The Resurrection and the Eyewitnesses

As 21st century Christians, we believe that Jesus is risen, even though we’ve never seen him. Why? What is the basis of our faith? Since we’ve never seen the risen Christ, does this mean that our faith is blind, irrational, and without any solid evidence (aka fideism)?

At first it might seem that the answer is yes. After all, didn’t Jesus tell Doubting Thomas, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe without seeing” (John 20:29)? And doesn’t the Bible say that faith is the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1)?

At first glance, it might seem that faith is blind by definition. But we need to be careful here. After all, remember that when Jesus said those words to Thomas, he was showing himself to Thomas. Indeed, he had already shown himself to Mary Magdalene and the other 10 apostles. So apparently Jesus didn’t think that believing him to be risen was completely incompatible with seeing him risen. If he had, then he wouldn’t have appeared to anybody.

In fact, just for a moment try to imagine what the Gospels might have sounded like had Jesus done things differently.

A Blind-faith Version of the Resurrection Narrative

“On the first day of the week, early while it was yet dark, Mary and the other women went to the tomb. And there they found the guards asleep, and the stone covering the door of the tomb. But on the stone, they could see something small and square.

Walking up to the tomb, they saw that there was a handwritten note stuck to the stone with a wax seal. And reading the note, the women were filled with fear and wonder, and they ran back to tell the apostles.

But when the apostles heard what the women said about the note and its message, they considered it an idle tale. But Peter and John, being naturally curious, left the other disciples. And rising up, they ran to the tomb. And drawing near the stone, they found the note—just as the women had said. And the note said:

“Dear brothers and sisters,

By the time you read this note I will already be gone. But fear not. And do not seek the living among the dead, for I am not here. I am risen. I am writing this note from heaven, where I have ascended, and will have Gabriel deliver it to the tomb.

Do not–I repeat–do not remove the stone from my tomb to verify what I’m saying. Simply believe what I tell you in this note. (Blessed are those who believe without seeing.) In fact, just to keep my enemies from removing trying to disprove my resurrection, I am leaving Gabriel at the tomb with a flaming sword. Now go, tell the world that I am risen and that one day I will come again.

Your Savior,

The Role of Eye-witnesses

You don’t have to be a New Testament scholar to know that that’s not how the Four Gospels present the resurrection of Jesus. According to the Gospels, the disciples didn’t just see a note; they saw him. As Peter told Cornelius’s house,

…God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people… (Acts 10:39-42 ESV)

Two things are clear in Peter’s statement here: Jesus didn’t appear to everyone (it seems that Pilate and Annas and Caiaphas were not so favored), and yet neither did he appear to no one. Jesus showed himself to some—and he did it for the express purpose of making them eyewitnesses who could proclaim the news to those who didn’t see it.

Elsewhere Paul records that Jesus appeared to more than 500 eyewitnesses at one time, many of whom were still alive and who could have been consulted to verify Paul’s claims (1 Cor. 15:6). This is why believing what the Bible says about the resurrection of Jesus is not simply blind faith. Just because we’ve never seen the risen Christ, doesn’t mean that no one did.

How We Know About the Past

At this point I could easily image a person saying, “Well yes, those 500 people may have been alive when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, but they’re all dead now. So doesn’t that leave us with blind faith once again?”

To which I would say “No—at least no more than with any other historical event.” Yes, the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection are all dead. So are all the eyewitnesses to Julius Caesar’s assassination and Columbus’s sea voyages. No one alive today actually saw those things, and yet we all believe that they happened. Why? Because of blind faith? No, but because of eyewitnesses who left written testimony.

How else are we to know anything about the past? C.S. Lewis said it this way:

Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who [balked] at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Notice that Lewis distinguishes knowledge of history from knowledge of things like logic and mathematics. Yes, good historians use logic—but it has to be logic working on evidence. And most of that evidence consists of texts–texts written either by the eyewitnesses themselves or by people who had access to the eyewitnesses.

That’s what we have in the New Testament—authors like Peter and Matthew who were themselves eyewitnesses, and authors like Luke and Mark who had direct access to the eyewitnesses.

But Isn’t it Still Unlikely?

Now I realize that a man coming back from the dead is a lot more unlikely than a man sailing across an ocean or getting assassinated. But keep a couple of things in mind: First, we believe lots of unlikely things based on testimony. For instance, I believe that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams just happened to die on the same day—and that that day just happened to be the Fourth of July—and that that Fourth of July just happened to be fifty years to the day that both men signed the Declaration of Independence. Had this happened in a novel, I would have thought it terribly contrived. And yet I believe that it happened in real life. Why? Because as unlikely as it seems, credible eyewitness testimony proves it beyond any reasonable doubt.

But second, keep in mind that the apostles aren’t claiming that resurrections were common in the ancient world. When they first heard the report, they didn’t believe it either (Luke 24:10-11). They weren’t ignorant of natural laws. They knew that ax-heads didn’t normally float, virgins didn’t normally conceive, and dead men didn’t normally come back to life. They never said these things were normal. Rather, what they argued (and died) for was that a man who claimed to be God incarnate, who worked public miracles to attest the truth of his claims, and who predicted his own death and resurrection, actually rose like he said he would.

And they claim to have seen him alive.

If you insist on seeing Jesus alive for yourself before believing, they also claim that you will someday—though you may not like what you see (Rev. 1:7). In the meantime, we are asked to believe it on their authority. It’s true: we walk by faith, not by sight. And yet it’s not a blind faith, but simply a faith in someone else’s sight. A faith in the sight of those to whom Jesus “presented himself alive by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).

Yes, unlike Jesus they’re all dead now. This stuff happened a long time ago. But then again, that’s why they wrote it down—so that, in the words of Roman historian Herodotus, “the memory of the past [would] not be blotted out from among men by time.” They gave us this written record because (to tweak a statement from St. Augustine) they knew the time would come when we would not have Jesus to touch, but would have something to read.

In the words of St. Peter:

I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder, since I know that the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me. And I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things. For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:12-16 ESV)

So this Easter morning, don’t let their testimony go to waste. Take up, read, look through their eyes, and believe.


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