On Easter, many Christians around the world celebrate the Resurrection of our “great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13). For them, this is the most important holiday of the Christian calendar. The doctrine of the Resurrection of Christ is one of the most important doctrines of Christianity; without the Resurrection, we have no hope of salvation from our sins (1 Corinthians 15:12–18).
The pagan culture of the first century did not accept resurrection even as a possibility, and non-Christians today are just as resistant to the idea, even coming up with ludicrous theories where Jesus was not really dead when He went to the tomb to try to explain His appearance three days later. Or they claim that His appearance was spiritual; that perhaps it was a hallucination or a vision, but certainly not a physical manifestation.
But ancient people had language to speak about spirits and ghosts, and indeed, that would have gone over much better with people in the Greco-Roman culture. But when they say that Jesus was resurrected, they mean precisely that He was brought back to life in a physical body.
When we call Jesus’ resurrection a historical event, we must define ‘historical’, because unbelieving scholars use different definitions of ‘historical’ to deem Christ’s resurrection unhistorical. So we must explore the different uses of historical to determine in which senses we mean when we speak of Christ’s resurrection as a historical event.1
The simplest definition of ‘historical event’ is simply something that happened, whether or not it is important in terms of world history, whether or not there is a record or even a witness of it. So by this definition, anything that happens is historical. So Jesus’ resurrection is historical in this sense. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls this definition “history as event”.1 Another definition is “history as significant event;” hardly anyone who believes that the Resurrection of Christ is historical in the first sense would argue that it is not in the second sense.
What is usually contested is whether or not Jesus’ Resurrection is historical in the sense of being a provable event. Skeptics of the Resurrection accounts sometimes argue that all we have are the accounts in the Gospels which were written decades later, and even those do not depict the actual moment of the Resurrection. They argue that in the intervening decades mythology took over and they explained the missing body of Jesus with a Resurrection story. But this view is flawed on several points.
First, the accounts in the Gospels are neither the only nor the earliest evidence we have of Christian writing about the Resurrection. That honor goes to 1 Thessalonians; one of the earliest of Paul’s letters, which will be examined below, which was written around AD 50.2 So we have evidence that about two decades after Christ’s death, there was a group of people who insisted He was raised from the dead, and had built a decent portion of their theology around that fact, which doesn’t happen overnight. But the Gospel accounts, while penned decades after the events they describe (AD c. 30–33), go back to early oral tradition, which seems remarkably untainted by ‘theologizing’ on the part of the authors.
The Resurrection accounts in the four canonical Gospels (penned from AD 55–853) are often criticized for being contradictory, but many of the alleged contradictions are no more than we would expect from any four different accounts of an event several decades after the fact. They include things such as who precisely made up the group of women who went to the tomb, whether there was one angel or two, and so on. Most of these are not even contradictory, and the critics clearly don’t understand logic, since they are not mutually exclusive; for instance, one account may mention only the angel who spoke, while the other account mentioned both angels. It would be a contradiction if one account specified only one angel.
It makes sense that the men who wrote the accounts might recall different details, even seemingly conflicting details, in their retelling of the event. What does not make sense is to say that since the authors include different women in the group that went to the tomb, the Resurrection obviously did not occur, and the same goes with all the other alleged contradictions.4
One of the strongest evidences for the historical nature of the Resurrection is somewhat indirect, in that it is required to explain a series of historical events, which make absolutely no sense unless the Resurrection actually happened. First, the disciples of Jesus went from cowering in an upper room (Peter had apparently already gone back to fishing), afraid for their lives, to proclaiming in the streets a little over a month later that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and had risen from the dead. Ten of the apostles were martyred in various ways; only John died of old age, and Christians underwent many different periods of persecution, both at the local and state level. One could argue that many Christians were deluded, but to say that the apostles would die for what they knew to be a lie stretches credulity.5
That they were claiming He was resurrected was about the most unlikely way a first-century Jew would have explained an empty tomb. First-century Jews had diverse beliefs about the afterlife, from the Sadducees who did not believe in the Resurrection at all, to Pharisees, who believed in the Resurrection (but even among them there was diversity of opinion as to whether the unrighteous would be resurrected). But no type of Judaism believed that one person was going to be resurrected before everyone else; this is likely why the disciples had no idea what Jesus was talking about when He predicted His death and resurrection; the belief that the resurrection was something that would happen all at once at the end of time, whether to everyone or to the righteous only, rendered His words incomprehensible to them until they actually saw the Resurrection.
There is evidence that, almost from the beginning of the Christian movement, Christ’s resurrection was used to explain what His believers would experience in the Resurrection. In fact, one thing that marks the Gospel accounts out as going back to a very early oral tradition that was not tampered with by the Gospel authors is the distinct lack of such extrapolation from Christ’s resurrection to our own.6 In 1 Thessalonians 1:10, Paul calls Jesus “[God’s] Son from Heaven, whom He raised from the dead.” He does not return to resurrection until near the end of the letter in 4:13–18, but that short passage is very important for reconstructing early Christian belief in the Resurrection, because it is the earliest example of Resurrection theology: “We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” So the Resurrection of Jesus becomes the basis for the Christian’s resurrection when He returns. In Philippians 3:20-21, we find the explicit statement that our resurrection bodies will be just like Jesus’.
The most important developments of Paul’s theology regarding the resurrection of believers are his statements in 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5:12–21 (penned in 53–54 AD7 and 57–58 AD,8 respectively). In the former we find for the first time the reason why Christians can expect to be resurrected because of Jesus’ resurrection; Jesus is “the firstfruits” of the Resurrection, a guarantee that those who are under him will also be raised when He returns (1 Corinthians 15:23).
Paul made a clear contrast between the sin of the first man, Adam, vs. the Last Adam, Christ. Adam’s sin makes us all sinners by nature, but Jesus’s sacrifice enabled our sin to be imputed (credited) to Him (Isaiah 53:6), and His perfect life enabled His righteousness to be imputed to believers in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is hard for modern Westerners to understand, because Western culture is very individualistic. But in New Testament time, and indeed in most cultures today, they thought in collective terms, so would readily understand this. That is, the actions of one person necessarily affected the whole; especially the actions of the head of a certain group. And if corporate punishment is ‘unjust’, whatever that might mean in an atheistic framework, then so is corporate redemption.
Paul essentially makes the argument that there are two ultimate ‘heads’ of two types of humanity; Adam and Christ.9 All people are under either one or the other, and the action of one’s ‘head’ determines their standing before God:
Adam was the firstfruits of death, in a manner of speaking; the first sentence in history to capital punishment (Genesis 3:19) showed that all who were under him would also die. Paul calls Jesus the ‘Last Adam’, because humanity’s relationship to Adam is the only one that remotely resembles the relationship of Christians to Christ. Even so, most of the time Paul talks about them in terms of contrasting the two; the only similarity he ever brings out between the two is that both were heads of humanity whose actions had far-reaching consequences for those under them.11 This similarity is the foundation for the contrasts he goes on to point out.12
There are several important points of contrast that Paul brings out in the two key passages:
This comparison between Adam and Christ is absolutely essential to Paul’s argumentation, and his theology of the Resurrection in general. This requires that both Adam and Christ be historical figures who both have a kind of headship over the humanity that is under them, whose actions had widespread consequences for those under them.
More specifically, it requires that Adam be the literal ancestor of all humans whose sin really caused the introduction of death and the estrangement of humanity from God, just as Christ is a historical human being whose life of obedience to God and sacrificial death reconcile us to God and pay the sin-debt in a way that no one else could.
Some argue that it is not necessary for Adam to be historical. C.K. Barrett is typical of this view:
But his argument fails because it requires sinfulness and mortality to be the original state of humanity. But the whole point is that sin and death were themselves intruded on human history when Adam disobeyed God’s command. This is the reason why Christ’s obedience and sacrificial death were needed to overturn the rule of sin and death15. If Jesus has to be a historical person, so does Adam. The historicity of the person of Jesus and His sacrifice means that we will be free from sin and death in the Resurrection. But without the historicity of Adam, we do not know why the world was under the rule of sin and death in the first place. If death had always been a part of the created order, part of what God called “very good”, then there is no way that death could be called the ‘last enemy’. Even Barrett has to admit that Paul treats Adam as a historical figure.16
As CMI has explained before, it is possible to be a Christian while not believing that the first chapters of Genesis relate historical events. However, it leaves those Christians with little foundation to resist the attacks and ridicule of sceptics, atheists, liberal religious leaders, fellow students, or work-mates, etc. That’s because those few chapters set the stage for everything to come, both in the Old and New Testament. Genesis is the foundation of the Gospel; without that we are left without an explanation for the origin of everything Christ came to remedy (see also Biblical creation impedes evangelism?). The Resurrection of Christ marks the dawning of what can quite literally be called a ‘new humanity’ under Christ, but if our sinfulness does not come from being under a sinful head of humanity, the first Adam, then we cannot be made righteous under a new head of humanity, the Last Adam, Jesus Christ. They logically stand or fall together, as Paul realized.