Tough Questions: How do we know Jesus is who He said He was?

Last time, we looked at how it’s possible that, out of all the world’s many religions, there is only one that is true.  As we saw, Jesus certainly thought so.  To paraphrase CS Lewis, the claims of Jesus leave us with only three alternatives: Either He was a con man who duped innocent people into giving their lives to Him, or He was a lunatic who thought He was God incarnate, or He was Lord and God, just as He said.  How do we know which path to choose?

Why should we believe in Jesus?  After all, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and many others have claimed to have a special link to the divine, have claimed to know exclusive truth.  Why should we believe that an obscure, uneducated, blue-collar Jewish guy who lived 2000 years ago and was executed as an enemy of the state is the only one who is right?  Easter is the answer.  One main thing that separates Jesus from all those others is the resurrection.  Think about it: Christianity is the only religion that is based on an historical claim.  For example, you don’t have to believe that Buddha ever really existed in order to practice Buddhism.  You can still follow the Noble Eightfold Path.  Muslims believe the events in the Koran actually happened, but even if they didn’t, you would still have the teachings of Mohammed, the Five Pillars of the faith.  If a Jew didn’t believe that the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea occurred, they could still follow the Law of Moses, still believe in Yahweh as the One True God.  Christianity alone says, “It’s not about following Christ’s teachings.  It’s about knowing Him.”  Jesus didn’t say, “My philosophy of life is the way to God.”  He said, I am the way, the truth and the life.  He didn’t invite people to a new religion, or say, “follow my teachings,” He said, “Follow me.”  If the resurrection never happened, if Jesus is dead and in the ground, then He can be rejected out of hand.

Tim Keller pastored for years in Manhattan, and often irreligious people would come to him who had been attending the church for a while.  These were highly educated, sophisticated people, so they would say, “I’d love to be a Christian, but I just can’t believe the biblical account of creation.  That doesn’t square with science.”  Or, “I like some parts of Christianity, but I can’t go along with its teachings on sexuality.  It’s just too primitive.”  Keller would refuse to argue or defend Christianity on those points.  Instead, He would say, “What really matters is, did Jesus rise from the dead?  If you look at the evidence and believe the resurrection never happened, then why worry what the Bible says about anything else?  It can all be rejected as foolishness.  But if you believe He rose from the dead, then you have to believe the answers to those other questions are there, and that you’ll find them eventually as you follow Him.”

The Bible confirms this, by the way. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14 writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  In v. 17, he doubles down: if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Why does everything hinge on the resurrection?  Because Jesus said He was more than a man.  He claimed to be the One sent from Heaven to save us, God in human flesh come to atone for our sins.  That’s very good news, but if it’s true, then He couldn’t have stayed dead.  If He stayed dead, then His predictions about rising are lies.  If He stayed dead, all His beautiful rhetoric was for nothing.  If, on the other hand, He did rise, then He is everything He said He was…He is indeed the way, the truth and the life.  That means the most important question in the history of the world is, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”  I believe the answer to that question is yes.  I have staked my life and eternity upon it.  I realize, of course, there are all sorts of fantastic stories from antiquity that virtually no one believes today: Hercules slaying the Hydra is one example.  What evidence do I have that the fantastic story of Jesus rising from the dead really happened?

The eyewitnesses.  The Twelve disciples, Mary Magdalene and several female followers, James the brother of Jesus, and at least five hundred other people claimed they saw Jesus risen from the dead. One argument against the historicity of the resurrection is that it is much more likely to be a legend than a factual event.  Sometimes stories about beloved heroes get told so many times, eventually people start believing them, even though there’s no evidence they actually happened.  This is why we have the legend that young George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree or that Babe Ruth pointed to left field before he hit a home run in the World Series.  So according to this theory, the legend of Jesus rising from the grave grew up among Christians and was inserted into the biblical accounts by church leaders. But there are problems with the legend theory of the resurrection.  First of all, most New Testament scholars will tell you that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written while there were still people alive who remembered Jesus.  And Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, in which he says he personally knows of 500 people who saw the risen Jesus, in AD 55, about 25 years after Easter Sunday.  How many people here can remember the OJ Simpson murder trial, which took place around 25 years ago?  Imagine if someone today wrote a book claiming that OJ was declared not guilty because, in the midst of the trial, Nicole Brown Simpson walked into the courtroom and revealed that she was not, in fact, dead.  Such a book would be laughed out of existence.  Too many people remember those events to allow it.  In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, there wasn’t time for a legend to develop, because if Paul and the other writers had been writing down folk tales, people would have called them on it.  To recall an earlier example, there were people who witnessed the World Series game in which Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to left field before hitting a home run.  All said it was not true.  The pitcher who faced Ruth on that occasion, in fact, said that if Ruth had done something so flamboyant, the next pitch would have hit him in the ear.  Early Christian writers were able to claim that Christ was risen without anyone of their time saying, “No He’s not!  His body is still in the cave in Jerusalem.”

For me, the most convincing eyewitness was not an apostle, it was Mary Magdalene.  All four Gospels agree she was the first person to see the risen Christ.  Now think about it.  In that culture, women were not seen as equal to men.  A woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a trial, unless it was corroborated by a man. So if the church had been making up a story about Jesus being risen, why would they make a woman the first eyewitness?  The answer is that they didn’t.

The change in the apostles.  In addition, you have to look at what happened to the apostles themselves after Easter.  They were uneducated, fearful men, by their own accounts in the Gospels.  Yet they became the kind of men who changed history.  Something obviously happened to them.  And then look at Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude.  According to the Gospels, they didn’t believe in Jesus when He was alive.  In fact, they made fun of Him.  Again, why would the early church make up details like that if they weren’t true?  But after He died, they became leaders of His movement.  James became the head of the Jerusalem church and was martyred for his faith.  They both wrote books of the NT and called themselves the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I have a brother, and I love him, but I wouldn’t call myself his servant if he paid me to do so.   I certainly wouldn’t tell people my brother was divine, especially if doing so put my life in jeopardy.  Why would they believe in Him when He was dead, if they hadn’t believed while He was still alive?  Keep in mind, there was no incentive at that point to declare Jesus the Son of God; for James, it meant leaving a secure life for an insecure one.  It ended in martyrdom for him, yet he never denied that it was true.

These faithful Jews began worshipping together on Sunday, when their tradition had always been to worship on the Jewish Sabbath, a Saturday.  Why did they make this change, unless something extremely important had happened on a Sunday?   Then look at what happened to their little movement.  120 people become more than 3000 within a few months.  Then within a generation, they were known in the Middle East as “These men who have turned the world upside down.”  Within three centuries, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  How on earth did a religion that was completely opposite traditional Roman religion (one God instead of many, with sexual ethics that were a stark contrast to Roman sexuality), that started with slaves and other disenfranchised people and emphasized qualities like humility and compassion, qualities the Romans tended to hate, spread so fast and win over so many?  Something must have happened after the death of Jesus that changed everything for His followers and His brothers.  It had to have been something transformative, and a resurrection would certainly fit the bill.  I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.  Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar from Emory University, muses, “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”  N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, writes, “As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

The testimony of martyrs.  The legend theory of how the resurrection story came about doesn’t hold water. So instead, many skeptics believe the early apostles cooked up the idea of Jesus’ resurrection.  We can call this the conspiracy theory.  But it’s highly unlikely as well.  Here’s why: Let’s say you, me and a few hundred others decided to start a new religion.  We could sneak into a cemetery where a good friend was buried, we could dig up his body in the middle of the night, and we could start telling everyone he rose from the dead.  We could make up stories about how he had told everyone he was the Son of God, and predicted that he would rise from the grave.  We would have to be really good salesmen, because there are a lot of religions already in this world, and what we are saying is going to be pretty hard to believe.  Do you think we could pull it off?  People are going to treat us like freaks.  Can you stick with the story if your family disowns you, and you lose your job, and folks start making fun of you?  And then the police will come and arrest us for robbing a grave.  They’ll ask each one of us to tell what really happened to the body.  They’ll say, “Tell us the truth, and we won’t prosecute you.  But when one of your friends tells us the truth first, you’re going to jail for a long time…”  We all know that it wouldn’t be an hour before the first person in our group blurted out the truth: “Okay, we made it up.  Don’t send me to jail!”  See, the conspiracy theory sounds great, until you realize that almost all of the people who claimed to see the risen Jesus died a martyr’s death. They didn’t just go to jail, they died.  Their fellow Jews or the Romans said, “Renounce Christ or die!” and they died, confessing the resurrection with their dying breaths.  And we know that’s the case, because if even one of them had given in, had revealed that it was all a conspiracy, then the authorities would have published that story, would have displayed the body of Jesus, and there would be no Christianity today.

Now you may say, “Big deal.  People are always dying for their faith.  Look at suicide bombers, for instance.”  But there is a difference.  A suicide bomber believes that when he blows himself up, he is guaranteed a trip to heaven.  He believes this because he has been told this by his religious leaders and other people he trusts.  It does make one wonder why the young person doesn’t ask his leader, “If you believe in this so strongly, why don’t you blow yourself up?”  But at any rate, this devout person is willing to die for what he believes to be true.  But these first Christians knew the truth.  No one had told them Jesus was risen.  They either saw it happen, or they had made up the story themselves.  And while many people will die for what they believe to be true, no one dies for what he knows is a lie.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg put it this way, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”  Do you believe that Jesus rose again?  If so, then He is everything He said He was.  If not, which category do you fall into?  If you disbelieve because it is hard for you to accept that a man could rise from the dead, I can understand that.  But consider the evidence.  What else accounts for the hundreds of eyewitnesses, the explosive growth of the early church, and for the martyrdom of most of the apostles?  If it is that second reason that bothers you, that you would have to change the way you live if Christ is truly Lord, then I appreciate your honesty.  But I urge you to consider the possibility that Jesus becoming Lord of your life would be the best thing that ever happened to you. What if He really is what you’ve always needed?

Frederica Matthews-Greene was raised in a Catholic home, but when she was a young teenager, she became convinced that the Gospel story was preposterous, something no sane, educated person could ever believe in.  She toyed with atheism, she studied other religions.  She was most intrigued with Hinduism because it was so different from what she was brought up with, but the one religion she was not interested in was Christianity.  She married a man who was a confirmed atheist, but on their honeymoon, as they were hitchhiking through Europe, he told her he had been reading the Gospels as part of a class assignment.  He said, “There’s something about Jesus. I’ve never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he’s speaking the truth. I’m an atheist. But if Jesus says there’s a God, there must be a God.”  That was very scary news for Frederica; the last thing in the world she wanted was for her husband to become a Christian.  Later in the same trip, while they were touring a church in Dublin, she suddenly found herself kneeling before a statue of Jesus.  A voice inside of her said, “I am your life. You thought that your life was your history, your name, your personality. You thought that your life was the fact that your heart beats. But that is not your life. I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life.”  Frederica started reading the Bible at that point, and found that she disagreed with much of what she was reading. Yet she couldn’t stop reading the life and teachings of this man, Jesus.  Months later, a friend asked the two of them, “Have you asked Jesus to be your Lord?”  Their response was classic: “We’re not Southern Baptists.”  He said, “Actually, Jesus wants to be Lord for everyone.”  They objected, “But we’re in grad school.”  He replied, “No, even for you.”  There in that friend’s apartment, Frederica and her husband prayed and invited Jesus to take control of their lives.  Today, she is a highly-regarded Christian writer and he is a minister.

So what do you believe about Jesus?  Give Him a chance, and He’ll change your life forever.

For more, see William Lane Craig’s excellent article on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus:

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