Today’s skeptics of Jesus’s resurrection sometimes state that religious people are too quick to accept reports about miracles. Those who doubt the miraculous often insist that miracle claims aren’t usually sufficiently questioned. But was this the case among Jesus’s apostles concerning the resurrection?
In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I briefly addressed three evidences for Jesus’s resurrection. In this article I’ll present one more reason in our series of 12 evidences for believing in the truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.
4. Extraordinary Transformation of the Apostles
The New Testament describes a remarkable and enduring transformation of 11 of Jesus’s disciples. These frightened, defeated cowards after Jesus’s crucifixion soon became bold preachers and, in some cases, martyrs. They grew courageous enough to stand against hostile Jews and Romans even in the face of torture and martyrdom. Such amazing transformation deserves an adequate explanation, for human character and conduct does not change easily or often. Because the apostles fled and denied knowing Jesus after he was arrested, their courage in the face of persecution seems even more astonishing. The disciples attributed the strength of their newfound character to their direct, personal encounter with the resurrected Jesus. In Jesus Christ’s resurrection, the apostles found their existential reason to live—and die.
According to the earliest reports concerning Jesus’s resurrection, three of the men Jesus appeared to were either initially highly skeptical of the truth of the resurrection or adamantly opposed to Jesus’s claims to be the messiah. Those three were Thomas, James, and Saul (who would become Paul), all of whom were predisposed to dismiss the truth of the resurrection. Since Paul’s conversion will be addressed later, let’s consider the stunning impact Jesus’s resurrection had on Thomas and James.
Thomas the Doubter
While Thomas was one of the original 12 apostles, he was not among the first of Jesus’s followers to see the risen Christ. Upon hearing the report from his fellow disciples concerning Jesus’s bodily resurrection, he doubted its truth. The Gospel of John conveys Thomas’s skepticism: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).
Though a follower of Jesus, Thomas was highly skeptical and needed direct, empirical evidence of Jesus’s actual bodily resurrection before he would believe the claim of his fellow disciples. Thomas demanded evidence of a concrete, empirical nature. He demonstrated tough-mindedness when it came to claims of the miraculous, even when the testimony came from his close friends and associates. Yet according to John’s Gospel, Thomas soon had an encounter with the resurrected Jesus that more than satisfied his doubts:
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26–28)
What accounts for James’s amazing change of heart from undoubtedly being deeply embarrassed by his brother’s claims to becoming a distinguished leader in the early church, and finally to even undergo martyrdom? The resurrection seems to best account for this radical transformation in James’s understanding and perspective. James claimed to have seen his brother alive after his public execution, and that event changed everything.
So it appears that Thomas and James seriously questioned the actual truth of Jesus’s resurrection, the way skeptics demand.
Reflections: Your Turn
Of Thomas and James, whose transformation seems more remarkable? Why?
- I address the resurrection of Jesus in two of my books, Without a Doubt: Answering the 20 Toughest Faith Questions (see chapter 10) and 7 Truths That Changed the World: Discovering Christianity’s Most Dangerous Ideas (see chapters 1 and 2).
- I also recommend The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona and Knowing the Truth about the Resurrection: Our Response to the Empty Tomb by William Lane Craig.
- A further recommended source is N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God.