The historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection
This series began before the summer holidays. I hope to complete it over the next few weeks. In many modern treatments of the resurrection of Christ, the historicity of the resurrection event is what dominates the writer's concerns. This is understandable in the light of modern day sceptical thought and the impact of Liberal theology. (See The Meaning of Jesus by N.T. Wright & Marcus Borg, 1999, SPCK, Part IV, for a dialogue between liberal and conservative scholarship on the historicity of Jesus' bodily resurrection). Calvin however, was pre-modern and his priorities were not necessarily the same as ours. His main aim was to unpack the meaning and significance of the resurrection of Christ, not to defend its historical basis. But this does not mean that the Reformer was uninterested in historical issues. He was aware of "scoffers" who derided the Bible's resurrection accounts. Calvin wanted to show that Scripture acts as a strong and coherent witness to the resurrection. His primary goal seems to have been confirming the faith of believers rather than refuting the sceptics as an end in itself. (All quotes are from Institutes III:XXV:3).
"But least any question should be raised as to the resurrection of Christ on which ours is founded, we see how often and in what various ways he has borne testimony to it. Scoffing men will deride the narrative which is given by the Evangelist as a childish fable. For what importance will they attach to a message which timid women bring, and the disciples, almost dead with fear, afterwards confirm?"
Calvin explores several lines of evidence:
1. The testimony of Christ's followers
Why, asks Calvin, did not the risen Jesus appear publicly in the temple, or show himself to Pilate? The Lord seems to have used weak and infirm people as witnesses to the resurrection. But Calvin can see the "admirable providence of God" in all this. The women hurried to the tomb on Easter Sunday morning only to see that it was empty and to hear the angels tell them that Jesus had arisen from the dead. The apostles were not gullible fools who immediately believed the women's testimony. They took a lot of convincing that Jesus was alive. "How can we question the veracity of those who regarded what the women told them as a fable, until they saw the reality?"
2. The testimony of Pilate and the guards
The Governor may not have seen the risen Jesus, but he was given sufficient evidence that Jesus was alive. He posted a guard at Jesus' tomb, but his body went missing. The guards were bribed to spread a report that Jesus' disciples had stolen his body. But this is hardly credible. Are we to suppose that the disciples had the weapons, training and courage to mount an attack upon the guards and steal the body of Jesus? If this is what happened, why did not the soldiers call for help from the citizens of Jerusalem and apprehend the body-snatching disciples? Pilate knew what had really happened. In his desperate attempt at a cover-up, he unwittingly "put his signet to the resurrection of Christ, and the guards who were placed at the sepulchre by their silence and falsehood also became heralds of his resurrection." Even those who had no vested interest in proclaiming Jesus' resurrection bear witness to the fact.
3. The testimony of angels
This line of evidence will not convince the hardened sceptic, but Calvin was writing to confirm the faith of Christians who believed in the existence of angelic beings. Referring to the men in shining garments at Jesus empty tomb, Calvin writes, "Their celestial splendour plainly shows that they were not men but angels." The angels said to the women, "He is not here, but is risen." (Luke 24:6). Heaven-sent supernatural beings bore witness to Jesus' resurrection.
4. The resurrection appearances
Calvin writes, "Afterwards if any doubt still remained, Christ himself removed it." The apostles saw him frequently. They handled him and touched him. Their initial unbelief (eg. Thomas?) "is of no little avail in confirming our faith". In addition to appearing to them, the risen Christ spoke to the apostles concerning the mysteries of the kingdom of God and ascended to heaven before their eyes. But the apostles were not the only ones to whom Jesus appeared. Calvin appeals to Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that the risen Jesus was seen by more than five hundred brethren at once. This is an impressive array of witnesses to the event of Jesus' bodily resurrection.
5. The sending of the Holy Spirit
By this Jesus gave "a proof not only of life but also the promise of supreme power, as he foretold, 'It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you' (John 16:7). The fulfillment of this promise on the day of Pentecost serves as evidence that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead (cf Acts 2:32 & 33).
6. Appearances to Paul and Stephen
Even after his ascension, Jesus appeared to these two men. "Paul was not thrown down on the way by the power of a dead man, but felt that he whom he was opposing was possessed of sovereign authority. To Stephen he appeared for another purpose - viz. that he might overcome the fear of death by the certainty of life".
All these lines of evidence taken together are sufficient to convince people that Jesus rose from the dead. "To refuse assent to these numerous authentic proofs is not diffidence, but depraved and therefore infatuated obstinacy." The problem with rejection of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is not the lack of reliable evidence, but sinful unbelief.
While Calvin believed that people are convinced of the truth of Scripture (including the claims that Christ rose from the dead) primarily by the witness of the Spirit. This does not mean that he was unwilling to appeal to historical evidence to defend the reality of Jesus' bodily resurrection. This combination of the Spirit's witness to Scripture and appeal to historical proofs can be found in the Bible itself. In Luke's account, the disciples see the empty tomb and hear the women's eyewitness testimony to Jesus resurrection appearance. But what convinced them that Jesus rose from the dead was his own appearance to them personally. Luke notes that Jesus ate before them, demonstrating that he was no "ghost", but a real, embodied man. In addition to this, the Lord "opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures" (Luke 24:45). It was only then that the disciples grasped the real significance of the resurrection event. Here is the combination of historical evidence, Scriptural testimony and the witness of the Spirit. Evidentialists who simply rest their case on the historical evidence need to take into account the necessity of the Spirit's witness to convince sinners that Jesus truly rose from the dead. Presuppositionalists should not baulk at presenting the historical evidence that Scripture gives for Jesus' resurrection. Of course, Calvin was not writing to address these concerns, but his method of reasoning has something to say to both evidentialist and presuppositionalist schools of thought. In his article on Presuppositional apologetics in New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics, (IVP, 2006) John Frame argues that even presuppositionalists have to answer objections. Simply calling for faith in the resurrection of Jesus "because the Bible says so", without presenting the historical evidences for the resurrection is an inadequate apologetic strategy.