I realized part of the power of the resurrection as a college student. Ironically, it was as a religion student at a Christian university that I began to wonder, "Is this Bible stuff for real?" I began asking questions within a few weeks of taking my first Old Testament Bible class. Issues that now appear simple in retrospect loomed like a towering wall of doubt that cast a dark shadow over both my head and my heart. My Bible professor asked questions I had never considered before, like the problems with a literal reading of Genesis 1-2. He asked why Ruth would be in the Bible when the book didn’t even mention God. Similarly, he suggested that the Song of Solomon was... well, about something besides the love of Christ for His church.
These questions don’t bother me as much now, but at the time I wasn’t even vaguely prepared to consider these issues. The questions then were exceptionally difficult to deal with, especially since for the two previous years I read my Bible almost nightly. Bible reading had become as much a part of my daily routing as brushing my teeth. At age 16, I discovered the power of daily Bible reading, and it changed me for the better – God became “real” to me. However, now that I had the chance to read and study the Bible with a scholar, I didn’t know what to do with it.
Nonetheless, I went to worship services, got involved in campus ministry groups, and worked for a Christian summer camp. Seasons of doubt and belief came and went. Then, the summer after my junior year, I discovered Josh McDowell’s More Than a Carpenter. I’m intrigued to think how such a simple book could impact a then third-year religion major, but after finishing McDowell’s book, I was convinced – the resurrection really happened. Confidence in the resurrection made everything else seem like a minor, secondary issue.
Today I find myself returning to the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Paul says, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me." For Paul, Christ's resurrection was of "first importance." The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 explains why the resurrection is so important. Similarly, Christ's resurrection became of first importance for my own faith, impacting it in two ways. First, the resurrection made faith more reasonable. Second, the resurrection made despair less reasonable.
THE RESURRECTION MAKES FAITH MORE REASONABLE
After reading More Than a Carpenter, there were a variety of reasons that the resurrection seemed reasonable. There were four issues that particularly struck me then, and continue to make sense to me today. The following points are the way I explain these issues to my students today.
1. Who would knowingly die for a lie?
Admittedly, people do die for something that is not true. However, who willingly dies fully knowing that what they claim is untrue? As far as we know, the disciples did not benefit from their claims about the resurrection of Jesus. Both the book of Acts and Church tradition suggest that the disciples received rebuke and persecution for their claims. So why put up with such tribulation if you know that what you claim is false?
What also makes this point interesting is that some major world religions claim their founder’s revelations were received in isolation. For example, consider the Buddha’s experience under the Bodhi tree and Mohammed’s revelations from Gabriel. In contrast to those private experiences, the proclamation of the apostles was about a public event – the eye-witnessed crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
2. The manuscript evidence
Decades passed between the events these apostles witnessed and the writing of the gospels. Many scholars suggest that the gospels were composed between AD 70 and AD 95, over forty years after the events they recorded. Likewise, some Bible scholars suggest the gospels cannot be taken as historical because of this passage of time. When my senior students ask me about this, I ask them about their own senior history projects. In these projects, the students interview World War Two survivors. I remind students that their history projects feature the eyewitness accounts of events now almost seventy years past. If their interviews contain believable historical facts, then why not allow the same for the gospels, which were composed much closer to their recorded events. Admittedly, we don’t have the original copies. However, we do have copies of copies that we can compare (See F.F. Bruce. The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?). And we have thousands more copies of these documents to test and compare than we have of ancient classics such as Homer’s Illiad or Plato’s Republic. Those who critique the manuscript evidence for the New Testament then must also condemn much of our knowledge about the ancient world.
3. Jesus was not just a good teacher
McDowell’s book first introduced me to C.S. Lewis' famous “Lord, Liar, or Lunatic” argument. The argument was helpful because it challenged the option that Jesus was only a good moral teacher, and not really divine. In summary: If I claim to be God, then you can’t simply call me a “good moral teacher.” Such a claim means either (a) I am knowingly deceiving you, which would make me an almost demonic liar, (b) I don’t know that I am lying, which would mean I was a lunatic, or (c) I really am God, making me The Lord.
4. Life change
McDowell also appealed to the life change he experienced when he became a Christ-follower. I had seen similar changes in the lives of both my friends and myself, so there had to be something to all this Bible stuff.
Once I became convinced that Jesus' resurrection was a historical reality, a lot of my other questions about Christianity became less of a stumbling block. I often tell my students that because I believe the resurrection happened, the other stuff about the Bible that I don't understand does not bother me as much as it once did. To put it mildly: people aren't supposed to come back from the dead. If that actually happened to someone, it changes everything. The world is a different place.
There is some personal history behind my amazement at a dead man coming back to life. My grandfather died when I was about seven. Because I was so young, there was much of the experience I did not understand, and I was not especially emotional about the loss until one particular moment. At the end of the graveside service, as the pastor was shaking hands with our family, I looked over and noticed the hole in the ground that was about to receive my grandfather’s casket. At that moment, I had an overwhelming sense of loss. I realized my grandfather was going into that hole and he was not coming out. The emotions of that experience intensify my belief that if someone does come back from the dead, it changes everything.
THE RESURRECTION MAKES DESPAIR LESS REASONABLE
The resurrection changes everything. That’s good news. That's also why the resurrection makes despair less reasonable. On the other hand, if the resurrection did not happen, then we have good reason to despair. I suspect Paul had similar feelings when he said “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (v. 19).
Regarding despair, sometimes the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of my own life overwhelm me. However, this broken world is not our final and inescapable destination. The resurrection reminds me that both my personal brokenness and the brokenness of this world will one day be repaired completely and finally. Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:42-43: "So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power."
More to the point, I tell my students that if the resurrection didn’t happen then I’m the biggest fool in the room, because I’ve spent my professional career working in some form of Christian education. If the resurrection didn’t happen, then in spite of my concern for truth, I’ve been teaching falsehood and confusing things for my students instead of providing clarity.
THE RESURRECTION IS NOT ABOUT ME
The opening line of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life also applies to the resurrection: "It’s not about you." The resurrection not being about me really is good news. For example, have you heard preachers challenge their parishioners by asking, "What are you willing to die for?" I certainly think the resurrection is one of those doctrines. However, the doctrine of the resurrection is not about my death. It’s about my hope for life. That hope is not based on my own merits, but on the ability of another to conquer death. As I often tell my students, my current and future relationship with God is not based on what I am doing now. Rather, it is based on what God himself did for me then, in the historical death and resurrection of Christ.
Dr. Stanley J. Ward is the Director of Campus Life and Ministry at The Brook Hill School in Bullard, TX. He is also the author of Worldview Conversations: How to Share Your Faith and Keep Your Friends.