May 11, 2012
Argument for the Resurrection from Paul
Most arguments for the resurrection are based on the gospel accounts. For example, William Lane Craig bases his argument on:
- The empty tomb,
- The appearances, and
- The disciples’ beliefs in the resurrection.
I totally agree with his approach. However, this article is an argument that is personally convincing to me. It is based almost entirely on Paul’s writings (mainly Galatians and 1 Corinthians).
There is a lot of debate about the authorship and dating of the four gospels. However, these factors are far less controversial for most of Paul’s letters. Paul wrote 13 letters out of the 27 books in the NT, just less than 30% of the whole New Testament, and in each of his letters Paul identifies himself as the author in his initial greeting. Virtually all historical and biblical scholars accept that the majority of Paul’s letters were indeed written by Paul. His style is strongly personal, spontaneous and even controversial. There is no way that his letters were constructed or contrived by a committee. Galatians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians and Philemon are virtually undisputed by scholars of all persuasions as being originated by Paul.
We can also be very confident that we have a good record of what he wrote. Many copies of Paul’s letters were disseminated widely, diverging into multiple branches like leaves on a tree. Scholars can compare multiple copies and derive a very reliable text. Thus, there is scholarly agreement that we know what Paul wrote.
Within his letters Paul refers incidentally to dateable events. Thus the contextual information that is contained in these letters enable some of them to be dated quite accurately. Paul’s letters were also written very close to Jesus’ ministry. His earliest letter may be within 15 years of the crucifixion. All of his letters were completed prior to Paul’s death in about 65AD. There are 2 theories for the destination for the Galatian letter (the South and North Galatian theories), which result in authorship dates of 49 AD or 55 AD respectively. 1 Corinthians was written in approximately 53 AD.
In summary, for most of Paul’s letters, we know who wrote them, what he wrote and when he wrote them. We also know they were written within a generation of Jesus’ crucifixion.
2 Biographical Information
We can also learn a great deal about Paul from his letters that is consistent with the account written about him in Acts several years later.
Firstly, in 1 Corinthians 15:9 and Galatians 1:13&23 Paul admits that he formerly persecuted the Church and tried to destroy it, as confirmed in Acts. However, on his way to Damascus, Paul claims he had an encounter with the risen Christ. This is described 3 times in the book of Acts. According to Acts a bright light appeared from heaven, Paul fell to the ground and he heard the voice of Jesus. This appearance was more than a vision that occurred in his brain. His companions saw the light and heard a sound, but they could not understand the voice. So something physical happened. Paul was temporarily blinded by the light. So Paul was also physically affected.
Paul later confirms this event in his letters. In Galatians 1:11-12, 1 Corinthians 9:1 & 15:8 Paul claims that he has seen the risen Christ and that the risen Christ appeared to him. This event was sufficiently convincing to Paul to completely reverse his former position and commence his Christian ministry without any reference to the established apostles (Galatians 1:15-24).
In Galatians 1:18&19 Paul records that, 3 years after his conversion, he visited Jerusalem and stayed with the apostle Peter for 15 days. During this time he also met with James, the brother of Jesus. He returned to Jerusalem again 14 years later and met with Peter, James and John (Galatians 2:1-9). Paul does not say a great deal about what they discussed during these visits, but we can safely assume that they did not spend the time drinking cups of tea and talking about the weather. Paul was also familiar with Jesus’ other brothers (1 Corinthians 9:5). Thus Paul had access to Jesus’ family members and also to witnesses of his ministry.
Paul’s main record relating to the death and resurrection of Christ is contained in 1 Corinthians 15:1-26 as follows:
1 Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.
11 Whether, then, it was I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?
13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised.
14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.
15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised.
16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.
18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.
19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.
20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.
23 But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him.
24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.
25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
Paul stayed in Corinth for 18 months from the beginning of 50 AD to about July 51 AD. He probably wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in about 53 AD in response to news from Corinth. In verse 1 he refers to their reception of the gospel from him. In particular, in verse 3 he states, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that…” The following text from verse 3 to 7 is a creed. Paul said that he had previously received it and then passed it on to the Corinthians (in 50 AD). Most scholars believe that Paul received this pre-existing creed from Peter and James during his first visit to Jerusalem 3 years after his conversion, which must have been within 5 years of the crucifixion. Paul then mentions Christ’s death, burial, resurrection and appearances to Peter, the Twelve, 500, James and all the apostles. After the creed he adds that Christ appeared to himself in an unusual way. It is significant that he mentions both Peter and James, as he met with them during his first visit. The appearance to James is not mentioned in the gospels. However, James was not a believer in Christ prior to the crucifixion but became the leader of the church in Jerusalem afterwards. Neither is the appearance to the 500 mentioned in the gospels. However, he states that most of them are still alive. The implication is, “Go and ask them if you don’t believe me.”
Paul is fully aware of the implications if Christ was not raised. His preaching is useless, so is their faith, he and the apostles are false witnesses, they are still in their sins, the dead in Christ are lost and Christians are to be pitied above all men. There is not much going for a dead Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, Paul lists some of the things that he suffered for the gospel. He went on to suffer much more and was eventually executed during the Neronian persecution.
Paul knew what was at stake. If Christ was not raised then he and all the other witnesses were liars, his preaching was useless and futile, as is our faith. If Christ was not raised then all the apostles were of all men most to be pitied. What is the point? Why bother? Why travel all over Europe and suffer all these persecutions if the gospel message is not true? Why not rather eat drink and be merry? For tomorrow we die.
Eventually Paul was arrested and put in prison. The NT does not record his death. However, there is strong testimony from other sources that Paul was eventually beheaded just outside of Rome during the Neronian persecutions in about 65 AD.
Paul was willing to pay with his life for his belief in the resurrection. Now, dying for your beliefs doesn’t make it true. News reports of suicide bombers dying for their belief in Islam is almost a daily occurrence. But there is a key difference for the apostles. The apostles were eyewitnesses to the events and knew if their claims were true. Likewise, Paul was in an excellent position to know if the resurrection claim was untrue. Why die for a cause if you know it is not true? For this reason, even sceptical scholars that do not believe in the resurrection will still admit that the apostles really did believe that they had seen the risen Christ.
Is Paul Reliable?
Paul testifies to us that Christ is raised from the dead, but is he a reliable witness? If he is not a reliable witness, what are the possible causes of his error? Was he a liar? This is highly unlikely. As I described before, why suffer and die for something that you know is not true. Besides, Paul’s teaching about truth and integrity militates against it. Was he hallucinating? Was he sincerely mistaken? This is actually the most common explanation provided by sceptics. If it was just Paul, then that would be a possible explanation. However, there are at least 3 reasons why it is highly unlikely.
- Firstly, Paul was in the wrong frame of mind to hallucinate in such a way. The vision was in direct opposition to his intent and desires.
- Secondly, there were many witnesses to the resurrection. What are the chances of them all experiencing a hallucination, let alone the same one?
- Thirdly, a vision of the departed would not lead Paul or the other disciples to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed may lead people to believe that a person lives on after death, but do not prompt them to believe in a bodily resurrection. Visions of the departed are not evidence that a person is alive, but that they are dead.
Was Paul crazy? This was Festus’ response. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.” However, notice Paul’s reply: “I am not insane, most excellent Festus. What I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26: 24-25).
Was Paul stupid? Anyone who reads his letters will realise that this is not possible. For example, Antony Flew is a former atheist who is one of the leading philosophers in the world. Yet, he says, “Paul is an intelligent man and has the mind of a first class philosopher”.
So it seems that alternate explanations for Paul’s testimony are highly unlikely.
Summary of Paul’s Testimony
In summary, I believe that Paul provides a solid testimony to the historicity of the resurrection of Christ and the truth of the gospel for the following reasons:
- Paul had access to eye witnesses to the risen Christ within 5 years of the event.
- Paul had his own experience where he claims that he had seen the risen Christ.
- Paul’s conversion was completely unexpected as he was a former persecutor of the church.
- Paul had no motive to give a false testimony.
- Paul was willing to endure suffering and death for what he believed. Why do that if you know it is not true?
 See discussion between Gary Habermas and Antony Flew at http://www.illustramedia.com/IDArticles/flew-interview.pdf