Time, Newsweek and US News and World Report ran cover stories in their April issues questioning the validity of the biblical account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. A portion of the articles dealt with the historicity of the resurrection. The questions raised by the articles regarding the resurrection merit examination since the issue of the resurrection holds a central place in the theology of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Occasionally on Public Television one can see Dr. Joseph Campbell, a professor of world religions. Dr. Campbell contends that the resurrection of Jesus has been misunderstood by the church. He states that the actual resurrection of the Lord was not a physical reality, but was in fact a resurrection simply from the standpoint that the apostles revived in their own hearts the teachings of Jesus. Indeed, of the world’s five major religions no religious leader is recorded as having resurrected from the dead other than Jesus of Nazareth. In this respect Christianity is unique and deserving of special attention.
Taking into account the mainstream press’ inquiry into the biblical text, and hearing the teaching of Dr. Campbell, it is incumbent upon the church to take time to review some of the biblical literature in regards to the resurrection in order to better determine its’ validity. While a thorough discussion of the resurrection is beyond the scope of this article, herein will be discussed: why the resurrection holds a central place in our church theology and; historical evidence that lends credence to the Armenian Apostolic Church’s conviction of the authenticity of the biblical resurrection accounts.
The Importance of the Resurrection
Let us begin by reviewing some of the biblical statements concerning the importance of the resurrection in order to determine if, from a biblical standpoint, the resurrection properly holds such a prominent place in our theology. St. Paul writes ...
if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised .... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1Cor. 15:14ff)
According to St. Paul man inherited mortality from Adam. This is consistent with the Genesis account of creation and church theology that Adam was created to be immortal; but when he sinned he became mortal. As co-sinners with Adam, we too would have to face only death as our final end. Yet for St. Paul, while our connection to Adam leads to death, our relationship with Christ leads to life. It is with this in mind that St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15 , "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. As St. Paul so beautifully illustrates, the church’s position is that it is our connection to Jesus Christ that gives us the means by which we may receive a newly enlivened spirit. Jesus’ resurrection overcame the death we received in Adam. Jesus’ triumph over death opens the door to our inheriting from him, the second Adam, immortality.
From a worldly standpoint, the fact that death awaits us all and we are mortal is not one of debate. This is our physical condition. Yet the church teaches us that there is also a spiritual reality that exists and ultimately encompasses our total humanity. It is a spiritual reality greater than the secular material reality so often presented as the ultimate reality in this society. For the Christian, as we really inherited death by Adam, we really inherit eternal life through the new Adam, Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself presented his resurrection as the sole overriding consummate evidence of his divinity and as the validity of his proclamations.
But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. Matthew 12:39
And he told those who sold the pigeons, "Take these things away; you shall not make my Father's house a house of trade." His disciples remembered that it was written, "Zeal for thy house will consume me." The Jews then said to him, "What sign have you to show us for doing this?" Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." The Jews then said, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?" But he spoke of the temple of his body. (John 2:16 )
From the preceding examples one can see that Jesus gave the resurrection as the sign of his authority and St. Paul explains the resurrection as the act by which we may inherit eternal life. These aforementioned examples illustrate why the Armenian Apostolic Church holds the resurrection as central in her theology.
Now let’s examine some evidence within the bible and church history that supports the historicity of the resurrection:
Jesus Prophecies Concerning His Resurrection - and the Apostles Reactions
Some argue that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Yet when we review the apostles reactions concerning the resurrection we are presented with strong evidence as to the authenticity of the biblical narrative.
Of the numerous predictions Jesus made regarding his resurrection, the reaction of his disciples is not recorded as one of enthusiasm, on the contrary it is one of curiosity, confusion and emotional difficulty as we see in the following passages:
And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of man should have risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant. (Mark 9:9-10 )
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day." And they were greatly distressed. (Mat 17:22-23)
The disciples recorded reactions to Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection are evidence of the authenticity of the biblical accounts concerning the resurrection. The apostles did not ‘rejoice’ but they were distressed and did not understand him.
If, as some would claim, the disciples made up the story of the resurrection, what would their motivation have been? We have already read the 1 Corinthians passage where Paul the apostle speaks of the danger of misrepresenting God. Even if one were to (wrongly) try to reduce Jesus to being simply a good moral teacher, it must be confessed that he certainly stood for truth and love above all else. Why then would the twelve who had followed him faithfully for three years, leaving their friends and family to travel with this (initially) unknown itinerant preacher, seek to distort truth about him after his death? The only plausible answer is that they decided to turn from their master’s teachings regarding truth and proclaim his resurrection (knowing it was a lie) so that they might achieve some greater measure of personal notoriety and receive recognition and honor from their contemporaries. In short, if Jesus did not rise, then the only motivation the apostles could have had for proclaiming the resurrection would be to achieve personal glory.
Yet if this was the motivation of the apostles, why would they present themselves in such a bad light in the gospel account, and why would they knowingly suffer brutal deaths proclaiming a resurrection they knew never occurred? We have already read how the gospel records their initial reaction to Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection as one of confusion and emotional distress. Now let us examine how the apostles acted during the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.
Abandoned After Arrest
After the time of Jesus’ arrest there is no record of the apostles even being present except for Peter who ‘followed at a distance’ (Lk 22:54) Yet, when questioned soon after Jesus’ arrest, Peter thrice denied even knowing Jesus. (Luke 22:55-61 )
At the Crucifixion
Eleven of the twelve apostles didn’t even attend the crucifixion. The Jews at the time thought the Messiah was going to establish a political earthly kingdom upon his arrival. The apostles did not understand what Jesus said so clearly to Pilate, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world." In a word, the apostles likely thought Jesus’ crucifixion was evidence that he was not the Messiah they had hoped for. Therefore, questioning Jesus’ Messiahship and fearing for their own lives they did not attend the crucifixion.
After the Crucifixion - the Resurrection
The Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion we read that the disciples were gathered together afraid of the Jews finding them. Let’s see what happens after Jesus appeared to them:
(John 20:19 ) On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." ...
(John 20:27 ) Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing."
(John 20:28 ) Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"
Choosing an Apostle to Replace Judas
After the apostles saw the risen Christ they were convinced of the necessity of spreading the good news that salvation was offered to all people through the resurrected Christ. Toward this end, they first needed to have a twelfth apostle to take the place of the betrayer Judas. When discussing candidates for the twelfth apostle, their being a witness to Jesus resurrection is put forth as a necessary qualification. In the book of Acts St. Peter says,
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us -- one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection." And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. Acts 1:21
The Apostles Become Bold
The Acts of the Apostles records the first sermon ever given in the Christian Church. Saint Peter (who had recently denied and hid from the Jews fearing reprisals for his association with Jesus) says, in the company of the other previously fearful eleven apostles, to a large group of people including Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians (Acts 2:9 ), ...
"Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know-- this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22 )
The actions of the Apostles prior to Jesus’ crucifixion and after his resurrection present us with a marked change of attitude. The apostles who had been so fearful now preached boldly and openly. Their viewing the resurrected Christ convinced them that indeed Jesus was the Savior of Jewish expectation and now they considered it their sacred duty to preach that indeed the Messiah had come and established the kingdom as he promised, by rising victorious over death.
The consummate evidence of the apostles eye-witnessing of the resurrection is that eleven of the twelve apostles were ultimately put to death precisely because they refused to stop proclaiming the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. If Jesus did not rise from the dead why would they all to claim to have seen the risen Jesus knowing they would be killed for this claim? Would you die proclaiming as truth something you knew full well to be a lie?
During the beginning of the apostolic ministry the apostles went throughout the world proclaiming the good news of salvation through Christ Jesus. Two of the apostles, Thaddeus and Bartholomew, came to Armenia having witnessed the resurrected Lord. Many Armenians were convinced by their testimony and became Christians. But each person had to pray and be convicted in their own heart of the truth of the resurrection. Each person had to experience the resurrected Christ themselves in the celebration of the church sacraments. It is this combination of historical evidence, personal faith, and divine grace that has led to the consistent conviction of our ancestors in the proclamation that Christ is Risen from the Dead. Even as we faced persecution at the hands of our non-Christian neighbors for our religious convictions, our ancestors held firm in their faith; convinced in the sovereignty of the Risen Christ.
There are those in today’s increasing secular society that succumb to the temptation of reducing Jesus to being simply ‘a good moral teacher.’ Yet looking at his claims about himself we must come to terms with the extraordinary statements he made. Jesus predicted both his death and resurrection with precision. How could a ‘good moral teacher’ present himself as being the Lord and God and predict rising from the dead if it were not true? We are left with a necessary choice to make. Either Jesus’ claims about his resurrection were true or they were not. If they were not then how do we explain the actions of the apostles and the conviction of our Armenian ancestors who died for their belief in the resurrected Christ; and if they are, how can we do less than dedicate ourselves wholly to joining with the apostles in the sacred mission of proclaiming the gospel to all peoples and to a generation yet unborn?
Just as our ancestors before us have done, we too must look at the history of the resurrection, the reaction of the apostles, the conversion of Armenia and the sacrifice in Christ’s name of our ancestors. And based on the evidence, we too must put our faith in the one our ancestors have placed their faith in, the one who is risen. And he will confirm in our hearts, as he has done for generations of Armenians, the truth of his resurrection. So that one day, liberated from death by his triumphant resurrection we will greet the Lord at his magnificent return on the day when ...
at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:10 )