The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3 (The Origin and Perseverance of the Church)
The third piece of evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is the very origin and perseverance of the Christian church itself. While some might at first glance argue that such a proposition is question-begging at best, the nature of the origin of the church is one that must be accounted for regardless of one’s belief regarding the resurrection.
For the disciples of Jesus, the situation on the day of his crucifixion was bleak. Their hope and conviction that he was the long awaited messiah was destroyed, as the expectation was that he would ultimately reign in triumph rather than suffer and die at the hands of men. Not only were they most likely in personal turmoil, the disciples of Christ, who had publicly proclaimed Jesus as messiah, were forced to deny having even known him and retreat into seclusion for their own safety. Yet, despite this predicament, the disciples emerged days later with fanfare to announce and proclaim the glorious resurrection of Jesus. Something must have happened to so radically change their behavior and beliefs.
As I mentioned in my last post regarding the empty tomb of Jesus, the idea that a man could be individually resurrected in history was foreign to the Jews of first century Palestine. Rather, the Jewish conviction regarding the resurrection (found in Ezekiel 37, Isaiah 26:19, and Daniel 12:2, among others) was that it was a comprehensive and post-historical event. In other words, the resurrection would occur at the end of the world and involve every single person who ever lived, either resurrected to glory or judgment. Thus, explaining the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Jesus on the basis of a pre-existing Jewish theological motive would be entirely inaccurate. (I am distinguishing here between the theological ideas of resurrection, which entailed the dead being restored bodily at the end of time for the purposes of judgment, and resuscitation, which entailed a once-dead person being restored to earthly life, as were Jairus’ daughter, Lazarus, etc.) Further, the suggestion that the disciples were operating on the basis of some contrived Christian theology is even more inaccurate. These men were committed Jews, and following Jesus on the basis of a conviction that he was the messiah expected by all Jews. Christian theology emerged out of the notion of a post-messianic covenant realized by Jesus’ resurrection, so to attempt to explain the resurrection on the basis of Christian theology most definitely begs the question.
What is certain is that the disciples of Jesus came to a rather immediate conviction after the crucifixion that Jesus had been resurrected by the power of God, appeared to them and many others, and commissioned them to spread the news of the new covenant to all nations. The only possible motive here is truth, as the disciples were all willing (and most ultimately did) to die for this truth. While many are willing to die for something that may be a lie, none are willing to die for something they know is a lie. Not only did these men risk their natural lives for their convictions, as committed Jews, they risked their immortal souls as well.
The fact that, despite the demise of most of the most influential disciples (martyred for their belief in the resurrection of Jesus), the Christian church spread and grew rapidly attests to the reality of an event so incredible and world-changing as to be an appropriate impetus for the emergence of Christianity. I believe that this event, with history on its side, was the resurrection of Jesus.