Evidences of Faith
"And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up - if in fact the dead do not rise" (1Corinthians 15:14-15).
The conviction that Jesus rose from the dead lies at the very heart of the Christian's faith. Therefore, if we can be certain that He did rise, then we can be certain that we are correct in following Him. Likewise, if we cannot be certain that He rose, then our faith as Christians is without a substantial foundation. It is of the utmost importance, then, that we can be completely certain of Jesus' resurrection. But, how can we be certain, seeing that we were not present to witness it for ourselves?
This question can be addressed in a number of ways. One way to approach this question is to take a hard look at those who claimed to see the risen Christ: are they reliable witnesses, or a bunch of charlatans? If they are frauds, then there is no reason to follow Christ over any other philosopher or religious figure - for example, Gandhi or Buddha or Muhammad. However, if the individuals who testified of Jesus' resurrection prove to be reliable witnesses, then we have solid reason to place our faith squarely in Him. Paul indicated that hundreds of individuals saw the risen Christ (1 Corinthians 15:6), but for our purposes we will focus on the handful of witness who knew Him best: the apostles.
In order to determine whether we can believe their testimony, we may start with the question, "What did the apostles have to gain?" If we are going to believe that these men fabricated the resurrection story, then we ought to be able to determine a motive. In point of fact, however, they did not have much of anything to gain. They did not attain wealth for their efforts, nor is there any evidence that they tried to. They did not achieve any political power; in fact, all of their efforts at preaching were focused on the spiritual well-being of the hearers, and no attempt was made to form any kind of political or social movement. Indeed, so far from gaining anything, the apostles suffered grievously for their teaching. They were arrested, imprisoned, and beaten. They were ostracized by the rulers of their own people. Some of them were even killed for their beliefs. These things being so, there is no apparent reason for them to conjure up such a lie. The necessary conclusion, then, is that they were honest men.
To see this point even more clearly, consider in particular the apostle Peter. On the night Jesus was arrested, Peter was so afraid of punishment that he denied knowing Jesus not once, but three times (Matthew 26:69-75). After seeing the resurrected Jesus, and watching Him ascend to heaven, this same Peter began publicly preaching that Jesus is the Christ, and that he himself was a witness (Acts 2:32-36). In fact, Peter had grown so bold that, when he was arrested for preaching Jesus, he proceeded to preach Jesus to those who had arrested him (Acts 4:8-13)! It is difficult to explain such a drastic change in Peter's character, unless he truly believed that Jesus had risen from the dead: the fabrication of a lie would never transform a coward into a hero, but witnessing a Man risen from the dead could.
Another question that may be asked is, "Were the apostles just a bunch of dupes?" This is a fair question. It is not enough to know that they were honest men; there is, after all, such a thing as an honest mistake. Perhaps they so badly wanted to believe that Jesus had risen, that they were easily convinced. To answer this, we may begin with Mark's account:
"Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe." (Mark 16:11)
Far from being easily persuaded, these men appear to be downright skeptical. And the account continues:
"After that, he appeared in another form to two of them as they walked and went into the country. And they went and told it to the rest, but they did not believe them either. Later He appeared to the eleven as they sat at the table; and He rebuked their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they did not believe those who had seen Him after He had risen." (vss. 12-14)
The apostles seem to have been reluctant to believe that Jesus had risen, rather than eager to believe it.
Most famous in this regard, of course, was the man from whom we derive the expression, "doubting Thomas":
"Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, 'We have seen the Lord.' So he said to them, 'Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.'" (John 20:24-25)
Clearly, these men were not easily persuaded of the resurrection. Therefore, the fact that they became so thoroughly convinced of it that they were willing to suffer and die in order to preach it to others, gives us compelling reason to believe their testimony.
So far, we have looked at the apostles who traveled with Jesus while He was on earth in order to establish the reliability of their testimony, and we have found them to be credible witnesses. Now, let us look at another individual who claimed to see the risen Christ, and examine his credibility as a witness. Let us look at Saul of Tarsus.
When we first encounter Saul of Tarsus, he is guarding the clothes of those who are stoning Stephen to death (Acts 7:58). Stephen was put to death because he was proclaiming Jesus as the Christ, and rebuking those of his countrymen who refused to believe in Him. We are told that "Saul was consenting to his death" (Acts 8:1). Moreover, Saul was not content with the death of one disciple. On the contrary, "he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison" (8:3). When many of the disciples fled from Jerusalem, Saul was not content to let them go:
"Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem..." (Acts 9:1-2)
Clearly, Saul was vehemently opposed to the notion that Jesus was the Messiah. It did not seem likely that he would ever become a believer.
When we consider Saul's training, and his place in the Jewish society of that day, it is not surprising that he was opposed to the gospel of Christ. Saul was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were one of the more powerful sects among the Jews. The Pharisees regarded the gospel as a threat to their position and their nation (John 11:47-48). Not only that, they constituted the strictest sect among the Jews (Acts 26:5): they were determined to preserve the precepts of the Old Testament, the law of Moses (Acts 15:5). The disciples of Jesus Christ, of course, were preaching that God had made a new covenant with mankind through the blood of Christ, and therefore the law of Moses was no longer in effect (Hebrews 8:7-13). Such teaching would seem like blasphemy to a Pharisee: and Saul, being a very zealous young Pharisee, was determined to see this teaching stamped out.
So then, let us consider Saul of Tarsus. As any Pharisee, he was a well-educated and well-respected member of his society. His position in life appeared to be secure and comfortable. To him, the gospel of Christ appeared to be blasphemy, and repugnant to everything he stood for. His zealous opposition to the gospel caused him to ruthlessly persecute those who believed and taught it. It would seem abundantly evident that such a man would never become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Yet, he did become a disciple: and not only a disciple, one of the most energetic and well-known gospel preachers of all time. As you may already know, Saul of Tarsus is the man who is better known to history as the apostle Paul. The question is, what made him change? What could convince such a hostile opponent of Jesus to become one of His most ardent followers? According to Paul, it was the fact that he saw the risen Christ:
"I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women, as also the high priest bears me witness, and all the council of the elders, from whom I also received letters to the brethren, and went to Damascus to bring in chains even those who were there to Jerusalem to be punished. Now it happened, as I journeyed and came near Damascus at about noon, suddenly a great light shone around me, and I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?' So I answered, `Who are You, Lord?' And He said to me, `I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting'" (Acts 22:4-8)
The result of this vision was that Paul believed in Jesus, was baptized, and immediately began preaching the gospel to others (Acts 9:10-22).
If there ever was a man who was unlikely to admit to seeing Jesus risen from the dead, that man was Saul of Tarsus. And yet, he not only admitted it, he boldly proclaimed it throughout the Roman Empire. Our next question might be, what did Saul have to gain by becoming a preacher of the gospel? The answer is that, like the other apostles, his efforts to spread the gospel resulted in persecution and suffering, as he wrote to the church at Corinth:
"From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren,..." (2 Corinthians 11:24-26).
In exchange for his life of security and comfort, Paul received a life of suffering and danger. Clearly, he did not claim to have seen Jesus for the sake of personal gain. Paul must have truly believed that he had seen the risen Christ.
So then, the question that remains is whether Paul had the mental stability to make him a believable witness. We may begin to answer this by noting that he appears to have had the respect of the rulers of his people. As mentioned above, when Saul went to the chief priest and asked for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, he was given them. He even called upon the high priest and the council of elders as his witnesses, when defending himself before the mob in Jerusalem (Acts 22:5). It is not likely that the rulers of the nation would have placed such trust in a man whom they regarded as unstable. Moreover, when we read Paul's writings (Romans through Philemon), it appears that he was a highly intelligent man who had a completely rational mind: his method of argumentation is thoroughly logical. It is reasonable to conclude, based upon the available evidence, that Paul was in his right mind.
We have every reason, therefore, to regard Paul as a reliable witness. He had nothing to gain by his testimony, and much to lose. He had every reason to deny that Jesus had risen from the dead. He gave every appearance of being a sane and rational man. So then, we may add Paul's testimony to our long list of reasons to believe. And, we may ask those who do not believe this question: why not? As Jesus said to Saul, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads" (Acts 26:14).
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