Gospel conversations about the historical reality of Christianity
Article by Trey Meek
Jesus rose again. The Christian faith depends upon this truth. If it were false, the gospel would not be worth sharing. Jesus would not be the door of salvation or the way to heaven (John 10:7-9, 14:3-6); as George Eldon Ladd well understood, “. . . if Jesus is not raised, redemptive history ends in the cul-de-sac of a Palestinian grave.”1 The resurrection matters—supremely; it is the historical hinge of our heavenly hope and the reason that we have a message of life to share with a dying world. This message has a bearing on every aspect of our lives and is our only hope for lasting change at the heart level.
Ultimately, Christians believe that Jesus lives because the Holy Spirit has borne witness in and regenerated our hearts (Titus 3:5). Still, in evangelism, Christians should gladly offer historical evidences for the faith. To do so is to follow the apostolic example—especially that of Paul (Acts 17:30-31, 26:19-29; 1 Cor 15:6). Furthermore, a historical emphasis upon Jesus’ death and resurrection highlights the uniqueness of the gospel. In a therapeutic age that emphasizes self-improvement methods such as positive thinking and “manifesting” desired life outcomes, the gospel offers profoundly more than an idea, a self-help strategy, a life philosophy, or a worldview; in the words of J. Gresham Machen, “Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event”—namely Jesus’ death and resurrection.2
This historical foundation gives the gospel a concreteness—a material reality—that holds forth, not merely a perspective or mindset for living, but the way of life eternal, opened through Christ’s saving work nearly 2,000 years ago. Similarly, the event-centeredness of Christianity sets it apart from other major world religions, which focus on ideas such as rules, rituals, and distinctive perspectives on life. In an age filled with empty pluralistic religious ideas, we behold the empty tomb, inviting others to “Come and see what the Lord has done” (Psa. 66:5).
Five resurrection facts
To some, the resurrection carries the credibility of any story beginning with “once upon a time”—wishful thinking for the simple-minded. This view is misguided because this central claim of Christianity boasts great historical evidence. In a post-Christian age where unbelief reigns, here are five basic resurrection FACTS that can be used to encourage believers and engage skeptics:
Foretold—Jesus foretold his resurrection. Appearances—Jesus appeared to many, transforming lives. Cost—The apostles shared a costly testimony. Time—The apostles shared a timely testimony. Setting—The apostles’ testimony spread in the immediate setting of Jesus’ death.
1. Foretold: Jesus foretold his resurrection (Mark 8:27–33).
Many critics assume that alleged miracles always have a natural cause, even if that cause is unknown. It is true, of course, that many strange, yet natural, occurrences have wrongly been followed by the excited proclamation, “It’s a miracle!” However, a foretold miracle claim sits in a different category; and Jesus actually foretold his victory over death.
One such foretelling occurs in Mark 8:27–33; Jesus says that he is going to be rejected and killed, but that he would “after three days rise again.” Upon hearing this, Peter has the audacity to “rebuke him.” In response to Peter, the Lord offers a severe correction, “Get behind me, Satan!” These details help to discredit the assumption that this incident, which specifically emerged in response to Jesus’ foretelling, was imagined later by the church. After all, why would the early church fabricate a humiliating story for a leader as prominent as Peter?
In their book, Reinventing Jesus, J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace assert, “It is hard to imagine the early church inventing embarrassments for themselves . . . .”3 The embarrassing character of this passage supports its authenticity, which includes the foretelling of the resurrection. Jesus’ rising was foretold as the foreordained plan and purpose of God; thus, it is not a random occurrence or natural anomaly that was later embraced by ill-informed conspiracists and gullible crowds.
2. Appearances: Jesus appeared to many, transforming lives (1 Cor 15:1–8).
What could transform James, the skeptical half-brother of Jesus, or Saul, the persecutor of the church, into followers of Jesus? Before the resurrection, James did not believe in his brother’s ministry (Mark 6:1–5; John 7:5). Yet, after Jesus appeared to him, he became a key leader in the early church (1 Cor 15:7). Similarly, while actively terrorizing Christians, Saul of Tarsus encountered the risen Jesus (Acts 9:3–8; 1 Cor 15:8) and became an apostle to proclaim “the faith he once tried to destroy” (Gal. 1:23). Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are correlated with radical transformations.
Notably, these appearances were not individual hallucinations because they were experienced by multitudes—at one point even to 500 people at once (1 Cor. 15:6). Michael Licona observes that “Modern psychology . . . has not come close to confirming the possibility of collective hallucinations.”4 Thus, such appearances provide strong evidence for the resurrection.
3. Cost—The apostles shared a costly testimony (1 Cor. 4:9–13).
Having encountered the risen Lord, the apostles courageously shared their eyewitness testimony—at great personal cost. Many early church leaders such as Paul, James, and Peter were martyred for the gospel. Remarkably, the apostles willingly embraced such risks (1 Cor. 4:9–13). By way of contrast, modern terrorists are sometimes willing to die for religious beliefs that they learned secondhand, but the apostles were willing to pay such a cost for their own eyewitness testimonies. The apostles were convinced that their testimony was true. They were not lying, for, as Licona succinctly puts it, “Liars make poor martyrs.”5 They courageously spread their resurrection testimony, whatever the cost.
4. Time: The apostles shared a timely testimony (1 Cor. 15:1–8).
Legends and myths develop over time. It is noteworthy that the news of Jesus’ resurrection was established early—within the lifetimes of multitudes of eyewitnesses. For example, this truth permeates 1 Corinthians 15:3–8. Jesus’ rising is explicitly stated in verse 4; his subsequent appearances are stated in verses 5–8. Around A.D. 55, merely 20–25 years after Jesus’s earthly ministry, Paul wrote this letter, confidently asserting that “most” of one group of “five hundred” resurrection eyewitnesses were “still alive” (1 Cor. 15:6)!6
Significantly, before 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 was preserved in written form, this statement of faith was established as an oral formula, as evidenced by the phrase “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 5:3). In light of extrabiblical Hellenistic literature, Richard Bauckham observes that the words “delivered” and “received” are intentionally used together to emphasize the faithful transmission of the gospel story.7 In other words, a community containing numerous eyewitnesses guarded carefully this formal testimony of the resurrection such that it was well established in the early church—even before a single New Testament manuscript was written.
So how early was this oral formula established? In 1 Corinthians, Paul is giving a reminder of what he had preached at the founding of the church at Corinth—around A.D. 51–52 (1 Cor. 15:1; see also Acts 18).8 Yet this formula originated earlier, for Paul says that he had previously “received” it from the other apostles, likely within a few years of his conversion. Consequently, the resurrection testimony was likely well established within such an official confession of faith within one decade after the crucifixion. Thus, the timely nature of the apostolic testimony indicates that the resurrection is not a legend, which characteristically requires more time to develop.
5. Setting: The apostles’ testimony spread in the immediate setting of Jesus’ death (Acts 2).
When you think of the idea of “setting,” think location, location, location. Where did the message of the resurrection first take root? In Jerusalem, the immediate setting where Jesus was crucified. News of his execution spread quickly; at that time, anyone who seemed unaware of it could be asked, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened . . .?” (Luke 24:18). Since Roman crucifixion was a public spectacle resulting in certain death, there is not a more unlikely setting for the resurrection message to take hold—unless, of course, it actually happened. Indeed, the tomb was empty, many saw the risen Lord, and thousands more believed on that first day of the apostles’ preaching. In Jerusalem, the church exploded in growth, confident in the One “whom God raised up, loosing the pangs of death” (Acts 2:24).
As you engage with unbelievers, use these FACTS to remember some basic historical evidences for the resurrection. Indeed, Jesus rose again, and the gospel is worth sharing. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use these facts to awaken hearts to the truth of who Jesus is. And as you have conversations, do not forget that grace is the real reason why the gospel message bears such beautiful historical uniqueness. While none of humanity’s ideas—no philosophies, rules, or rituals—could merit salvation, Jesus entered human history to save sinners. As we defend the historical truth of Christianity in an age of relativism, let us not neglect to highlight the grace of God in Christ Jesus, who is “alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:18) and is still transforming lives.
Trey Meek is the lead pastor of First Baptist Church in Rogersville, TN. He and his wife, Amanda, are the proud parents of 3 children. Pastor Meek also holds a D.Min. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and you can find his other written works at pastorscommonplace.wordpress.com
*This article originally appeared in October 2022 for erlc.com