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Examining the Evidence of Easter

Examining the Evidence of Easter

Christian apologist and best-selling author Lee Strobel shares his story of coming to faith in Christ, and then examines the events of Good Friday and Easter Sunday, addressing questions like: "Was Jesus' death a sham?" "Was His body really absent from the tomb?" and "Was Jesus seen alive after His death on the cross?"
Original Air Date: April 2, 2021

Excerpt:

Lee Strobel: Of all human beings who’ve ever lived in history, the disciples were in a unique position, they were there. They encountered personally the resurrected Jesus. They knew for a fact, is this a lie or is it the truth? And knowing it was a truth, they were willing to die for that proclamation. That tells me something about the veracity of their claims.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: Well, this Easter weekend, I wonder if you can celebrate with absolute confidence that Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. We want to give you some reasons to believe today on Focus on The Family with your host Focus president Jim Daly, and I’m John Fuller.

Jim Daly: John, we have a great message from pastor Lee Strobel today, detailing the facts surrounding the events that we commemorate this weekend. From today, uh, Good Friday through Easter Sunday. As many of you know, Lee is a bestselling author and he’s the founding director of the Lee Strobel Center For Evangelism And Applied Apologetics at Colorado Christian University, right up the road.

John: Yeah, it’s a great place. And we’re so glad to have Lee today, uh, on this broadcast. This content is included in Lee’s book, The Case For Easter, and we’ve got copies of that at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast. And here’s Lee Strobel speaking at Passion City Church in Atlanta on today’s episode of Focus on The Family, and we’re picking up right after his opening remarks.

Lee: I’m just going to do something simple. I’m just going to tell you a story, it’s a true story. It’s my story. It’s a story that begins in atheism, because I decided at a rather young age that God does not and cannot exist. I mean, uh, I thought that God didn’t create people, but people created God. Why? Because they’re afraid of death. So, they made up this idea of heaven and an afterlife to make themselves feel better about dying. That’s what I thought. I, I just thought (laughs) the mere concept of an all loving, all knowing, all powerful creator of the universe, come on, it’s crazy. Wasn’t even worth my time to check out. Now, granted, I’m a skeptical person, sort of in my DNA. You know, my background’s in journalism and law. You can imagine, you put those two things together, what kind of a jerk… Skeptic. (laughs) What kind of a skeptic that you get?

I was legal editor of the Chicago Tribune Newspaper. And we used to pride ourselves on our skepticism. You know, we wouldn’t accept anybody’s word at face value. You always, always wanted to try to get two sources to confirm a fact before we print it in the newspaper. So, no kidding, we had a sign in our newsroom that said, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” (laughs) How do you know? Maybe she’s lying. Got any proof? Got anything to back that up? And that’s okay. That’s all right. You want journalists to be skeptical, don’t you? Sometimes don’t you wish they were more skeptical than they are? But my problem was that my skepticism bubbled over into cynicism and it cemented me into my atheism.

Now, because I had no belief in God, I really lacked a moral framework for my life. And I’m not saying all atheist think this way, I’m just telling you the way I looked at the world. I tend to be logic, like I tend to be rational. So I said, okay, if there is no God, if there is no heaven, if there is no hell, if there is no judgment, if there is no ultimate accountability then the most logical way for me to live my life would be as a hedonist, someone who just pursues pleasure. And that’s what I did. So, I lived a very immoral, and drunken, and profane, and narcissistic, self-absorbed, really self-destructive in a lot of ways, that was my life. What people saw was me winning awards for investigative reporting. What they didn’t see was the other side, which was me literally drunk in the snow, in an alley on Saturday night.

I had so much rage inside of me, so much anger. And if you asked me back then, “What’s the deal? Why, why the anger?” I couldn’t have told you. But looking back, it’s clear what it was. I was always after the perfect high, you know, I was always after the ultimate experience of pleasure. But guess what? Everything let me down. Nothing lived up to the hype. So, I had a lot of rage. I remember once Leslie and I got in an argument and our, our little daughter was there, and I had so much rage I just blew up. And I remember I reared back, and I kicked a hole right through our living room wall. And my daughter’s crying and Leslie’s crying. It was like, hey, it was just another day in the Strobel house.

In fact, I’m going to tell you the ugliest thing about me, which is my little daughter Alison was just a toddler. If she was alone in the living room, playing with some blocks toys or whatever, and she would hear me come home from work through the front door, her natural reaction was just to gather her toys and go in a room and shut the door. “Is he going to be drunk again? Is he going to be yelling and screaming and kicking holes in walls?” “At least it’s nice and quiet in here.” Friends that is the ugliest truth about me. Leslie was agnostic. She didn’t know what to think about God. And if you’ve seen the movie On Our Life, which is on Netflix, by the way, so it’s free, um, (laughs) you’ll know what happened. Uh, it was through the, uh, relationship that Leslie developed with a Christian, uh, woman who was a nurse, uh, who shared the gospel with her, who brought her to church. And after many months of checking things out, Leslie came up to me and said, “Lee, I made a big decision in my life.” I said, “What?” She said, “I decided to become a follower of Jesus Christ.”

And I thought, oh no, you know for an atheist this is the worst news you can get, who knew what she was going to turn into, right? Some Holy rollers or something. I didn’t know. All I knew was this wasn’t part of the deal. It’s not what I signed up for. First word that went through my mind, divorce. But I stuck around and, and what (laughs) a couple of things happened. Uh, on the positive side, um, there were a lot of changes in Leslie and her character and the way she related to me and the kids, they were winsome and they were attractive and, and kind of pull me towards faith. But at the same time, I wanted our old life back. I wanted the old Leslie back. And so, I, I thought, what can I do to get her out of this cult that she’s got involved in? And I thought, well, I got a good idea. I’ll just disprove Christianity, ’cause then I’ll get her out of this cult, and we can go back to our life the way it was.

And so, I thought, how do I do that? How do you disprove Christianity? Well, actually, I thought this has got to be pretty easy. I think I can do it in a weekend. (laughs) And here’s maybe a three-day weekend. Y’all okay. But because I knew the key to everything is the resurrection of Jesus. Why? Because Jesus, in a variety of different ways, directly and indirectly made transcendent and messianic and divine claims about himself. He claimed to be the son of God. At one point, he gets up before a group, John 10, verse 30, and he says, “I and the Father are one.” And the word in Greek there for one it’s not masculine it’s neuter, which means Jesus was not saying I and the father are the same person, he was saying, “I and the father are the same thing. We’re one in nature. We’re one in essence.” And how did the audience understand what he was saying? They picked up stones to kill him and said, “Well, you, you’re just a man. And you’re claiming to be God.”

So, Jesus claimed to be the son of God. But so, I could claim to be the son of God. You could claim to be God, anybody can claim to be God. But if Jesus claimed to be God, died, and then three days later rose from the dead, that’s pretty good evidence he’s telling the truth, right? That’s why the resurrection is the linchpin of the Christian faith. That’s why the apostle Paul says in first Corinthians 15 verse 17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile. You’re still in your sins.” What was he saying? He was saying, look, Christianity is an investigatable faith. And if you investigate it and you find that the resurrection is not an actual historical event, you are fully justified in walking away from the faith. That’s how bold he was.

Well, I was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. I’ve seen plenty of dead bodies. I’ve not seen any of them coming back to life. And so, I thought I can easily disprove that Jesus returned from the dead. And so, I want to kind of talk about what I discovered during what turned out to be a nearly two-year investigation into the minutia of the resurrection of Jesus, into the historical data. Now I’m going to organize the data for the resurrection, using four words that begin with the letter E, that way it gives you a framework. And the reason I might do this is, um, a couple of reasons. Some of you may be like I was, you know, maybe a friend brought you today, you’re not sure about this Christianity stuff. And so, for you, I hope these four Es give you something to think about, about whether or not this is based on fairytales, or make-believe wishful thinking, or actual historical truth.

And then for those of us who are followers of Jesus, you know, 1Peter 3:15 says, “That we are always been prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks us to give the reason for the hope that we have and to do it gently and respectfully.” And so, this will give you a framework that you can always remember if anybody asks you, why should I believe Christianity is true? You can say, let me tell you about the four Es. So, what are the four Es? I want to emphasize though, when I did this investigation, I was a skeptic. So, I did not give the New Testament any special credence. Didn’t consider it to be inerrant, inspired, the word of God I do now, but I was a skeptic then. But I had to accept the New Testament for what an undeniably is, which is a set of ancient historical writings. And I knew just as you can investigate any ancient writings, whether they’re by Suetonius or Tacitus or Josephus, you can take those same investigative techniques and apply them to the historical record for the resurrection to try to come to a verdict is Christianity true?

And so that’s what I did for a year and nine months in my investigation. So, what are the four Es that summarize the evidence for the resurrection? The first E stands for the word execution, that Jesus was dead after being crucified. And I learned very quickly as I did my investigation, there is no dispute among scholars in the field, and I’m not just talking about Christian scholars, I’m talking about the wide range of scholarship around the planet. There is virtually no dispute among ancient historians that Jesus was dead after being crucified under Pontius Pilot. Why? Because when we study ancient history, we’re lucky if we get one or maybe two sources that confirm a fact, and yet for the death of Jesus, we not only have multiple early first century accounts in the records that are contained in the New Testament, we’ve also got five ancient sources outside the Bible confirming and corroborating his death.

We have Josephus a first century Jewish historian to work for the Romans. Tacitus, another early historian. Mara bar Serapion, Lucian, even the Jewish Talmud admits that Jesus was executed. In fact, no less of an authority than the peer reviewed scientific medical journal of the American Medical Association conducted an investigation into the evidence for the death of Jesus. Let me quote to you their conclusion. Quote, “Clearly the weight of the historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead even before the wound to His side was inflicted.”

John: This is Focus on The Family and you’re listening to Lee Strobel. And we do have a CD of this program with additional content, as well as Lee’s book The Case For Easter. It’s all available at focusonthefamily.com/broadcast or call us on Monday, our number is 800, the letter A, and the word FAMILY. Let’s go ahead and return now to more from Pastor Lee Strobel.

Lee: The first E is for execution, Jesus was dead. The second E, I think is the most fascinating, stands for the word early. We have early accounts or early reports that Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, reports had come virtually immediately after his death. Why is that important? Because like a lot of skeptics, I used to think that the resurrection of Jesus was a legend, but what I learned decimates the claim that the resurrection is merely a legend. Follow me on this. I think this is fascinating. We have preserved for us a creed of the earliest Christians. In other words, right there in the first century itself, these Christians would rally around this creed based on facts that they knew to be true. Now, this creed contains the essence of Christianity, it says Jesus died. Why? For our sins. He was buried. And the third day he rose from the dead. And then it mentioned some specific names of eyewitnesses and groups of eyewitnesses to whom he appeared, appeared, including opponents and skeptics.

Now what’s important about this creed is how immediately it developed after the death of Jesus. Remember we said it took time for legend to develop. Well, we can date this creed. How? Because the apostle Paul preserved it for us. He wrote a letter about 22 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. He writes a letter to the church in Corinth. We call it First Corinthians. If you want to look up the creed later, 1Corinthians:15, starting at verse three. So, he writes us a letter 22 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. And in the context of how he writes it, it suggests that he had already given him this creed on an earlier visit. And he was just repeating it in the letter. So, we can date the creed confidently to within 20 years of the death of Jesus.

Now we could stop there. And that would be very impressive historically speaking. When you consider the first two biographies of Alexander the Great by Arion and Plutarch written 400 years after his life and they’re generally considered reliable. So, 20 years is pretty good, but we can go back earlier. How? Because we know that, that Paul used to be Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor, a hater of Christians. One to three years after the death of Jesus, he’s on the road to Damascus, boom, he has this encounter with the risen Christ. He becomes the apostle Paul. Immediately, he goes into Damascus and he meets with some apostles. Now, many scholars say this is when the apostles gave him this creed that he later shared with the church in Corinth. Other scholars say, wait a minute, it may have been three years later. Three years later, Paul goes to Jerusalem and he meets for 15 days with two eyewitnesses to the resurrection who are named in the creed, Peter and James.

And the Greek word that Paul uses in Galatians to describe this 15-day meeting, history say, suggests that this was an investigative inquiry. They’re checking each other out. What did you know? What did you see? What you experienced? They’re checking each other out. Many scholars say this is when Paul was given the creed by two eyewitnesses named in the creed. But either way, this means within one to six years after the death of Jesus, this creed is already in existence and therefore the beliefs that make up this creed go back even earlier, virtually to the cross itself. So, friends, the point is there is no huge time gap between the death of Jesus and the later development of a legend that he rose from the dead. We got a news flash goes right back to the beginning. In fact, nowhere ever in history do we ever see a legend developing that fast and wiping out a solid core of historical truth.

And that’s not the only early report we’ve got. We’ve got others in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, the book of Acts, elsewhere in the Epistles that were all circulating during the lifetimes of Jesus’ contemporaries, who would have been all too happy to point out the errors if they were making this stuff up. Friends, we got an execution. Jesus was dead. We have reports of his resurrection that are so early that you can’t write them off as being a legend, but that’s not all we’ve got. We’ve got a third word that begins with the letter E, it’s the word empty. We have an empty tomb. The historical record tells us that Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea, remember of the Jewish council? It was sealed. Matthew tells us it’s guarded, and yet it’s discovered empty that first Easter morning. Now, some, um, critics believe as I used to believe that wait a minute, I’ll tell you why the tomb is empty. The body was never really in it. Don’t you know, they didn’t bury crucifixion victims. They left them on the cross to be eaten by birds or they threw them to the dogs. They, they didn’t allow them to be buried. That’s why the tomb was empty.

Well, wait a minute, I checked it out. What did I find? I found that when you read the Digesta, which is a summary of the Roman law and procedure from the first century, it specifically says that crucifixion victims, execution victims, can be buried. Not only that, we have in 1968, the remains of a crucifixion victim who had been buried that were discovered right there some, you know, from the first century he was executed, they found him with the spikes still through his ankle bone. So, we have archeological evidence that yes, some crucifixion victims at least were buried, and we have good reason to believe, that’s what happened with Jesus. So, what happened to him? How did the tomb get empty? You know, how can we, how can we know that it really was empty on that first Easter morning?

Well, we could talk the rest of the day about all the various strands of historical evidence that established the empty tomb, but I’m just going to give you one fact, because to me, this, this is conclusive and here it is. Even the enemies of Jesus admitted that it was empty. How do we know? Because when the disciples began proclaiming that Jesus had risen, what the opponents of Jesus never said was baloney, go open the tomb you’ll find the body. That’s all they needed to say, it would have put the onus on the disciples to prove it. But they didn’t say that. What did they say? We know from sources inside and outside the New Testament that when the disciples began proclaiming that Jesus had risen, what the opponent said was, “Oh, well, um, the disciples stole the body.” Now think about that. What is that? That’s a cover story. They’re implicitly conceding the tomb is empty, they’re just trying to explain how it got empty. So, either explicitly or implicitly, both the supporters and the enemies of Jesus are saying the same thing, that the tomb of Jesus was empty.

I don’t think that’s ever been the question of history. We’re all conceding that. Really the question of history is how did it get empty? That is the question. So, you look at the usual list of suspects, the Romans weren’t about to steal the body, they wanted Jesus dead. The Jewish leaders of the day weren’t about to steal the body they wanted Jesus to stay dead. The disciples weren’t about to steal the body, they didn’t have a motive, they didn’t have the means, they didn’t have the opportunity. I think the best explanation for the tomb being empty is that Jesus physically returned from the dead, especially when we combine it with the fourth word that begins with the letter E which is the word eye witnesses. Not only was Jesus’ tomb discovered empty, but over a period of time, Jesus appears alive in a dozen different instances to more than 515 people. Uh, people, uh, talked to him, they touched him, they ate with him.

And think of this, remember we said earlier, we’re lucky in ancient history if we have one or two sources that confirm a fact. Well get this, for the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus, we have no fewer than nine ancient sources inside and outside the New Testament, confirming and corroborating the conviction of the disciples that they encountered the resurrected Jesus. Friends, that is an avalanche of historical data. And of course, the historical record tells us this experience revolutionized the lives of the disciples. I mean, after Jesus is put to death, they’re afraid they’re going to get executed. They go into hiding. They’re going to go back to the fishing business. And yet history undeniably tells us just a few weeks later in the very same city where Jesus had been executed, these once cowardly disciples are now proclaiming with boldness that Jesus not only claimed to be the son of God, he backed up that claim by returning from the dead, and they were willing to proclaim that message to their deaths.

Now, how some of the disciples actually die, gets a little cloudy in ancient history, but that’s not my point. My point is their willingness to die. Why were they willing to do that? Because they saw on CNN that Jesus had risen? No. Cause they read it in the New York Times? No. Because a Sunday school teacher told them? No. Cause they were there. Of all human beings who’ve ever lived in history, the disciples were in a unique position, they were there. They encountered personally the resurrected Jesus. They knew for a fact, is this a lie or is it the truth? And knowing it was the truth, they were willing to die for that proclamation. That tells me something about the veracity of their claims.

Friends, I spent almost two years of my life investigating the minutia historically around the resurrection of Jesus. And it all came down to a Sunday afternoon and I realized, you know, at some point every juror needs to reach a verdict. And I thought, you know what the evidence is in. I’m not… After two years, I don’t think I’m going to find some news flash, something I missed. So, I said, I got to reach a verdict. So, I sat down with all the evidence I had encountered over this two years, it was massive volumes of material and I’m kind of sorting through it. And then I stopped and wait a second. And I kind of stepped back and said, you know, in light of the avalanche of evidence, that points so powerfully toward the truth of Christianity, I realized it would take more faith to maintain my atheism than to become a Christian.

Audience: (Applause)

Lee: I mean, that was my conclusion. It was like the scales just tipped like this. And I realized based on the historical data, I was convinced, Jesus not only claimed to be the son of God, He backed up that claim by returning from the dead. And then, you know how I felt? I kind of felt let down. I did. I, I thought it’s been two years, shouldn’t uh, shouldn’t an angel appear about now. I mean, that would be cool. Something, an earthquake would be great. Some dramatic. I was kind of let down after two years, is that it? Is that it? But then I read a verse, John 1:12 says, “But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name.”

And I realized, okay, believing the evidence, concluding, reaching the verdict that Jesus claimed to be the son of God, backed it up by returning from the dead, that’s great, that’s important, it’s not enough. It’s not enough. Believe plus receive. I had to receive. Receive what? Receive this free gift of forgiveness and eternal life that Jesus purchased for me on the cross when he died as my substitute to pay for all of my sin. And when I would receive this free gift of his grace, then I would become a child of God. And so, I got on my knees and I poured out a confession of a lifetime of immorality that would absolutely curl your hair. And at that moment I received complete and total forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and I became a child of God.

Audience: (Applause)

John: Well, what a great message from Lee Strobel today on this edition of Focus on The Family.

Jim: Wow, John, I always love it when biblical accounts are backed up by non-religious sources. And Lee Strobel did such a great job sharing some of those today. And if you’re wishing you could explain this content to a friend, the way Lee just did, don’t worry, it’s all in his book, The Case For Easter. And we’ll send that out to you for a donation of any amount as you support the ministry here at Focus on The Family. If you can’t afford it, we’ll get it out to you. We’ll trust others will cover the cost because this is getting the word of God out to people and that’s what I’m excited about. You might not know this, but over the last year, over 800 people each and every day have dedicated or rededicated their lives to Jesus Christ through Focus on The Family. And that’s the most important thing that we do here. It’s the, it’s the foundation for everything. So please donate if you can so that can reach even more families in Christ together.

John: Yeah. Get your copy of The Case For Easter when you stop by focusonthefamily.com/broadcast, or because we’re closed for this holiday weekend, give us a call on Monday, our numbers 800-A- FAMILY. And as I mentioned earlier, we do have a CD of this message from Lee, it’s got quite a bit of additional content. It’d make a great resource for you to listen together as a family or to share with a friend. Have a terrific and rich, meaningful Easter weekend, and be sure to join us on Monday. To learn how to be more effective in sharing your faith with others.

Teaser:

Dr. Mike Bechtle: Real relationships is where things happen. And anytime I look at a person as a project where I need to find a way to present the gospel to them say, I’m focusing on that outcome, but I’m not really having a relationship with them.

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