By Chuck Griffin
1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (NRSV)
Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you—unless you have come to believe in vain.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and 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 and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
People who doubt the validity of the core Christian message often ask something along these lines: “Okay, what proof do you have other than the Bible?”
The question, however, dodges a consideration of the key evidence. We’ve gotten used to the Bible’s existence, treating its details as if they need to be re-proven. But the Bible in and of itself is astonishing in regard to what it offers in the form of witness accounts and narratives generated by people who had direct access to those witnesses.
Yes, the accounts differ somewhat in detail, but oddly enough, those differences should encourage rather than discourage us.
To recapture how astonishing the Bible is, we first have to remember that it is not one document. Instead, it is a library of writings, tied together with some common themes: God is outside all things and the creator of all things; creation turned against God; God still loved his creation so much he immediately went to work to bring it back into conformity with his will; Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection mark how the work ultimately is completed.
Thought Experiment: An Alternate Timeline
Imagine all these texts had been completely lost. Centuries later, in our day, they are found sealed in clay jars. After a long period of validation, translation and sorting, I think the world would be amazed upon their publication at the radical ideas within, ideas including a loving God who teaches deep, abiding forgiveness.
They also would be astonished at the sheer number of documents and the millennia they span—39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, assuming we were to count and sort them like Protestants.
And yes, thoughtful people would be encouraged by the minor differences in the accounts, in particular the accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These variations would be clear evidence the documents were written from different perspectives, with no collusion by conspiratorial authors.
The most intriguing revelation, however, would be the repeated, unchanging assertions in the gospels. God came among us in flesh and died for our sins. He was buried, he was raised from the dead, and then he was seen by a remarkable number of witnesses. Who knows, a whole new religion might form around these ideas.
The Joy of Reality
We are so blessed to have the story of Christ before us now, scrupulously translated and searchable, with nearly 2,000 years of interpretive work to aid us. In fact, we would be fools to ignore what is available.
About two decades after Christ’s death and resurrection, Paul recorded in 1 Corinthians the progressive way the risen Jesus availed himself to witnesses before ascending into heaven. Focusing first on the male witnesses—in Paul’s day, only men had legal standing—he went on to note how eventually more than 500 women and men saw and interacted with the risen Christ. Many of them remained alive in Paul’s day, available to repeat their testimony!
Not that we need absolute proof. We do, after all, practice a religion based on faith. As Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
And yet, to believe, it helps to have astonishing evidence we can initially trust, a word from witnesses who seemed to have nothing but our best interests in mind.
The Bible is that evidence.
Lord, may we grow in our faith as we trust the witnesses you have given us. Amen.