Fact #4 – The disciples genuinely believed that they saw Jesus alive again

It’s important to be clear about what this claim is – and what it isn’t. What we cannot determine at this stage is whether the followers of Jesus really did see Jesus alive again; we haven’t assembled all the facts yet to draw any kind of conclusion. But they certainly believed that they had, that is without question, and this is a fact that we can safely propose and accept, with good reason. To some extent this is wrapped up with the previous point, (fact #3), about the disciples having a transformation in outlook and belief system, but it’s a good idea to consider it from this angle as well.

But, how do we know what men and women really thought thousands of years ago? How can we confidently assert whether someone genuinely believed something, or whether they are telling a lie? That’s a good question and the straightforward answer is we don’t know. Even with people alive today, we can’t always be sure whether they are being truthful, or whether they are concealing their real thoughts. We can’t be mind readers. However, we can look at the circumstances around the lives of Jesus’ disciples and make some very solid assumptions. Firstly, we can be sure that they gained absolutely no personal benefit or profit from the Christian movement that they pioneered. Indeed, they were subject to imprisonment, arrest, persecution and in most cases it seems, execution, along with many other Christians from the early churches. And yet they persisted with such a radical, even bizarre, idea in the face of such overwhelming opposition.

Now, if it was all a hoax, designed by the closest of Jesus’ followers, then it is reasonable to expect that at least one of them would recant on the lie once the authorities got really nasty.

People don’t willingly suffer and die for what they know is fantasy, but people are sometimes motivated to accept suffering, even death and martyrdom, for something that they fervently believe to be true.

Therefore, it makes most sense to accept that the disciples genuinely believed their message about the risen Christ.

Secondly, it stretches credulity to suppose that the disciples, with their humble fishermen’s background, could create a sophisticated ruse that not only turned the nation’s belief system on its head, (by asserting resurrection of the promised Messiah), but at the same time also appealed to the Jewish scriptures in a way that never had been done before. The arguments of the New Testament are full of allusions back to the Hebrew Old Testament and it is claimed time and time again that the resurrection of Jesus explains it[1]. This is the most unlikely of claims to make about the Hebrew Bible. They must have therefore genuinely believed that Jesus had been raised, and that this had been genuinely anticipated in the scriptures.

Clearly, this small band of men and women were convinced in their own minds and nothing short of their own explanation will suffice to coherently explain the transformation that happened to them – that is, that they ‘saw’ Jesus alive again. But let’s not push this piece of the evidence further than it can take us on its own. We don’t know from their accounts what they actually saw but we can be sure that they genuinely believed that they had seen something. The stories of the appearances each describe similar experiences that the disciples went through – talking to, walking with, touching, eating with and seeing the man Jesus in various different places and times of day[2].

We haven’t put all the facts together yet, so it’s too early to make a judgement on their claims, but it is absolutely clear that they each believed what they saw.

We can, however, be a little more specific about what they believed. On earlier occasions when the disciples witnessed strange things, such as when they saw the figure of a man walking across stormy waves on Galilee, they thought they had seen a ghost[3]. In other words, the culture of the day had vocabulary for disembodied spirits. Whether this was right or wrong is irrelevant, (but as an aside, there is no reason to conclude that the Bible teaches continued existence after death[4]), but what is important to note is that none of the language for disembodied spirits was ever used for Jesus after his death. The disciples who experienced an appearance of Jesus did not exclaim that they had seen a ghost. Nobody ever suggested that Jesus simply had continued to live on as a disembodied soul or spirit. In fact, if they had, the Christian movement probably wouldn’t have gained any momentum, since the belief in some kind of afterlife, whilst not universal, was at this stage fairly widespread[5]. Claiming that Jesus ‘lived on’ in some manner would not have been big news and it would not have had the same impact on society. Which is all the more reason to be sure about what the disciples thought they had seen; we can in fact be quite categorical.

They believed that they had seen the body of Jesus re-animated and brought back to a quality of life that was in most respects the same as every human being’s bodily existence, such that he walked with them, ate food, could be touched and hold conversations.

They had genuine conviction that Jesus had experienced a bodily resurrection from the dead and was now living again in a physical body. It’s essential that this is accounted for when we try to explain all these facts. Any explanation must be compatible with the fact that the disciples were genuine in what they said.

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[1] 1 Corinthians 15:3-4

[2] Luke 24:33-35, 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, 1 John 1:1-3

[3] Matthew 14:26

[4] Psalm 6:5, Psalm 49:10-12

[5] Acts 23:8