One of the things I appreciate about my church family is that it is full of students of the Bible who eagerly pour over the text of Scripture, not wanting to miss anything that God is saying, and wanting to understand it. That leads to me getting great questions from our members.
Recently I was asked about the 500 witnesses who saw the risen Christ. How specifically do they testify of the resurrection?
The question refers to the apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 15,
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
While we are presently not in any possessions of any extant written extra biblical testimonials from any of these 500 people, (Actually Paul says more than 500) this does not mean that their inclusion in Paul’s letter is unimportant. So let’s consider these witnesses.
We know very little about them. We know they were Christians because he calls them “brothers.”
We also know that this would have taken place very early. Paul probably wrote 1 Corinthians in the early to mid 50’s AD. Obviously, Jesus’ appearance to the 500 would have happened earlier than the writing of 1 Corinthians.
It appears that Paul gives us a rough order of the resurrection appearances, beginning with the appearance to Peter and the disciples and concluding with the appearance to Paul. Between those appearances, Jesus revealed Himself to these more than 500 brothers. So this event would have happened before Paul’s Damascus Road experience. Paul’s conversion was probably around 33 or 34 AD, which means the 500 would have witnessed the resurrected Jesus shortly after He emerged from the tomb. So this event would have been roughly 20 years prior to Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians. That’s not a long time, and that’s why, according to Paul, most of these people were still alive at the time of his writing, “though some had fallen asleep.”
The significance of this is that there was ample opportunity for anyone who questioned this to go and talk to the witnesses. Paul would have been a fool to put that number out there, especially such a large number, if he was just fabricating a story. That would have completely opened him up to being exposed as a fraud. John Piper explains,
“What makes this so relevant is that this was written to Greeks who were skeptical of such claims when many of these witnesses were still alive. So it was a risky claim if it could be disproved by a little firsthand research.”
But Paul’s not worried about that because he knows he’s telling the truth.
Interestingly, Paul says that Jesus appeared to more than 500 brothers at one time. The hallucination theory has been thrown out there before regarding why people saw Jesus. The problem is that hallucinations are very personal, individual experiences. People don’t “share” hallucinations anymore than they share dreams. To have hundreds of people see the same mirage is more unbelievable than the notion that they saw the risen Jesus.
Again, the number of people that Paul throws out there is shockingly large. If he’s making the story up, it would be much safer to make that number much, much lower or not give a number at all. The best explanation for why Paul would do something like that is simply because he’s recording what actually happened.
Paul is saying to the Corinthian readers, “Listen, the resurrection is a real, historical event. This isn’t a fabrication. This is not just based on my testimony. There are literally hundreds of people who can corroborate my testimony.”
Now, I can’t specifically tell you how these 500 testified of the resurrection. We have no information about them outside of this one reference by Paul. On the other hand, I can tell you what they testified and continue to testify.
The value of these 500 witnesses back then was that this was part of Paul’s strong case for the importance of the historicity of the resurrection. The value of the 500 witnesses to us today is that Paul’s argument emphasizes the most important truth about the resurrection. That it’s real and literal and that it’s reality matters! Paul is not simply preaching some sort of nebulous, ambiguous, metaphorical resurrection. He’s preaching something very specific. He’s claiming that after three days in a tomb, a body that was once a corpse began to have life flow through it again. A heart that had been still all weekend long now was beating again. A brain that was completely shut down began to function again. Lungs began to operate, inhaling and exhaling the Judean air. A body that was carried into the tomb by others, now exited the tomb under it’s own power. And this flesh and bone body with Galilean features was actually perceived through the physical senses of other people, over 500 people.
There are many liberal “Christian” scholars and theologians who claim to have some sort of belief in the Bible and Christianity on the one hand, but on the other hand deny that Jesus literally and physically rose from the grave. The importance of the resurrection story, they say, is that Jesus, though still dead, continues to live on in our hearts and our memories. Jesus served as an example of love and the resurrection story, though just a story, contains true moral and inspirational principals for our lives today. I just read the following on a website dedicated to “Progressive Christianity.”
” There are many alternative ways to view the resurrection in a spiritual light, or a purely mythical light to convey a lesson, or a metaphorical light of the rebirth we all have when we give of ourselves for others. There are so many fulfilling, inclusive, and enlightening ways to experience Easter in the light of Christ once we move beyond the idea of a physical resurrection.”
It is amazing to me the amount of mental and rhetorical gymnastics “progressive Christians” go through to give meaning to a resurrection that wasn’t really a resurrection.
However, if the bodily resurrection of Christ did not occur, then what’s the point of Paul listing a series of witnesses who really saw the risen Lord? If the resurrection of Jesus is just a fairy tale that can provide us with some moral inspiration and encouragement, then he doesn’t need to concern himself with the historicity of the resurrection and it’s over 500 witnesses. But the reason why Paul emphasizes witnesses is because he is trying to tell us that whether or not the resurrection is literal actually does matter.
Paul, seeming to be speaking to liberal, progressive “Christians” today, identifies the core problem of their belief with laser precision.
Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. (1 Corinthians 15:12-15)
But it gets worse. If there is not a literal resurrection, if there was a mass hallucination among over 500 people, if the disciples concocted some bizarre story about a resurrection or were simply trying to say that Jesus, though dead, lives in our hearts…. if that’s the point, then we’re all doomed. Paul goes on to say,
…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:17-19)
In other words, if the “progressives” are right, you’re in Hell. Game over. Death is still victorious which means death is your destiny because your sins haven’t been dealt with. If Christ is still in the grave it proves that He’s a sinner just like the rest of us because the wages of sin is death. He can’t pay for our sins if He himself has sin. If there’s no payment for sin, then we’ll all pay for it in Hell.
This is why Paul is eager to lay down a case for the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ. Whether or not you’re forgiven hinges on it.
Thankfully, the liberal scholars in academia are dead wrong.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. (1 Corinthians 15:20-28)
There is a lot at stake in whether or not the resurrection is real. There is much riding on whether or not those 500 witnesses, and Paul, and the disciples, are right. It’s not just heaven for you that’s at stake. It’s a New Creation, a restored universe, an overthrow of demonic, AntiChrist rulers and authorities and powers, and a Cosmos that is in subjugation to Him. Whether or not these things will happen hinges on whether the resurrection has happened. We should thank God for these 500+ witnesses. They remind us of the significance of the reality of the resurrection, and point us forward to the reality of what is to come at the end of the age.
While the people of Paul’s day could talk to the 500 eyewitnesses for evidence of the reality of the resurrection, we don’t have their specific testimony today. But we have a better word. We have the words of Jesus Himself. We have the promises of a Man from Nazareth who, during His earthly ministry, got everything right. He accurately predicted what would happen to Him. He predicted that one of His disciples would deny Him down to the hour. He predicted all His disciples would abandon Him. He prophesied His betrayal, His arrest, and even the exact manner that He would die. He predicted that three days later the tomb would be unoccupied. There was nothing that came from His lips that proved to be false. He said things would happen, and they happened. There is only one being in the universe who can speak and all things happen according to His Word. If He has been thus reliable so far, how foolish we would be to dismiss what He says about what is to come,
“…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matthew 26:64)
If His resurrection is real, literal, and physical, so will be His return. And at the end of the age, all of mankind will stand before this Man, and real knees will bow and real tongues will confess that Jesus Christ is really Lord to the glory of God the Father. Praise God that the tomb is empty and that Jesus did not stay dead!
Grace and Peace,