In arresting and crucifying Jesus, the Roman and Jewish leaders delivered a very clear message — challenges to their authority would not be tolerated!
Understandably, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (shown in the above photo), Jesus’ disciples were overcome with fear and fled. Astonishingly, within weeks, these same men were suddenly seen in public boldly preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. For the rest of their lives, despite ongoing and severe persecution, every one of the remaining 11 original disciples stayed faithful to the gospel and boldly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection. Ten of the remaining 11 original disciples died as martyrs; the apostle John died after living in exile on the Isle of Patmos.
Christian apologists are quick to admit neither a transformed life or even a person’s willingness to die for their beliefs proves the person’s beliefs are true; however, a transformed life and/or a willingness to die for one’s beliefs is compelling evidence the person believes them to be true. In the case of Jesus’ disciples, Christian apologists maintain that except for the disciples actually seeing the resurrected Jesus, it is very difficult to account for the dramatic change in all of their lives from fearful fleers to faithful followers despite enduring lifelong persecution and eventual martyrdom.
Summary of the Historical Evidence of the Transformation in the Lives of Jesus’ Disciples
All of Jesus’ disciples left their families, homes and professions to follow Jesus. Over the next three years the disciples came to believe Jesus was the promised Messiah — the Christ (Matt. 16:13-17, Matt. 27:15-17, Mark 8:27-29). On Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem on a donkey (Matt. 21:7-9, Mark 11:7-10, Luke 19:33–38, John 12:12-15), as Zechariah had prophesied the Messiah would do (see, Zech. 9:9). People in Jerusalem were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel.” The Jews at that time were looking for a leader to free them from their Roman oppressors and Jesus’ disciples had every reason to believe Jesus would become the political and/or military leader the Jews expected the Messiah to be. However, shortly after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, instead of developing political or military strategies or calling the Jews to join a campaign to free Israel from their Roman oppressors, Jesus began doing and saying things which indicated he had no intention of becoming a political or military leader:
Jesus washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:8) [Note: At that time and place in history, the act of washing feet was relegated solely to servants and wasn’t something any prominent Jewish man, much less a rising political or military figure, would do].
Jesus started talking about having to die (John 12:20-36)
Jesus told the disciples he was going away and where he was going they could not go (John 13:33; John 16:5-11)
Jesus talked about going to heaven to prepare a place for them (John 14:1-3)
Jesus told the disciples they would be hated and persecuted by the world (John 16:1-2)
Within a week of entering Jerusalem and being hailed a king, all of Jesus’ disciples deserted him in one form or another. Judas Iscariot was the first to desert. Apparently, when Judas realized Jesus wasn’t planning to become a political or military leader, Judas decided to make the best deal he could with the Jewish leaders who were in power. For 30 pieces of silver (Matt. 27:3), Judas betrayed Jesus by revealing where Jesus could be found at night so the Jewish leaders could have Jesus arrested without contending with the large crowds of people who were following Jesus and hailing him as a king.
When Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the remaining 11 original disciples fled in fear (Matt. 26:56; Mark 14:50). Peter aka Cephas did follow Jesus at a distance as Jesus was escorted back to Jerusalem to be put on trial by the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:57-58, Mark 14:54, Luke 22:54, John 18:15); however, while Jesus was on trial, Peter stayed outside in the courtyard and denied even knowing Jesus on three occasions (John 18:15-27; Mark 14:66-72). The disciple John was the only disciple who attended Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin and the only disciple present at Jesus’ crucifixion (John 18:15-16; John 19:25-26).
The hopes of Jesus’ disciples were completely dashed when Jesus was condemned as a religious blasphemer by the Sanhedrin and political traitor by the Romans. Jesus’ execution by way of crucifixion was an especially humiliating and agonizing way to die (more>>) and, for good reason, the disciples were in great fear for their lives (John 20:19). [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 82 (1997)]
Astonishingly, within weeks, the lives of all the disciples (except Judas Iscariot who committed suicide) were dramatically transformed from fearful fleers who abandoned Jesus at his greatest time of need to faithful followers willing to give up everything, including their own lives, to proclaim the truth of the gospel. Instead of being afraid to be seen together or identified as Christ followers, all of the remaining 11 original disciples began preaching Jesus had been raised from the dead.
The bold proclamations of the disciples weren’t made in secret but were made publicly in Jerusalem the very same city where Jesus had been arrested, convicted and crucified as a political traitor and religious blasphemer:
[The resurrection] was the subject of the apostle Peter’s first sermon given to thousands of people in Jerusalem for Pentecost (see, Acts 2:1, 14, 22-40) and his next sermon given at the Jewish temple (see, Acts 3:1, 14, 26).
Acts 2:23-24, 32 (ESV)
” … this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
Acts 3:13-15 (ESV)
“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
The apostles boldly proclaimed Jesus’ resurrection before the same Jewish leaders who were responsible for having Christ prosecuted and crucified (see, Acts 3:1-15, 3:25-4:33, 5:17-42). [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 656 (1999)] Even after the apostle Peter and apostle John were arrested by the Jewish leaders and warned to stop preaching in the name of Jesus, they refused.
Acts 4:5-8, 10-13, 18-20 (ESV)
“…their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem….And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this? [referring to the healing of a lame man]” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, …let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished….So they called [Peter and John] and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”
After Peter and John were beaten and released, the first thing they did was to gather with other Believers and pray God would give them even more courage to proclaim the gospel (Acts 4:23-29)
After preaching the gospel in Solomon’s Colonade (located in the temple), Caiaphas had all the disciples (referred to as apostles) thrown in jail. [Note: Caiaphas was the High Priest who condemned Jesus (see, Matt. 26:57, 62-66, Mark 14:60-64, Luke 22:66-71]. But, as soon as the disciples were released, they once again began preaching in the name of Jesus. They were taken back into custody, personally chastised by Caiaphas and beaten; nevertheless, they once again began preaching the gospel on a daily basis in the temple court yard and from house to house (Acts 5:40-42).
Everywhere and with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:33) which was considered so foundational to the Christian faith that being a witness to the resurrected Jesus was a condition for being an apostle (Acts 1:22; 1 Cor. 9:1).
Despite ongoing persecution, early Christians “not only maintained their belief but quickly grew in number. If what they testified to was not true, they had every reason and opportunity to give it up. But they did not.” [Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 656 (1999)] All but one of the remaining 11 original disciples died a martyr and not one of them abandoned the Christian faith. Something changed their outlook; something transformed their lives. [See, Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 185 (1994); Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 104-105 (1958)] “The change in [the disciples’] lives from fear to faith, despair to confidence, confusion to certitude, runaway cowardice to steadfast boldness under threat and persecution, not only proves their sincerity but testifies to some powerful cause of it.” (emphasis added.) [Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 185 (1994)]
As noted by Gary Habermas, virtually all scholars concede Jesus’ disciples genuinely thought they had seen the risen Jesus and Jesus’ resurrection was at the center of their faith. [Gary Habermas, “12 Ordinary Men”, TBN (aired /31/10)] In the view of Christian apologists, nothing explains the disciples’ belief that Jesus had been resurrected from the dead and the sudden, dramatic transformation in their lives except that they were absolutely convinced Jesus had been resurrected from the dead by firsthand evidence including:
- Seeing Jesus’ empty tomb and discarded grave clothes (Luke 24:12; John 20:3-7)
- Seeing the resurrected Jesus on multiple occasions (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-19; Luke 24:34, 36-40, 50-52; John 20:19-21:14; Acts 1:4-9; 1 Cor. 15:5-7)
- Seeing and/or touching the scars left in Jesus’ hands and feet from the nails used to affix his body to the cross and the scar in his side from having a spear thrust into him (Luke 24:39-40; John 20:20, 27)
- Spending time with the resurrected Jesus over the 40 day period following the resurrection while he taught them about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3; Acts 10:42)
- Seeing the resurrected Jesus ascend to heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:4-9)
Upon Jesus’ arrest, the disciples fled in fear as their beloved friend and leader was publicly condemned as a blasphemer by the Jewish religious leaders and crucified as a political rebel by the Romans. Unexpectedly, the disciples suddenly burst back onto the scene preaching the resurrection with great exuberance and joy which continued throughout their lives despite great persecution. Something unquestionably happened to these men. The disciples explained they had seen the resurrected Jesus. [See, Gary Habermas, “12 Ordinary Men”, TBN (aired 3/31/10)]
Alternative Explanations Offered by Skeptics to Explain the Transformation in the Lives of the Disciples
In response to the assertion the resurrection best explains the dramatic change in the lives of the disciples from fearful fleers to faithful followers (even unto death), skeptics offer the following alternative explanations:
- After their leader died, the disciples had to commit their lives to something and chose to believe Jesus had risen from the dead (skip to >>).
- Since many people’s lives have been transformed by things less spectacular than a resurrection, there is no reason to attribute the transformation in the lives of Jesus’ disciples to a supposed resurrection (skip to >>)
As set forth below, Christian apologists maintain none of the proposed alternative theories adequately explain the totality of the historical evidence concerning the transformation in the lives of Jesus disciples and none of the theories are rationally compelling. Since Jesus’ resurrection does explain the totality of the evidence, Christian apologists maintain the belief that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead is a rational belief.
Alternative Explanation No. 1
As suggested by skeptics, such as Dr. Peter Adkins, having lost their beloved leader, the twelve simple men who had followed Jesus for three years would have looked for something to commit their lives to and chose to believe their leader had risen from the dead.
Christian apologists respond to such explanations by making the following points:
Rebuttal Point No. 1: Many More than 12 Simple Disciples Became Passionate Christ Followers
Although there is no question the lives of the remaining 11 original disciples were dramatically transformed, it is unfair to paint a picture that it was only those eleven men who became passionate Christ followers:
- Paul fka Saul was a Pharisee and converted to Christianity after an encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the road to Damascus. Paul remained a faithful Christ follower despite having to endure multiple arrests and imprisonments (Acts 16:22-24; Acts 21:27-28:30), multiple beatings (2 Cor. 11:25), a stoning (2 Cor. 11:25, Acts 14:19) and a great deal of other types of persecution for preaching the gospel. He was ultimately beheaded as a martyr. [Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone?, pgs. 133-145 (1958)]
- James the Just was Jesus’ half-brother who was not a believer during the time of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 7:1-10). However, after seeing the resurrected Jesus, he not only became a Christ follower but the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-21; 21:17-18; Gal. 2:9). James’ death as a Christian martyr was documented by the fist century historian, Flavious Josephus. [See, J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, pgs. 178-179 (1987)]
- Acts 2:41 records 3,000 men were converted to Christianity after Peter aka Cephas preached his first sermon in Jerusalem (the very city where Jesus was crucified and buried) on the Day of Pentecost. Acts 4:4 says many others were added to their ranks on a daily basis.
- According to Acts 6:1-5, the number of believers multiplied so quickly that the remaining 11 original disciples were unable to keep up with some of their ministry responsibilities requiring them to appoint seven other men to take over those duties.
- Some of the early Christ followers mentioned by name/title include: 1) Stephen aka Stephan, the first person known to be martyred for being a Christ follower (Acts 6:8-7:60); 2) Barnabas fka Joseph, a Levite and a Cypriot by birth (Acts 4:32-37) and 3) an Ethiopian official (Acts 8:26-38).
As set forth above, thousands of people in Jerusalem (the same city where Jesus was crucified and buried) became Christ followers and embraced the foundational teaching of the early church that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Therefore, it is unfair for skeptics to paint a picture that it was only Jesus’ original core disciples who chose to believe Jesus had been resurrected from the dead because they had to commit their lives to something.
Rebuttal Point No. 2: The Disciples Had Nothing to Gain (and Everything to Lose) by Preaching the Gospel of Jesus’ Resurrection
Jesus had been publicly condemned as a political rebel and religious blasphemer. He had been humiliated, beaten and agonizingly executed by way of crucifixion (more>>). Nevertheless, none of the remaining 11 original disciples (who fled after Jesus’ arrest) returned to their hometowns to earn a living doing what they did before becoming a disciple of Jesus (fishing, tax collecting, etc.) nor did they learn a new trade to support themselves and their families. Rather, within weeks of fleeing in fear, the disciples began to boldly proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ claiming they were witnesses to Jesus having been resurrected from the dead. Having fled as soon as Jesus was arrested and knowing Jesus’ fate once he was taken into custody, it seems that if the disciples needed to commit their lives to something, they could have found something (anything) less life-threatening to commit their lives to other than a dead religious leader whose followers were being arrested, severely persecuted and killed by the same Roman and Jewish leaders responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Either the disciples were so convinced Jesus had been resurrected from the dead that they were willing to endure great persecution and potential martyrdom to spread the news of the gospel or they didn’t really believe it but decided to promote a lie because it brought some kind of secondary gain. However, instead of preaching the gospel bringing the disciples prestige, wealth or social status, they were beaten, stoned, thrown to lions, tortured, crucified, etc. Nevertheless, nothing seemed to deter the disciples from proclaiming the gospel. [See, Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 185 (1994)] The only thing that makes sense is that the disciples were convinced beyond any shadow of doubt they had seen Jesus alive. In fact, as many Christian apologists argue, it is difficult (if not impossible) to account for the unwavering and longstanding conviction of all the disciples if they did not see Jesus alive. [See, Dr. Moyer Hubbard, “12 Ordinary Men”, TBN (aired/31/10)]
Alternative Explanation No. 2
The lives of many people have been dramatically changed due to non-Christian religious or political beliefs and many such people have dedicated their lives to their religious/political beliefs and have even died for those beliefs. Consequently, many skeptics argue neither the fact that the lives of the disciples were transformed nor their willingness to die for their beliefs proves Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
Rebuttal Point No. 1: Although the Transformation in the Lives of the Disciples Doesn’t Prove the Resurrection, it Does Compellingly Establish the Disciples Were Truly Convinced Jesus Had Risen from the Dead and then Question Becomes, “Why Were All of them So Convinced?”
Christian apologists agree that neither a transformed life nor even a person’s willingness to die for their beliefs proves the person’s beliefs are true. However, a transformed life and/or a willingness to die for one’s beliefs is evidence the person truly believes them to be true. If the disciples actually saw Jesus in a resurrected body, their beliefs were true and they knew they were true beyond any doubt. [See, Gary Habermas, the Apologetics Study Bible, “How is the Transformation of Jesus’ Disciples Different from Other Religious Transformations?” pg. 1565 (2007)] Unless the disciples personally experienced something as spectacular as the resurrected Jesus, it seems quite unlikely all of the remaining 11 original disciples would come to so strongly believe Jesus had been resurrected from the dead that they would all chose to endure life-long severe persecution instead of recanting belief in the resurrection or at least just quietly drift away from the faith.
There is no reasonable basis for questioning Jesus’ disciples were absolutely convinced Jesus had been resurrected and given the severe consequences they suffered for that belief, all of them must have had very good reasons for holding on to that belief. The disciples said they had seen the resurrected Jesus and if a skeptic is going to question the explanation the disciples gave for their lives being transformed, the skeptic should provide a viable alternative that reasonably explains the transformation in all of their lives. However, no such alternative explanation has been offered. Spreading the gospel of Jesus’ resurrection did not bring the disciples prestige, wealth or social status; instead, they were beaten, stoned, thrown to lions, tortured, crucified, etc. Yet, nothing was able to stop the disciples from proclaiming the gospel. [See, Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pg. 185 (1994)] The only thing that makes sense is that the disciples were convinced beyond any shadow of doubt they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
As maintained by many Christian apologists, it is difficult (if not impossible) to account for the steadfast and longstanding conviction of the disciples if they did not see the resurrected Jesus. [See, Dr. Moyer Hubbard, “12 Ordinary Men”, TBN (aired/31/10)]
In support of the proposition that belief in Jesus’ resurrection is rational, Christian apologists point to the historical evidence of the dramatic transformation in the lives of all of the remaining 11 original disciples from fearful fleers to faithful followers. Although the transformation in the lives of Jesus’ disciples does not prove Jesus was’ resurrected from the dead, it does convincingly establish the disciples truly believed Jesus had been resurrected from the dead. Moreover, as maintained by Christian apologist’s, except for seeing the resurrected Jesus, nothing adequately accounts for the dramatic change in these men’s lives and, certainly, none of the alternative naturalistic theories offered to explain the transformation in the lives of Jesus’ disciples are rationally compelling.
Since none of the proposed alternative explanations are adequate, Christian apologists maintain it is reasonable to look beyond such alternative explanations for an explanation that adequately explains all the historical evidence, including the explanation that God really did supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead and the disciples were witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.
In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede if God does not exist, then Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. Nevertheless, Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and the following seven independent lines of evidence reasonably establish God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead:
- The resurrection best explains the historical evidence of Jesus being seen alive in a resurrected body on at least twelve (12) separate occasions by more than 500 witnesses, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul) (here>>)
- The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
- The resurrection best explains why Jesus’ disciples were transformed from fearful deserters to faithful followers who endured great persecution and became martyrs for their faith
- The resurrection best explains why even Jewish leaders and skeptics converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified, even though Christianity was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection
- The resurrection best explains why there is no evidence any site was ever venerated as Jesus’ burial site even though it was common practice to venerate the burial sites of religious and political leaders
- The resurrection best explains why the early Church centered its teachings and practices around a supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection instead of something less controversial like Jesus’ moral teachings
- The resurrection best explains the sudden rise and expansion of Christianity so soon after Jesus death even though he had been crucified by the Romans as a political traitor and declared a religious heretic by the Jewish religious leaders
In fact, following a two day debate over the evidence of the resurrection between Dr. Gary Habermas and well-known skeptic, Dr. Anthony Flew, a panel of five philosophers from American universities (including the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 to 1 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with 1 judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges concluded the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” [Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)]. Another of the judges stated:
Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Dr. Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.
[Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)] Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and that he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection but it is intellectually dishonest to write off the resurrection as mere foolishness.
For information on how to know God personally, go here.
© 2011 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: Nov. 23, 2011 / Last Updated: May 14. 2013
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS (Baker Books, 1999)
Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection: Updated Edition (Wipf & Stock Publishers; Updated Edition, 2004)
Gary R. Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pgs. 1621-1622 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)
Gary R. Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “How is the Transformation of Jesus’ Disciples Different from Other Religious Transformations?” pg. 1565 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)
Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)
J.P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Baker Academic, 1987)
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Slideshow Photo: Photograph of the Garden of Gethsemene taken by Mewasul downloaded from www.wikimedia.com which states the image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (CC-BY-SA-3.0)