We are starting a new, 3 part series called “Reasonable Faith”. Over the next three Sundays we are going to give some answers to the questions, “What is the evidence for God, and what is the best explanation concerning the historical person of Jesus and his resurrection?”
1 Peter 3:15 says this: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
The truth is that there is a huge amount of evidence and data covering science, history, biblical narrative and, most important, personal experience (The Holy Spirit).
We all have some sort of process before we make any decision, certainly before any major decision. Think of buying a car for example. First of all we decide on the specification of the car we want. New or second hand, large, medium, or small, automatic or manual, petrol, diesel, electric or hybrid, two door, four door or estate, colour, price range and so on. Having done that, we then look at what is on offer in the market place. All car manufacturers and dealers make claims for their particular products, but how do you know that they are true? We do some research and consider the evidence. If you can, you ask someone that you know and trust who has a similar car to the one that you are considering. You ask for their opinion, you get an eyewitness account.
So, before making any major decision we get as much evidence and data as we can, and there is no bigger decision than deciding if Jesus was who he said he was. This is the central issue of life; what do you believe about Jesus. Other spiritual questions are irrelevant without deciding first to believe that Jesus is who he said he was. This is the most important decision that any of us have to make.
There is an abundance of historical references for Jesus that leaves us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. Most sceptics and atheists concede that there was an historical person called Jesus who lived in Israel 2000 years ago, and who was crucified by Roman soldiers. So the question did Jesus live and die is answered yes by almost every serious historian. The more interesting question is whether Jesus died and lived? If Jesus died, was dead for three days, and then came back to life, he must have been who he said he was. What is the evidence for that?
Let’s start at the point were Jesus’ body is laid in a tomb. What happened next, what is the best explanation? I have three points to make:
1. The early followers of Jesus claimed that the tomb was empty on what we now call Easter Day. What is the best explanation for the empty tomb?
a) They went to the wrong tomb? Very unlikely, and in any case all that the Roman authorities and Jewish Religious Leaders had to do was produce the body from the “right tomb” to counter the claim.
b) The Roman authorities and Jewish Religious Leaders had removed the body? Again, all they had to do was produce the body to counter the claim.
c) The disciples stole the body. If that was true, these same people who stole the body, and later claimed that Jesus was alive, knew that was a lie. Many of these people were imprisoned and killed for their proclamation about Jesus’ resurrection. How plausible is it that anyone would willingly die for something that they knew to be a lie?
d) Jesus rose from the dead.
2. The early followers of Jesus claimed that they saw Him alive after being placed in the tomb. What is the best explanation for that?
a) The appearances are legendary.
(i) Legend can tell you how a story got bigger; it can’t tell you how it originated, especially when the participants are both eyewitnesses and report the events so close to when it actually happened.
(ii) What about the empty tomb? If the Resurrection were merely a legend, the tomb would be filled.
b) The appearances were hallucinations. Psychologists agree that hallucinations are quite rare and they are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something that can be seen by a group of people. In I Corinthians, Chapter 15, there is a list of people who saw Jesus alive, including over 500 at one time!
c) People did, in fact, see Jesus alive.
3. Is there other supporting evidence?
a) Within weeks of the crucifixion, thousands of Jews began to abandon customs and practices that had been part of their culture for centuries. They had been raised from childhood to believe certain religious traditions, and now they deserted their faith to follow Jesus. This would be like a Muslim living in an Islamic country suddenly announcing that they were giving up their faith to become a Christian. This was a huge deal because they risked complete exclusion from their family, friends and community.
b) The miraculous emergence of the church in the face of brutal Roman persecution can only be explained by the absolute conviction that Jesus died on the cross, was buried, and was then seen alive by many people.
I have already said that there is an abundance of historical references for Jesus that leaves us with little reasonable doubt that Jesus lived and died. There is also much evidence that he rose from the dead, and you can read more about that evidence in the book – “The Case For Christ”. Or you can read my article issue 60 of Insight Magazine.
I’m going to anticipate two questions that you might have.
1) I am already a committed Christian, so why do I need to know this stuff? Because of 1 Peter 3:15: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Are you fully prepared to do that? Does it matter? Yes, and here’s why. Someone’s eternal destiny may depend on your response to his or her question, and frankly, nothing matters more than that. You may respond, “Surely it is the role of the Holy Spirit to convict and convince people of Jesus’ deity, death and resurrection?” Yes it is, but we have a part to play. If that were not so, why did Jesus say to his followers, “Go and make disciples of all nations?” We do have a part to play, and we should be prepared to do it.
2) If there is all of this evidence and data around for the existence of God, and the deity, death and resurrection of Jesus, why isn’t everyone a follower of Jesus?
(i) Not everyone knows about the evidence, and that’s why being ready to respond to 1 Peter 3:15 is so important. The level of ignorance in this country about the evidence for God and Jesus is staggering, including some Christians!
(ii) Any psychologist will tell you that people don’t believe what they don’t want to believe. Simon gave a great example last week when he reminded us about Jesus’ friend Lazarus who had been dead for three days. Jesus brought him back to life, and he rejoined his family and his community. Surely, this was very clear evidence that Jesus was the Messiah, but how did the Jewish religious leaders react? Not only did they plot to kill Jesus but also Lazarus. (John 12:10-11 ) “We don’t like the evidence so let’s get rid of it” was there approach. We see this often today, from politicians, news media, and so on.
So you shouldn’t be surprised that people don’t know about the evidence, or that they reject it when they do. However, that is not an excuse for you not to know it yourself for the reason already stated.
So this “Reasonable Faith” series is very important for each of us in the following ways.
1) Shaping our culture. The evidence that we will receive is not taught in schools, covered in the media, or referred to in films. The gospel rarely gets a fair hearing, and in fact our culture is becoming secularist, and if anything “anti”. If the gospel is to be heard as a reasonable and viable option for thinking men and women today, then it’s vital that we as Christians try to influence our culture in such a way that Christian beliefs cannot be dismissed as mere superstition.
2) Knowing why you believe as well as what you believe will make you more confident in sharing your faith with others. Rather than saying sheepishly, ”This is how I feel about it, It’s just my opinion, that’s all,” you’ll be able to say with confidence (and gentleness and respect), This is what I think about it, and here are my reasons why ….”
3) It can help you keep your faith in times of doubt and struggle. Emotions will only carry you so far, and then you’re going to need something more substantial. Read your bible (“soak yourself” in it!), and absorb the evidence contained in books like “The Case For Christ”.
Our love for God and for the agenda of Jesus’ Great Commission to reach out to those who don’t know Him should be our primary concern. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
Questions and Reflections (for you to think about on your own or to discuss in your Life Group)
1. When you make a decision, do you look for clear evidence, or do you go by the way that you feel at the time? Can you give some examples?
2. Are you aware of any historical evidence for the person of Jesus of Nazareth outside of the bible? What is that evidence?
3. Do you agree that the central issue of life is what a person believes about Jesus? If yes, why? If no, what is the most important issue?
4. Given the Roman’s efficiency when crucifying a person, do you think it’s possible that Jesus could have come down from the across alive?
5. Can you think of any other reasonable explanation for the empty tomb, other than Jesus rose from the dead?
6. Similarly, is there any other reasonable explanation for people seeing Jesus alive after the crucifixion, than he was seen alive?
7. How would you explain the Jewish religious leaders ignoring the evidence that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead? Can you think of a modern day parallel of evidence being ignored?
8. Are you confident and prepared to give an answer to the question, “why are you a follower of Jesus?”