When followers of Jesus attempt to defend the trust they have placed in the books of the New Testament, they will appeal to scripture. However, the bible says that the mind set on the flesh, e.g., an unregenerate mind, cannot understand spiritual things (Romans 8:6-8). So what exactly is the point of apologetics when applied to the unbeliever? Simply, it is to get them “to think a second time” on the truth of the gospel message with the stumbling stone of an objection as a springboard to present the gospel.
One objection to the message of the gospel is the supposed lack of eyewitness testimony regarding the life of Jesus apart from the New Testament. They often say that if Jesus had actually existed and actually did what is reported in the gospels, then much, much more would have been documented about his life from sources outside the gospel writers. Is this a legitimate objection to counter the facts in the gospels? That will be answered shortly.
According to scripture there were, at one time, a great number of witnesses either to the life, death and resurrection. Luke, who was writing a thoroughly investigated biography of Jesus, opens his account of the life of Jesus with the following:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught (Luke1:1-4, ESV).
Here Luke tells his readers that there were “eyewitnesses” that could be accessed and interviewed in his day. While the apostles got all the attention there were literally hundreds of followers of Jesus that had witnessed his life, death and resurrection. In fact, when the apostles were deciding on whom to select as a replacement for Judas they looked for someone who was a witness to the life of Jesus from His baptism through to His resurrection. There were at least 120 followers of Jesus in the upper room at the time. From those 120, two were selected as being qualified, and eventually Matthias was selected as Judas’ replacement (Acts 1:15-26, ESV).
Not many days later, Peter was empowered by the Holy Spirit to preach to the assembled crowd in Jerusalem. He gave testimony to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; as did the 120 that were with him in the room (Acts chapter 2, ESV).
However, there were not just 120 that were witnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While it is hard to say exactly how many witnesses there were, the Apostle Paul does tell us that there were at least 500 eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he states that “[Jesus] appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:6, ESV).
Now take a moment and think about what Paul just claimed. Paul is saying that there are at least 500 followers of Jesus that saw Him raised from the dead. He is claiming that they can be located and questioned about the resurrection of Jesus. If Paul was lying, then all someone had to do was travel to Palestine and start asking questions. Yet Paul makes the claim on the basis that there are people who can and will substantiate his assertion. This claim is the single most important piece of evidence in and of itself. It is this statement that leads us to believe that many more people experienced the risen Jesus other than an intimate and select few.
You may ask, “So what? These are Christians, and they are biased in favor of the resurrection story. We can’t really trust what they have to say. I want to hear from unbiased sources.” Well, that’s a pretty difficult standard that you have laid out. No one is truly unbiased. Everyone brings their own presuppositions to the table. That said, we do have additional eyewitness accounts. These are unique in that they are hostile eyewitness accounts. In other words, these are accounts from persons who appear to have been enemies of Jesus, the apostles or both. There are non-Jewish accounts that were penned by people that had a vested interest in keeping Christianity from spreading further into the Roman Empire. In addition, there are Jewish accounts of Jesus that are less than flattering, at best, and quite vicious, at worst. We will look at the testimony of these two groups in our next post.
One last thing; keep in mind that while we learn apologetics in order to respond in a rational manner to those that may not understand or have been given incorrect information about the life Jesus. Apologetics will never bring anyone into the kingdom of God; just like it is impossible to “love someone into the kingdom of God.” Only the Holy Spirit can regenerate the heart of stone and transform it into a heart of flesh. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that you not get discouraged by the atheist, skeptic or religious person that disregards your presentation. That is why it is so important to bathe your apologetics in prayer and to have others praying for you as you engage the person.
Ultimately, the goal of apologetics is, as Greg Koukl (host of Stand to Reason) says is to put a stone in the shoe of the person you are talking with. Try to get away from a results based evangelism (which is unbiblical), but get into a planting and watering mindset (1 Cor. 3:6, ESV). This mindset will lead to less frustration on your part, and more reliance on the work of the Holy Spirit and the election of the Father.
That’s it for now. Till next time, grace and peace to you from our God and Father.