This is the first article in our series, “Five Apologetics Every Student Needs.” The dictionary definition of ‘apologetics’ is: “systematic argumentative discourse in defense (as in of a doctrine).” In the current world culture of skepticism and relativism, it’s critical now more than ever that our next generation be equipped to defend their beliefs as true. In this series, we will present five Christian apologetics every student needs. Our hope is that you may use this series as a resource and guide to these often challenging conversations in your own ministry.
Imagine if in a few years you wake up, check CNN.com, and discover on the front page that archeologists found a tomb in Jerusalem and have announced they believe this is the actual tomb of Jesus of Nazareth – and there are bones in it! You skeptically laugh, but over the course of the next few weeks, as more and more information comes out, it becomes obvious that this is no hoax. Now although this is impossible to prove currently, imagine these scientists verify (through some future technology) that indeed these are the bones of Jesus. They found his body!
Here’s the question: would you still be a Christian? How would you respond if experts found Jesus’ body?
Every year when I teach on the resurrection, I start with this question. And every year, without fail, I have students who raise their hands and declare confidently that it would not change anything. Others hesitantly say they think they would still believe. Out of all my students, only a handful say what Paul himself would say: that if the resurrection is not real, then it is foolish to believe.
Paul says to the church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 15.14: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” It is in vain because the resurrection proves Jesus defeated our greatest enemies, sin and death, once and for all. The resurrection is the undeniable proof that Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on the cross actually accomplished something for sinful humanity. Not only that, but it validates all that Jesus said about Himself as the Messiah – one who would suffer, die, and rise (Matthew 16.20-21). In his undoing of death, Christ proves that he – not sin, not death – is the true victor. The resurrection reverses the damage that was done in the garden and gives real, concrete life for all.
As I’ve discussed the resurrection with students, their loyalty to their faith isn’t merely an issue of them being postmodern relativists who don’t believe truth matters. The problem is simpler: they don’t understand the resurrection.
My students don’t understand that when the Bible says Jesus was raised, it does not mean that his spirit was revived from his body and he appeared as a ghost to the disciples – but rather that life itself re-entered his body and he was physically raised.
Before starting with an apologetic for the resurrection, it is important that our students understand what the resurrection actually is: Jesus’ body was physically dead (Matthew 27.50). Not mostly dead; all dead (John 19.33-34). His dead body was placed in a heavily guarded tomb (Matthew 27.64) where it began to rot and waste away. On the Sunday after the crucifixion, a group of women came to embalm his body with spices (Mark 16.1) and found the tomb empty (Mark 16.6-7). He then appeared physically to Mary (John 20.14-17), Peter (Luke 24.34), the rest of the disciples (John 20.19-20), and then hundreds of others (1 Corinthians 15.6). As a result of these appearances, the previously discouraged disciples returned to Jerusalem and began preaching that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. With this truth of a resurrected Jesus at the core of their message (Acts 4.2), the church grew (Acts 5.14).
When talking about the resurrection with students, I give them a few minutes to come up with alternative theories to the traditional Christian view. Most often they settle on four main objections, each of which we respond to in turn.
1. The diciples were lying, they made it up.
This is the easiest objection to answer, because virtually all scholars – Christian or otherwise – accept that the disciples truly believed that they saw the risen Jesus. Bart Ehrman, a noted critic of Biblical authority, says “we can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that he soon appeared to them…Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since it is a matter of public record.”1
Let us say, however, that these disciples (who were so scared after the crucifixion that they ran away, pretended not to know Jesus, and were skeptical themselves) did decide to make it all up, just to support their cause. Why would they choose women to be the first witnesses, since the testimony of a woman was not even valid in a court of law? Furthermore, would these women really be able to subdue the armed guards at the tomb, such that the guards had no recollection of the event? Would every one of these disciples, ultimately each victims of martyrdom for claiming their belief in a risen Christ, keep this conspiracy silent even in the face of torture and death? It seems incredibly unlikely that the disciples would have stolen the body and falsified a story.
2. The disciples saw a ghost, an apparition, some sort of spiritual being that seemed real.
If this were true, why did the disciples claim (and believe) that they touched him, ate with him, walked with him? Additionally, if this were true, what happened to Jesus’ body? There is still the problem of the empty tomb. Against this argument, I have found the most convincing response to be one from NT Wright, who has studied first century Judaism extensively. Wright claims that if you asked one of the disciples what they would call the idea that Jesus’ spirit lived on while his body remained lifeless, they would have answered “death” – not “resurrection.”
Wright says, “To speak of the destruction of the body and the continuing existence, however blessed, of something else (call it a “soul” for the sake of argument) is not to speak of resurrection, but simply of death itself. Resurrection is not simply death from another viewpoint; it is the reversal of death, its cancellation, the destruction of its power.”2
3. The disciples experienced very vivid, life-like hallucinations that first century people did not understand.
This does not hold water, because hallucinations cannot be shared within a group. Jesus did not simply appear to one or two people, but hundreds. This idea also presupposes that those who lived in the first century did not understand hallucinations, or the idea that a grief-stricken group could be visited with something they believed was Jesus. Acts 12 destroys this argument – when Peter appears at his house when he is freed from prison, the other Christians assume that it isn’t him, but instead “his angel” (Acts 12.15). Early disciples used this term for a sort of vision or hallucination, which demonstrates they knew such things existed. While these first century people didn’t have the same grasp of neurology as we do, they knew enough to be skeptical. The fact that they didn’t assume Christ before them as a hallucination, suggests this was an experience completely new to them.
4. Jesus was not actually dead, but merely in a coma or unconscious.
Despite the fact that he was flogged, speared, and crucified, somehow Jesus is able (after a few days with no medical care) to get up, overcome armed guards, roll a heavy stone away, and walk around Jerusalem like nothing happened? Besides the physical impossibility of that quick recovery, the Romans were experts in crucifixion. They knew how to make sure someone was dead, and it is not likely that such an expert would be mistaken about death.
There are other arguments that can be made in support for the resurrection, particularly the transformation of the disciples and the fact that the center of the church’s growth was in Jerusalem, where a body could easily be produced to contradict the story. Surprised by Hope by NT Wright and A Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas are both excellent resources, though both are too dense to give to a student directly.
The best part of teaching about the resurrection is that it does not end with an argument, but with hope – not apologetics, but gospel. When all other alternatives are exhausted, and there are no objections left, there is simply this truth: Jesus has defeated sin. Jesus has conquered death. And for all who would turn from sin and trust in Him, Jesus offers resurrection and life.
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15.55-57)
Resources for the Student Minister:
Outline of 4 Objections to the Resurrection
1. It was simply Jesus’ spirit that got up and walked around.
- The disciples touched him and ate with him.
- There was no body in the tomb.
- First century Jews believed that the spirit lived on after the body; this was not resurrection, however, but simply death. Resurrection involved the body.
2. The disciples made it up.
- People don’t die for something they know is a lie, the disciples were willing to face death for this risen Jesus.
- Even critical scholars accept that the disciples believed they saw Jesus.
- No one would have believed the women, whose words were not accepted in a court of law.
- The disciples began preaching in the one place where their claims could have been easily refuted.
3. It was a hallucination they didn’t understand back then.
- There is no such thing as a group hallucination. Jesus didn’t just appear to individuals.
- First century people knew about hallucinations/crazy people.
4. He wasn’t all dead.
- Jesus was speared – blood and water poured out.
- Even if he was in a coma or injured, being lashed is not something that one can recover from in a few days, at least not well enough to walk around.
- The Romans were experts at crucifixion. If anyone knew how to make sure someone was dead, it would be the Romans.
1 Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 230-231
2 NT Wright, Bible Review (August 2000)
Gary Habermas, A Case for the Resurrection of Jesus
NT Wright, Surprised by Hope
Matt Perman, Historical Evidence for the Resurrection, DesiringGod.org
John Updike, Seven Stanzas at Easter
John Donne, Death, Be Not Proud