Rapid Response: “I Think the Disciples Lied About the Resurrection”

In our Rapid Response series, we tackle common concerns about (and objections to) the Christian worldview by providing short, conversational responses. These posts are designed to model what our answers might look like in a one-on-one setting, while talking to a friend or family member. Imagine if someone said, “I can’t trust what the New Testament says about Jesus. I think the disciples (or whoever wrote the Gospels) lied about Jesus and the Resurrection.” How would you answer such an objection? Here is a conversational example of how I recently responded:

“When I was an atheist, one of the reasons I rejected the claims of the Gospels was a similar distrust in the testimony of the authors.

Investigating Easter: Were the Disciples Simply Influenced by Limited “Spiritual” Sightings?

As an unbelieving investigator of the gospels, I made a list of explanations for the what the gospel authors reported about the Resurrection of Jesus. I was a committed philosophical naturalist at the time, so I rejected the Resurrection as unreasonable. Instead, I believed there had to be a better explanation. Were the disciples lying? Did they imagine the Resurrection? I searched for a more “acceptable” alternative. In recent years, some skeptics have offered one such alternate explanation: Perhaps one or two of the disciples had a “vision” of the risen Christ and then convinced the others that these “spiritual” sightings were legitimate. They argue that additional sightings simply came as a response to the intense influence of the first visions.

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Investigating Easter: Did Jesus Really Die on the Cross?

Some skeptics have offered the possibility that the disciples were mistaken about Jesus’s death on the cross. They propose that Jesus survived the beating (and the crucifixion) and simply appeared to the disciples after He recovered. After all, the Biblical record in John’s gospel indicates the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus were still alive when the soldiers arrived to remove the bodies from the crosses:

John 19:31-35
Then the Jews, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first man and of the other who was crucified with Him; but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.

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Why the Resurrection Matters

Sorry to rain on your Easter parade, but most people in the world don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead. That shouldn’t surprise you since less than a third of the people living today claim to be Christians. But even among self-proclaimed Christians, the number of Jesus-rose-from-the-dead believers is shrinking.

With packed churches on Easter and the proliferation of Christian apologetics books (The Case for Jesus anyone?), you would think a growing number of people would be convinced that Jesus is alive. But just the opposite seems to be true. I have a theory as to why this is, but I’m saving it for the last couple of paragraphs (feel free to read ahead if you’re short on time).

Actually, doubts about the resurrection have been around since that first Easter morning. Current day agnostics like Bart Ehrman, the fundamentalist Bible college student turned agnostic professor of religion, may think they have developed an original “Jesus is not God and He didn’t rise from the dead” shtick, but they’re wrong. These scholar/skeptic types who badly want to keep Jesus in the grave are following a 2,000-year-old narrative.

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What if Jesus Is Still Dead?

There have been a lot of great religious teachers throughout history. Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed are three of the most recognizable, and all have millions of followers to this day. Yet there's one thing about all three--and every other great teacher from the past--that should be somewhat disconcerting to their followers: they're all dead.

Then there's Jesus, the greatest teacher of all. Like Confucius, Buddha and Mohammed, Jesus died. But unlike the other great spiritual leaders and self-proclaimed prophets who have walked the earth throughout history, Jesus came back to life.

Now, this may not matter to some people (and by the sheer numbers people who follow dead teachers and prophets, it must not), but it should matter to you. if you are a follower of Christ, you need to know that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the most important part of your faith. 

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Passion Week is a Calling and You're Called

My friend walked up to me weeping. I asked him what was wrong. He responded, "I just read the Gospel of Luke. I think I need to sell everything and follow Jesus. ... But that's not what makes me sad; it's that I am so far from Christ. All these years I've been following Him and I'm just now realizing what it means to actually follow Him. He was willing to give everything for me, and I must give everything for Him."

I cried too. It changed my life. I wanted to respond with some scholastic copout about metaphors or hyperbole, but I knew that wasn’t the truth. Christ has called us to give everything for Him.

But I must tell you that God is still working this great work in me. And as for my friend, I recently brought this story up to him, and he said that God is still doing the great work in him as well. What we share in common is that Christ has seriously transformed both of us since that day.

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Remembrance of Me

If Easter really happened, I may rest,                                                                                                                allowed to loose my hands from the outcomes of this day,                                                                            flying freely from an identity beyond my own.                                                                                                   Hope of Glory now resides within,                                                                                                                     the wings of Christ, from which I can do nothing without.

Did Christianity Copy From Pagan Religions?

In one of the scenes of the Coffeehouse Chronicles, my new novella series, Nick a student who is questioning his own Christian faith, watches the popular Zeitgeist YouTube video.

The video tells a story about religious leaders throughout history who had similar characteristics to Jesus. The video implied that Christianity simply plagiarized from other religious stories that were circulating years before. Names like Attis of Greece, Krishna of India, Dionysus of Greece, and Mithra of Persia were included in the video. The narrator described how these religious leaders, based on astrology were born on December 25, born of virgin, discovered by a star in East, adorned by three kings, became a teacher at twelve, baptized and started ministry at thirty, had twelve disciples, and performed miracles, were known as the “Lamb of God,” “The Light,” crucified, buried for three days, and resurrected.

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Reality of the Resurrection -- Part 3

What do these facts point to?  That Jesus Christ is no longer dead.  His resurrection explains all five facts very well.  The minimal facts give us solid evidence He has risen indeed.  However, that won’t stop the skeptic from offering other explanations.  When you encounter one, remember this:  just because an alternative explanation is possible, it does not make it probable.  Anyone can give a different explanation but we want one that best fits the facts.  

For example, some scholars suggest the disciples stole Jesus’ body.  Does that fit the facts?  No way.  It doesn’t explain the resurrection appearances of Jesus.  It doesn’t explain Paul or James’ conversions.  Indeed, if the disciples stole Jesus’ body then they knew his resurrection was a hoax.  But why would they die for something they knew was false?  They wouldn’t and thus, we can discard this possible explanation.
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Reality of the Resurrection -- Part 2

Do we have any facts that support the historical resurrection of Jesus?  Absolutely.  And we won’t just use arguments from guys on our side.  To make the strongest possible case, we’ll rely on those facts that virtually all scholars who study this subject agree upon, including critics of Christianity.  Resurrection scholars Gary Habermas and Michael Licona call this the “minimal facts” approach.  

Notice, this approach does not require us to defend an error-free Bible.  It does not require us to show the Bible is the inspired word of God.  Although important issues, inerrancy and inspiration are not essential to our case for the resurrection.  Instead, the minimal facts approach lets us build common ground with the critic.  Basically we’re saying to the skeptic, “You show me your historical facts and I’ll show you how they are evidence for the historical resurrection of Jesus.”  

So, what are the minimal facts?  Habermas and Licona list five:  

FACT #1:  Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.  
Not only is Jesus’ crucifixion recorded in all four gospels, but non-Christian sources report the event too.  Jewish historian Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus are just a couple of those sources.  

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.  

FACT #2:  The disciples believed they had seen the risen Jesus.
Scholars recognize two important pieces of evidence for this fact.  First, the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus.  Paul lists the eyewitnesses in I Corinthians 15:3-8:  

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:  that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

By the way, it’s legit to cite the Bible here.  Even critical scholars believe I Corinthians is an authentic letter written by Paul.  At this point, we’re simply using it as a source of ancient history, not as an inspired book of the Bible.  Thus, we have a reliable list of people who believed they saw resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Second, the disciples really believed they had seen Jesus such that it totally transformed them.  Jesus their leader had been brutally killed before their eyes.  Understandably, they split.  Peter even denies Jesus three times.  But something happened, transforming them from cowards who abandoned Jesus to courageous men who risked life and limb for His message.  They didn’t just claim Jesus rose, they really really believed it.

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.  

FACT #3:  Saul of Tarsus (Paul), an enemy of the church, converted because he believed he had seen the risen Jesus.  
Before his Road-to-Damascus experience, Paul tried to destroy the Christian church.  He beat Christians, imprisoned them, and killed them.  But suddenly, he converts to Christianity.  Why?  Paul and Luke both report it was because he believed the resurrected Jesus had appeared to him.  

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.  

FACT #4:  James, the brother of Jesus and a skeptic, converted because he believed he had seen the risen Jesus.  
The Gospels tell us James was skeptical of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21; John 7:5).  He was unconvinced.  However, James eventually converts and is even martyred for his faith in Jesus.  What transformed this skeptic into a believer?  He believed he saw the risen Jesus.  Remember the eyewitness list in I Corinthians 15?  Verse 7 tells us “[Jesus] appeared to James.”  

And remember, virtually all scholars accept this fact.  

FACT #5:  The tomb of Jesus was empty.
Where was Jesus publicly executed?  In Jerusalem.  Where did the disciples start proclaiming Jesus’ resurrection?  In Jerusalem.  Think about those two facts, together.  How does Christianity get started if Jesus corpse is still in the tomb?  It doesn’t.  Jewish and Roman leaders simply pull out the dead body and game over.  But that didn’t happen.  The disciples preach the resurrection in the very city Jesus is crucified.  That’s only possible if the tomb is empty.

This is the one fact not accepted by “virtually all scholars.”  However, Gary Habermas found that about 75% of scholars buy this one and that’s still a large majority.

There you have it—five historical facts that need an explanation.  

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