Was the Resurrection of Jesus a Late Church Invention?

To be a Christian today is to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. But what about the first Christians? Could belief in the resurrection have been a late church invention? If so, then Easter celebration is deeply misguided and Christians ought to reject the evidence for faith.

Critics often claim that there were a variety of “Christian” beliefs in the first and second centuries—some that embraced the resurrection of Jesus and others that rejected it. The resurrection party happened to “win,” and so contemporary Christians accept it.

The problem with this claim is that there is no early Christianity apart from belief in the resurrection. Let me say it again—The earliest records we have all indicate that belief in the resurrection of Jesus was at the heart of the Christian faith. Consider four points.

1. Early Christian Creeds: Creeds are verbal proclamations that circulated before their inclusion in the New Testament (e.g., Romans 1:3-4, 1 Peter 3:18). They give us a glimpse into the earliest Christian beliefs. Perhaps the oldest creed comes from 1 Corinthians 15:3-5:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

Notice two things. First, Paul passes on a tradition that he had previously been given. Given the formulaic structure of this passage, most scholars agree that Paul is passing on material he received. Second, the resurrection is of “first importance” for the faith.

2. Early Christian Preaching: The book of Acts records the beginning and expansion of the church. Resurrection is mentioned in most of the speeches, which make up roughly one-third of the book. In the first speech in Acts, Peter describes how God appointed Jesus to do wonders but he was killed by lawless men, and yet “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it” (Acts 2:24).

3. Early Letters of Paul. The epistles of Paul are filled with references to the resurrection. N.T. Wright observes,

“Squeeze this letter [Romans] at any point, and resurrection spills out; hold it up the light, and you can see Easter sparking all the way through. If Romans had not been hailed as the great epistle of justification by faith, it might easily have come to be known as the chief letter of resurrection.”[1]

4. Early Church Fathers: Resurrection was a central theme for many of the believers shortly after the apostles. Affirmations of the resurrection can be found in Ignatius Letter to the Magnesians 11, Polycarp Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians 1.2, 1 Clement 42:3, and the Letter of Barnabas 5:6.

The centrality of the resurrection can be seen in the earliest Christians creeds, the first written documents, the first preaching, and in the apostolic fathers. There simply is no record of early Christian faith divorced from the resurrection.

The resurrection of Jesus was not a late church invention. It was the heart of the earliest Christian faith and proclamation.

[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 241.

Sean McDowell is a gifted communicator with a passion for equipping the church, and in particular young people, to make the case for the Christian faith. He connects with audiences in a tangible way through humor and stories while imparting hard evidence and logical support for viewing all areas of life through a biblical worldview. Sean is an associate professor in the Christian Apologetics program at Biola University. He is the Resident Scholar for Summit California. Sean still teaches one high school Bible class, which helps him have exceptional insight into the prevailing culture so he can impart his observations poignantly to fellow educators, pastors and parents alike. In 2008, he received the Educator of the Year award for San Juan Capistrano, Calif. The Association of Christian Schools International awarded Exemplary Status to his apologetics training. Sean is listed among the top 100 apologists. He graduated summa cum laude from Talbot School of Theology with a master’s degree in theology and another in philosophy. He earned a Ph.D. in Apologetics and Worldview Studies in 2014 from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Traveling throughout the U.S. and abroad, Sean speaks at camps, churches, schools, universities and conferences. He has spoken for organizations including Focus on the Family, the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Backyard Skeptics, Cru, Youth Specialties, Hume Lake Christian Camps, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Association of Christian Schools International. Sean has also appeared as a guest on radio shows such as Family Life Today, Point of View, Stand to Reason, Common Sense Atheism and the Hugh Hewitt Show. Sean has been quoted in many publications, including the New York Times. Sean is the author, co-author or editor of over 18 books including The Fate of the Apostles (Routledge, 2015); A New Kind of Apologist (Harvest House, 2016); The Beauty of Intolerance (Barbour, 2016); Same-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, with John Stonestreet (Baker, 2014); Is God Just a Human Invention? with Jonathan Morrow; and Understanding Intelligent Design, with William A. Dembski. Sean has also written multiple books with his father, Josh McDowell, including The Unshakable Truth, More Than A Carpenter and an update for Evidence that Demands a Verdict (2017). Sean is the general editor for The Apologetics Study Bible for Students. He has also written for YouthWorker Journal, Decision Magazine and the Christian Research Journal. Follow the dialogue with Sean as he blogs regularly at seanmcdowell.org. In April 2000, Sean married his high school sweetheart, Stephanie. They have three children and live in San Juan Capistrano. Sean played college basketball at Biola and was captain his senior year on a team that went 30-7.


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