Questions Surrounding “The Passion of the Christ”/Program 6

By: Dr. Darrell Bock; ©2000
Why should we today believe that Jesus actually did rise from the dead?



Today on The John Ankerberg Show: Questions surrounding Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, The Passion of the Christ. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. It usually refers to the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, from His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane to His death on the Cross. Some critics question the historical reliability of the movie, but their greater fear seems to be that Gibson has succeeded far too well.

How did a realistic movie about Jesus get to be so controversial? What is the point of the film? Is it historically accurate? How does it answer the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Is the film “anti-Semitic”? What are the artistic liberties taken in the film? Why did Jesus have to die and did He really rise from the dead?

My guests today answering these questions are some of the most prominent scholars in the world. They include : Dr. Darrell Bock, Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Dr. N. T. Wright, Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey in England; Dr. Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary; Dr. William Lane Craig, Research Professor at Talbot School of Theology; Dr. Craig Blomberg, Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary; and Dr. Gary Habermas, Professor of Apologetics and Philosophy, Liberty University.

We invite you to join us.

Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. After watching the first hour and fifty-nine minutes of Mel Gibson’s movie of Jesus’ sufferings and crucifixion, we then come to the resurrection; then we see the stone rolled back at the tomb; then we see the empty burial cloth of Jesus lying on the shelf; and then we see Jesus sitting up. He prays, stands up to leave, and as He does, we see the nail prints in His hands, proof of a real bodily resurrection. It’s a very dramatic and stunning moment.
Now, think for a moment. If that last scene was not a part of the story, if there were no resurrection, just Jesus’ suffering and death, what would you have felt when you left the theater? Jesus would have been just another martyr who died for something He believed in but was killed in the end. It makes all the difference in the world whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead or not. If He did, it puts Him in a whole new category.
But then we’re forced to ask, “Who is this person? How did He conquer death? Why did He allow people to crucify Him in the first place? What did He want us to know?” And these are exactly the questions the early Christians asked after seeing the risen Jesus. When doubting Thomas saw Jesus and touched His body, he simply exclaimed, “My Lord and My God!” [John 20:28] Jesus’ resurrection appearance was responsible for converting the hardened skeptic and staunch enemy of the Church, Saul, to becoming Paul the apostle, one of Christ’s greatest defenders. It was also responsible for the conversion of James, Jesus’ own brother. But why should we today believe that Jesus actually did rise from the dead? Well, next, a host of scholars are going to answer that question and those questions related to it. I want to begin today with Dr. Darrell Bock.

Ankerberg: You said there was a point in the movie that really got to you emotionally, and that was when Jesus said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” [Matt. 27:46], and the effects that came in, the darkness and so on, and the silence. Talk about, theologically, what was going on.
Bock: Well, what happens, of course, is that the creation is even reacting to what’s going on. You know, when creation speaks, we ought to pause and listen. I really think that’s the point of the biblical accounts as well, when they’re telling the story of what’s going on with the creation while Jesus is dying. The other poignant part of the film is that there’s a lot of noise and racket and pain and suffering all the way through the two hours of this film till you get to the very end at the resurrection. There is no quieter scene in the entire film. In fact, it’s one of the few moments of silence in two hours. After a minute and 59 seconds of just noise and pain and suffering, the resurrection is a triumphant moment of quiet silence.
And I think the movie ends with us reflecting. This Jesus who was crucified, His crucifixion was not the end of the story, because the tomb was empty. He did go to the side of the Father, as He claimed He would do. God vindicated Him and His claims by what He did, and we should pay attention to the One whose tomb is empty.
Ankerberg: Because the resurrection is a part of this movie, people will say it’s not historical; now you’re getting into the faith of the Church. How would you respond to that?
Bock: Well, I would say it this way. I would say that the resurrection is historical. And the way we know that is by its effect. We have disciples who were fearful, ran, feared for their lives before this event took place. After the resurrection they were willing to stand up and die for what they believed in. We can’t verify the resurrection in the sense of there wasn’t a camera there to record it. But I often say, “Had there been a camera, had there been cameras in the first century and we had taken a camera to the tomb, it would have been empty; we would have seen Jesus’ grave clothes; we wouldn’t have found His body. That we know took place. And I think the only reasonable explanation for it is that God did something unique in the resurrection to point to Jesus’ uniqueness. And if there’s one thing our culture wants to do, it wants to take the uniqueness out of Jesus. But the resurrection is Jesus’ unique statement that He is unique and it’s God’s unique statement that what He claimed is unique.
You know, one of the critics made some remark about “Jesus was a Jewish preacher and prophet like any other Jewish preacher. The only thing that makes Him different is the resurrection.” And my answer to that is, “That’s precisely the point.” The resurrection is the big difference maker.
Ankerberg: Some people have written—for example, in Vanity Fair—that the disciples and followers of Jesus cooked up the resurrection after the fact because of the prophecies in the Old Testament, and they saw the story there as a faction of Judaism and they just cooked up the resurrection. What do you say to that?
Bock: Well, what’s interesting is that, if you had cooked up a resurrection, you wouldn’t have cooked up the kind of resurrection that Jesus experienced. What Judaism taught was a general resurrection in the end for all people in which they would face a final judgment. There is no precedent for the kind of resurrection that Jesus experiences, which is an immediate bodily resurrection within three days of His death. There was no precedent for that in Judaism. The way to say it and flip it around is that what we have in the Gospel account is an unprecedented resurrection without a precedent in theology for it. Something must have created that innovation, and that innovation was the resurrection.
Ankerberg: We also now have, coming on television, programs about the apostle Paul. The bottom line is the apostle Paul is the one who changed the message of Christianity and shaped Jesus to fit his own image. But that goes against 1 Corinthians 15.
Bock: That’s right. I think it is fair to say that Paul is a theologian who articulated the Christian faith with a kind of theological precision that not too many people before him had attempted to do, and he did it successfully. But having said that, he was someone who had absorbed the traditions of the Church as they were at the time; was aware of what the apostles were teaching; identified with what they said; understood the theology, and just became one of its most articulate spokespersons.

Ankerberg: But what evidence shows that Jesus actually did rise from the dead? Well, next you’re going to hear some of the top scholars in the world who are going to answer that question, and I want to begin with philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig:
Craig: It seems to me that there are four fundamental historical facts which any credible historian must account for if he’s to give a tenable historical hypothesis about the fate of Jesus of Nazareth. The first of these is the honorable burial of Jesus. The second of these is the discovery of His empty tomb. Third would be the postmortem appearances of Jesus; and fourth would be the origin of the disciples’ belief that Jesus was risen from the dead.
Now, with respect to the first of those, the burial of Jesus, the majority of New Testament scholars who have written on this subject agree that Jesus of Nazareth was buried by Joseph of Arimathea in a tomb.
Ankerberg: All four Gospels report Joseph of Arimathea requested permission from Pilate to bury Jesus, and that His body was laid in a tomb cut out of solid rock. Three of the writers say the tomb was new; that is, no one had ever been laid in the tomb before. All four accounts mention a stone that was rolled against the entrance to the tomb. Matthew adds, it was a large stone.
Craig: If Jesus was, in fact, buried by a Jewish Sanhedrist in Jerusalem as the Gospels claim, that means that the location of Jesus’ tomb was known to both Jew and Christian alike. But in that case, it’s impossible to imagine how a movement founded on belief in the resurrection of a dead man who had been publicly executed in Jerusalem could arise and flourish in the face of a tomb containing His corpse. So that those scholars who want to deny such things as the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, also find themselves forced to deny the fact of the honorable burial of Jesus, despite the fact that this is one of the earliest and best attested facts about the historical Jesus that we have. It’s extremely awkward for them.
Ankerberg: In addition, the second major fact which historians must evaluate is the empty tomb.
Craig: The majority of scholars who have written on this subject agree that the tomb of Jesus was probably found empty by a group of His women followers early on Sunday morning. That represents the historical core of the empty tomb narrative as we find it in Mark.
Habermas: The empty tomb is preached very early. You’ve got Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, saying He died, He was buried, what went down is what came out, and what came out is what appeared.
Ankerberg: Why is that solid evidence?
Habermas: Because critics, again, if you’re using this methodology that says we’ll use the facts that critics admit and facts which are well attested, Paul is admitted to being an eyewitness. The book in which his testimony appears is already early, about 25 years after the cross. But then the creedal passage that he reports, or that early tradition from verses 3 and following, 1 Corinthians 15, is earlier still. And in Galatians 1 and 2, he’s got apostolic confirmation of his message from Peter and James in Galatians 1; Peter, James and John in Galatians 2. So you’ve got this intricate interwoven “an accredited, eyewitness messenger with an early book, with an even earlier creed,” and it’s teaching our fact here in question: the empty tomb.
Ankerberg: Further, there is one final piece of evidence that proves Jesus’ tomb was empty. The Jewish leaders themselves testified to this fact.
Craig: The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of the resurrection was not to point to the occupied tomb, but rather to say that the disciples had stolen the body. It was itself an attempt to explain away why the body was missing. So that we have here evidence from the very enemies of the earliest Christian movement in favor of the empty tomb, evidence which is simply “top drawer,” because it comes not from the Christians, but from the very opponents of the early Christian movement.
Ankerberg: Historians believe that after watching Jesus die on the cross, His disciples fled in despair. The question that is raised is, what caused them to change their mind and proclaim Jesus was alive and that He was the Messiah, the Son of God?
Witherington: Well, in terms of the psychological profile of the disciples, if we believe that it is true that they denied, deserted and betrayed Jesus, that they had given Him up for lost when He died on the cross, psychologically something significant had to have happened to change all of their minds about this particular issue after the crucifixion of Jesus. Because remember, no early Jews were looking for a crucified Messiah. If you wanted to scotch the rumor that Jesus was Messiah, get Him crucified. That would prove that He was cursed, not blessed by God.
Ankerberg: So, history tells us that, after Jesus died on the cross, He was honorably buried. Three days later, His tomb was found empty. Then His followers began proclaiming this surprising message: “God has raised this Jesus to life and we are all witnesses of the fact.” [Acts 2:32]
Craig: The third fundamental fact that any responsible historical hypothesis has to account for in explaining the fate of Jesus of Nazareth is the fact that after His death different individuals and groups of people claimed to have seen Jesus of Nazareth alive from the dead on different occasions and under varying circumstances. Now, this general fact is one that is universally acknowledged today among New Testament critics.
Ankerberg: But scholars want to know, what did these people really see? Did they see Jesus in His physical body, or in some kind of a vision?
Witherington: Most scholars would certainly say that the disciples believed that they saw Jesus, and many of them would want to just leave it there and say, “Okay, it was subjective phenomenon that happened here.” But if you interpret those Gospel documents about the resurrection appearances of the risen Lord, and you interpret the Pauline evidence, the rest of the New Testament evidence, they were claiming far more than that. They were claiming to actually have a physical encounter with Jesus after His death, and that He ate, was tangible, could be touched, that He was still moving in space and time as a real person. So they were claiming more than just having had a vision of Jesus.
Ankerberg: Now, scholars have used different words to describe what they think the disciples saw. Some claim the disciples saw an ordinary appearance of Jesus, that is, Jesus was literally, physically present with them. He ate with them, and invited them to touch Him.
Craig: If there had been people there with tape recorders and cameras, they would have had photographic and audio images of Jesus appearing in the Upper Room. That would be an ordinary appearance.
Ankerberg: Other scholars use the word “vision” to describe what they think the disciples saw. A vision is defined as seeing an object in the mind without the use of the five senses. Further, there are two kinds of visions: a truthful vision and a false vision. An example of a true vision, what scholars also call a “veridical” vision, would be a prophet who receives information from God.
Craig: A veridical vision, I think, would be an example of what Stephen saw when he was stoned. He looked up and saw the heavens opened and he said, “I see the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.” [Acts 7:55-56] But the Jewish persecutors about Stephen saw nothing at all. They didn’t perceive anything and they rushed upon him and stoned him and killed him. What Stephen saw was a veridical vision, a God-induced visionary-seeing of the exalted Christ.
Ankerberg: But scholars also talk about a false or non-truthful vision. An example of this would be a person who gets drunk and sees a pink elephant. They really do see the pink elephant, but it is a hallucination, purely a projection of the person’s own mind and is not really there. This is what scholars usually refer to when they admit the disciples saw something, but then imply it was some kind of vision, not a literal physical appearance of Jesus. The question is, did the disciples know the difference between a real physical appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus in their minds?
Craig: Now, it’s interesting that the New Testament draws a clear distinction between appearances of Christ and visions of Christ. The appearances of the risen Christ were to a limited circle and soon ceased. But visions of the exalted Christ went on in the New Testament Church. Paul saw them when he was praying in the temple in Jerusalem. Stephen saw a vision of Christ at the stoning. In the book of Revelation you have a vision of the throne room of God that John sees. So the visions in the Church were something that did not cease, that went on; and yet these were distinct from a resurrection appearance.
Ankerberg: But what can be said to those who claim Jesus’ disciples were only having hallucinations of Jesus?
Habermas: What’s wrong with hallucination theory? Probably no theory has more problems.
Problem #1: Groups of people, not even two at once, see the same hallucination. An hallucination is something you believe so firmly that you invent the mental picture. Two cannot share an hallucination any more than two can share a dream. So if you have examples of group appearances and you have them, for example, three in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff, those are not hallucinations, not as a group.
Secondly, the disciples didn’t believe it. It’s granted by everybody, both from scripture and from psychology, that you can’t have exuberant, expecting disciples after this calamity—best friend, livelihood, everything is destroyed—and they’re supposed to be hoping for a resurrection and making these sorts of images? So second, they’re not in the right frame of mind.
Three may be the most devastating one: Too many different people, times, places. You have men; you have women; indoors, outdoors, walking, standing; everything. The problem is, to believe that every one of these people manufactured a private, individual hallucination is beyond credulous. We rarely even see hallucinations today, but they were just supposed to have them on demand. That’s too problematic.
Fourth problem: if the disciples were seeing hallucinations, we’ve got a little problem with the empty tomb—it wouldn’t be empty. And so the leaders are saying, “Now, fellows, we’ve got a problem here.” Now, critics say, “Now, come on, 50 days later what would the body look like?” Hey, look, it doesn’t make any difference: This body looks like it’s crucified; here’s the nails. This is your man. Blows the theory away. So the empty tomb is a deathblow to hallucination.
Ankerberg: In addition, neither visions nor hallucinations explain what the disciples proclaimed, namely, that Jesus literally, physically, rose from the dead.
Craig: It’s offered as an explanation of the appearances; but, in fact, it does not explain why the disciples came to believe Jesus was risen from the dead. For, you see, given the typical Jewish mentality about beliefs in the afterlife, they would have believed that Jesus would have gone to Abraham’s Bosom, to Paradise, where the souls of the righteous dead would be with God until the resurrection at the end of the world. And, therefore, if they had hallucinated visions of Jesus, they would have projected visions of Him as exalted, in Heaven, where God had taken Him up until the resurrection at the end of the world. But that, at most, would have led them to proclaim the “assumption” of Jesus into Heaven, or the “glorification” of Jesus in Heaven, not His literal resurrection from the dead. For the Jew, the resurrection was an event that took place in space and time, in history; and therefore something more is needed than just hallucinations of the dead man to explain why they came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus rather than merely His translation into Heaven.
Ankerberg: Now, the fourth historical fact accepted by all historical scholars is that the disciples believed Jesus appeared to them and proved He had risen from the dead.
Wright: The origin of Christianity is actually itself one of the most extraordinary phenomenon in the history of the world. AD 20, there ain’t such a thing as a Christian church. By AD 120, the emperor in Rome is getting worried letters from one of his proconsuls off in northern Turkey about what to do about these Christians. So, in that century, you have this extraordinary thing suddenly appearing out of nowhere. And all the early Christians for whom we have actual evidence would say, “I’ll tell you why it’s happened. It’s because of Jesus of Nazareth and the fact that He was raised from the dead.”

Ankerberg: Now, once we face these four historical facts squarely, namely, the honorable burial of Jesus, the empty tomb, the postmortem appearances of Jesus, and the disciples’ belief that Jesus was risen from the dead, these four facts call for the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead.
Habermas: We have framed this argument to take facts which believers and unbelievers hold in common. And what we want the critic to understand here is, these are your facts; they’re in your books; they’re in everybody books. The disciples believed they saw the risen Jesus. How do you stop this path from “thought they saw” to “really saw”? You come up with a naturalistic theory. And I want them to take one of those and run with it. Don’t hide behind “something” happened. Tell me what these facts indicate. I think we’re pushing straight toward the resurrection of Christ.
Craig: I believe that when you assess the various alternatives, the various live options, using the ordinary canons of historical assessments, the best explanation for the facts is that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.
Ankerberg: Now, if God did raise Jesus from the dead, what was He trying to tell us?
Bock: I think the gospel is the good news that God has provided a way to come into your life forever, not as a ticket, but into a relationship. And He has provided the way to that relationship through the person and work of Jesus Christ, not only the sacrifice for sins but the provision of His very own Spirit coming into your life so that you can relate to God on a healthy level and overcome the sinfulness that is inherent in you. And the good news is that God is committed to that relationship, so committed to that relationship that He sent His only Son to die that it might take place. And the only requirement that exists—it’s a serious requirement—the only requirement is that you believe that He’s done that for you and, in faith, you ask for that relationship through Jesus Christ. It’s that simple, and that demanding; because once God comes into your life, He’s in it to do a marvelous work, a work that grounds you in a relationship with God that will never end.

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