Over at apologetics.org, the self-identified blog of the “CS Lewis Society,” they seem to be running a series on Historical Evidence for the Resurrection. At least, they’ve got two posts on the topic, labeled “Fact #1 and Fact #2,” so I assume they intend to post more. Let’s have a look, shall we?
“Fact” #1 is that Jesus was crucified. I put “fact” in quotes because I’m not 100% convinced that this is necessarily so. It seems reasonably plausible, however, and is certainly consistent with the events that followed, so I’m willing to grant them that one. Let’s move on to the second fact.
Fact # 2 – Jesus’ disciples believed that he rose and appeared to them.
First, the disciples claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. In addition to their own testimony recorded in the Gospels, we also have the testimony of the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-11), the oral tradition that would become the basis of the NT writings, and the written works of the early church. That they claimed to have seen the risen Jesus is without dispute.
This is true, as far as it goes. But context is crucial here. Before we can understand these statements, we need to remember that we’re dealing with Christians, and Christians also believe that God speaks to them and that Jesus comes into their hearts. Before we can draw reliable conclusions about what Christians regard as true, we need to ask “True in what sense?” And there’s more.
The writer above claims that we have the written testimony of the disciples “recorded in the Gospels.” In fact, however, of the four gospels, only the Gospel of John was claimed to have been written by an actual eyewitness. The others were second- or third-hand accounts at best. Moreover, John’s Gospel was not written until decades after the events described—more than enough time for John’s recollections to have become, shall we say, “embellished” so as to make a more edifying account.
Contrast John’s testimony with Peter’s, for example. In II Peter 1, Peter does describe himself as an eyewitness, but not of a risen Savior.
we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
Peter apparently felt that the story of the Transfiguration was a more compelling testimony of Christ’s authority than the Resurrection. And it may have been, at the time Peter was writing, since he died long before John wrote his gospel.
Or look at Paul’s testimony. Yes, Paul did claim to have had a “vision” in which Jesus appeared to him as a bright light (around noon in the desert, go figure). But again, according to Acts 9: 7, Paul “saw” a vision of Jesus, but those who were with him did not see anyone. Clearly, we’re talking about a different kind of “seeing,” a Christian kind of seeing, that owes nothing to the physics of photons. And yet, Paul’s sort of “seeing” is counted as being no different from any of the other visions of the Risen Lord.
The CS Lewis Society continues:
Second, something powerful happened to the disciples following the death of Jesus that transformed them “from fearful cowering individuals who denied and abandoned him [Jesus] at his arrest and execution into bold proclaimers of the gospel of the risen Lord [cf. Mark 14:66-72 & Acts 4:18-20].” …
Gary Habermas observes that “the apostles died for holding to their own testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. Contemporary martyrs die for what they believe to be true. The disciples died for what they knew to be either true or false.”
But again, true in what sense? Christians believe that it is “true” that Jesus comes into their hearts, “true” that Paul saw Someone who was somehow not visible to any of those with him. Indeed, Jesus’ most significant contribution to religion may very well be that he taught his disciples to see a kind of truth that was divorced from any sort of objective, factual accountability. That the disciples accepted their beliefs as “true” is beyond doubt. The question is whether this particular variety of “truth” corresponds to anything that is objectively and literally true in the real-world sense.
The best way to determine whether or not the gospel accounts are true in the real world sense is to remember that truth is consistent with itself. If Jesus came back from the dead in the real world sense, we ought to see more than just subjective-truth consequences. His resurrection ought to affect more than just the beliefs of believers. He ought to be visible to non-believers as well, for instance. He shouldn’t need to have his believers tell stories about sudden and mysterious “ascensions” into heaven (i.e. the sky) in order to explain his persistent failure to show up at appropriate times. Above all, after putting all that work into preaching the true gospel, he shouldn’t sit idly by while men wander and pervert and destroy it with heresies and dissensions that could easily be settled, once and for all, by a simple post-resurrection appearance.
A spiritual resurrection, like the one Paul describes in I Corinthians 15, would be more than enough to persuade credulous Christians. It would also open the door to all kinds of ghostly apparitions and encounters, tales of Jesus being able to come in through locked doors and to appear in forms that his own best friends wouldn’t recognize. It might not be as satisfying as a real-world resurrection would be, and in fact the story would probably become a physical resurrection, despite the frank materialism, in a relatively short time. But a spiritual resurrection, like the spiritual “experience” of having Jesus come into your heart, would be enough to get the ball rolling.
So the real question is not “why did is the resurrection reflected in the beliefs of believers,” it’s “why is it reflected only in the beliefs of believers?” The resurrection would have its greatest impact on the world in which it occurred. If it occurred only in the subjective world of the believer’s spiritual beliefs, then we would find the evidence of it in those beliefs; if it occurred in the world of objective reality, we ought to find evidence of it in the real world. Fact #2, therefore, tells us more than it intends to about the truth of the resurrection.