The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 1 (The Post-Mortem Appearances)
I have spent a great deal of time discussing the evidence for general theism and considerably less time discussing the evidence for the divinity of Jesus and the historicity of the events described in the New Testament documents. Yet, it is a fact that orthodox Christianity is built upon a historical event, not creative theological thinking. The Apostle Paul defends this very point in his letter to the church in Corinth, that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14)." In fact, the historical resurrection of Jesus is a necessity, as the orthodox Christian believes that Christ was the first demonstration of the power of God which they expect to work in their own lives on the day of judgment. As Paul writes, "But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep (1 Corinthians 15:20)."
However, among the many areas of contention for skeptics regarding the claims of the New Testament, the resurrection is the most widely disputed. In the next several posts, I would like to examine three major areas of evidence for this event, and then briefly evaluate some of the alternative theories suggested by skeptics to account for the contemporary belief in the resurrection of Jesus.
The first piece of evidence is the series of post-mortem appearances of Jesus to his followers and others after his crucifixion and burial. If Jesus was, in fact, resurrected from the dead, the fact that he appeared to others would not only be likely, but necessarily for the idea to even exist today. The epistles of the apostle Paul, the earliest documents of the Christian church, provide some interesting details that bolster the case for the resurrection. In his letter to the Corinthian church, Paul writes, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles." Here, Paul says that the information that he had taught them, specifically dealing with the appearances of Jesus after his burial, was passed to him as a pre-existing tradition or confession of the existing group of believers.
Later, Paul writes to the Galatian church and mentions the journey he took to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles James and Peter three years after his own conversion, where he received the appearances tradition. Now, based upon the generally attested date of AD 30 for Jesus' crucifixion, Paul's conversion can be placed roughly three years later. This means that the information regarding the appearances of Jesus was intact and widely known within two to three years of the crucifixion, and documented within seven! In fact, Paul's mentioning of the remaining portion of the five hundred witnesses almost invites skeptics to verify for themselves, as if to say, "feel free to ask them!" As an aside, it is interesting to recall that prior to his conversion, Paul exerted considerable authority as a Pharisee, and was actively persecuting Christians up until the very day of his encounter with the risen Christ. The book of the Acts of the Apostles (chapters seven and eight) even mentions Paul's presence at and "hearty agreement" with the stoning of the disciple Steven, who openly proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus. Implicit in Steven's preaching was the fact that Jesus was not only the expected Messiah, but resurrected to glory, of which he had been a witness.
The fact that the establishment of the Christian church with its core doctrines can be traced to roughly a couple of years of Jesus' death and burial implies the general agreement among the community of the truth that Jesus had been crucified, buried, and resurrected. While historians find plenty of data in agreement with this belief, even among secular sources, sources that provide voices of dissention providing details strong enough to debunk the belief are non-existent. In other words, that the body of believers so greatly proliferated in such a short time shows that there were few, if not none, who had any evidence with which to clarify a mistaken belief that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
Often quoted by New Testament scholar William Lane Craig, Gerd Lüdemann writes in What Really Happened to Jesus? "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ."