The Ultimate Miracle
[Note: this is a chapter on the resurrection taken from the book Reasons for
Belief by John M. Oakes Illumination Publishers, International www.ipibooks.com]
In the previous chapter we looked at the miracles that Jesus performed, examined
evidence that Jesus really did work these miracles and considered what they
imply about the miracle-worker himself. However, we did not consider the ultimate
miracle?the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.
Now, wait a minute. Did Jesus do this miracle? Did he raise himself from the
dead, or did the Father raise his son from the dead? We will let the theologians
work out this question because it really does not matter who did it. No matter
who ?did? it, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is truly the greatest
and most important miracle recorded in the Bible.
One purpose of this chapter is to show why this particular event is so central
both to the message of the Bible and to its reliability and inspiration. More
importantly, the purpose is to very carefully consider whether the resurrection
of Jesus Christ from the dead, as recorded in the New Testament, really happened.
We will see that there is a lot riding on this question.
BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT
Before attempting to accomplish these goals, we need to consider how difficult
a task is before us. The case for the resurrection of Jesus Christ requires
the absolute highest standard of proof.
By way of illustration, consider four scenarios. In each case, someone will
make a claim and we will ask what standard of proof is required to believe the
claim. First, imagine you are at home and your roommate/spouse or whatever comes
in all excited and proclaims that he/she received a bill in the mail today.
Hmm?. You would probably wonder why all the excitement. You certainly would
not be demanding proof of the claim.
The second scenario involves yourself and the same person. This time, your excited
friend is announcing that he/she has found a two-pound bag of chips for only
$1.19. Wow! Let?s tell the neighbors right away. Would this claim stop you in
your tracks? What standard of proof would you require?
The third scenario is just a bit more interesting. This time imagine your partner
excitedly proclaims that she has won $100,000 in the lottery. This time, your
head perks up a bit. It perks up quite a bit, in fact. You would check her face
for sincerity, and probably ask to see the winning ticket?not necessarily because
you do not trust her, but because you don?t want to make too great a fool of
yourself if you admit you believe her and it turns out she was pulling your
leg. You would want some proof. Within a few seconds or perhaps a few minutes,
you would be jumping up and down, or perhaps just giving some high fives, depending
on your personality.
The fourth scenario is the one to focus in on. This time, your loved one pronounces
that he has seen a cow with six legs. In this scenario you would give a deeply
incredulous look and immediately demand proof. If you were to not demand proof,
it would reveal more about you than about your friend. Not demanding evidence would
imply that you are a very gullible person.
Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) the resurrection of Jesus is most like
the fourth scenario. Only a fool would simply believe someone has been raised
from the dead without some very strong evidence to support the claim. The first
scenario represents a claim about something that is so mundane and expected that absolutely
no proof is required. Bills come in the mail more days than not.
The second scenario?the one with the chips?requires just a bit more proof. One
does not see a two-pound bag of chips for $1.19 every day. It is amazing (using
the word very loosely) to find chips that cheap. You might not exactly demand
proof, but it is so surprising to find chips this cheap, you just might sneak
a peak at the receipt to make sure your friend is not mistaken. If you were
to become convinced, you probably would not dance up and down the street, declaring
the amazing discovery to all within earshot, but you would be sure to tell a few
friends about the great price on chips at the store.
The lottery scenario is quite different. The chances of claiming such a big
payoff in the lottery is less than one in a million for sure. This would be
a very unexpected result, especially if your friend had the good sense not to
play the lottery. But assuming that she did buy a few lotto tickets occasionally,
the claim about the lottery is still so unexpected that you would definitely
want proof before believing it. Cruel practical jokesters have been known to
pull off elaborate schemes to convince their friends that they won the lottery, only
to say they were joking. The point is this. Winning the lottery is a very unlikely
event, but no matter how unlikely it is, it still is definitely possible. A
possible but very unlikely event requires a good deal of evidence in order to
However, the scenario with the six-legged cow is a different animal altogether.
Cows simply do not have six legs?period. In this case, your assumption would
be that your friend either made a mistake or has been deceived by some sort
of optical illusion. It is impossible for cows to have six legs. Well, maybe
it is not impossible, but it certainly is unheard of. You would require some
pretty convincing proof. A picture might help, but with modern technology, pictures
can be faked. A few other eyewitnesses would certainly help, especially if their descriptions
all corroborated one another. However, there is only one completely convincing
form of evidence. If you could see the cow for yourself?if you could walk around
her and touch her, you would be completely convinced that your friend had actually
seen a cow with six legs.
Such is the case with the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. According
to common experience and even common sense, it is simply unbelievable that Jesus
Christ was raised from the dead on the third day. The chances of winning the
lottery may be one in ten million. The odds against a person being raised from
the dead are certainly much greater than that. One might even say it is impossible?
a miracle. In order to convince the skeptic, very strong evidence is required
indeed. To quote a well-known skeptical scientist, ?If you hear hooves clip-clopping
down a street, it could be a zebra or even a unicorn?but before you assume anything
other than a horse, you should demand a minimal standard of evidence.? The more unlikely
the claim, the stronger the evidence that is required in order to substantiate
Beside this, the burden of proof lies with the believer, not the skeptic. Reason
would tell us that the skeptic does not need to prove his or her case against
the resurrection of Jesus. Because a claim of resurrection lies so far outside
of normal experience, it is unfair to require the non-believer to prove that the resurrection
story is bogus. It is not right to charge the skeptic with being closed-minded
for not believing in the resurrection. The skeptic would reply, ?Open-minded
is fine, but I do not want to be so open-minded, my brains fall out. Give me some
There is an additional factor that makes the burden of proof on the believer
heavy. This is brought out by the illustration used above. In the four
when your friend claimed that he had seen a cow with six legs, you had every
reason to expect strong evidence. A picture would be nice, and eyewitnesses could
be very helpful, but there was one kind of evidence that would be very convincing.
If one could actually go to see the cow up close and personal, that would be
by far the most convincing proof of this very far-fetched claim.
Unfortunately, in the case of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we do
not have access to such proof. Because the event (if it did indeed occur) happened
almost two thousand years ago, it is not possible to go back to Israel to investigate
the claim directly. Beside, all the eyewitnesses are long dead. At first glance,
this might seem like an overwhelming burden of proof. In the end, we will let
the evidence speak for itself.
So the job that remains is to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Jesus Christ
was in fact raised from the dead on the third day. Because of the nature of
the claim, the task is not simply to show that this is the most likely explanatio
n of the facts surrounding his death. The resurrection of the dead is so far
from normal experience that one must prove beyond a doubt that it is the on
ly reasonable explanation of the facts. To quote from the eighteenth-century British
philosopher and skeptic, David Hume, ?One must ask if the present evidence for
the alleged event is so strong that any other explanation of the evidence would
be even more miraculous.?
A DIFFICULT JOB, BUT AN IMPORTANT JOB
The burden of proof for supporting belief in the resurrection of Jesus is great,
but the importance of the assignment is great as well. On this issue hangs all
of Christianity. Let it be said again. All of Christianity rests on the issue
of the resurrection of its founder, Jesus Christ. This is not an overstatement. Consider
the radical statement of the apostle Paul.
And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have
testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise
him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then
Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith
is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep
in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be
pitied more than all men. (1 Corinthians 15:14-19)
According to Paul, if Jesus Christ was in fact not raised from the dead, then
the apostles and the writers of what we now call the New Testament are liars.
In that case, the entire gospel message as well as the writings of the New Testament
is a scam. Paul continues by stating that if the resurrection is a lie, then Christianity
is a lie, in which case anyone who has been living the Christian life has been
living a lie. Given the incredible sacrifice and commitment required of a true
disciple of Jesus, Paul concludes that if the resurrection is a lie, then the
Christian is to be pitied above all men. If Christ is not raised, then why not
?eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.?
Perhaps at first Paul?s declaration that Christians are to be pitied more than
all men if the resurrection claim is a hoax seems a bit far-fetched. Isn?t Paul
overstating his case just a bit?
Paul?s statement is certainly diametrically opposed to the claim of the famous
philosopher and mathematician Pascal, who made what is commonly known as Pascal?s
wager. Pascal made what at first glance may appear to be a perfectly logical
challenge to the unbeliever. In essence he claimed that even if one could not
decide for sure whether or not a creator exists, it is better to believe than
not to believe. The argument is that if the Creator exists and one does not
believe then one may be in big trouble. The reverse of the argument, according to Pascal,
is that even if one believes in God and it turns out that he does not exist,
nothing is lost. There is nothing to be lost in believing, whether that belief
is based on truth or not, but there is a lot to be lost in unbelief if God actually
Typical First Century Jewish Tomb, Mount Carmel, Israel
Courtesy of Great Commission Illustrated Books, Photo by Julie Geissler, 1999
Whether or not the logic of Pascal holds up in scholastic circles, Paul, a claimed
eyewitness to the resurrection, states clearly that Pascal?s wager is wrong,
at least in the case of Christianity. Given the great sacrifice of time, energy,
fortune, emotional energy and the like required of a disciple, Paul states that
if all this is given over to a lie, then we are to be pitied more than all men.
What a cruel fate it would be to give one?s whole life to a hoax.
History would give us a number of examples of people giving their all for something
that does not exist. Coronado and others spent their life?s energy searching
for El Dorado?the City of Gold, when no such city existed. Henry Hudson and
many others gave their lives searching for a Northwest Passage that did not exist.
Hundreds of similar stories could be cited. However, there is a key difference
between these examples and the Christian life. With both the search for El Dorado
and for the Northwest Passage, even in seeking a nonexistent goal, Coronado and Hudson
gave some sort of meaning to their lives. Both opened up large areas to exploration.
In the end, what they accomplished was at least as significant as that for which
they were searching.
One might argue similarly for Christianity. Even if it is not really true, then
at least the Christian life is better than the alternative. Even if one does
not go to heaven, at least life down here was better for having believed, yet
Paul is saying that if the resurrection is a lie, then the Christian claim is
the cruelest of hoaxes.
There are some other New Testament passages that back up this claim. In 1 Peter
1:3-4 one finds the statement, ?In his great mercy, he has given us new birth
into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and
into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade?kept in heaven for you.? Hope
certainly is at the heart of Christianity. The resurrection of Jesus Christ
provides that hope. However, if Jesus Christ was not raised, then that hope
is a false hope. In fact, it is a cruel hope. The greater the sacrifice to obtain
some sort of a hope, the more cruel it is if it is false. Christianity is the
ultimate illustration of this principle.
Another supporting example is found in Acts 17:31, ?For he [God] has set a day
when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has
given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.? This is clearly
a reference to Jesus Christ. The Christian life is lived in the assumption that
our every action will be brought into a final judgment before God. According
to the passage just referred to, the resurrection is the ultimate proof of this.
In fact, if Jesus was not raised, then neither will there be a judgment day,
so ?eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.?
To sum up, in this chapter, we will be looking at the validity of the claim
that Jesus was raised from the dead. Bear in mind what is at stake here. If
is true, then without question, only the worst of fools would not
accept the gospel message, with all that is implied therein. If it is a false
claim, then Christianity is not left as a nice religion. It is not ?one of many
paths to the same end,? as some religious persons might claim. If Jesus Christ
was not indeed raised from the dead, then Christianity is a lie and a cruel hoax.
Its followers are cruelly deceived and are to be pitied above all men.
JUST THE FACTS, MA?AM, JUST THE FACTS
The above subtitle is a reference to one of the author?s favorite old-time TV
shows. However, the reference may date me just a bit. It comes from the show Dra
gnet, a 60s and 70s police docudrama in which its leading character, the deadpan
police detective Officer Gannon would often ask emotional crime victims for
?just the facts.?
It is time to consider the question, but first let us look at a few undisputed
historical facts relating to the validity of the resurrection. What do we know
about the resurrection that even the most die-hard of skeptics would have to
admit is true, unless they were simply not aware of what is known from historical
First of all, one can be sure without a doubt that Jesus is in fact an historical
figure. Some would actually want to paint the entire person of Jesus as a myth.
As recently as the twentieth century, no less a figure than the philosopher
Bertrand Russell (a strident atheist, by the way) was able to boldly claim that,
?Historically, it is quite doubtful whether Christ ever existed at all, and
if He did, we do not know anything about him.? In reality, all this quote does
is prove the extreme bias of Bertrand Russell. This bias is so off the charts
that it should cause the intelligent reader to question the validity of anything
else Russell might say.
For an uneducated person to claim that the historicity of Jesus as a person
is a myth would be forgivable, but for someone as educated as Bertrand Russell
to make such a claim is extremely irresponsible. Russell was certainly well
aware than no reputable historian would doubt the existence of Jesus any more
than they would question the reality of Julius Caesar. Arguably, there is as
much material evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ as any other ancient
historical figure. One could mention the great number of words about Jesus in the
Encyclopedia Britannica or a few of the dozens of historians from the first
two centuries ad who refer to his life and what he did. It is no exaggeration
to state that anyone who claims not to believe that Jesus existed is either
extremely ignorant of history or so biased that the wise listener would do well
to turn her ear in another direction.
Another fact of history that would be accepted by even the deepest skeptic (assuming
that they do not have the kind of extreme bias exhibited by Bertrand Russell)
is that Jesus Christ was in fact crucified outside Jerusalem by the Roman authorities
under Pontius Pilate. If Jesus was not crucified, then he also was not raised
from the dead, so this is an important point.
One can be sure that Jesus was crucified as recorded in the Bible because historians
with no stake in believing this claim have recorded the event. For example,
one can quote from Cornelius Tacitus, who lived from ad 55-120. Tacitus is generally
considered to be one of the most important and reliable historians of ancient
Rome. Beside, in those of his writings that are relevant to early Christianity,
Tacitus was not writing about events of the distant past. He wrote concernin
g events that had occurred in his own lifetime, or at most a couple of generations
before he lived. Tacitus wrote two extensive historical works, Annals, coveri
ng Roman political history from the death of the emperor Augustine in ad 14
?to the end of Nero?s reign in ad 68, and Histories, which began with the death
of Nero and continued to the death of Domitian in ad 96. To quote from Tacitus
?But not all the relief that could come from man, not all the bounties that
the prince could bestow, nor all the atonements which could be presented to
the gods, availed to relieve Nero from the infamy of being believed to have
ordered the conflagration, the fire of Rome. Hence to suppress the rumor, he falsely charged
with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly
called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder
of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign
of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out
again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the
city of Rome also.?
Despite his desire to defame the Christian religion, Tacitus unwittingly provided
strong historical evidence to support the claims of Christianity. This pagan
enemy of the Christians recorded the crucifixion of Jesus Christ under Pontius
Another Roman writer who reported a few details regarding the early church was
Lucian of Samosota. Lucian was a social critic who wrote sarcastically of Christians.
In one of his commentaries, he said:
?The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day?the distinguished personage
who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account?. You see,
these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal
for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion
which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original
lawgiver that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the
crucified sage, and live after his laws.?
Obviously, Lucian wrote with malice toward Christians in general, but fortunately
for us, he recorded for future ages an independent commentary on Christian character,
as well as relating as fact Jesus? crucifixion.
Other pagan writers from the first two centuries could be called as witnesses
to the fact that Jesus Christ was crucified in Jerusalem. Another source of
evidence to support the fact of the crucifixion is Jewish writings of the first
two centuries ad. The most famous of these comes from the Jewish historian,
Josephus who was referred to previously. In his book Antiquities, Josephus records
concerning Jesus, ??and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men
among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first
did not forsake him.? Being a Jew, Josephus had no motive to support the Christian
position, but he does faithfully report that Jesus was crucified under the orders
of Pontius Pilate, supplying the additional information that it was under pressure
from the Jewish leaders.
Another source of Jewish sentiment is found in the Talmud?a collection of commentaries
to the Hebrew Bible written primarily in the first two centuries ad. For example,
?one can find in what is known as the Babylonian Talmud the statement:
It has been taught: On the eve of the Passover they hanged Yeshu. And an announcer
went out in front of him, for forty days (declaring): ?He is going to be stoned,
because he practiced sorcery and enticed and led Israel astray. Anyone who knows
anything in his favor, let him come and plead in his behalf.? But not having
hing in his favor, they hanged him on the eve of the Passover.
It is clear in this passage from the Talmud that Yeshu refers to Jesus and that
hanging refers to crucifixion (see Galatians 3:13). Besides this, the Jewish
author provides independent confirmation of the biblical claim that Jesus was
crucified on the eve of the Passover.
In summary, the clear testimony of history is that Jesus Christ was in fact
crucified in Jerusalem under the authority of the governor Pontius Pilate, on
the eve of the Passover, as recorded in the New Testament scripture.
There is a third historical fact that is relevant to the crucifixion. This very
significant fact is that the claim of Jesus Christ having been raised from the
dead was made publicly in Jerusalem almost immediately after the event. The
apostles and other followers of Jesus in the same city where the events occurred
declared the resurrection openly. It was proclaimed at the same time and place
where the eyewitnesses to the events, including the Roman officials and soldiers,
as well as the Jews who did not accept Jesus? teaching, had every opportunity
to bring forth evidence to the contrary. This fact will be very important in
establishing the truth of the resurrection.
The Bible records the first time the resurrection was publicly declared, in
front of thousands of people. This event, which occurred seven weeks after the
execution of Jesus, is recorded in Acts chapter two. ?This man was handed over
to you by God?s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked
men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the
dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death
to keep its hold on him? (Acts 2:24,25). To the skeptic, the simple fact that Peter?s
sermon is recorded in the Bible does not supply sufficient proof that the resurrection
was openly and publicly preached within a very short time of the supposed event.
In fact, there have even been some critics of Christianity who have argued,
despite what is written in Acts 2, that the resurrection claim was not made
for a number of generations after the death of Jesus. The arguments of these
Bible critics is that a group of disciples of Jesus who wanted to build up his reputation
to those they were attempting to convert made up the resurrection story. Unfortunately
for the Bible critic, this scenario simply cannot be reconciled with the facts.
There has simply never been a time when the Christian church did not have the
resurrection as a central part of the message of the gospel. In fact, a brief
survey of the book of Acts will prove to the reader that an account of the resurrection
is a significant part of every recorded gospel sermon. The well-prepared skeptic might
argue that Acts and the other books of the New Testament were either not written
until well into the second century ad, or that they were changed to reflect
the newly developing resurrection claim. However, during the twentieth century,
this charge was completely discredited by discoveries of increasingly ancient
actual copies of the New Testament documents. The oldest known partial manuscript
of the New Testament, known as the Rylands papyrus, has been dated at 130 A
D, about fifty years from the writing of the gospel of John. More will be said
on the integrity of the New Testament text in chapter six, but suffice it to
say that with the evidence now in hand, it is inconceivable to the knowledgeable
scholar of the Bible that such a key doctrine as the resurrection of Jesus Christ
from the dead could have been added in at a later date.
There are references to the resurrection from extra-biblical sources such as
?when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned
him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for
he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold
these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians
so named from him are not extinct at this day.
In addition, early Christian writings, some from as early as the end of the
first century, provide proof that the resurrection was preached since the beginning
of Christianity. For example, one could quote Ignatius (ad 50-115), the bishop
of Antioch, a prot?g? of the apostle John, from his epistle to the Trallians,
?He was crucified and died under Pontius Pilate. He really, and not merely in
appearance, was crucified, and died, in the sight of beings in heaven and on
earth, and under the earth. He also rose again in three days?.? Is anyone willing
to support the claim that Ignatius waited for his teacher, John, to die, and
then made up a bogus account of the resurrection, going against all the other
teachers in the early church?
Besides this fact, one can take note of the day of Christian worship. From the
inception of the New Testament church, the disciples began meeting on the first
day of the week?Sunday to commemorate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There
is no credible evidence for the early church ever meeting for their principle
worship of the week on any other day. If the resurrection was not pronounced
by the eyewitnesses from the very beginning, how can one account for the fact
that the church has met since its very beginnings on Sunday to commemorate this
So there is no reasonable doubt that the resurrection was publicly proclaimed
in Jerusalem in the immediate aftermath of the event. Claims to the contrary
are not based on careful consideration of the facts.
The last fact of history we will consider that is relevant to the question of
the resurrection of Jesus is the most significant of the four. The fact is that
the tomb in which Jesus was laid was empty on the third day. It may seem a bold
move to claim this as historical fact, but given the assumption that Jesus was
crucified in Jerusalem on the eve of the Passover, as proven above, there is
no logical alternative. The tomb where Jesus? body was laid was empty on the
How can one claim this to be a fact? That is easy. If the tomb had not been
empty, then as soon as the disciples began to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus,
the Jews would have simply escorted people over to the tomb to show them the
body. This did not happen. The reason this did not happen is simple. The tomb
was empty. In fact, the Jews who in later times attempted to explain away the
resurrection never raised the claim that the tomb was not empty.