January 27-28, 2018
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Why I am a Christian
Part 3: Compelling Evidence
In this series, Why I am a Christian, I’m giving reasons for my faith. Reason and faith are not opposed to each other; a “reasonable faith” is not an oxymoron.
ILL: My friend Bob is a pilot, and a good one. A couple years ago, I flew with Bob and a couple buddies to Oregon. I had no apprehension about flying with Bob. I knew that he had lots of hours, was a skilled and licensed pilot who took extra precautions for safety sake. I also knew that planes can fly; I’ve seen them fly, and flown in them before. So I trusted my life with Bob, and got on board that plane and flew to Oregon.
I exercised faith, but it was based on sufficient reason. Was it based on absolute certainty? No. Could Bob make a mistake? Could the plane have a mechanical failure? When I boarded the plane, I didn’t have absolute certainty that we would safely get to Oregon and back; but I did have a high probability. I had sufficient reason to believe that we would make it.
Imagine Bob landing his plane somewhere in the bush in another country where planes had never been seen. Bob is a stranger and his plane is a novelty. When he invites someone to fly, if they say yes, it will be an unreasoned leap of faith. Unlike me, they would not have sufficient reason to believe Bob or trust the plane.
Now which kind of faith is it that God expects of us? Does God expect us to ignore the nagging doubts and perplexing questions, and “just believe”? Or does God invite us to examine the evidence and make a reasonable choice to believe. Is Christian faith a leap into the dark, a suspension of intelligence and reason? Or is it more like my flight with Bob? Christian faith is based on compelling and adequate, although not absolutely certain, reasons.
You can be a Christian without leaving your brain at the door. Many brilliant people have found the Christian message satisfying intellectually as well as spiritually. I’ve compiled a limited bibliography for this series, and if you’d like to dig deeper, you can find that on our website and our app. Here’s…
The Big Idea: I am a Christian because there is compelling evidence for the faith. The Christian faith rests on the reliability of the Bible and the resurrection of Jesus—there is good evidence for both.
I want to tackle these two subjects because the Christian faith rises or falls on them. That is why these two things have been the subject of so much scrutiny. So let’s take a look at the evidence for each.
- The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.
- A. The body was gone: the evidence of the empty tomb.
The resurrection story in the four gospels begins with some women visiting the burial site of Jesus on Sunday morning to finish the embalming process. When they arrived, they were dumbfounded to find that the body of Jesus was gone. The women returned and reported this to the men.
Luke 24:11 But they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.
If you saw someone killed and buried, then heard that he was resurrected, wouldn’t this be your response? Nonsense. When the women insisted, the men finally went to the tomb to investigate and found it empty. Actually, not entirely empty: the grave clothes were still there. They had wrapped Jesus’ dead body with a linen shroud sprinkled with 100 pounds of burial spices. Now, the only thing inside Jesus’ tomb was this shroud, lying like a discarded cocoon, as though the dead body once inside it has simply evaporated. The body of Jesus was gone.
What could that mean? How do you explain an empty tomb? People have attempted to explain it in several ways.
- The disciples stole the body. The first and oldest theory is that the disciples stole the body, and then conspired to cover it up by spreading the fabricated story of a resurrection. It was first proposed by the Jewish authorities who put Jesus to death.
Matthew 28:11-15 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
The final remark indicates that Matthew wanted to refute a widespread explanation of the resurrection. What were the Jewish officials saying about the resurrection? “The disciples stole his body while we were sleeping.” How many of you have seen the movie about this, “While you were sleeping?” Think about that. The official Jewish explanation did not deny the empty tomb, but instead tried to explain it away by saying the disciples stole the body. Their explanation presupposes that the body was missing and the tomb was empty!
But why would the disciples steal the body and lie about it? They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. In fact, their willingness to suffer and die for their message argues against any deceit on their part. It would be unusual, to say the least, for someone to willingly suffer and die for what they know to be a lie. If anything is obvious it is that they truly believed Jesus was resurrected
And a conspiracy is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off and hold together. Chuck Colson, who was Richard Nixon’s hatchet man, went to prison for his part in the Watergate conspiracy. He will tell you how difficult it is to sustain a conspiracy. The more people involved in a conspiracy, the more difficult—or impossible—it is to sustain. All of the disciples faced torture and death for their belief in Jesus; don’t you think at least one of them would have cracked and said, “Ok, we stole the body and made the whole thing up.” None did.
- 2. Someone else stole the body. It’s been suggested that someone besides the disciples stole the body, perhaps thieves, or the authorities removed the body for safekeeping. But this runs into the same problems.
Why? Why would thieves do that? Why leave the grave clothes behind?
And if the authorities had taken it for safekeeping, they surely would have produced it when the resurrection story started being proclaimed in Jerusalem. They fiercely opposed the Christian message, and they could have killed it in the very beginning by just producing the body. But they didn’t, and the most reasonable explanation is that they didn’t have the body.
- Jesus wasn’t dead. Sometimes called “the swoon theory,” this suggests that Jesus was not dead when he was removed from the cross, just unconscious. He revived in the tomb and then escaped to convince his disciples that he had raised from the dead. But this doesn’t square with the data either.
First, the extent of Jesus’ torture and injuries argue against this. It is highly unlikely that he could have survived the beating, crucifixion, a spear thrust into his heart, and entombment.
ILL: A woman wrote J. Vernon McGee: “Our preacher said that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed him back to health. What do you think?” McGee replied, “Dear Sister, beat your preacher with a leather whip for 39 heavy strokes. Nail him to a cross. Hang him in the sun for 6 hours. Run a spear through his heart. Embalm him. Put him in a tomb for 3 days. Then see what happens.”
The extent of Jesus’ injuries argue against this. Besides, his executioners were experienced professionals, and they thought he was dead. And to make sure, they plunged a spear into his side.
Those who removed him from the cross and buried him thought he was dead. The women even wrapped his body in linen mixed with 100 pounds of spices, which would have required Houdini-like escapist skills.
If Jesus had escaped and appeared to his followers half-dead and in serious need of medical attention, it would not have evoked their worship of Him as the resurrected Lord. They perceived Jesus as triumphant over death, not as one who had barely escaped death.
And this would certainly be out of character with the rest of Jesus’ life. He would have had to trick the disciples into believing his resurrection—a very un-Jesus-like thing to do. I don’t think Jesus faked his death and resurrection.
- They went to the wrong tomb. It’s been suggested that the women, dazed with grief and lost in the darkness, went to the wrong tomb. This theory has never been taken seriously for a very simple reason.
If the women made a mistake and went to the wrong tomb, lots of people knew where the right tomb was, including the other disciples, Joseph of Arimathea, and the Jewish and Roman authorities. Any of them could have quickly gone to the correct tomb and straightened the record. It’s preposterous to think that everyone would have made the same mistake.
- It’s just a legend. Many believe that the whole story is not to be taken seriously, that it is a religious myth or legend, written generations after the purported events by people who were not there. This is the most common and popular explanation, and it goes back to whether the gospels are trustworthy historical records, or just later fabrications. We’ll deal with this most important objection in point two, where I will show that there is good evidence that the written records of the empty tomb date back to within a few years of the events.
On that first Easter morning, the tomb was empty and the body was gone. But a missing body by itself is not proof of a resurrection. The tomb was empty, but what convinced them that Jesus was raised was that they saw Him. The second major piece of evidence:
- B. The Lord was seen: the evidence of the resurrection appearances.
A missing body by itself is not conclusive proof or a resurrection. But when people report seeing and touching and talking with and eating with the once-dead person, that is a different story. And that is what we have with Jesus. Not only is the tomb empty and the body gone, but many people reported seeing and talking with the resurrected Jesus.
In 1 Corinthians 15 the apostle Paul lists people he knows who have seen Jesus alive.
1 Corinthians 15:3-8 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Most scholars believe Paul wrote this only 15-20 years after Jesus’ death, and it seems he is quoting a creedal statement summarizing the Christian gospel that dates back to the very first days of Christianity.
Here are the names of specific individuals and groups of people who saw Jesus, written at a time when people could still check them out if they wanted confirmation. Paul even mentions this when he refers to the 500 who saw Jesus at one time, saying, “most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.” You would never include this phrase unless you were sure that these folks would confirm that they really did see Jesus alive. Paul was virtually inviting people to check this out for themselves.
The gospels and the book of Acts also record many different appearances to a number of people in a variety of settings over a period of several weeks. They include appearances to:
- Mary Magdalene near the empty tomb. John 20:10-18
- The other women as they left the empty tomb. Matthew 28:8-10
- Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus. Luke 24:13-32
- Eleven disciples and others in Jerusalem. Luke 24:33-49
- Ten disciples and others, without Thomas, in a locked house. John 20:19-23
- Thomas and the other disciples in a locked house. John 20:26-30
- Seven disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee. John 21:1-14
- The disciples on a mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:16-20
- The apostles at the Mount of Olives before His ascension. Luke 24:50-52, Acts 1:4-9
- Over 500 people at once. 1 Corinthians 15:6.
- James the brother of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 15:7
- Saul (Paul) on the road to Damascus. 1 Corinthians 15:7, Acts 9
This is a wealth of sightings of Jesus. This is not a fleeting glimpse of a shadowy figure by one or two people—like a Bigfoot sighting. There were multiple appearances to numerous people, confirmed by more than one source. And these people not only saw Jesus; they talked with Him, ate with Him, and touched Him.
But couldn’t these appearances be explained other ways, naturally instead of supernaturally? Here are some alternate explanations.
First, the appearances are inventions. The disciples lied. But why? What did they have to gain? This doesn’t explain why they willingly suffered and died for this message. Liars usually don’t make good martyrs. People may die for a lie if they sincerely believe it. But most people won’t die for something they know is a lie.
And there were hundreds of people who saw Jesus alive. For all of them to lie and maintain the lie to their graves is a conspiracy unmatched in human history.
Second, the appearances are hallucinations. How do you explain that the disciples touched and ate with this hallucination? Hallucinations don’t account for the physical nature of the appearances.
How do you account for the number and various circumstances of the appearances? Jesus didn’t appear to just one person, but to many; not just at one time, but many; not just in one place and circumstance, but in many places under varying circumstances. He didn’t appear just to individuals, but to groups, and not just to believers, but unbelievers as well. Hallucinations cannot explain this. Also, hallucinations are individual, not group experiences. They exist only in the mind of the individual experiencing them. There is no such thing as a group hallucination.
Couldn’t it have been a form of “groupthink” or “wish fulfillment”? The disciples weren’t expecting a resurrection, and their theological upbringing wouldn’t have prepared them for one. The disciples greeted the news of the resurrection with skepticism and caution, not blind acceptance. In fact, in one appearance, the risen Jesus rebuked them for “their stubborn refusal to believe.” Rather than expecting a resurrection, they were completely surprised by it.
And then what about the empty tomb? Hallucinations and wishful thinking don’t account for that, while the resurrection does.
Third, the appearances are simply more legend. The real question about all this evidence is this: are these sources credible? Are they accurate historical accounts of what happened or just legends written generations later? Again, this is the big one, the most common and popular objection, and we’ll tackle it in point two, and explain why these are not likely to be legends.
The appearances of Jesus are not best explained as legend, lies or hallucination; the best explanation is simply, as Paul says, “He was raised on the third day, and he appeared.” And when the disciples saw Him, that changed everything!
- C. The disciples were changed: the evidence of the origin of the Christian faith.
Even the most skeptical scholars admit that the earliest disciples believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and that belief was the reason for the beginning of the Christian faith. Without this belief, Christianity could not have come into being. But how do you explain the origin of that belief? Something happened that started the ball rolling—what was it? The best explanation is the resurrection.
Consider the following evidence.
First, the disciples were changed. When Christ died, they were defeated, discouraged, frightened and confused, hiding from their enemies, fearing for their lives. Within a few weeks, they were completely transformed into fearless and bold witnesses who risked everything to tell people, even their enemies, that Jesus was alive. What changed them? Neither hallucinations, legends, or lies can explain that; the resurrection can.
Second, the conversion of skeptics. How do we explain the change in Thomas? He stubbornly refused to believe, even when all of his friends claimed they had seen Jesus alive. Thomas was unmoved in the face of very compelling evidence. What changed him? He saw and touched the resurrected Jesus.
How do we explain the conversion of James, the brother of Jesus? The gospels tell us that during Jesus’ lifetime, he and his brothers did not believe in Jesus. How many of you have a brother? Would you believe him if he claimed to be God? You can understand how James felt! What would it take to make you believe that your brother was the Lord, and convince you so completely that you would be willing to die for it? Paul tells us the answer: the resurrected Jesus appeared to James. You watch your brother die and be buried, and then he comes back alive to visit you—that’s a mind-changer!
Or how about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus? He was an anti-Christian terrorist, who devoted himself to hunting down, arresting, and killing Christians. Then one day, he does a 180, and starts preaching the very message he was trying to annihilate. He went from Christianity’s fiercest enemy to her most passionate champion, who sacrificed everything, including his life, for Christ. What changed him? He tells us: it was an appearance from the resurrected Jesus.
Third, the spread of Christianity. Shortly after the death of Jesus, the Christian message spread like wildfire across the Roman Empire, in spite of fierce opposition. Now if you were an alien looking down on the first century, would you think Christianity or the Roman Empire would survive? You’d probably put your money on the Empire. Yet today, the Roman Empire is ancient history and the Christian Church numbers two billion people around the world. And we name our sons Peter and Paul, and our dogs Caesar and Nero! How do we explain this phenomenon? It was the resurrection that transformed the disciples and propelled them across the world with the message of Jesus.
The best explanation for the changed lives of the disciples and the origins of the Christian faith is nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus. But our knowledge of the resurrection is based on the testimony of the New Testament. Isn’t it possible that it was written hundreds of years after the fact, and that it is just legend?
- The evidence for the New Testament.
Have you ever heard someone say, “You can’t trust the Bible. It has been changed so many times through the years?” That is simply not true. There is a field of Biblical study called “textual criticism” that studies the transmission of the Biblical text through the years. We have lots of evidence that the Bible has been faithfully transmitted. Just one fact: Of the 184,590 words in the New Testament, how many are in question? Approximately 400; that is .002%, meaning we are confident in the other 99.998%! And of those 400 words that are in question, not one affects any point of doctrine or practice. I don’t have time to unpack this now, but you can be confident that the Bible in your lap or on your phone is an accurate version of what was originally written centuries ago.
What I want to focus on is the issue of legend. It’s very popular today to dismiss the New Testament, and the gospels in particular as fiction, as legend written down lifetimes after the events they purport to describe. Pastor Tim Keller gives three reasons why you can trust the gospels.
First, the dating: the New Testament accounts about Jesus are written too early to be legends. The four gospels were all written and began to be distributed during the lives of the eyewitnesses. All four gospels are dated to within 30-50 years of Jesus’ death. When they wrote, there were people alive—many people—who could verify or deny the story. If you’re writing lifetimes later, you can say what you want—no eyewitnesses exist to dispute what you say. But if you’re writing or speaking with living eyewitnesses around, it better be true, or they may correct you.
ILL: A few months ago in a staff meeting, I confidently said, “In my 39 years, I can count on one hand the number of people we’ve fired.” A few days later, one of my staff asked me, “So how many people do you think we’ve fired in the last 20 years?” I said, “Four?” I honestly couldn’t think of many. He smiled and said, “Eleven,” and then read me the names. Oops. An eyewitness! Then those in the room added a couple more. Oops again! Darn eyewitnesses!
Luke insisted that there were eyewitnesses to what he wrote down. As we saw, Paul treats the resurrection of Jesus the same way. He insists that Jesus appeared to many people, including “more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still living.” It’s as though he’s saying, “Don’t believe me? Ask them.”
There simply was not enough time between the death of Jesus and the first written records of his story for a legend to accumulate. A.N. Sherwin-White, a respected Greek and Roman classical historian from Oxford University, said that it would have been without precedent anywhere in history for legend to have grown up that fast and significantly distorted the gospels.
The gospels were written too early to be legends—the eyewitnesses were still around.
Second, the contents: the documents are too counterproductive to be legends. The theory is that the gospels were written lifetimes later by church leaders who wanted you to believe their view of things because it consolidated their power and built their movement. But there are way too many things in the story that are counterproductive to this view. For example, in those early centuries, women were considered unreliable witnesses; they weren’t even allowed to testify in court. And yet all of the gospels have women as the first witnesses to the resurrection. If you were making up the story, that’s not the way you’d write it! There are many places where the disciples act like jerks—not exactly how you’d write it if you were trying to consolidate your power.
The gospels contain many things that would have been offensive, or ridiculous to those first century folks, and the biggest one of all: the cross. Crucifixion was scandalous, shameful, humiliating and offensive. If they were making up this story, who would ever think of putting God on a cross! This was highly offensive to people in the first century! Christians were mocked for believing in a crucified God! And the second biggest: the resurrection. In the first century Mediterranean worldview, resurrection was not just considered impossible, but undesirable. The goal was to get free of your body; no one would want it back! If they were making up this story to consolidate their power, they were barking up the wrong tree! The best explanation for these, and many other details, to be in the story is simply that they really happened.
The gospels are too counterproductive in their contents to be legends.
Third, the form: they are too detailed in their form to be legends. We are used to modern fiction, novels that read like realistic history. But that is not how ancient legends were written. C. S. Lewis wrote:
“I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, and myths all my life, and I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this. Of the gospel texts there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage, or else, some unknown ancient writer, without known predecessors or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern novelistic, realistic narrative. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned how to read.”
Lewis was being a little snarky, but making a fine point: these don’t read like legends, but like real history. Keller’s point, and mine, is simply that the gospels are true. These are not legends, but accurate accounts of what really happened.
So, can I prove that the New Testament is true or that the resurrection happened? No, not with absolute proof. But is there enough evidence to believe, to “get in the plane and fly with Bob?” I believe so. Yet for many people, the sticking point is the miraculous: miracles are simply unbelievable. I finish with this quote from Keller:
“I sympathize with the person who says, ‘So what if I can’t think of an alternate explanation? The resurrection just couldn’t happen.’ Let’s not forget, however, that first-century people felt exactly the same way. They found the resurrection just as inconceivable as you do. The only way anyone embraced the resurrection back then was by letting the evidence challenge and change their worldview, their view of what was possible. They had just as much trouble with the claims of the resurrection as you, yet the evidence—both of the eyewitness accounts and the changed lives of Christ’s followers—was overwhelming.”
 Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Quoting C.S. Lewis, “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism” (an essay Lewis read at Westcott House, Cambridge, on May 11, 1959). First published in Christian Reflections (1981), later published as Fern-seed and Elephants (1998). This text is taken from The Essential C.S. Lewis (Touchstone, 1996)) 351.
 Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (p. 209). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.