In this 20th installment of our series “Is Christianity True” we finally get to the decisive event in Christian history, the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. If this event really happened as the first Christians believed, everything changes. If they were wrong and it did not happen, Christianity as it originally came to exist and developed through the centuries is false. In the next few essays, we will pursue the question of whether or not we can reasonably hold to the resurrection faith.
We hear the Christian message from within our wider and narrower context. We bring our own beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and expectations to this encounter. In this series we are asking how a contemporary person can make a rational judgment and responsible decision to believe the Christian message. I think a good place to begin is to reflect on how the very first Christians made their transition into Christian faith. Surely, our coming to responsible faith cannot be wholly different from theirs.
Our knowledge of the careers of the first Christians comes from the documents of the New Testament, especially from the gospels, Acts, and the letters of Paul. Let’s delay the question of the historical reliability of these sources and concentrate on the story. The first Christians were Jews and came from among the original disciples of Jesus. They believed in the God of Israel and looked to the Law and the Prophets for guidance in their religion and life. After Jesus began to preach about the coming kingdom of God, these people and many others flocked to hear his message and witness his actions. Because of his radical teaching, his bold actions, and the miracles he performed, people speculated about who he was and how to fit him into their categories. Was he a prophet? Was he the Messiah-King? Was he an apocalyptic fanatic? They speculated about his aims. Did he aim to liberate the Jews from Roman rule? Did he aim to bring the age to an end with divine judgment and renewal? Jesus did not seem into fit any preconceived category.
Jesus called twelve of his disciples into his inner circle, but there was also a larger circle of above a hundred close disciples. Apparently, even these inner circles of disciples were not much clearer than others about who Jesus was and what his intentions were. But they were loyal to Jesus and were certain that the God of Israel was doing something new in the person and ministry of Jesus. According to the Gospel of Mark, Peter believed Jesus was “the Messiah” (8:29). But it’s hard to tell exactly what Peter meant by the title.
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, debated with the Pharisees, entered the Temple and drove out the money changers, the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem were alarmed. They captured Jesus, tried him in at night, and convinced the Roman governor Pilate to crucify him. Jesus was crucified in public in the presence of solders, enemies, the curious crowd, and friends. His disciples saw him die. Some of them were able to secure his body and bury it in a nearby tomb.
What must his disciples have thought about this end to the story? Did God abandon Jesus? Was Jesus self-deceived? Or did Jesus simply suffer a martyr’s death as did many of the ancient prophets? According the gospel accounts, the disciples were stunned, afraid, and disappointed. But then something happened they had not expected. Less than 48 hours after they had seen Jesus die and be buried, on Sunday morning some women visited the tomb where Jesus had been buried and found it open and empty. Peter ran to the tomb to see for himself, and seeing the empty tomb, he wondered what had happened (Luke 24:12). Shortly thereafter, Jesus appeared to Peter and the other disciples and spoke with them. Jesus, contrary to all expectations, had been raised from the dead. This experience of the risen Jesus changed everything. Everything had to be rethought and reoriented.
The writings of Paul are the earliest preserved witness by someone who experienced a resurrection appearance. According to his own words Paul persecuted the first Christians but was confronted by Jesus himself and called to preach the gospel—a most unlikely convert! (In Acts, we have three extensive accounts of the conversion of Saul. But I am concentrating here on Paul’s words from his own pen.) In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues for the general, end-time resurrection of the dead from the complete consensus of the first Christians that Jesus was raised from the dead: to deny the general resurrection is to deny the resurrection of Christ. But the resurrection of Christ was a foundational belief in Corinth and all other churches. Paul lists, apparently in order, those to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection: Peter, the Twelve, James, the 500 (many of who were still alive), all the apostles, and finally Jesus appeared to Paul himself. According to Galatians 1:18-20, Paul spent two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem and while there visited with James the Lord’s brother. Hence we have in the words of Paul a direct witness from one who experienced an appearance of the resurrected Lord. Not only so, Paul was personally acquainted with many others who also independently experienced the risen Jesus.
Two conclusions follow from these considerations: (1) there can be no doubt that the event that caused the disciples to believe that God raised the crucified Jesus from the dead marks the decisive beginning of Christianity. Without it, Christianity would not exist. Christian faith is more than belief in the resurrection, but belief in the resurrection is essential and it changes dramatically how the teachings, miracles, and the death of Jesus must be understood. (2) There can be no doubt that Paul, Peter, James the Lord’s brother, the twelve, and many others experienced an appearance of Jesus, which for them unambiguously demonstrated that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Many questions remain for us to address, but I think these conclusions are sound historical judgments.