Tidings of Comfort and Joy
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ
died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was
raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to
Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five
hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though
some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,
and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
—1 Corinthians 15:3–8
Without the resurrection of Jesus, there is little point in even discussing Christmas. As the apostle Paul put it in a letter to the Corinthian Christians, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Corinthians 15:14). In light of Paul’s words, it is incumbent on Christians to demonstrate that the Christ of Christmas had the power to lay down His life and the power to take it up again, thus demonstrating that He is God in human flesh (cf. John 2:19).
To begin with, liberal and conservative scholars alike concede that after suffering fatal torment, Jesus was buried in the private tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Philosopher William Lane Craig points out that as a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus to death, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be Christian fiction (Mark 15:43). Moreover, Craig notes that Jesus’ burial is substantiated by Mark’s gospel (15:46) and is, therefore, reported far too early to have been the subject of legendary corruption. Indeed, the earliest Jewish response to the resurrection of Christ presupposes the empty tomb (Matthew 28:11–13), and in the centuries following the resurrection, the fact of the empty tomb was forwarded by Jesus’ friends and foes alike. In short, early Christianity could not have survived an identifiable tomb containing the corpse of Christ.1
Furthermore, Jesus gave His disciples many convincing proofs that He had risen from the dead. Paul, for example, points out that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6). It would have been one thing to attribute these supernatural experiences to people who had already died. It was quite another to attribute them to multitudes who were still alive. As the famed New Testament scholar of Cambridge University C. H. Dodd points out, “There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact that most of the five hundred are still alive, unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘The witnesses are there to be questioned.’”2
Finally, what happened as a result of the resurrection is unprecedented in human history. In the span of a few hundred years, a small band of seemingly insignificant believers succeeded in turning an entire empire upside down. While it is conceivable that they would have faced torture, vilification, and even cruel deaths for what they fervently believed to be true, it is inconceivable that they would have been willing to die for what they knew to be a lie. As Dr. Simon Greenleaf, the famous Royal Professor of Law at Harvard, put it: “If it were morally possible for them to have been deceived in this matter, every human motive operated to lead them to discover and avow their error. . . . If then their testimony was not true, there was no possible motive for this fabrication.”3
Given the rock-solid evidence for the central pillar on which Christianity either rises or falls, we can with great certainty embrace Christ’s miraculous conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary.