The Post-Mortem Appearances of Jesus

By L. Alfred James

The Post-Mortem Appearances of JesusWe are currently in a series of blog posts that provide an intellectual pathway for moving someone (or yourself) all the way from hardcore atheism to biblical Christianity. Last week we saw that the evidence for Jesus’ empty tomb is quite formidable. But some people will (reasonably) ask, “Why does the mere fact of the empty tomb prove Jesus has risen from the dead? Aren’t there other explanations for an empty tomb?”

Well, the case for the resurrection of Jesus does not rest solely on the empty tomb. There are other lines of evidence, equally powerful, and they all converge together to say the same thing. For instance, consider the numerous reports of Jesus appearing to people, after his death. These appearances are mentioned in several separate historical documents. To be sure, most of these documents were collected into the New Testament, but they were originally written independently of each other.

These appearances of Jesus are mentioned in Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, and 1 Corinthians. Historians agree that when something is attested to by two or more independently written historical documents then it is very likely factual. With the appearances of Jesus we have much more than two. But for the sake of space we will focus only on what Paul said in 1 Corinthians. Here is the key passage:

After that, Jesus 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. (1 Corinthians 15:6-8)

1 Corinthians is admitted to be authentic by virtually all biblical scholars and ancient historians, including those who are atheists and agnostics.1 The consensus of experts is that it is genuine. It truly was written by the Apostle Paul in the first century. So, this is solid testimony. And notice that it is eyewitness testimony. Paul says, “Last of all he appeared to me.” He saw Jesus, after his death, with his own two eyes.

Moreover, it’s pretty hard to say he made this up. After all, Paul originally rejected Jesus. He was an enemy of Christianity. He did not want to believe it was true. However, something happened to him. He had some kind of powerful transformation. That, in itself, cries out for explanation. What does it take for someone to completely reverse their most fundamental opinions and say to the world, “I was wrong!”?

Apart from that, consider the severe suffering he willingly endured for his belief in Jesus. He was constantly harassed, whipped, beaten, and thrown in prison. Indeed, he eventually died (in AD 62) for his belief in Jesus. What would have motivated him to fabricate the story of Jesus appearing to him?

Think about it. At any moment he could have ended all of the harassment and persecution by just saying, “Okay, I admit it. Jesus is not the messiah. I made it up when I said he appeared to me.” But he did no such thing.

The Appearance to the Five Hundred

Jesus AscensionIn this passage, Paul also says, “Jesus appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living.” In telling his audience that most of them “are still living” Paul is inviting any skeptical readers to go and speak with these witnesses in person. He is essentially saying, “If you think the resurrection is a farce, then go and talk to them!”

The Appearance to James

Paul also writes that Jesus “appeared to James.” James was Jesus’ brother. Originally, James also rejected Jesus’ claim to be the messiah. (This is not surprising if you consider the dynamics of family life. What would it take for you to believe that your own brother was a specially appointed and divinely anointed representative of God?)
What’s interesting is not just the fact that this appearance of Jesus radically transformed James, but this transformation was confirmed by his martyrdom. Indeed, James’ death is mentioned in historical documents outside of the Bible. It is mentioned by Josephus, Hegesippus, and Clement of Alexandria. Again, this is very solid evidence. As with Paul, what would motivate James to fabricate this story? Was he a masochist who really wanted to be persecuted and killed? Not likely.

The Scholarly Consensus

It is for reasons like these that many historians and biblical scholars have said that it is a historical fact that the disciples had some kind of experience of Jesus appearing to them. They not only claimed as much, their willingness to die for Jesus persuasively backs up these claims.

Gerd Lüdemann is a highly esteemed expert in New Testament history and serves as the Chair of History and Literature of Early Christianity at the University of Göttingen. Most importantly, he is not a Christian. In fact, he doesn’t even believe in God. In his own words: “I am an agnostic secular humanist.”2 Despite his beliefs, Lüdemann admits that the evidence for the appearances of Jesus is too strong to deny. He boldly asserts, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”3 Likewise, Norman Perrin (from the University of Chicago) once opined, “The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.4

So, we now have TWO lines of evidence that indicate that Jesus really rose from the dead: the empty tomb and his post-mortem appearances. But there is actually more evidence that strengthens the case for the resurrection even further. But that will have to wait until next week.

1. Gary Habermas summarizes the opinions of the scholarly world regarding 1 Corinthians 15: “Why do scholars take this text so seriously? First of all, it’s from an epistle that is unanimously thought to be written by the Apostle Paul. Why is that? Well, as one scholar attested, we don’t even need to discuss Pauline authorship here because both the internal and external evidence for this epistle are so strong. Like what? Well, just prior to 100 AD, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthians (about 95 AD). Then, just after 100 AD, Ignatius wrote seven brief epistles around 107 AD, and Polycarp wrote another one about 110 AD. These three men, writing nine short epistles, quote, cite, or refer to the book of 1 Corinthians approximately some 30 times, and do so just about a decade after the traditional close of the New Testament. That is an incredible amount of attestation from sources outside of Paul, all asserting Paul’s authority. These are just some of the many reasons that cause even skeptics to admit that Paul the apostle wrote this epistle.” See
2. See
3. Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus?, trans. John Bowden (Louisville, Kent.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), p. 80.
4. Norman Perrin, The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), 80.

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