St. Paul’s Case for the Resurrection

March 3, 2009

Spring is nearly in the air. It is a time of renewal. It is a time of rejoicing that the winter is over (this means much more in parts of the world, like Iowa, where the winters are severe, and less in places like Kenya where the weather barely changes). It is a time when Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus—the proof that Jesus was, indeed, who He claimed to be, the Messiah, the Savior of the world. It is a time that Christians worship their risen Lord.

What do we know about the resurrection of Jesus? First, there are several accounts in the gospels in which Jesus predicted he would rise (e.g., Matthew 16:21). According to Matthew’s gospel, even the enemies of Jesus were well aware of His prediction that he would rise from the dead on the third day. Because of His predictions, the enemies of Jesus took special precautions to secure His tomb in order to prevent anyone from claiming that He rose (Matthew 27:62-66). Along with Jesus’ predictions that He would rise, all four gospels contain accounts of Jesus appearing alive after he had died.


But are the gospel accounts the most compelling evidence for the resurrection of Jesus? For many modern scholars, the answer is “Perhaps not,” because many of these modern scholars are skeptical of the gospel accounts. Is there any hope that those who question the gospels can still find compelling evidence that Jesus rose from the dead? Absolutely, “Yes.” If not in the gospels, where is the evidence of Jesus dying then appearing alive? The evidence is found in the letters of St. Paul. Before presenting Paul’s case for the resurrection, we need a little background.

First, if we conclude that the gospels were written by eyewitnesses and those who interviewed the eyewitnesses, then the gospel accounts of the resurrection are sufficiently reliable to support the conclusion that Jesus rose again. This position, namely that the gospels are historically reliable, firsthand accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, is the view held by most professing Christians. Such a view is a far cry from the purely subjective reason for believing Jesus rose that is found in the final stanza of the song He Lives: “You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart.”  The first position espouses a faith founded on historical testimony from eyewitnesses, while the second promotes a faith based on personal experience. It is difficult for those embracing the subjective position to explain why their experience is to be preferred over the experiences of other religions. History and evidence matter if we are going to convince thinking people that Jesus rose from the dead. But are the gospel accounts of the resurrection the best evidence for the resurrection? In some circles, no. Why is that? And what evidence outside of the gospels supports the resurrection of Jesus? First, let us look at why some critics are skeptical of the gospels.

There are many scholars of the liberal, critical stripe that challenge the authorship, date and reliability of the gospels. They find the resurrection accounts in the gospels contradictory. They question whether the gospels were written by the traditional authors Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They generally assign dates for Matthew, Luke and John long after the time of Jesus, and even after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. They assume that the gospels are a compilation of stories told and retold (“oral tradition”), resulting in distortions (like in the game “operator” where in a room full of people you take a phrase, whisper it to a person, who whispers it to another, and so on; by the time the last person hears the phrase it is totally different from the original). In short, critical scholars view the gospel accounts of the resurrection with a jaundiced eye based upon their conclusions that the earliest gospel was written some 35 years after the death of Jesus, that the gospels are a compilation of oral tradition rather than eyewitness accounts, and that the resurrection accounts contained in the gospels are too problematic to be reliable.


Of course, if a person’s world view, whether a scholar or not, does not allow for anyone to be dead for three days then come back to life, then no amount of evidence will convince that person that Jesus rose. This rejection is not based on evidence, but on the person’s assumptions (“presuppositions”) that limit what will be found before the investigation is even begun. It’s like the farmer who grew up on a farm, never read a book, never watched television, and had never been to the big city. When the farmer was taken to the zoo, he stood in front of the giraffe cage, and while gawking at the 17-foot tall creature, mumbled, “there ain’t no such thing.” Why did the farmer doubt what he was seeing? Not because of the evidence before him, but because a 17-foot tall animal did not fit into his experience. A giraffe did not fit into what the farmer believed to be true, therefore it could not exist.


Back to the evidence. For those who have trouble accepting the resurrection accounts in the gospels, how can Paul’s letters provide better evidence? The answer lies in what scholars, whether liberal, moderate or conservative, do accept as true. If 90% or more of scholars agree on something, that consensus can serve as a beginning point in presenting evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Here is a brief summation:

Virtually all scholars (99% by some counts, whether liberal or conservative, atheist or Christian) accept that Paul wrote Romans, I & II Corinthians, Galatians and Philippians. These same scholars agree that Paul was converted around 18 months to three years after the death of Jesus (using A.D. 30 as the date for Christ’s death, Paul’s conversion was AD 31-33). These same scholars accept that Paul wrote I Corinthians between A.D. 53-55 from Ephesus, at least 10 years earlier than the AD. 65 date given to Mark’s Gospel, which is assumed by many to be the earliest gospel written.

Since Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is deemed authentic by nearly all scholars, is it then reasonable to conclude that what Paul wrote is “reliable” history? People who want “reliable” history naturally prefer writers who were in the right place, at the right time. Sometimes that preference is not available, such as with the history of Alexander the Great. The best-known history of Alexander was written 400 years after he lived, yet few dispute the general reliability of that history. When we consider the resurrection of Jesus, who, besides the 12 disciples, was in the right place at the right time? One person certainly fits that bill–Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul.


In Acts chapter one, after the death of Judas, the apostles decided to choose someone to replace Judas. In the process they listed certain requirements before someone could be considered as an apostle. This list included the person having been eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians (9:1) he asks, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” He later tells the Corinthians (15:8) “and last of all, as it were to one untimely born, He (Jesus) appeared to me.” Paul was in the right place, at the right time, to provide a reliable account of the resurrection of Jesus. And what specifically does Paul tell us?

Paul tells two important things in I Corinthians 15. First, Jesus rose from the dead (vs 20). Second, Paul saw the risen Christ (vs 8). Paul centered his message on the resurrection of Jesus as he ventured out on three missionary journeys recorded in the Book of Acts. In I Corinthians 15:3-4 he summarizes the gospel message: “Christ died for our sins…was buried…and was raised on the third day….”

Paul was quite obsessive about whether his gospel message was accurate. According to Galatians 1:18ff, after his conversion he spent 15 days with Peter, James (the brother of Jesus) and John in Jerusalem in order to have them check out his gospel. Paul’s meeting with them likely occurred in approximately A.D. 37, just five years or so after his conversion, and seven years after Jesus’ resurrection. Around 14 years later Paul revisited Peter, James and John, and had them scrutinize his message again. Paul summarizes their conclusion in Galatians 2:6: “They added nothing to me.”


So we have Paul, Peter, James and John. Paul says he saw the risen Jesus, and he says that Peter, James and John saw the resurrected Jesus, too. Further, Peter, James and John agreed that Paul taught the same message as they did. And Paul states as fact that Peter and John saw the risen Jesus—a fact he must have heard directly from Peter and John when he first visited them following his conversion.

Before the death of Jesus, James, son of Joseph and Mary, thought Jesus had “lost his senses” (Mark 3:21). Paul tells us that after Jesus’ crucifixion He appeared alive to James (I Corinthians 15:7). How did Paul know James saw the resurrected Jesus? Paul met with James after his conversion, so it is reasonable to conclude that James told Paul during their 15 days together (Galatians 1:18ff) about having seen the risen Lord. James went on to become a “pillar” in the early church, presiding over the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, and writing the Epistle of James.

Thus, Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Galatians unite Paul, Peter, James and John as fellow observers of the resurrected Jesus. These letters from Paul are considered authentic by even the most skeptical critics. Contained in those letters is the summary of what Paul likely learned directly from Peter, James and John, namely that they all saw the risen Jesus.

Paul wrote to the Corinthians around A.D. 51-53 about an event (meeting with Peter, James and John) that occurred just 15 years earlier, and that event was a mere five years after Paul’s conversion, and only seven years after the time of Jesus. Hence, we have an authentic letter from a person (Paul) who was on the scene at the time of Jesus, who personally claims to have seen the resurrected Jesus, who interviewed Peter, James and John about their encounters with the risen Jesus, and who summarized those accounts in I Corinthians 15.


In conclusion, even in an age of general skepticism toward the gospels, scholarly consensus (including atheists and believers, liberal and conservative) accepts that Paul wrote I Corinthians. And in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he tells us with certitude that “Christ rose from the dead” and “He appeared to me.” Thus, we can build a case from Paul’s writings, from the ground up, that provides a first-hand account of the resurrection of Jesus from documents that are accepted as authentic by even the most liberal and critical of scholars.

The evidence supports the conclusion that the gospels are also reliable historical documents that accurately recount the death and resurrection of Jesus. But even those skeptical of the gospels must account for Paul’s discussion of the resurrection found in I Corinthians 15. There is no question that Paul was there—the right place, at the right time. The reasonable conclusion for those with an open mind is that Paul told the truth—he did see the risen Jesus, and so did Peter, James and John. And if Jesus rose from the dead, what are the consequences for those who follow Him? The best answer is to consider the words of Jesus Himself, as recorded in John 14:19: “Because I live, you shall live also.”