The Church as Proof of the Resurrection
Could the Christian Church ever have come into existence as a result of what had become, after Jesus’ crucifixion and death, a group of disheartened, frightened, skeptical apostles? Not a chance.
Only the resurrection of Christ from the dead can account for motivating the disciples to give their lives to preach about Christ and nurture the Christian Church the Lord had founded. It can hardly be overestimated how devastating the crucifixion was to the apostles. They had sacrificed everything for Jesus, including their jobs, their homes, and their families (Matthew 19:27). Everything of value was pinned squarely on Jesus: all their hopes, their entire lives, everything. But now He was dead, publicly branded a criminal.
The apostles were dejected and depressed in their conclusion that Christ was not their expected Messiah (Luke 24:21). In such a condition, they can hardly be considered the subjects of hopeful visions and hallucinations. These were not men ready to believe. The very fact that Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief indicates that Thomas was not the only one who was a hard-headed skeptic. At one time or another Jesus rebuked all of the eleven apostles for their unbelief in His resurrection (Matthew 28:17; Luke 24:25-27, 38, 41; John 20:24-27). This proves they were finally convinced against their will.
As the Gospels show, they rejected the first reports of Jesus’ resurrection. It was only after Jesus appeared to them again and again, talking with them, encouraging them to touch Him, to see that He had a physical body, showing them the wounds in His hands and His side, that they became convinced (John 29:20, 27). If they had expected a resurrection, they would have been waiting for it. But they weren’t, and they needed a lot of convincing when it did happened (Acts 1:3).
The record is also clear that none of the disciples understood the necessity for the resurrection. This is seen both from Peter’s rebuke to Jesus when He predicted His death and resurrection (Matthew 16:21, 22), and from Christ’s prediction of His resurrection after the transfiguration (Matthew 17:9, 22-23). Mark says of the disciples, “But they did not understand this statement, and they were afraid to ask Him” (Mark 9:32). Thus the disciples not only didn’t believe in the resurrection, they didn’t even understand the implications. For example, after Jesus spoke of His rising from the dead in Mark 9:9, we are told, “And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean” (Mark 9:10).
On another occasion when Jesus spoke of His resurrection, it was recorded of the disciples: “And they understood none of these things, and this saying was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said” (Luke 18:34). So, how do we account for the disciples coming to believe in something that was completely unexpected unless it really happened?
As Michael Green comments: “It is clear from all the accounts that the disciples were utterly disheartened men. They were anxious only to run away, hide, and forget all about the whole affair. They had been on a wild goose chase in following Jesus of Nazareth, and the crucifixion had dashed all their hopes. They had no thought of carrying on His cause. Resurrection never entered their heads.”
In light of all of this, how then do we account for the beginning and spreading of the Christian Church?
Philosopher of religion Dr. William Lane Craig discusses how a mysterious “something” must be proposed to account for it:
- It is quite clear that without the belief in the resurrection the Christian faith could not have come into being. The disciples would have remained crushed and defeated men. Even had they continued to remember Jesus as their beloved teacher. His crucifixion would have forever silenced any hopes of His being the Messiah. The cross would have remained the sad and shameful end to His career. The origin of Christianity therefore hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead….
- Now the question becomes: What caused that belief? As R. H. Fuller says, even the most skeptical critic must presuppose some mysterious X to get the movement going. But what was that X?… Clearly, it would not be the result of Christian influences, for at that time there was no Christianity….
- But neither can belief in the resurrection be explained as a result of Jewish influences…. The Jewish conception of resurrection differed in two important, fundamental respects from Jesus’ resurrection.
- In Jewish thought the resurrection always (1) occurred after the end of the world, not within history, and (2) concerned all the people, not just an isolated individual. In contradistinction to this, Jesus’ resurrection was both within history and of one person…. The disciples, therefore, confronted with Jesus’ crucifixion and death, would only have looked forward to the resurrection at the final day and would probably have carefully kept their master’s tomb as a shrine, where His bones could reside until the resurrection.
In other words, the disciples’ belief in the resurrection of Christ cannot be explained as a result of either Christian belief or Jewish teaching. There is simply no way to explain the origin of such a belief concerning Christ’s resurrection apart from the fact that it happened.
This is why secular historians who study the events surrounding the origin of the Church are mystified if they reject the resurrection. The task of the historian is to adequately account for events that occur. No one doubts the Church exists, but the historian cannot adequately account for it apart from Jesus being alive. The problem for the secularist who discounts the resurrection is that:
- The mysterious X is still missing. According to C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University, here is a belief nothing in terms of previous historical influences can account for. He points out that we have a situation in which a large number of people held firmly to this belief, which cannot be explained in terms of the Old Testament or the Pharisees, and that these people held onto this belief until the Jews finally threw them out of the synagogue.
- According to Professor Moule, the origin of this belief must have been the fact that Jesus really did rise from the dead: “If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole of the size and shape of the resurrection, what does the secular historian propose to stop it up with?… The birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church… remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.”
- The resurrection of Jesus is therefore the best explanation for the origin of the Christian faith.
Given the disciples’ initial skepticism and lack of understanding, given the inability of all history to adequately explain the existence of the Christian Church apart from the actual resurrection of Christ, how do we account for churches on every street comer of the country and throughout most of the entire planet?
Can we really believe that the mental frame of mind of the disciples prior to the resurrection appearances was sufficient to “invent” the Church? Could the unbelieving and skeptical disciples have proclaimed a resurrection when they never expected it in the first place? As Dr. Norval Geldenhuys observes;
- It is historically and psychologically impossible that the followers of Jesus, who at His crucifixion were so completely despondent and perplexed, would within a few weeks thereafter enter the world (as they did) with such unheard-of joy, power and devotion, if it had not been for the fact that He had risen from the dead, had appeared to them, and had proved that His claims to be the Son of God were genuine.
Further, every book of the New Testament is based upon the conviction that Christ rose from the dead. If He never did, why were those twenty-seven books written in the first place? And why would the apostles face the hostility and persecution of the Jewish leaders by attempting to found a new movement based on the teachings of a condemned criminal? Why would they continue to follow and speak about a man who was obviously a fraud or worse, in a man who made predictions about His own resurrection from the dead that never came true?
Finally, on what basis would the apostles proclaim this same dead person—who did not resurrect—as God, when their entire religious training had taught them, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord”? In other words, what would cause devout Jews to widely preach blasphemies that went against the entire grain of their personal religious convictions, unless it were the resurrection?
- Michael Green, Man Alive! (Chicago, IL: InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 1969), p. 40.
- William Lane Craig, The Son Rises: Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus (Chicago: Moody Press, 1981), pp. 138-130.
- Ibid., p. 131.
- Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 628.