Two thousand years after his death, why do billions of people around
the world continue to believe that Jesus rose from the dead? American
philosopher Dr Gary Habermas, a Protestant, has been travelling around
the UK in the week before Easter speaking and debating on the
How do our most cherished doctrines fare when tested in the blistering fires of real life? In 1995 my wife Debbie had the flu. When it didn’t go away as quickly as it should have, we were sent to the hospital for tests. The first sentence I remember the doctor uttering was, “You’ve got some serious problems here.”
My heart sunk into my stomach and both turned instantly to water. I had to sit down. Little did I know that my belief in Jesus’ resurrection was about to be severely tested by the sting of pain and grief. Debbie was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Four months later she passed away at the age of 43 years, after just celebrating our 23rd wedding anniversary.
I had lost my best friend. Companionship became my most noticeable lack, sometimes seeming unbearable.
Further, all four children lived at home. Witnessing their pain was another huge hurt. Did they have to suffer like this? Would watching their mum die leave extended scars? Would they blame God? I was suffering a double dose of grief. I often thought that I could not have experienced any worse pain.
During Debbie’s suffering, I regularly took refuge in the truth of Jesus’ resurrection. It had been my major research area for 25 years. So I appreciated the student who asked, “What would you do now if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead?” I knew this event had a historical, theoretical side, but I wasn’t fully aware of its practical power. I had much to learn about applying the resurrection to life.
Jesus’ bodily resurrection occupies the very centre of the Christian faith. After His death to pay for our sins, Jesus was raised from the dead. He appeared to many in His own, physical body that was now immortal (I Cor. 15:1-20). This is not only the theological and evidential core of Christianity, it is intimately related to our daily walk with God. Paul fearlessly asserts that our faith is vain if Jesus was not raised (15:14, 17). He adds that the truth of this event ensures the resurrection of our loved ones, too (15:18-23). Without it, we may as well seek pleasure as our life’s goal (15:32).
The resurrection of Jesus is supported by an awesome array of historical information. Even skeptics who reject the inspiration of Scripture typically admit a number of crucial facts. For example, they almost always agree that Jesus died by crucifixion. His earliest disciples believed that they had seen Jesus afterwards. Their lives were transformed by this conviction. They proclaimed this message shortly afterwards in Jerusalem.
Modern critics additionally concede that Paul (Saul) and Jesus’ brother James had both been antagonistic to Jesus’ teachings. But they, too, were later convinced that they had also seen the risen Jesus.
Virtually all contemporary scholars recognise these and other facts, whether or not they believe the Gospel message about Jesus. They also grant that attempts to invent alternative scenarios have failed. In other words, they usually realise that those who have tried to explain all of this in natural terms have failed to prove their case.
Here we must note that these facts are not true simply because the critics say so. The best reason for believing them is that there is plenty of historical confirmation for each one.
What are some of these reasons? Today, most scholars think that Paul provides the key testimony for Jesus’ resurrection. We have a number of unquestioned writings from his pen. In them he passionately explains that he was converted by an appearance of the resurrected Lord (I Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16). Jesus also appeared to many others (I Cor. 15:3-7), and His apostles were giving the same report as was Paul (15:11-15). Later, Peter, John, and James specifically approved Paul’s Gospel message (Gal. 2:1-10).
In explaining the content of his Gospel preaching, Paul chose words from ancient Jewish tradition. The message he had “passed on” to his listeners was precisely what he had “received” (I Cor. 15:3). It is widely held that Paul obtained this material from Peter and James during his first trip to Jerusalem about 35 AD. Paul got “acquainted” with Peter while staying with him for fifteen days (Gal. 1:18). Paul’s term here means that he questioned or examined Peter, and the immediate context indicates that the subject was the Gospel message.
So Paul was in a great position to know what happened after Jesus’ death and he provides an excellent historical trail for us. He had met the risen Jesus. Later, he questioned other eyewitnesses who had also seen Him. They examined Paul’s teaching, too, all very soon after the events. Then Paul reported the message to his audience: Jesus had gloriously risen from the dead!
How did all of this help me during my greatest suffering, while my wife Debbie was dying? Why was this happening to us? Like Job 38, I imagined God confronting me with His answer. And I knew immediately what He would ask me: “Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?”
“Of course You did, Lord,” I would respond. (I had to be true to my nine books on the subject!) “But why is Debbie dying?”
“Gary, did I raise my Son from the dead?” the ominous question would come again.
“Yes, Lord, but . . . .”
“GARY . . . DID . . . I . . . RAISE . . . MY . . . SON . . . FROM . . . THE . . . DEAD?”
I imagined God repeating the exact same question until I got His point. If God raised His Son then there was an answer to Debbie’s suffering, even if I didn’t know what it was. But I did know this much: if Jesus was raised, then Debbie would be raised someday, too (I Cor. 6:14; Phil. 3:21).
It was sufficient to know that, because of Jesus’ resurrection, we would be together again, and for all eternity. This is the force of resurrection faith for all who trust in Jesus Christ. This answer was sufficient in 1995 and it remains so today. Through all of my pain, this truth has never failed to comfort me, providing tremendous peace.
Dr Gary Habermas is the author or co-author of over 30 books and 100 articles and reviews in journals and magazines. In the last 12 years he has given over 1500 lectures in about 100 universities, Bible schools, and colleges. He holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Religion from Michigan State University as well as an MA in Philosophical Theology from the University of Detroit. He currently acts as ‘Distinguished Research Professor and Chair’ in the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, where he has taught for the past 26 years. His main areas of research include the philosophical study of miracles, near-death experiences, the historical Jesus, and the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus.