written by several men, who saw God in the flesh. Jesus had a public ministry, died in public, and appeared to many individuals after his resurrection.

I should also add that we are quite certain that all of the books of the New Testament were written in the first century A.D.[5] Most of the New Testament was likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.[6] It is also important to know that various other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Judas come from the second century or later. Additionally, we should observe that the authors of the New Testament were some of the original twelve disciples (Matthew, John, Peter), two of Jesus’ brothers (James, Jude), an apostle to whom the risen Jesus appeared (Paul), and those closely related to the apostles. Mark was closely related to Peter (1 Peter 5:13) and tradition states that his Gospel is based on Peter’s recollections. Mark also travelled with Paul (Acts 12:25; 13:5). Luke was another of Paul’s travel companions (see the “we” passages in Acts, which was written by Luke, beginning with Acts 16:10). Both Mark and Luke are mentioned by name in Colossians 4 (verses 10 and 14, respectively) and 2 Timothy 4:11. We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is, but he surely had access to the apostles, for he mentions Timothy, who was the disciple of Paul (Hebrews 13:23).

In addition to the above observations, we can test the historical reliability of the New Testament using three criteria.[7] The first is bibliographical test, which seeks to confirm whether the text we now have is an accurate representation of the original New Testament books. (Bear in mind that these books were written by hand, and copied by hand, until the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. We don’t have the original copies—the autographs—of these books, but that is no cause for concern, since we don’t have the original copy of any book from the ancient world.) The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[8]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates to around nine hundred years later.[9] The New Testament is the best-attested collection of documents from antiquity. This fact doesn’t prove that the content of these books is historically accurate, but it does give us confidence that we have access to the content of the original New Testament documents. These thousands of manuscripts assist those in textual criticism, the practice of removing transcription errors from manuscripts until the original content is restored.

The second test is the internal test: do the documents claim to be history? Luke claims that his Gospel was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4), and the sequel to this book, Acts, picks up where the first book left off. Peter and John also claim to report what they have personally witnessed (2 Peter 1:16-18; 1 John 1:1-3) and Paul states that the gospel he taught was received through a revelation by Jesus and confirmed by visiting Peter and James in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:11-19).

The third test is external: are the contents of the New Testament verified through other writings and through archaeological evidence? The writings of the early Church Fathers, as well as non-Christian historians such as Josephus and Tacitus, confirm some of the details of the New Testament. While we do not have archaeological evidence for every event in the New Testament, there is no such evidence that refutes what we read in its pages. Many of the historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[10] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13-28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[11] Additionally, precise locations in Jerusalem mentioned in John’s Gospel, such as the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the pool of Siloam (John 9:7) have been discovered, revealing that John had a very accurate knowledge of Jerusalem.

Two more observations about Scripture: The Bible stands up to the criterion of embarrassment, a test that is used to determine whether a document is reliable. If a text has potentially embarrassing details, it is assumed that they are reported because the author is committed to telling the truth and is not concerned with how the truth might appear. Many of the great figures in the Bible, from Moses to David to disciples like Peter, are depicted as very flawed individuals. This is particularly true of the disciples, who are shown to be dim-witted (Mark 9:32; Luke 18:34; John 12:16), not concerned about Jesus (they fall asleep while he is praying to God the Father—Mark 14:32-41), wrong in their theology (Jesus rebukes Peter, calling him “Satan”—Mark 8:33), and cowardly, fleeing from Jesus when he is arrested (Matt. 26:56) and denying knowing him (Matt. 26:69-75). The way Jesus is depicted could be construed as embarrassing, for he is called “out of his mind” (Mark 3:21), a “drunkard” (Matt. 11:19), demon-possessed (John 7:20; 8:48), and “insane” (John 10:20). (To be clear, Jesus was none of these things, but he was—and is—often misunderstood.) Add to these potentially embarrassing some very difficult teachings of Jesus, and it is very hard to imagine anyone fabricating this story.

The second additional observation about Scripture is that the Gospels and Acts seem to be historical reporting. It is true that these books contain amazing details, such as Jesus supernaturally multiplying food, raising people from the dead, casting out demons, and so forth. Yet the Gospels and Acts show amazing restraint, even as they report such details. One only need compare these books to later works like the Gospel of Peter to see the difference between historical reporting and fantastical legend. Those who have studied the Gospels and Greco-Roman biographies (bioi) have recognized similarities between the two.[12] C. S. Lewis put it this way: “All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I’m prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff.”[13]

So, the New Testament claims to be history, has external evidence to support its claims, is the best-attested collection of documents in ancient history, has details no one would make up, and appears to be historical reporting. What does it say about Jesus’ resurrection?

Evidence from the New Testament

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).The practice of crucifixion is well attested in various Roman histories.[14] Death on a cross was reserved for the worst criminals, and it was carried out by Roman soldiers who knew how to kill. The four Gospels leave no doubt that Jesus died.

The Gospels also report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62-66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1-10; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24:1-12; John 20:1-10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13-30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36-40; John 20:19-20, 26-27). His body bore the wounds of crucifixion (Luke 24:40; John 20:20, 27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12-14). Ghosts or hallucinations can’t be touched and they can’t eat, let alone cook breakfast. Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:9).

A summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances is as follows:

1. Mary Magdalene (John 20:10-18)

2. Mary and the other women (Matt. 28:1-10)

3. Peter (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:5)

4. two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-15)

5. ten apostles (Luke 24:36-39)

6. eleven apostles (John 20:24-31)

7. seven apostles (John 21)

8. all of the apostles (Matt. 28:16-20)

9. five hundred disciples (1 Cor. 15:6)

10. James (1 Cor. 15:7)

11. again to all the apostles (Acts 1:4-8)

12. the apostle Paul (Acts 9:1-9; 1 Cor. 15:8; 9:1).[15]

The last person on that list is the apostle Paul. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul witnesses to the resurrection several times in his letters. What is interesting is that many of Paul’s letters were written before the Gospels, and various New Testament scholars believe that even within these letters, Paul uses teachings that date to the first few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

For example, Paul wrote the letter to the Romans around A.D. 55-58. Jesus most likely died in A.D. 30, though many believe the year was 33. (Given the data we have, either year is possible.) Within twenty-five years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul wrote this letter. At the beginning of the letter, he writes:

who was born from the seed of David according to the flesh;
who was declared the Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead. (Romans 1:3b-4a)

Because of the language used here (in the original Greek), many scholars believe Paul is quoting an early creed or hymn regarding Jesus, one that goes back to the earliest years of Christianity. The parallel structure of the lines (there are two parallel relative clauses; “who was born/who was declared” are both aorist participles in the genitive case in Greek; both lines have “according to”) as well as other details in the language indicate that this was an early hymn from the church in Jerusalem and was approved by the apostles Peter, James, and John.[16]

In a similar way, Paul passes on to the Corinthians an early teaching regarding the resurrection that he most likely received from the Jerusalem apostles. This passage is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas,
then to the twelve.
Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time,
(most of whom are still alive, although some have fallen asleep).
Then he appeared to James,
then to all the apostles.
Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

I have arranged the text in such a way as to bring out its parallel structure. Notice there are four “that” phrases and four “then” phrases (ὅτι and εἶτα/ἔπειτα, respectively, in the Greek). Paul also uses technical terms (“delivered” and “received”) to indicate that this teaching was a tradition that he received from others. This letter was written in A.D. 54 or 55, but this particular teaching is even closer to the resurrection. Given that Paul converted to Christianity within a few short years after Jesus’ death,[17] and that he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem three years later (Gal. 1:18), it seems quite possible that Paul received this early teaching regarding the resurrection from eyewitnesses, four to six years after the event took place.[18]

It is important to observe the early dates of these teachings because there have been many skeptics who claim that the teachings of Christianity are myths that developed over time. They may grant that Jesus was a real person who died by crucifixion. But these skeptics claim that Jesus’ followers invented many elements of the Gospels, including his resurrection. However, these early teachings show that the resurrection of Jesus was taught from the beginning, and that it was not a legend created by subsequent generations.

We should also note that both Romans and 1 Corinthians were public letters, meant to be read aloud to a broad audience (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Paul mentions several resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians including Peter (or Cephas, the Aramaic rendering of his name), “the twelve” (the corporate title of the original disciples of Jesus, though the actual number was eleven, since Judas committed suicide after betraying Jesus), James, and five hundred others, many of whom are still alive some twenty-five years later. Paul is indicating that if people have questions about whether the resurrection actually happened, they can go talk to these witnesses. (There are several individuals, some of whom served as minor figures in the Gospels, who are named quite specifically in those books. It is believed that the naming of so many people was one way that the Gospel writers sought to authenticate their biographies of Jesus.)

Paul’s writings, his sermons in Acts, and claims of the Gospels all attest to some basic facts regarding Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. William Lane Craig provides the following table to help us see that fact.[19]

1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Acts 13:28-31 Mark 15:37-16:7
Christ died . . . Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.
he was buried . . . they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tom And he [Joseph] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb.
he was raised . . . But God raised him from the dead . . . “He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him.”
he appeared . . . . . . and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him.”

The New Testament is well-attested, its contents are verified by external sources, it contains teachings that come from years right after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it circulated quickly throughout the Roman Empire. Additionally, there are no contemporary non-Christian writings that state that this Jesus did not exist, or that he did not die, or that he did not rise again. If there were evidence contradicting the claims of Christianity, it could have been brought to the light, and Christianity never would have survived. If there was a tomb that contained Jesus’ remains, this evidence could have easily refuted the preaching of the apostles. However, no such evidence exists. However, we do have some evidence from non-Christians that tells us about Jesus.

Extra-biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. We do not know the exact time when Clement lived, but he was bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. It is possible that he is the Clement mentioned in Philippians 4:3 (written by Paul around A.D. 60) and it is also possible that he knew Peter. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.”[20] Later, he writes, “The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand.”[21] This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is A.D. 95-97. Either way, we have another witness to the resurrection from within seventy years of Jesus’ death.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. A.D. 69-c. 155, according to traditional dates). He died for the Christian faith at the age of 86. In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “‘For whosoever does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is antichrist;’ and whosoever does not confess the testimony of the cross, is of the devil; and whosoever perverts the oracles of the Lord to his own lusts, and says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.”[22] Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance. Irenaeus, a Church Father of the second century, claimed that Polycarp was taught by the apostles, particularly John.[23] Therefore, his testimony is based on eyewitnesses such as John.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37-c. 100) lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus twice mentions Jesus. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[24] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, there have been some interpolations added to the text by Christians who desired to possess a stronger historical witness to Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[25]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah (and there were several of them) and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.

The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56-117) also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports of Nero’s blaming the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[26]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61 – c. 112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98-117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship: “They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.”[27] While this passage, written around A.D. 111, does not speak directly to the historicity of the resurrection, it does show that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.” There would be no Christian faith without the resurrection, and Jesus would not be considered divine if he had remained in the tomb.

There are further mentions of Christ or Christianity by other non-Christian writers such as Suetonius, who reports that Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49 because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” again, another reference to Jesus.[28] Apparently tensions between Jews and Christians led to the emperor’s decision to remove Jews from the city, an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “wise king.”[29]

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later had claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. The Church grew quickly and spread to Rome. And Christianity continues to thrive today.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian or atheistic bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (a refusal to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if we consider that Jesus was God in the flesh, why should we suppose that God could not perform miracles? The incarnation (when the Son of God became the God-man, Jesus) is itself a miracle, and a one-time event in history. Why assume that Jesus’ life would not be accompanied by miraculous actions, such as healing the blind, bringing the dead back to life (temporarily, not permanently, as in the resurrection), and rising from the grave, never to die again? It seems more reasonable to assume that if Jesus is God, the one through whom the Father created the universe out of nothing, he would be able to do whatever he wanted to do. If Jesus is God, then we should expect some that historical reporting about his life would be full of amazing and fascinating details. We wouldn’t expect a boring story of highly ordinary events.

Once we allow the Bible to speak for itself, we learn so much more about Jesus. We learn about his identity as the Son of God, the Son of David (through his human lineage), the Messiah, and as God himself. When we allow the Bible to speak, we start to understand so much more about Jesus. We begin to understand that Jesus became man so he could die for our sins. He had to do this because only one who is truly God and truly man could serve as the perfect, eternal sacrifice. He took the penalty for sin that we deserve and in return we are counted righteous because of his moral perfection.

It is interesting to note twelve facts that the vast majority of biblical scholars,who range from conservative Christians to atheists, agree upon. These facts are listed by Gary Habermas, a philosopher and an expert on the resurrection.

1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.

2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.

3. Soon afterwards, the disciples were discouraged, bereaved, and despondent, having lost hope.

4. Jesus’ tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.

5. The disciples had experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.

6. Due to these experiences, the disciples’ lives were thoroughly transformed. They were even willing to die for their belief.

7. The proclamation of the Resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of church history.

8. The disciples’ public testimony and preaching of the Resurrection took place in the city of Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and buried shortly before.

9. The gospel message centered on the preaching of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.

11. James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic before this time, was converted when he believed he also saw the risen Jesus.

12. Just a few years later, Saul of Tarsus (Paul) became a Christian believer, due to an experience that he also believed was an appearance of the risen Jesus.[30]

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

It should be obvious by this point that if the above facts are true, then only a supernatural cause can account for the resurrection, because dead men don’t come back to life through natural causes. Jesus actually died, and was raised back to life by God. As Peter said, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. . . . This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses” (Acts 2:24, 32). According to Habermas, “That Jesus died and that afterward his early followers thought they saw him again are both held by virtually all critical scholars, including agnostics. Most critical scholars also concede that natural alternative hypotheses are unable to explain these data.”[31] If natural hypotheses fail, then a supernatural hypothesis should be accepted.

Another reason to trust the historicity of the resurrection concerns the Jewish expectation of resurrection. A general resurrection was prophesied in Daniel 12:2: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” However, no one was expecting the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. We can see this in John 11, when Jesus is speaking to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, who has recently died. Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again. She says, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus responds, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:24-25).

Though the resurrection of the “Suffering Servant” is hinted at in Isaiah 53:10-11, and though Jesus told his disciples that he would die and be raised on the third day, it seems that even they did not expect a resurrection. Several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16-17; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:24-25). My point is that the Jewish people were not anticipating the resurrection of the Messiah, and even the disciples were not expecting it. Therefore, it is unlikely that anyone would make up this event.

We can even add that Jews did not expect God to become a man. Their conception of the Messiah was a human, political deliverer. Though they expected God to vindicate them, they could hardly have imagined that God would become a man, and that this God-man would be put to death.

Even though the whole story of Jesus, from the incarnation to his death to his resurrection, seems unexpected, it was prophesied many times in Scripture. The prophecies of Jesus’ death and resurrection are particularly subtle. Two examples are Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53.[32] These passages were written roughly one thousand and seven hundred years, respectively, before Jesus’ death and resurrection. If you read these passages, you will see that they point forward to Jesus, but they do so in subtle—not blatant and fictitious—ways.

If the resurrection of Jesus were a tale that someone created, then the first witnesses of the empty tomb and of Jesus would not be women. The Christian philosopher J. P. Moreland observes: “In first-century Judaism, a woman’s testimony was virtually worthless. A woman was not allowed to give testimony in a court of law except on rare occasions. No one would have invented a story and made women the first witnesses to the empty tomb. . . . The fact is included in the Gospels because the Gospels are attempting to describe what actually happened.”[33] If someone made this story up, he or she would have had respected men be the first witnesses, not a group of women.

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they are sincere but rather thick-headed. When Jesus was arrested, they all fled (Matthew 26:56). Jesus had selected a bunch of “nobodies.” In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the court of Jewish leaders, the disciples were “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13). Yet these men were transformed into bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. (In fact, many of them did die for their faith.) What could account for this transformation, other than the resurrection of Jesus (and the subsequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit)?

In a similar fashion, there is the conversion of Saul/Paul from a Pharisee who helped persecute the Church (Acts 7:58; 8:1-3; 9:1-2) to a bold witness for Christ who established churches throughout the Roman Empire and died as a martyr in Rome. Paul’s witnessing of the risen Jesus and his dramatic conversion are told in Acts 9 and alluded to in his letters. In 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul called his former self a “blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” and the foremost of sinners. What could account for this transformation other than an encounter with the living Christ?

Jesus’ own brothers were also converted to Christianity. During his ministry, they did not believe that he was the Son of God and the Messiah. It is unclear why this is so. Perhaps Mary and Joseph decided not to tell their younger children that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit (making Jesus, technically speaking, their half brother). Perhaps they were told that story and still didn’t believe. Their unbelief is reported in Mark 3:20-35; 6:2-6; and John 7:1-5. The Gospels do not lead us to believe that they were among Jesus’ followers or present at his death. Yet in Acts 1:14, after Jesus’ ascension, Mary and Jesus’ brothers are with the disciples. James became the leader of the Jerusalem church and authored the letter bearing his name. Jude also wrote a letter found in the New Testament. Paul tells us that the resurrected Jesus appeared to James (1 Cor. 15:7), and it was perhaps this appearance that was instrumental in his conversion.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity grew out of a religion that had a non-Trinitarian, monotheistic view of God; a heavy emphasis on worship at the temple and on the Sabbath; animal sacrifice; circumcision; strict dietary laws; and many other laws regarding physical purity. Christianity, on the other hand, while still monotheistic, says that the one God exists eternally in three Persons. Christianity taught that Jesus himself was the temple (the dwelling place of God with human beings, the “place” of worship, and the “place” of atonement) and that now the Church is the temple. Christians shifted their day of worship from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day, Sunday, in honor of the day Jesus rose from the grave. Christianity acknowledges that Jesus was the final and ultimate sacrifice for sin, that circumcision is no longer necessary, that all foods are clean, and that other laws regarding what is clean or unclean are no longer in effect. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection.

Objections

There have been a number of objections offered to the resurrection. Those who do not believe in Jesus have offered up alternative explanations for what happened.

One hypothesis is that Jesus’ followers were hallucinating when they had experiences of seeing Jesus after his death. Given the fact that Jesus appeared to several different groups of people several times over a period of forty days, this explanation is hard to believe. When people hallucinate, it is a personal and subjective experience. How could many people have the same hallucination repeatedly? According to Michael Licona, “Since hallucinations are mental events with no external referent, one cannot share in the hallucinations of another.”[34] Additionally, when people hallucinate, they often see what they had previously believed. As we have shown, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to rise from the grave. Furthermore, hallucinations can’t be touched and they usually don’t eat food and cook breakfast!

Some people believe that the witnesses went to the wrong tomb and found it empty. This is not possible because the women saw exactly where Jesus was buried and they returned to the same tomb on the third day. It was also the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin. If a claim that his tomb, which once contained the corpse of Jesus, was empty, it could easily be disproved. A tomb with Jesus’ remains was all that was needed to refute the apostles’ preaching on the resurrection. But no such tomb, and no corpse, was ever found. Habermas states, “The Jewish leaders in Jerusalem had the power, motive, and location to investigate thoroughly the proclamation of the resurrection appearances. They knew of Jesus’s [sic] death and his burial. Though they were ideally situated to expose the error, they did not refute the evidence.”[35]

Others have suggested that Jesus didn’t actually die, but only appeared to die on the cross. This explanation is known as the swoon theory. The Qur’an claims as much when it says, “That they [the Jews] said (in boast), ‘We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Apostle of Allah’—but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not— Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise.”[36] The Qur’an was written six hundred years after Jesus’ death, and is not, therefore, a reliable witness. To paraphrase Shakespeare, the Qur’an doth protest too much, methinks.

As with the previous explanations, this is extremely unlikely, runs counter to the evidence (even the non-Christian ancient historians believed Jesus died), and is not held by serious scholars today. We must remember that Jesus was severely beaten and scourged before the crucifixion. Scourging was known to tear flesh off a body. Josephus reports a man being whipped until his bones were laid bare.[37] Jesus likely suffered a significant loss of blood on the way to the cross. He was also probably extremely tired and weak from not sleeping all night and not eating since the Last Supper. After he died, it is reported that the Roman soldiers pierced his side to verify his death (John 19:34). In all of ancient history, there is only one report of a person surviving crucifixion. This came when Josephus remembered three of his friends who were crucified. He asked Titus, the Roman commander, to release them. Even after receiving the greatest medical care, two of the three died.[38] By contrast, Jesus was not rescued prior to his death, which was verified by the Roman soldiers (who certainly knew how to kill someone). Even if he were released from the cross prior to dying, he would probably not receive the greatest medical care, and the fact that he already was tired and was scourged would make his survival highly unlikely.

Consider what three medical doctors wrote in an article on the crucifixion in the Journal of the American Medical Association:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right rib, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[39]

If Jesus did not actually die, he would have been sealed in a tomb for roughly thirty-six hours without medical attention, food, or water. Are we to believe he survived over that span of time? Could he have opened the tomb and found the strength to walk to his disciples? To believe such a thing is absurd in light of the evidence.

Some people believe the disciples may have stolen the body. In fact, the Pharisees and the chief priests were worried about this, so they asked Pilate for a guard of soldiers to secure the tomb (Matthew 27:62-66). After Jesus rose, the chief priests bribed the soldiers to spread this lie (Matthew 28:11-15). Interestingly, the Church Fathers Justin Martyr and Tertullian reported that this was still what Jewish leaders were claiming, even into the third century.[40] The idea that the cowardly disciples could get past a contingent of Roman soldiers and open a sealed tomb is rather unbelievable. Equally unbelievable is the idea that they would propagate something they knew to be a lie without anyone one of them confessing the truth under threat of torture or death. Would all of the disciples be willing to die for their faith? Liars make poor martyrs.

Regarding the idea that the resurrection was a myth created by the disciples, consider the words of Blaise Pascal:

The hypothesis that the apostles were knaves is quite absurd. Follow it out to the end and imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny this story under these circumstances, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[41]

It is hard to believe that the disciples could have conspired to create a story about a resurrection and not yielded to confessing the truth under pressure, persecution, and threats of death. It is harder to believe that many of them, such as Peter, James, and Paul, would have died for a lie.

Other theories have been advanced, such as a substitute (perhaps a secret twin brother?) died on the cross and not Jesus. These theories are equally unbelievable, and no serious scholars—whether atheists or agnostics—maintain them. Lately, it has become popular to say that Jesus didn’t even exist, and that the whole story of Jesus is based on other myths. Given the evidence that we have already examined, it should suffice to say that some people would rather imagine elaborate conspiracies instead of embracing the truth. Many people will not believe the truth regardless of how much evidence has been offered, because they do not want to believe that Jesus is who the Bible says he is.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. It is one of the best-attested facts in ancient history. The only question left is, Will you believe it?

Notes

  1. All Scripture quoted herein, unless otherwise noted, is taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 615.
  3. Timothy Keller, King’s Cross (New York: Dutton, 2011), 219.
  4. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 307.
  5. For information on the dates of the books of the New Testament, see D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005).
  6. It is difficult to date most of the books with precision, but analysis of internal and external evidence assists those who try to determine when they were written. Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Paul’s letter, Peter’s letters, and Hebrews were surely written before this time. James seems to have been written as early as the middle or late 40s. Jude was probably written around the 50s or 60s. All of John’s writings (John, 1-3 John, Revelation) were likely written in the 80s and 90s.
  7. J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 134.
  8. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  9. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  10. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80-93.
  11. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256-59.
  12. Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 202-04.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967, 209, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 311.
  14. For more information on crucifixion, see Martin, Hengel, Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, translated by John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).
  15. This list is found in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 546. Groothuis says he owes the list to Kenneth Samples, Without a Doubt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2004), 137.
  16. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 220-21.
  17. Paul saw the risen Jesus and converted to Christianity possibly in 32 A.D. or 34 A.D. ), within two years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, according to John B. Polhill, Paul and His Letters (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1999), 80.
  18. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 231.
  19. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 363.
  20. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 24, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 11.
  21. Clement of Rome, 1 Clement 42, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 16.
  22. Polycarp of Smryna, The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians 7, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts et al., 34.
  23. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 254.
  24. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  25. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  26. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, eds. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  27. Pliny the Younger, To the Emperor Trajan, < http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html>.
  28. Suetonius, Claudius 25, <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Suet.+Cl.+25&fromdoc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0132#>.
  29. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, trans. B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  30. Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus and Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003, 9-10, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 299-300.
  31. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection and Agnosticism,” in Reasons for Faith: Making a Case for the Christian Faith, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Chad V. Meister (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), 292.
  32. There are many websites where you can read the Bible. Good websites include www.biblia.com, www.biblegateway.com, and www.youversion.com.
  33. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 168.
  34. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 484.
  35. Gary R. Habermas, “The Resurrection Appearances of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 175.
  36. Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an, Surah 4.157-58, Electronic version. (2004).
  37. Josephus, Jewish Wars 6.304.
  38. Josephus, Life 420-21.
  39. William D. Edwards, Welsey J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association 255, no. 11 (March 21, 1986): 1463, quoted in Geisler and Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist, 305.
  40. Gary R. Habermas, “The Empty Tomb of Jesus,” in Evidence for God, ed. William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 170.
  41. Blaise Pascal, Pensées 310/801, ed. and trans. Alban Krailsheimer (New York: Penguin, 1966), 125, quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 558.

The Problem of Evil

By Brian Watson

Introduction

Evil is a problem for everyone. No matter which religion one believes or which worldview one holds, the presence of evil in the world creates a logical and existential quandary for all. For Christians, the very existence of evil can produce doubt and, in the realm of apologetics, can be something of an embarrassment. When Christians share and defend their faith, it is quite common for non-Christians to raise the so-called “problem of evil,” either as a real hindrance to belief in God, or as a smoke-screen employed to avoid a conversation concerning matters of faith. As John Feinberg has observed, “Probe an atheist or agnostic deeply enough about why they doubt God’s existence, and he or she will likely recount for you the problem of evil.”[1] Atheists often allege that the existence of evil in the world disproves the existence of God, which is why the problem of evil is sometimes known as the “rock of atheism.”[2]

David Hume (1711-1776) captured the problem of evil rather famously: “Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance, surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”[3] Hume’s clear implication is an almighty and benevolent God and evil cannot coexist. There are many different versions of the problem of evil, including the logical problem of evil, the evidential problem of evil, and the existential or religious problem of evil. These versions of the problem of evil state, respectively, that the existence of any evil, the existence of a great amount of evil, or the existence of seemingly gratuitous evils are not compatible with the existence of the God of the Bible, who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. The problem of evil, in all its iterations, presents a significant intellectual and existential problem to the Christian theist. But it also presents an opportunity to share one’s faith, and to show that the problem of evil, instead of defeating the Christian worldview, actually supports it.

The problem of evil is an extensive topic that cannot be examined in full in this paper, given its limited space. While others have probed, for example, J. L. Mackie’s logical problem and William Rowe’s evidential problem of evil,[4] my goal is more modest. I intend to show that (1) the problem of evil is a greater problem for atheists and agnostics than it is for Christians, and (2) the Christian faith, while it does not answer all of our questions regarding evil, provides the solution to the problem of evil, a reason to trust God, and a hope that makes life worth living.

A Problem for Everyone—Particularly for Atheists

As stated above, the presence of evil in the world is a problem for everyone. Death awaits us all and claims our loved ones. Some die through natural evils, such as earthquakes and floods. Others are murdered, their lives claimed by human evil. Each one of us experiences evil on some level, and this experience produces within us a sense of indignation. According to Henri Blocher, evil is “an unjustifiable reality,” a “disorder” that “oppresses and is oppressive.”[5] Though it is difficult to define evil, we all know it when we see it. We might say that evil is a distortion of the way things ought to be.

This last statement brings us to a very significant thought, one often ignored by atheists. In order to call something evil, we must first have a sense of how things ought to be. Evil has been called a parasite on an antecedent good, much like rust on a car, rot in a tree, or a hole in a garment.[6] To know that an earthquake is evil, or that murder is evil, would require living in a world where no earthquakes or murder exist. Yet none of us have lived in such a world. There must, then, be some other way of detecting evil. Of course, the Bible tells us that God has implanted within each of us a conscience that can detect such things (Rom. 2:15). As “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes writes, God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11). Christians can state confidently that God has given everyone a sense of how things ought to be, and things such as earthquakes and murder run contrary to that sense. Furthermore, the Bible stands as a witness to the evil in the world. Protests against evil are found throughout Scripture, particularly in the Psalms, Job, Lamentations, and Habakkuk.

While the Christian can easily justify his or her knowledge of evil, the atheist has a much harder time, for to detect evil, one has to have a sense of the antecedent good that evil has distorted.[7] Those who use the problem of evil in an attempt to disprove Christianity often possess a naturalistic worldview, which denies God. Yet those who deny God have trouble establishing the basis for an objective moral standard, one which is necessary to determine what is good and what is evil. As James Sire observes, “Naturalists who deny the existence of any transcendent, personal God cannot successfully solve the problem of good. They cannot explain why there is a difference between right and wrong.”[8]

One of the key features of naturalism is evolution, which supposedly explains the development of all life forms, which have descended from a common ancestor. One of the key things for a Christian to recognize is that the theory of evolution requires evil, specifically death and even violence. Consider the following summary of evolution:

Nature is extremely prolific. It produces many more offspring of any given species than can possibly survive. Because of a shortage of the necessities of life, there is competition. The best, the strongest, the most adaptive survive; the others do not. As a result, there is a gradual upgrading of the species. In addition, mutations occur. These are sudden variations, novel features that did not appear in the earlier generations of a species. Of the many mutations that occur, most are useless, even detrimental, but a few are truly helpful in the competitive struggle. At the end of a long process of natural selection and useful mutations humans arrived on the scene. They are organisms of great complexity and superior abilities, not because someone planned and made them that way, but because these features enabled them to survive.[9]

Notice the emphasis placed on competition. According to Charles Darwin, the evolutionary mechanism requires the reality of death, of predation. Without such things, there would be no need for adaption and the survival of the fittest. In fact, if there were no such thing as death or violence, evolution would not have generated human beings, and we would not be here to debate the issue of evil.

Tim Keller makes a similar observation. First, he acknowledges the problem of evil. “Horrendous, inexplicable suffering, though it cannot disprove God, is nonetheless a problem for the believer in the Bible. However, it is perhaps an even greater problem for nonbelievers.”[10] So evil is a problem for everyone, because all of us realize evil is not the way things should be, but this is a problem for all worldviews, particularly naturalism. Then Keller arrives at this observation: “But the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection depends on death, destruction, and violence of the strong against the weak—these things are all perfectly natural. On what basis, then, does the atheist judge the natural world to be horribly wrong, unfair, and unjust?”[11]

The atheist may respond by saying that our survival instincts produce a negative reaction to an evil such as death. However, this response is inadequate. Natural selection would require us to view only our death as evil, not the deaths of others. And, as Keller suggests, the naturalist has no grounds to protest the oppression of the weak by the strong. The atheist might claim that knowledge of good and evil is simply a brute fact, but that is like saying knowledge of the length of a foot or the weight of a pound is innate. One needs a ruler or a scale, some type of standard, to measure things. So, too, the measurement of good and evil requires some type of standard.[12] C. S. Lewis, when reflecting on his previous rejection of Christianity, stated, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust?”[13]

When evil befalls a person, whether Christian or atheist, a common question emerges upon the lips or, at least, in the mind: “Why me?” If, to quote Carl Sagan, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,”[14] why ask such a question? It would make no sense to ask the impersonal universe why such evil has occurred. Such a question requires the existence of a personal Being who has the power to stop such evil and the loving character to desire to stop it. In other words, such a question demand God. As Blocher writes, “Without this God who is sovereign and good, what is the rationale of our complaints? Can we even tell what is evil? Perhaps the late John Lennon understood: ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain,’ he sang. Might we be coming to the point where the sense of evil is a proof of the existence of God?”[15]

The Christian may use the atheist’s “problem of good and evil” defensively to defuse unbelievers’ attacks or positively to share his or her faith. Defensively, one might answer in this way: “When an unbeliever questions the consistency of God’s sovereignty with his goodness in the face of evil, the apologist replies that the unbeliever has no right even to raise the question, for he cannot, on his basis, even distinguish good from evil.”[16] Positively, one might first show that the atheist has a greater problem regarding evil than the Christian.[17] Then one could present the moral argument for the existence of God and proceed to share the Christian worldview and the gospel in their entirety.[18] The problem of evil also gives the Christian an opportunity to show how other worldviews do not adequately address this issue.[19]

Humility

When the atheist tries to adduce evil as a proof against God, he or she is assuming that there could be no reason why an all-powerful and all-loving God would ordain or allow such evil. The atheist is therefore not realizing the limits of human knowledge. It is rather absurd that someone who has a limited lifespan, a limited capacity to learn, and a limited perspective on life could assume to know everything about evil. Stephen Evans boldly writes, “The skeptic’s challenge is really presumptuous and arrogant. It is a claim by a finite creature to know how the world should have been created. How could a skeptic know such a thing?”[20] Science cannot measure evil, tell us that God does not exist, or tell us the purpose of life. Without divine revelation, we would be groping the in the dark, searching for an answer to the question of evil and a solution for how to defeat it.

The Christian, however, realizes that the Bible is God’s inerrant and authoritative word, one that tells us things that science, logic, and observation could never reveal. Yet the Christian must also be humble. The Bible tells us certain things about evil. For example, the Bible makes it quite clear that evil exists, that it is not merely an illusion, and that it is a problem to be overcome. However, the Bible does not tell us the exact origin of evil. Scripture tells us that God does not sin, that he is perfect, that he made human beings to be good, and that he does not tempt people to sin.[21] We also know that the responsibility for sin falls upon the shoulders of God’s creatures, whether they be fallen angels such as Satan or human beings, and not on God.[22] Beyond that, the Christian should be careful not to speculate.[23]

Part of what makes evil so frustrating is that it makes little sense. According to Gerald Bray, “There is something about the nature of evil that flies in the face of the facts and that refuses to yield to rational argument.”[24] If we could understand evil, it would still be painful, but it would be something less than evil.[25] The mysteries of evil cannot be unlocked, no matter how much speculating and philosophizing humans do.

We would do well to remember, at this point, the book of Job. Job, a righteous man, suffered terrible loss because God allowed Satan to test him (Job 1-2). Of course, neither Job nor his friends had access to this information. (For the reader who, unlike Job, has access to that information, many unanswered questions are raised, such as why God would allow Satan to test Job, why Satan was in heaven, and why Satan exists in the first place.) Job bemoans his condition, wishing he had never been born (chapter 3). He even demands an audience with God (13:3). After over thirty chapters of speculation, God himself arrives on the scene, appearing in a whirlwind (chapter 38). Instead of answering Job’s questions, God asks a series of rhetorical questions designed to put Job in his place. God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding” (38:4). God even employs sarcasm: “You know, for you were born then, and the number of your days is great!” (38:21). Duly humbled, Job is silenced (40:4-5), he admits that he spoke out of ignorance (42:3) and he repents (42:6). In his suffering, Job did not need answers. God did not owe Job answers then and he does not owe us answers today.[26] Instead of answers, Job needed God’s presence. He needed to see God (42:5). The same is true of all people, and for those of us who believe in Jesus, we also will behold his face (1 John 3:2; Rev. 22:4).

Many of us struggle with evil because we falsely assume that we are the center of the universe. We falsely assume that the purpose of life is human happiness apart from God. We falsely assume that the kindness that would prevent all suffering is superior to a tough love that would rather us suffer than remain selfish and immature. As C. S. Lewis put it, “What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, ‘What does it matter so long as they are contented?’ We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they said, ‘liked to see young people enjoying themselves,’ and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all.’”[27]

However, the true God, the God of the Bible, is not a “senile benevolence,” nor is he one desperate to please us. He is far greater than that. He does all that he pleases and everything—including all humans—exists by him and for him. [28] Lewis was right to claim, “Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake.”[29] Rather, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[30]

Our Problem and the Solution to Evil

If the purpose of life is to glorify God, we must all admit that we have failed. When the problem of evil is discussed, a significant omission is often made. The real problem of evil is that we are evil, and we have rejected a God who is completely good. Even those who do not believe in God must admit that human beings are the source of most of the evil in the world.[31] But the Bible tells us that we have rejected God, who is love and the only one who is good.[32] The greatest evil is to reject this God, and at the heart of sin is a desire to be God, a promise that Satan makes but cannot deliver (see Gen. 3:5).

Our sin puts us in quite a predicament. The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23), and God would be just to condemn us all. In fact, because God is a perfect and holy judge, he must punish sin. How can God be, as Exodus 34:6-7 says, “merciful and gracious . . . forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” while also being one who “by no means clear[s] the guilty”?

The answer, of course, is that in the fullness of time, God sent his only Son to take on flesh, becoming a perfectly obedient human being, thereby fulfilling the Law.[33] Jesus was the only human being who did not commit evil. Paradoxically, the only righteous person who ever lived was put to death in the manner of a criminal by dying a shameful death on a Roman cross. Somehow, in ways that are hard to grasp, this was the result of Satan’s actions, evil men’s plotting, and God’s eternal plan.[34] The one who did not sin bore our sins on the cross so that “we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet. 2:22-24). “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

This is the paradox of the cross, something both profoundly mysterious and also beautifully logical: crimes demand punishment and forgiveness incurs great cost. The only way for God to make us right with him, to deliver us from evil, was to become a human being, to suffer what we deserve. “Evil is conquered as evil because God turns it back upon itself. He makes the supreme crime, the murder of the only righteous person, the very operation that abolishes sin.”[35] Though evil has continued after the cross, Jesus’ death and resurrection announced the certain future defeat of Satan and evil. This defeat will be brought to a triumphant, cosmic conclusion when Jesus returns, as the book of Revelation proclaims.

The cross of Christ is a fitting way for God to solve the problem of evil. If Satan and sinful men are the truly evil things in the universe, then one way for God to solve the problem would be to destroy us all. However, God is loving and gracious to his creatures, so he devised a way that would destroy evil but not us. As Keller writes, “The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”[36] The Creator God also came that he might recreate us through his Spirit and make us into the kind of people who are not evil, the kind of people we were meant to be. All of this was done for our good and his glory.[37] Whatever suffering Christians may now face is a temporary affliction that prepares them for eternal glory (2 Cor. 4:17).

The Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the atonement teach us some important things about evil. While we may not understand evil, we know that God is not indifferent to our suffering. He is not a distant, dictatorial God. Rather, he is one willing to subject himself to pain and suffering. The atonement is something completely unique among religions and worldviews; no other religion says that God became man and endured evil for us.[38] This news gives us a greater reason to trust the Christian God in the face of the evil that we see and experience. It gives us confidence that evil will be destroyed. The testimony of the Bible also tells us that while we do not understand the significance of every evil act, we can trust that nothing is an accident, but that all things work together for our good (Rom. 8:28).[39]

In the end, all evil will be destroyed and all wrongs will be righted. It is nearly impossible to imagine a world that never contained any evil, for such a world is so foreign to our experience. Yet we can suppose that God could have made such a world initially. But in his infinite wisdom, he made a world into which sin mysteriously crept in, a world that needed to be saved in such a way that only God could do it. Eternity will somehow be better with the memory of God’s victory over evil, with a reigning Lord who is also the Lamb slain for our sins. God’s salvation of his people makes them eternally grateful for their rescue, which brings God more glory and which makes his people happier than if they had never known sin and evil. Indeed, man’s chief end is to glorify God, and in the new heavens and earth, they will enjoy him forever in a world purged of all evil.

Notes

  1. John S. Feinberg, “Why I Still Believe in Christ, in Spite of Evil and Suffering,” in Why I Am a Christian: Leading Thinkers Explain Why They Believe, ed. Norman L. Geisler and Paul K. Hoffman (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001), 237.
  2. The German playwright Georg Büchner coined this phrase, according to Henri Blocher, in Evil and the Cross, trans. David G. Preston (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 9.
  3. David Hume, “Evil Makes a Strong Case against God’s Existence,” from Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions, Part X, in Philosophy or Religion: Selected Readings, ed. Michael Peterson, William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, David Basinger, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 262.
  4. See Ronald N. Nash’s discussion of both in Reason and Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 177-221.
  5. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 11.
  6. Norman L. Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 220.
  7. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 618.
  8. James W. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 181.
  9. Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 502. Here, Erickson is summarizing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as set forth in The Origin of the Species, 6th London ed. (Chicago: Thompson & Thomas, n.d.), 473.
  10. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 25-26.
  11. Ibid., 26.
  12. Keller states that the naturalist, when declaring the reality of evil, assumes “the reality of some extra-natural (or supernatural) standard” in order to make such a judgment, in The Reason for God, 26.
  13. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, rev. ed. (1952; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 45.
  14. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4.
  15. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 102-03. The John Lennon song he references is “God”.
  16. John M. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God: An Introduction (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1994), 168.
  17. “If the believer faces the problem of how there can be evil in a theistic world, the unbeliever faces the problem of how there can be either good or evil in a nontheistic world.” Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God, 169.
  18. Many apologists have presented this theistic proof quite well, including Douglas Groothuis in Christian Apologetics, 330-63. Lewis rather famously makes much of this argument in Mere Christianity.
  19. For a brief examination of what other worldviews have to say about evil, see Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 617-625.
  20. C. Stephen Evans, Why Believe? Reason and Mystery as Pointers to God(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 101.
  21. 1 John 1:5; Matt. 5:48; Gen. 1:31; Eccl. 7:29; James 1:13.
  22. Sire, Why Should Anyone Believe Anything at All? 182; Gerald Bray, God Is Love (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 345.
  23. I reject such speculation as the Free Will Defense because the Bible does not teach that we have libertarian free will or that this free will would be of such a great value as to make moral evil permissible. Ronald Nash says that, philosophically, one need only prove that the Free Will Defense is logically possible, not necessarily true, in order to defeat the atheist’s problem of evil argument. See Nash, Faith and Reason, 188. The rules of philosophy might allow such a maneuver, but Christians are called to speak truth. Therefore, advancing a speculative argument that is not biblical and could very well be wrong is not in the Christian’s best interests.
  24. Bray, God Is Love, 358.
  25. Blocher writes, “To understand evil would be to understand that evil is not ultimately evil,” in Evil and the Cross, 103.
  26. Similarly, Paul writes, “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’” (Rom. 9:20).
  27. C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (1940; repr. New York: Touchstone, 1996), 35-36.
  28. Ps. 115:3; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16.
  29. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 43.
  30. This is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. See also Rev. 4:11.
  31. “It is men, not God, who have produced racks, whips, prisons, slavery, guns, bayonets, and bombs; it is by human avarice or human stupidity, not by the churlishness of nature, that we have poverty and overwork.” Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 79.
  32. 1 John 4:8; Mark 10:18.
  33. Gal. 4:4; John 1:14; Rom. 5:18; Matt. 5:17.
  34. Luke 22:3; John 13:2, 27; Matt. 26:14-16; John 11:47-53; Acts 2:23; 3:13-15.
  35. Blocher, Evil and the Cross, 132.
  36. Keller, The Reason for God, 30.
  37. Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:3-14; Phil. 2:5-11; Col. 2:13-15. Notice how our redemption, God’s sovereignty, Jesus’ sacrifice, and God’s own glory mingle in these verses.
  38. Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 644.
  39. When speaking of the cross, the Christian would be wise to adduce all the historical evidence for the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. The historical evidence greatly bolsters the argument being made here, though we cannot examine it as this time.

The New Testament Versus the Book of Mormon

Is the Bible the Word of God or the Word of Man?

The Bible claims that it is not the word of man, but the Word of God. Peter, after speaking of the Transfiguration, writes the following words about Scripture:

19And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet. 1:19-21).[1]

Peter claims that “the prophetic word” of Scripture is more fully confirmed than the Transfiguration. That is quite a claim. Furthermore, this prophecy of Scripture (Peter means that all of Scripture is prophetic, in the sense that prophets spoke the words of God) does not come from human interpretation or will. It is the result of the Holy Spirit, carrying men along.

Throughout the Bible, it is clear that the prophets and apostles are not delivering their own message. They never claim to be writing one of many religious documents. The prophets stated, time and again, “Thus says the Lord . . .” God told Jeremiah, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth” (Jer. 1:8). He told Ezekiel, “You shall speak my words to them” (Ezek. 2:7). This is the pattern of the Old Testament prophets.

Jesus himself certainly affirmed that God authored the Old Testament. In Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female,  and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” Jesus is quoting Genesis 2:24. Notice, Jesus says, “Have you not read that he who created them . . . said . . .” Though Moses wrote this passage in Genesis, it is ultimately God speaking. (Compare also Rom. 9:17 with Exod. 9:16—the same point is made in reverse). Paul said that all Scripture (meaning the Old Testament) is authored by God (2 Tim. 3:16). Paul elsewhere puts the Old Testament and the New Testament on the same level calling them both Scripture (he quotes Deut. 25:4 and Luke 10:7 in 1 Tim. 5:18, referring to both passages as “Scripture”). Furthermore, Peter calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” in 2 Peter 3:15-16. Acts 1:16 states that “the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David” and then quotes Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. (The same is true in Acts 4:25 and Heb. 3:7; 4:7.) So, the Holy Spirit spoke through a human author, David, just as 2 Peter 1:19-21 claims. Additionally, it should be noted that the author of Hebrews claims that Jesus spoke Psalm 40:6-8 (Heb. 10:5-7) and the Holy Spirit spoke Jeremiah 31:33-34 (Heb. 10:15-17). The implication is clear: the entirety of the Bible is God’s Word.

The New Testament apostles show an awareness of sharing God’s Word, not just their own. Peter, of course, acknowledges that in the passage we just looked at. To the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord” (1 Cor. 14:37). To the Thessalonians, he wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thess. 2:13). Paul knew he was delivering God’s Word.

In 2 Peter 1:19-21, quoted above, Peter is affirming verbal plenary inspiration, to use theological terms. That means that all (plenary) words of the Bible (verbal) are inspired (inspiration), or breathed out by God, through the agency of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that God dictated the words of the Bible to the prophets and apostles. Rather, the Holy Spirit worked through these men (who were “carried along”) to produce the exact result he desired. God used the personalities and experiences of the biblical authors to produce his perfect Word. This method of writing God’s Word might seem odd to us, but it is perfectly characteristic of God’s actions throughout history. It testifies to God’s sovereignty in using imperfect human beings as his instruments to achieve his perfect ends.

In order to understand how credible the Bible’s claims are, we should contrast the origin of the Bible with two other sacred books, The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. When viewed in this light, the strength of the Bible stands out.

Mormonism, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, was founded by Joseph Smith (1805-1844). The Book of Mormon, one of the chief spiritual books of Mormonism, was published in 1830. Smith purportedly received a visit from the angel Moroni in upstate New York in 1823. The angel told him the location of some buried golden plates. Between 1827 and 1829, Smith “translated” the “reformed Egyptian” hieroglyphics on the plates by using a “seer stone.”[2] Smith would look at the seer stone, placed at the bottom of a stovepipe hat (in order to block out any light), to “translate” the contents of the golden plates. He dictated what he saw to his disciple, Oliver Cowdery, who sat on the opposite side of a curtain from Smith. Shortly before The Book of Mormon was completed, Smith claims that John the Baptist appeared in person. Smith wrote of this event in The Pearl of Great Price:

 68 We still continued the work of translation, when, in the ensuing month (May, 1829), we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:

 69 Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.

 70 He said this Aaronic Priesthood had not the power of laying on hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and that afterwards he should baptize me.

 71 Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me—after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic Priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me and ordained me to the same Priesthood—for so we were commanded.

 72 The messenger who visited us on this occasion and conferred this Priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, which Priesthood, he said, would in due time be conferred on us, and that I should be called the first Elder of the Church, and he (Oliver Cowdery) the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, 1829, that we were ordained under the hand of this messenger, and baptized.

 73 Immediately on our coming up out of the water after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our Heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery, than the Holy Ghost fell upon him, and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of this Church, and many other things connected with the Church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.[3]

This story is extraordinary for many reasons, of course. I will point out only a few problems with Smith’s story, though there are many, many more. The first problem is that in the 1851 edition of The Pearl of Great Price, Smith said that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to him. This “error” was “corrected” in subsequent editions. However, handwritten manuscripts from 1842 also state that it was Nephi, not Moroni, who appeared to Smith.[4] This, I suppose, could be written off as a copyist’s error—a slip of the mind or a slip of the pen.

The second problem is far more serious. Just a few verses before the above-quoted passage from The Pearl of Great Price, Smith writes:

 63 Sometime in this month of February, the aforementioned Mr. Martin Harris came to our place, got the characters which I had drawn off the plates, and started with them to the city of New York. For what took place relative to him and the characters, I refer to his own account of the circumstances, as he related them to me after his return, which was as follows:

 64 “I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.

 65 “He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”

Smith reports that Martin Harris took a sample of the “reformed Egyptian” writing on the golden plates and brought it to Charles Anthon, a professor at Columbia University, who then affirmed the authenticity of the writing and the translation Smith had made. The only dispute came when Anthon denied that angels could have brought such a document to Smith.

All of the above sounds possible, except for one problem. Anthon never approved of the writings and the translation that were shown to him. E. D. Howe learned of Smith’s claim and wrote a letter to Anthon about it. Anthon wrote a letter back to Howe, dated February 17, 1834. In the letter, Anthon stated that the story was “perfectly false.” He wrote, “Upon examining the paper in question, I soon came to the conclusion that it was all a trick, perhaps a hoax.” He then described the writing on the paper as a jumble of Greek and Hebrew, as well as Roman letters inverted or placed sideways, arranged in columns. He wrote, “[I] well remember that the paper contained anything else but ‘Egyptian Hieroglyphics’.”[5]

As if that were not enough, The Book of Mormon has other problems. It has long passages copied out of the King James Bible and though it claims to recall the history of people living in the Americas between 600 BC and AD 421, archaeologists have not located any of these places and have no evidence of these peoples. Other details in The Book of Mormon do not agree with archaeological evidence. Thomas Stuart Ferguson, a professor at Brigham Young University, was given the task of finding archaeological evidence for The Book of Mormon. “After twenty-five years of dedicated archaeological research, Ferguson found nothing to back up the book and, in fact, he called the geography of The Book of Mormon ‘fictional.’”[6]

The historical problems of Mormonism go from bad to worse. Joseph Smith claimed that he acquired the Book of Abraham in 1835. In that year, Smith’s church purchased several papyrus scrolls purportedly written by Abraham and Joseph, patriarchs who appear in biblical book of Genesis. (These men would have lived well over three thousand years earlier.) Smith translated these scrolls, which contained important information regarding Mormon doctrines such as pre-existence. However, the truth of the matter is that the scrolls Smith acquired were copies of common Egyptian funeral texts. In 1912, several Egyptologists examined Smith’s “translations” and found them to be “fraud,” “absurd,” “a fabrication,” and “undoubtedly the work of pure imagination.” These judgments were based on Smith’s drawings of the scrolls. However, the actual scrolls themselves were destroyed in a fire in Chicago in 1876. Therefore, Mormons could claim that Smith’s translation, based on the scrolls, not the drawings, was accurate. However, papyri fragments of these scrolls reappeared in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1967. These fragments showed that Smith’s critics were right all along. We have proof that Smith was a fraud.[7]

Let us compare that story to the story of the prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an. Muhammad was born in Mecca about a.d. 570. In 610, he supposedly began to receive a series of revelations from the angel Gabriel. Winfried Corduan describes this revelation:

The unique twists of Muhammad’s spiritual experience began in a.d. 610, while he was meditating in a cave located on what is now called the Mount of Light, overlooking the plain of Arafat outside Mecca. As Muhammad fell into a trance, trembling and sweating, the angel of Gabriel spoke to him. “Recite!” the angel proclaimed to him. At this moment the brooding, introspective merchant turned into the stern prophet who refused to compromise his convictions and suffered for his steadfastness.[8]

The Qur’an consists of a number of revelations allegedly given to Muhammad from Gabriel between 610 and 632, the year Muhammad died. There are 114 revelations in the Qur’an, each written down in a sura, or chapter. Muhammad did not write down his revelations, but after his death, they were collected into one book. He would recite these revelations to those present in the community (Qur’an means “reading” or “reciting”). His followers memorized these portions of the Qur’an, and some of them wrote the revelations down.

The second Caliph (successor to Muhammad), Umar ibn Kattab, ordered Zayd ibn Thabit, one of Muhammad’s secretaries, to compile these writings into the Qur’an. Later, in 651, the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, noticed something problematic for the early Muslim community. Several Muslim communities were using versions of the Qur’an that varied in their readings. He was concerned that this might lead to doctrinal confusion. Therefore, he requested that an official copy of the Qur’an be made and that all other copies be burned.[9]

The creation of the Qur’an is radically different from the origin of the Bible. Corduan explains: “The Qur’an is essentially the product of one man. Its content spans a little more than twenty years within a single cultural context. By contrast, the Bible spans about fifteen hundred years in several different languages and highly divergent cultures.”[10] The approximately forty human authors of the Bible wrote its books in different places at different times. The New Testament, in particular, has multiple authors, writing from multiple locations, to multiple locations, at multiple times. James White calls this “multifocality.”[11]

Obviously, the origin of the Bible is quite different from the origin of The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an. It was not delivered to one man. No group of conspiratorial men edited the Bible and burned all previous copies. The early Christian church was too busy growing rapidly and avoiding persecution to have the means to create a document in a centralized manner. According to James White,

[M]any people believe the ancient church somehow “controlled” the text of Scripture, so that if an ancient leader or group wanted to “delete” a belief they no longer held, they could do so. This is manifestly not the case. Never was there a time when any man, group of men, or church “controlled” the scriptural text. Even if a group had decided to alter it, they could never gather up all the copies already in existence; the means of travel would preclude such an attempt even if one was launched, for distribution of the copies would far exceed anyone’s ability to recover them all.[12]

The composition of the Bible was divinely superintended, not fabricated by one man or group of men, the way the facts suggest The Book of Mormon and the Qur’an were created.

Notes

  1. The Scripture passages quoted here are taken from the English Standard Version.
  2. It should be noted that Smith used seer stones to attempt to locate treasure. He had a reputation for being involved in magic and treasure hunting. See Richard Abanes, One Nation under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), particularly chapter 2, “Moroni, Magic, and Masonry.”
  3. “Joseph Smith—History 1:68-73” in The Pearl of Great Price.
  4. Walter Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, gen. ed. Ravi Zacharias, managing ed. Jill Martin Rische and Kevin Rische (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2003), 200-201.
  5. E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled (Painsville, OH: n.p., 1834), 270-72; quoted in Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 212-13.
  6. Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults, 216.
  7. The information in this paragraph was taken from Abanes, One Nation under Gods, 449-55.
  8. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 1998), 79.
  9. Norman L. Geisler and Abdul Saleeb, Answering Islam, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002), 93.
  10. Corduan, Neighboring Faiths, 108.
  11. James R. White, The King James Only Controversy, 2nd. ed. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2009), 82.
  12. James R. White, Scripture Alone: Exploring the Bible’s Accuracy, Authority and Authenticity (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004), 144 (original emphasis). He makes a similar point in The King James Only Controversy, 77: “You see, because the New Testament books were written at various times and were quickly copied and distributed as soon as they were written, there was never a time when anyone or any group could gather up all the manuscripts and make extensive changes in the text itself, like cutting out Christ’s deity or inserting some foreign doctrine or concept. Neither could someone gather up the texts and try to make them all say the same thing by harmonizing them. If someone had indeed done this, we could never be certain what the apostles had written, and what the truth actually is.”

Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

What follows is a very brief defense of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you want to read a longer version, which has much more detail, specific references, and citations, visit https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection. [1] Also, you can learn more about Jesus’ death and resurrection by visiting https://wbcommunity.org/crucifixion and https://wbcommunity.org/resurrection-resources.

The Meaning of the Resurrection

It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The easiest way to grasp the importance of the resurrection is to imagine what would have resulted had Jesus not risen from the grave. If he had been crucified and sealed in a tomb, never to be seen again, how would we know that he was the Messiah, the Son of God, truly God and truly man? If he had remained in the grave, how would we know his death on the cross accomplished anything? If he didn’t rise in an immortal body, how could we have any hope for life after death?

Fortunately, Jesus did rise from the grave. He “was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). The resurrection proves who Jesus is and demonstrates that he reigns in power.

Additionally, Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). This shows that he paid the sentence for our sins in full and walked out of the prison of the tomb a free man. His death paid the penalty for all the sins of those who are united to him by faith.

When Jesus rose from the grave, he rose as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). That means that his resurrection insures the future resurrection of all Christians. Though Jesus is the only one to be resurrected so far in history, all who are united to Christ by faith will be raised in the future when Jesus returns.[2] Like Jesus, each Christian will have an immortal, glorified body, one that cannot get sick and die. This is the great hope for Christians everywhere. The resurrection shows that God is making a new creation, one that began with Jesus, continues with our spiritual rebirth, and will culminate in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and earth.

That is the meaning of the resurrection in a nutshell.

But how do we know it’s true? If someone could somehow prove that Jesus never rose from the grave, Christianity would be refuted. For as Paul writes, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep [i.e., died] in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19). Certainly, if the resurrection were false, then Christianity would be, too. Fortunately, we have several lines of evidence that show that the resurrection is an historical event.

Miracles?

Before we consider the evidence, we should first address one major objection. Many people don’t believe Jesus’ resurrection is a real, historical event simply because they think such things are impossible. In other words, they don’t believe in miracles. Since I don’t have a great deal of space to defend the existence of miracles, I’ll make three relatively brief points.

One, some people think miracles never occur. But it would be nearly impossible to prove such a statement. Such a statement is not based on evidence, for two reasons. One, we have evidence for miracles. For thousands of years, in different times and in different places, different people have claimed to have witnessed miracles.[3]

Two, in order to disprove the existence of miracles, scientists would have to have observed, measured, and accounted for every event in history.[4] To say that no dead person in all of history has ever come back to life, scientists would have to have information regarding every dead body in all of history. But scientists simply don’t have access to such information. To say that miracles are impossible is an assertion that needs to be proved. That statement (“miracles are impossible”) is a philosophical assumption, not a scientific conclusion.

Two, some people, such as the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), think that the low probability of miracles indicates that they are unlikely, if not impossible. Yet the probability of a resurrection is about the same as the probability of a universe arising out of nothing, which is what the Big Bang theory implies. The origin of life is also highly improbable. Just because something is improbable doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred.

Three, there are some events that are frankly impossible without an outside agent coming in to help. For example, I think it’s impossible for my son to bench press 225 pounds—unless I step in and help him lift that weight. Similarly, the origin of the universe and the origin of life are impossible—unless God does the work. So it goes with the resurrection. Usually, dead bodies stay dead. Everyone knows that. The earliest Christians knew that. That’s why they were so shocked when they saw Jesus alive again. Jesus’ resurrection shows that God is real and acts within the world he has made.

The Bible

The best witness to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the New Testament. This is not one witness to the resurrection, but many. After all, the New Testament consists of twenty-seven different books written by nine different authors, at different times, in different locations, and to different destinations. What is amazing is the fact that these many different witnesses proclaim a single, unified message regarding Jesus. It is important to note that these books were all written in the first century A.D., within seventy years of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and that they were written by eyewitnesses or those who gathered information from eyewitnesses. The New Testament is the best-attested book (or collection of books, really) from ancient history, in the sense that we have much greater manuscript evidence for these writings than we have for any other ancient text.[5]

All four Gospels show that Jesus was raised from the dead. First, they claim that after being beaten, flogged, and made to wear a crown of thorns, Jesus was crucified (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 19).

The Gospels then report that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man, and that some women witnessed the location of this tomb (Matt. 27:67–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). This tomb was sealed and guarded by soldiers (Matt. 27:62–66). Some women returned to the tomb on the third day and found that it was empty, a fact corroborated by John and Peter (Matt. 28:1–10; Mark 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–12; John 20:1–10). The risen Jesus was then seen by various groups of people. Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” saw him and touched his feet (Matt. 28:9). He appeared to two disciples on the road to Emmaus and he ate with them (Luke 24:13–30). Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples (Judas, the twelfth, had betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide) multiple times, showing that he had risen in a glorified body (Luke 24:36–40; John 20:19–20, 26–27). He even ate with them and prepared breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:12–14). Jesus died, and then he was alive again, able to appear and disappear at will. His resurrected body later ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9).

The apostle Paul was also a witness to the risen Jesus. He had a very unique encounter with Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus (Acts 9). Additionally, Paul testifies to the resurrection several times in his letters. In some of his letters, written roughly twenty to thirty-five years after Jesus’ death, Paul seems to quote early creeds or hymns that date back to the earliest years of Christianity. These include Romans 1:3–4, 1 Corinthians 15:3–8, and Philippians 2:5–11. The first two passages clearly speak of the resurrection, while in the third passage, the resurrection is implied.

Extra-Biblical Christian Evidence

Many of the early Church Fathers, leading figures in Christianity in the two or three centuries after Jesus’ death, bear witness to the resurrection. One such witness is Clement of Rome. He was the first bishop of Rome at the end of the first century. In 1 Clement, he writes of the resurrection: “Let us consider, beloved, how the Lord continually proves to us that there shall be a future resurrection, of which He has rendered the Lord Jesus Christ the first-fruits by raising Him from the dead.” This letter was written perhaps before A.D. 70, though the traditional date is 95–97.

Another early Christian witness to the resurrection is Polycarp (c. 69–c. 155). In his Epistle to the Philippians, written around A.D. 110, he writes these strong words: “For whosoever . . . says that there is neither a resurrection nor a judgment, he is the first-born of Satan.” Clearly, Polycarp thought the resurrection was of first importance.

Non-Christian Evidence

There are several non-Christian historians who mention Jesus and the early Church. We should consider this evidence, too. The Jewish historian Josephus (c. 37–c. 100) mentions Jesus twice in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the fate of James, he states that this apostle is “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.” We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but here he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some.

In another, longer passage in the Antiquities, Josephus states Jesus was a wise man known by his virtue, that he had followers, that he was condemned by Pilate to die, that his disciples reported that they had seen him alive after three days, and that they continued to follow him.

Another witness is Pliny the Younger (61–c. 112), who was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. He observes that Christians worshiped Jesus as one who is divine.

There are other references to Jesus from Roman writers such as Suetonius, and the Syrian Stoic philosopher, Mara bar Serapion.

Summary of the Evidence

If we were to take only the non-biblical, non-Christian evidence regarding Jesus, we could still establish certain facts. Jesus lived. He was a teacher, a wise man, and a virtuous man. He had followers. He was crucified during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, under the Roman prefect (governor) of Judea, Pontius Pilate. The disciples later claimed that after three days they saw a resurrected Jesus. Christianity grew quickly, spread to Rome, and changed the course of history.

Of course, if we add to this account what we know from the New Testament, we can say much more about Jesus. The only reason to refuse using the New Testament as an accurate collection of historical documents is an anti-Christian bias, or perhaps an anti-supernatural bias (refusing to believe in the miracles of Jesus, including the resurrection). However, if Jesus is God, the one who created the universe from nothing, no miracle is impossible for him.

Arguments for the Resurrection

In addition to observing the facts above, we can offer a few supporting arguments in favor of the resurrection of Jesus.

One is the Jewish expectation of resurrection. Jews believed in a resurrection at the end of history (Daniel 12:2; John 11:24), not the resurrection of an individual in the middle of human history. The disciples didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected, though he had told them he would. It seems that several of the disciples had doubts (see Matthew 28:16–17; Luke 24:36–43; John 20:24–25). Since this resurrection was not anticipated, it is highly unlikely that anyone would make this story up. (Also, if the Gospels weren’t true, why would they report the disciples’ doubts and flaws?)

Another argument is the transformation of the disciples. Reading through the Gospels, one gets the sense that they were sincere but rather thick-headed. They were also cowardly, fleeing when Jesus was arrested. Yet when we read Acts, we read of a group of bold witnesses to Jesus, willing to die for their faith. Only the resurrection (and the power of the Holy Spirit) could transform them in such a way. It should be added that these were not influential men; they didn’t have political power or riches.

Paul had a similar, though perhaps even more dramatic, transformation. He was changed from a persecutor of the Church to its greatest evangelist and missionary. Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude, also were converted from unbelievers to pillars of the church and writers of New Testament letters.

Finally, there is the dramatic outgrowth of Christianity from its Jewish roots. Christianity is the fulfillment of Judaism, yet several Christian worship practices are dramatically different from Jewish ones. This dramatic change in religion can only be accounted for by something as dramatic as the resurrection. In fact, Christianity threatened Judaism and the Roman Empire. If someone invented this new faith, there would be no money or fame to gain. Instead, that person might very well be killed. The only reason someone would risk proclaiming the message of Jesus is if he believed it was true.

The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is impressive. The question is, will we believe it?

Notes

  1. Another online resource concerning the resurrection can be found here: https://credohouse.org/blog/evidence-for-the-resurrection-in-a-nutshell.
  2. It’s true that others, like Lazarus, were revivified: they were made alive, but they died again later.
  3. Craig S. Keener has written a large, two-volume work, much of which details miracle reports from different parts of the world. See Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011). For a more popular treatment, see Eric Metaxas, Miracles: What They Are, Why They Happen, and How They Can Change Your Life (New York: Dutton, 2014).
  4. “One cannot inductively prove a negative without examining every possible instance” (Ibid., 1:105).
  5. For more on why we can trust the New Testament, visit https://wbcommunity.org/can-trust-new-testament.

 

God Had Called Us to Preach the Gospel to Them (Acts 15:36-16:15)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a sermon on Acts 15:36-16:15 titled, “God Has Called Us to Preach the Gospel to Them.” God sovereignly directs the apostle Paul’s mission. He directs our lives and the mission of the church today, too.