Christianity, a Clear Case of History

From Fanaticism to Faith: The Resurrection of Jesus Christ (4)

For the king knoweth of these things…for this hath not been done in a corner.
-Paul to Agrippa

Paul States His Case

Luke tells us that after two full years in jail at Caesarea, Paul, the prisoner, was at last given an opportunity to defend himself before king Agrippa against the slanderous charges of the Jews that he was seditious (Acts 26:1-7). He stood in chains before an impressive assembly of military officers and Roman nobility which had been arranged by the regional governor, Festus, at the arrival of king Agrippa. To these, the apostle related the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ and informed them that his preaching of this gospel, which he claimed was the fulfillment of the Jewish messianic hope, was real reason for the Jew's opposition to him. The conflict which existed between their theology and his, Paul said, was the real reason back of their attempts to make it appear as if he were a political dissident.

Paul began his apologetic by recounting the fact that from his youth to his conversion he lived the strict life of a Pharisee. He then challenged Agrippa to admit that it is not incredible for God to raise the dead (v. 8). He proceeded to paint a picture of his anti-Christian manner of life before his conversion and the severity to which his opposition extended against the church. The force of his argument for the resurrection was in his unbelievable conversion. Paul's zeal against all Christians was of such a severe nature that any attempt by a Christian to convert him would have been suicidal. He was completely out of reach by any human effort to convert him to Christ. Yet, the fact is, he was converted.

A Great Contrast

The abruptness of the change from Paul's preChristian life as self-appointed exterminator of the Christian religion to zealous exponent of the gospel reveals a contrast of such proportions that natural causes are totally inadequate to explain them. His drastic change from persecutor of the church to preacher of Christ involved such extremes that his conversion could only have been produced by some force greater than any human could have exercised. It was Paul's claim that this phase of his life was reversed when Jesus appeared to him en route to Damascus and stopped him dead in his tracks. But since Jesus had been crucified prior to that incident, it was essential that he had to be raised from the dead in order to make that appearance.

PAUL'S THREE-PRONGED ARGUMENT

All of the facts are laid out in the New Testament in four separate accounts of Paul's conversion. The unique circumstances surrounding his manner of life in Judaism as a persecutor and the fact of his conversion to Christ set forth the structural material which forms a convincing apologetic for the resurrection. "The material is arranged and presented three times in the book of Acts in chapters 9, 22, and 26. Paul himself arranges the same material in the Galatian letter to prove to the churches of Galatia that he had received his gospel directly from Jesus-not from man. Then he pointed to his former manner of life in the Jew's religion as a persecutor of the church to prove his claim. Inherent in the argument was the proof for the resurrection. It is this arrangement of the facts, which Paul related to the Galatians, that we will consider as evidence for the resurrection.

For I make known to you, brethren, as touching the gospel which was preached by me, that it is not after man. For neither did I receive it from man, nor was I taught it but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ. For ye have heard of my manner of life in time past in the Jews' religion, how that beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and made havoc of it: and I advanced in the Jews' religion beyond many of mine own age among my countrymen, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers. (Galatians 1:11-14)

Notice carefully the inherent evidence for the resurrection. It is a matter of historical record that Jesus was crucified before Paul was converted. Jesus would therefore have to have been raised in order to appear to Paul personally and deliver the gospel to him. The evidence for this is laid out by Paul in a logical three-pronged argument from his former manner of life. This unique presentation is designed to impress upon us that his religious training from his youth, his education in the Scriptures as interpreted by his Pharisaical father, his success and prominence among those of his nation, and his zeal for what he was convinced was right had so thoroughly biased him against Christianity that his conversion to Christ would have been impossible to bring about by any human efforts. Only Christ himself could have approached this fiery persecutor to bring him to his knees and to His service.

1. His Fanatical Persecution

The evidence that Paul received the gospel from Jesus lies in the fierceness of his persecution. The phrase "beyond measure" stressed the severity of his persecution. This description of his former life was apparently well known to the Galatians. It seems he had only to mention that he had persecuted the church beyond measure for them to fully appreciate what he meant. Fortunately, Luke's history allows us to reconstruct a very clear picture of that persecution and of the character of the person behind it.

Luke introduces Saul of Tarsus as the instigator of Stephen's death and of an ensuing great persecution against the church (Acts 7:58-8:1). From that time, Saul laid waste the church, violently entering the homes of the disciples and dragging both men and women to confinement in prisons (Acts 8:3; 26:10). The fierce personal feelings he had against them is graphically described in the statement that "Saul, yet breathing threatening and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, and asked of him letters to Damascus unto the synagogues, that if he found any that were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2). The persecution was so hot and Saul was so dedicated to it that some in Damascus who heard of his conversion expressed amazement that he could ever have been brought to Christ at all, especially since his intentions were to capture as many disciples as he could find and bring them bound to the chief priests at Jerusalem (Acts 9:20-21).

Years later in Jerusalem, in retelling his conversion, he revealed that his intentions were to deal the deathblow to Christianity (Acts 22:4), to make a scorched earth of the church of Christ. In his defense before Agrippa he recounted how, with complete consent of conscience, he shut up many of the saints in prisons, cast his vote for their death sentence, punished them even in their worship assemblies, and strained to make them blaspheme-as he judged it-by confessing their belief that Jesus is Lord (Acts 26:9-13). He capped his description of the extreme measure to which he carried his persecution by relating how he pressed on toward Damascus in the heat of the midday. While others rested during this time, he pushed his troops onward.

The Emerging Portrait of a Fanatic

From this historical account of Saul's persecution of the church emerges a picture of a persecutor so fierce, and at the same time spurred on by the religious conviction that what he was doing was right (Acts 26:9), that we are compelled to view him as fanatical in his opposition to Christianity. He went beyond the measure of what we would normally expect from one who stood opposed to another's religion. It reached the measure of fanaticism. That is what Paul meant when he reminded the Galatians that he had persecuted the church beyond measure. And they fully understood it. Beyond measure! A fanatic!

The question at this point is: How do you deal with a fanatic? It's unlikely that a zealot would be won to the cause he opposes. This was Paul's point: No one could have won him to Christ, yet, he became a Christian. But, who converted him? Christians were unable to do so and Jews certainly would not have done it. Who, then,if not Christ? Paul confidently maintained that Christ Jesus appeared to him outside Damascus and directed him into the city to a residence where for three more days he taught the blinded persecutor and finally effected his conversion. But Christ was killed, crucified at Calvary. To make that appearance to Paul, he had to have been raised from the dead. What alternative answer is there which does not at some point contradict or disregard some of the facts in this case?

2. His Prominence Among the Jews

Paul said that he advanced in the Jew's religion beyond many of his own age. Several New Testament references reflect that advancement and give us information enabling us to determine the force of this second prong in his argument.

At least four areas of that advancement can be identified. First, he had advanced in scholarship, (Acts 22:3). His instructions as a pharisee would distinguish him among his countrymen. Second, he advanced financially to some appreciable degree. It was necessary that he have some access to the funds of the temple treasury in order to carry out his police action, unless he was himself a man of some means. In either case, his exploits against the church required some sort of financial backing. Third, he advanced socially. His Roman citizenship, his birth and rearing in the house of a Pharisee, together with his education and zeal combined with other advantages to bring young Saul of Tarsus into contact with those officials in Judaism who were willing to grant him authority to carry on his campaign against Christians at Damascus. Fourth, he also advanced to a position of power. The authority and commission of the chief priests gave him power over the lives of the Christians whom he captured (Acts 26:12).

These four areas are sufficient to identify Paul's advancement to a place of prominence among the Jews. His reputation even preceded him to Gentile officials a time or two (Acts 26:24). His prominence was outstanding among his nation. His point to the Galatians was that his prominence, coupled with his fanaticism, stood stubbornly in the way of any attempt to win him over to Christ. So severe and powerful was he that fear struck the heart of Ananias, the disciple whom the Lord commissioned to baptize him (Acts 9:13-14). His prominent station, plus what he considered a divine sanction to eradicate Christianity (Acts 26:9), made conversion to Christ by any human being an utter impossibility.

What possible motive could brilliant young Saul of Tarsus have had for becoming a Christian if he had not actually seen Jesus as he said he did? What could Christians have possibly offered him as an incentive to make the change? To become a Christian for Saul of Tarsus meant a complete renunciation of all he counted to be meaningful and right from the days of his youth. Only an experience equal to an encounter with the resurrected Lord himself could have been adequate to do to him what in fact was done! But Jesus had been executed and buried in Jerusalem How could he have won this outstanding Jew unless he had indeed been raised from the dead? Echo answers, how?

3. His Pharisaic Zeal and Prejudice

The final statement of evidence from Paul's former manner of life in Judaism was that he was "exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my father." The thing for which he was zealous is the key to this prong of his threefold argument. His fathers were the Pharisees whose traditions he was zealous to observe. He accepted their interpretations of the Law and the Prophets, which made it difficult to consider the Christian religion objectively. Though deeply sincere, Saul was tainted with the characteristic trait of the Pharisee-prejudice.

One can be honestly prejudiced, thinking in all sincerity that he possesses the truth. Saul was not mentally tormented as though he had second thoughts about his severe measures against Christians. His conscience was clear. He thought he was right. As he later reflected, "I verily thought with myself that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth" (Acts 26:9). His excess of zeal stemmed from his religious sincerity and dedication of purpose. Like cream coming to the top, we see in Saul of Tarsus the emergence of a certain religious prejudice.

The unreachable condition of this prominent fanatic would be greatly compounded by his peculiar religious prejudice. Only an event of extreme measure sufficient to match the extreme measures of Saul himself could have broken through that unique combination to win his mind and heart and life. But what forces can combine to convert a prejudiced, prominent fanatic? What processes can we conceive to have existed which could have so bent the mind and spirit of Saul, persuaded as he was that he was right? The challenge was compounded to the point of human inability to win this man to Christ. Yet he was won! Saul became a disciple of Christ. The impossible happened. And it is a matter of historical fact, not fantasy, as fantastic as it may seem. But who did it? If it could not have been a man, then it could only have been the Lord. This is what Paul unstintingly claimed, until sometime in the year A.D. 68, Nero's executioner brought his earthly life to a close. If this were not the case, then what alternative in keeping with the facts can satisfy the historical fact of that radical reversal? Is it, after all, unintelligent in view of these historical facts to believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead? Is it not as logical and reasonable a deduction as modern man can draw from a factual basis?

ALTERNATIVES TO THE RESURRECTION

It has been established that there was a real Saul of Tarsus whose life was as colorful and adventurous as the New Testament describes. The well-vindicated historian, Luke, wrote much in his book of Acts about Paul's life, often from the vantage point of an eyewitness since he had been the traveling companion of the great apostle on several journeys. (41) There are thirteen epistles which bear Paul's name. Even the most radical of liberal schools do not deny him the authorship of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Galatians. Historians have never doubted his historicity and his meetings with the other apostles. There is no doubt about it-Paul was as real a person of history, as testimony can verify.

41. In Acts there are several references to what are called the "we" passages where Luke includes himself in the company of the ones about whom he writes. Note the use of "we" and "us" in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-8; 27:1-28:16. See also Paul's reference to Luke's companionship in Colossians 4:14.

Modernistic "Explanations" of Saul's Conversion

Modern man is gullible. He's not beyond worrying about modernistic suggestions that there may be alternative explanations for Saul's conversion other than the resurrection. Yet, invariably these "explanations" contradict known facts in the case. It has been suggested, for example, that Saul may have secretly harbored a deep sense of guilt for his terrible cruelties inflicted on Christians, that perhaps deep remorse had taken hold of him as he contemplated his purpose at Damascus, and that a possible stroke of heat lightning, coupled with the strength of the desert sun, acted by accumulation upon a possibly epileptic body and a tortured mind to bring to culmination the half-conscious process by which Saul thought he saw the resurrected Christ! (42)

42. Will Durant, Caesar and Christ, p. 581.

Examine the basis of this alternative explanation. It is sheer assumption without evidence and is prefaced by "maybe," "perhaps," "possibly." It completely disregards the fact that Paul's conscience was pronounced clear in his persecutions (Acts 23:1; 26:9). He affirmed that he had always lived before God with a clear conscience and that his opposition to Christianity was carried on in a manner that he thought before God was right and acceptable. He was certainly not plagued by a guilty conscience. He was doing, as he said, what he thought he ought to be doing (Acts 26:9).

A distinct characteristic of the unreasonable nature of liberalism is thus seen in its double-dealing with the Scriptures. First, the New Testament is considered by liberals to be sufficiently trustworthy to tell us of the historical reality of Saul and of his conversion, of the reality of his persecution, of his journey toward Damascus, and of the flash of light that left him blind.

But then his critics, without offering any historical evidence for their reasoning, discredit this same historical source of information right at the point where it relates the cause for that conversion-the appearance and further teaching by the risen Lord. From there, liberalism reconstructs another and totally different succession of events which are contrary to Luke's account and seeks to lead us to a conclusion entirely different from the one recorded by the historian. And what evidence is offered for the rejection of Luke's history at the point of Christ's appearance? Not a shred. What evidence is offered for the historical reliability of the alternate explanation? None. The consequent indictment is that Luke was an unreliable historian. With that kind of "alternative explanation" we could make out a case against Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and suggest that "maybe," "perhaps," the real facts in the matter might "possibly" lead us to conclude that Bonaparte was shot at Bunker Hill!

How can this kind of biblical criticism lead a logical mind to a moment's doubt of the truthfulness of the biblical history? The modern man who thinks for himself will be driven to the conclusion that back of such criticism is a prejudice that Jesus could not have been raised from the dead, regardless of what the evidence from history may say.

Let us consider some more probable alternatives to the resurrection appearance to Saul and note the points of departure from the facts in each case.

Was Paul an Imposter?

If he perpetrated a hoax, what was the real reason for his drastic and life-long change from Judaism to Christianity? This leads logically to the motive for the change. If he invented the account, he would have to have had some reason other than the one he gave in order to motivate him to live such a colossal lie. But what was it?
1. Could it have been desire for wealth? Religion, we suspect, is yet used for financial gain. However, in this case, all the wealth was on the side of the Jews whom Paul left. Poverty often characterized those with whom he identified. His financial condition as an apostle ranged from providing for himself, and sometimes his co-laborers, by his trade as a tent maker (Acts 18:2-3; 20:33-34; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8) to receiving wages from some churches to minister to others (2 Corinthians 11:8). But even this did not guarantee that he would always eat (1 Corinthians 4:11). It is not reasonable to further consider lust for money as a motive in Paul's decision to become a Christian. The facts are otherwise.
2. Could it have been a desire for reputation? Personal glorification has ever been a temptation to men of God. What are the facts in this regard? First, he had already received a place of honor among the Jews, having advanced to a place of prominence beyond many of his own age. Second, Saul's name had spread throughout the entire church, prior to his conversion, and beyond. This reputation stood in sharp contrast to his new identity as a member of the sect which was everywhere spoken against (Acts 28:22). As apostle, he was generally regarded by unbelievers as the scum of the earth (1 Corinthians 4:13). Sometimes he was treated shamefully for preaching the gospel (Acts 14:4-6,19; 17:13-15; 1 Thessalonians 2:1-2). It is unreasonable to charge that Paul changed religions for personal glory. The facts are otherwise.
3. Could it have been a desire for power? He had power with the Jews. And the exercise of his authority as an apostle never gave the slightest hint that he sought power through the Christian religion. The facts are otherwise.
4. Could it have been a desire for some passion of the flesh? Divine revelations are known to have been claimed by religious leaders as a pretext to engage in some immoral conduct with sanction. But there is not a blemish of this sort on Paul's record from his youth to his death. Not one of Paul's enemies attempted to put him down by so much as even intimating that his life was morally stained. This was not the reason for his change into Christianity. The facts are otherwise.(43)
5. Could it have been due to some fear? Of whom would he have been afraid? As a Jew, he had no one to fear. As a Christian, he feared no one but Christ. The facts are otherwise.

It is conclusive that Paul was sincere when he changed from Judaism. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that Paul did not see the risen Christ, at least it must be admitted that he was absolutely sincere in his conviction that he thought he saw him. Paul was not an imposter. That is conclusive even among critics.

43. Taylor Caldwell's fictionalization of a youthful slip into fornication is baseless and totally unnecessary to the presentation of the great life of Paul. "Great Lion of God. Chapter 4.

Was Paul Deceived?

His sincerity has been established. But sincere men have been known to be wrong. If wrong, he had to be deceived. But by whom? Christians? How? By what means? Anyway, they could not have when we remember that his conversion came at the height of his fury. Who could have expected to win over his fanaticism? How could they have produced the light that blinded him? The Jews would not have converted their hero away from themselves. The Romans were indifferent to Christianity to begin with. It is unreasonable to suggest that Paul was deceived into thinking he had seen the Lord. No one can be found with the necessary combination of both motive and capability to accomplish the task.

There is yet one other consideration.

Was Paul Mad?

Paul the prisoner was permitted to testify in his own behalf before a lordly assembly including Herod Agrippa and his wife, Bernice, Roman chiliarchs (military officers), and principal men of the city of Caesarea, as well as the governor, Festus, who had arranged the inquiry. At the close of Paul's defense, Festus said loudly, "Paul, thou are mad; thy much learning is turning thee mad" (Acts 26:24). To take Festus' statement at face value is to miss the point. He was certainly not indicting Paul of insanity. He was speaking defensively, for Paul had set forth the resurrection of Jesus in true apologetic style, having presented the evidence in a most skillful and convincing way. Festus attempted to mitigate the power of the apostle's logic by loudly voicing his own judgment of the matter to be ludicrous. But out of the statement, nevertheless, emerges the truth that Paul was quite a capable person far from being a madman.

Agrippa's own evaluation of Paul's defense was quite complimentary. He remarked that "With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian" (Acts 26:28). I do not believe that his statement is to be taken at face value, either. My personal view is that Agrippa's statement was no more than a complimentary expression of admiration and a recognition of Paul's sincerity and obvious apologetic ability which made the story of the resurrection convincingly interesting. If at any moment Agrippa entertained serious thoughts about the credibility of Paul's story, he would not have admitted to itin that assembly. In either case, his diplomatic answer was a testimony to Paul's rationality and logical turn of mind. No one with such ability and decorum could be labeled as a madman. Agrippa's decision would have been to set Paul free had Paul not already appealed for a decision from the emperor (Acts 26:30-32).

Read What He Wrote

Paul's writings are not the product of a deranged mind. They are brilliant literary productions. This is especially clear in the books of Romans and Galatians, which contain superb examples of the logistical ability required to discern and solve the dilemma of how God could be just and at the same time justify lawbreakers. No one who authored such documents could be seriously accused of mental imbalance. In addition to his writings, his sermons, which Luke recorded, bear no faint resemblance to the twisted mentality of madmen. A single reading of his letters and his sermons in the book of Acts will erase any doubt that Paul was anything other than sane, sound, and slightly brilliant.

Summing Up the Modernistic Madness

The fact that Saul of Tarsus did live and did change from persecutor to preacher has been so thoroughly authenticated that the fact is not challenged. But modernists, still unwilling to accept the resurrection, have attempted to explain this historical phenomenon as a psychological cop-out. Saul was supposed to have been so intense in his pursuit of Christians, yet so conscience-stricken for his severe treatment of them, that he became depressed. While on the road to Damascus, he experienced too much heat, which, working on his fevered imagination, caused him merely to think that he saw Jesus! But, as we have already pointed out, this is contrary to the whole historical account of the matter. Precisely here, modernism's prejudice and total disregard for the facts are clearly disclosed. For without the New Testament, we could know nothing of Paul to discuss. It is inconsistent to accept the New Testament account of Saul of Tarsus, of his life in Judaism, of his conversion, of his characteristic zeal, and then to reject that same account when it offers the resurrection as the cause for his conversion, and then to recommend other causes as possible causes when there is not the first piece of evidence to commend them. To accept the historical accuracy of the New Testament in one place and to reject it without evidence in another exposes a crust of prejudice which no amount of evidence can penetrate.

CONCLUSION

When the evidence from history is arranged and considered objectively, the resurrection becomes believable and the cause for Saul's conversion, otherwise uncertain,(44) receives a logical and satisfying answer.

44. Durant, having taken the position that Paul was converted, but not by Jesus Christ, is left with the insoluble riddle of the cause for that conversion. He leaves the matter unsolved and himself wondering: "No one can say what natural processes underlay this pivotal experience." (Caesar and Christ, 581.) But the question arises: Is this a fair conclusion from an objective historian when the facts in the case are fully as verifiable as any fact from history?

When ridiculed by Festus, Paul's response, "I am not mad, most excellent Festus; but speak forth words of truth and soberness" (Acts 26:25) was well confirmed by those contemporary events which could easily be checked out by men in high places. As he explained, "this hath not been done in a corner" (Acts 26:26). Paul's life by that time had been much publicized. It was more like an open book for all to read. Is it conceivable that Paul perjured himself when to the Galatians he testified to this very matter: "Now touching the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not." (Galatians 1:20)? Did Paul lie? If Paul was a fake, where lies the fallacy?

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