Letter from the Vicar

Dear Friends,

Did Jesus rise from the dead?

The Easter story is a wonderful story. But is it a true story? Here are some of the reasons I am convinced Jesus really did live, die on a cross, and rise back to life on the third day.

1. He really existed.

Whatever you believe about Jesus you can be one 100% sure that Jesus existed. The historian Bart Ehrman (who’s not a Christian) says:

“The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist… the view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet.” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, 7)
Why are the experts so sure that Jesus really existed? One of the reasons is…

2. The evidence from non-Christian sources.

There are ancient writings written by people who weren’t Christians that confirm the life and death of Jesus Christ. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus wrote almost 2000 years ago:
“Christus… suffered the extreme penalty [crucifixion] during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of … Pontius Pilatus.” (Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.)

Jewish people also wrote about Jesus. The Babylonian Talmud is a collection of Jewish rabbinical writings. It includes the following, written between A.D. 70 and A.D. 200:
“On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald … cried, “He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy.” (Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 203)

It’s helpful to know that ‘Yeshu’ is Hebrew for Jesus, and that sometimes crucifixions were called hangings because people were hung on a cross to die (c.f. Gal. 3:13; Luke 23:39). Interestingly, the rabbis accused Jesus of ‘sorcery’, which seems to confirm that Jesus performed amazing miracles.
Lucian of Samosata was a second century Greek satirist (c. 125 – after 180 AD). In one of his works he gives a tongue-in-cheek account of Christians:
“The Christians … worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account….” (Habermas, The Historical Jesus, 206)

Lucian wasn’t a Christian, so he mocks them for worshiping ‘a man’. He also confirms that Jesus was ‘crucified.’
A Jewish historian called Josephus wrote the following in the first century (before he died in A.D. 100): “Now there was about that time Jesus, a wise man… [who] wrought surprising feats.” (Josephus, Antiquities xviii. 33. (Early second Century).
So there’s lots of good evidence that the Jesus of the Bible really existed and was crucified. And that’s before we even consider what the Bible says. Let’s do that now.

Here’s my second reason:

3. There are lots of witnesses
It’s important to remember that the Bible isn’t just one voice testifying to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather, it contains the testimony of lots of different people, all of whom wrote their books or letters before the end of the first century.

The story of Jesus comes from four different authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John who wrote the four gospels that bear their names. Matthew and John were eyewitnesses who saw what Jesus did, and heard what he said. Mark and Luke may not have been eyewitnesses themselves, but much of Mark’s knowledge of Jesus came from Peter who was an eyewitness (Mark travelled with Peter). Luke was a doctor and he tells us in the opening verse of his book that he spoke to eyewitnesses and “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” (Luke 1:3)

Peter also wrote a couple of letters which are included in the Bible. He assures us that, “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16). Elsewhere he says, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.” (Acts 2:32).

The New Testament also includes the testimony the Apostle Paul. He testifies that Jesus spoke to him AFTER Jesus rose from the dead, an experience that led him to devote the rest of his life to telling people about Jesus. Why would he do that if it wasn’t true?
The New Testament says Jesus appeared on many occasions, to many different people. Jesus appeared:

• to Mary Magdalene, in John 20:10–18
• to the other women, in Matthew 28:8–10
• to Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus, in Luke 24:13–32
• to eleven disciples and others, in Luke 24:33–49
• to ten apostles and others, with Thomas absent, in John 20:19–23
• to Thomas and the other apostles, in John 20:26–30
• to seven apostles, in John 21:1–14
• to the disciples, in Matthew 28:16–20
• He was with the apostles at the Mount of Olives before his ascension, in Luke 24:50– 52 and Acts 1:4–9

• Paul, writing between A.D. 55 and A.D. 57, says that more than 500 people saw Jesus after he’d risen from the dead. He was writing close to the time of the events so if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead it could easily have been disproved.

It’s important to notice that real people are named. If you had lived at the time and heard about Jesus’ resurrection, you could have spoken to any of the witnesses yourself to find out what really happened. The amazing stories of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection were all written in the lifetimes of eyewitnesses. This means no one would have believed them if they contained lies because there would have been lots of people coming forward to set the record straight. But there is no record of anyone close to the events saying, “no, that didn’t happen.” Another thing that convinces me that Jesus really did rise from the dead is:

4. The empty tomb.

Christians believe that after Jesus rose back to life, many people saw him and started talking about how they’d seen him. In fact, the Apostles began preaching the Resurrection in Jerusalem, the very place Jesus died.
At any time, Jesus’ enemies or the authorities could have brought out Jesus’ body and said, “Look, here’s his body, Jesus is dead!” But they didn’t do that because the tomb was empty. His body wasn’t there. The best explanation is that the tomb was empty because Jesus had come back to life.

Lee Strobel, the author and former investigative journalist for the Chicago Tribune, was an atheist until he sought to disprove Christianity. During his investigation he realised that, “the site of Jesus’ tomb was known to Christian and Jew alike. So if it weren’t empty, it would be impossible for a movement founded on belief in the resurrection to have come into existence in the same city where this man had been publicly executed and buried.” (Lee Strobel, The Case for Easter, 52, quoting a conversation with William Lane Craig PH.D., D.TH..)

It’s a very simple point, but I find it very convincing. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead WHERE IS THE BODY? Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, states:

‘Let’s assume that the written accounts of His appearances to hundreds of people are false. I want to pose a question. With an event so well publicized, don’t you think that it’s reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ’s body? … The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection.’ (quoted by Josh McDowell, The Resurrection Factor, p.66.)
Another piece of evidence that persuades me Jesus really did rise from the dead is this:

5. The radical change in Paul’s life

We know that Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus) was one of the most committed followers of Jesus. He devoted his life to travelling the world and telling people about Christ. He wrote many of the books in the New Testament. But he wasn’t always a follower of Jesus. Before he became a Christian he was dedicated to arresting, imprisoning and even killing the early Christians. Luke tell us that Paul even oversaw the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr (Acts 8:1). Paul says he used to be, “a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man” and the worst of sinners (1 Timothy 1:13, 15).
What could account for the remarkable change in Paul’s life? Why did he change from persistent persecutor, to committed Christian and preacher? In Luke’s record of the early church he says it’s because of something that happened to Paul on the road to Damascus:

“As he [Paul also known as Saul] neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. ‘Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.’” (Acts 9:3-6)

The best explanation of the change in Paul’s life is that he really did encounter the risen-from-the-dead Jesus. Nothing else can explain the radical change in Paul’s life.

6. Women were the first ones to find the tomb empty

The gospels tell us that three women (two called Mary, and Salome) went to Jesus’ tomb but they found it empty. Now this might sound strange (and wrong!) to our 21st century ears, but women were so far down the social ladder in first-century Palestine that women’s testimony was considered worthless. There are old rabbinical sayings that said, ‘Let the words of the Law be burned rather than delivered to women,’ and ‘Blessed is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.’ Women’s testimony was regarded as so worthless that they weren’t even allowed to serve as legal witnesses in a Jewish court of law. Therefore, if the story of Jesus’ resurrection were made up there’s no way they would have given women such a prominent role. In their world it would have critically undermined its credibility. It would have made the story simply unbelievable.

But perhaps the thing I find most convincing is…

7. The price the first Christians were prepared to pay.

People were prepared to suffer and die for Jesus because they knew (not thought!) he had risen from the dead.

We’ve already seen that Stephen was stoned to death for being a Christian. If he didn’t know for certain that Jesus was real and had risen from the dead there’s no way that would have happened.

The apostle Paul was frequently attacked and imprisoned for telling people about Jesus. At any time he could have stopped, but he didn’t because he knew that what he believed was true (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-27).

For the first few centuries Christians were a heavily persecuted minority and it was illegal to be a Christian. They faced a life of hardship. They often went without food, went homeless, were ridiculed, beaten and imprisoned. Most of the Apostles were executed in torturous ways. Why did they let it happen to them? It was because they were convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. They didn’t believe it, they knew it, because they, or those close to them, had seen Jesus with their own eyes. Nothing else explains it – would you die for something you knew was untrue? Would you die for a lie? I know I wouldn’t! People kept becoming Christians, at great personal cost, because they were convinced it was true!

8. Personal testimony

I have summarised seven reasons why I believe Jesus really did rise from the dead. I do have one final reason, and it is that I and billions of other Christians around the world have experienced a personal relationship with Jesus. We know Jesus as our friend and talk to him in prayer. We feel his presence with us every day and see him at work in our lives.
It is such a joy to worship the risen Lord and Saviour. We invite you to join us!

Matt

For more ‘Ancient Evidence for Jesus from Non-Christian Sources’ see this article by Michael Gleghorn. (https://www.bethinking.org/jesus/ancient-evidence-for-jesus-from-non-christian-sources)

Revd. Matt Williams
Vicar, St. Paul’s Church
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