We are continuing our Resurrection Series, where we began exploring evidences for the crucifixion, specifically the Minimal Facts approach by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. In our last post, we explored the evidence surrounding the Disciples’ belief in a risen Jesus.
In this post, we will explore the conversion of Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul.
In the Bible, Saul of Tarsus is first encountered in the book of Acts, where readers discover a zealous Pharisee hostile to the budding Christianity. Somehow, this devout Jew converted to become an “aggressive Christian missionary who was largely responsible for the early spread of the church…” What kind of event must occur to account for this radical transformation?
Paul’s Conversion Experience
Fortunately, we have first-hand experiences from Paul himself, found in his letters to the churches in Galatia, Corinth and Philippi, along with additional narratives in Acts by Paul’s companion, Luke.
According to both Paul and Luke’s accounts, somewhere on one of Paul’s journeys to Damascus, he encountered what he believed to be the resurrected Jesus. This encounter was so strong that Paul turned from persecuting Christians to eventually becoming one of Christianity’s earliest and most influential missionaries.
For Paul, seeing the resurrected Jesus would have meant that Jesus had resurrected in bodily form. N.T. Wright argues that, to Paul, the idea of a non-bodily resurrection would have been an oxymoron. Both Jews and Pagans would have seen a resurrection as requiring a body brought back to life.
Paul’s Beliefs and Early Christianity
N.T. Wright states that, “Understanding [Paul] must be near the heart of any understanding of early Christianity; certainly, getting to know where he stands on the question of death and resurrection, more specifically of the death and resurrection of Jesus, is at the heart of discovering what early Christians believed on these subjects.” Cleary Paul’s writings had an impact on early Christianity.
How does this help us understand the Resurrection? Let’s keep a couple of things in mind:
- Paul was converting into an already established Christianity. The Disciples had begun forming various churches and communities, so Paul would have to integrate with what was already being taught.
- If Paul were trying to teach a more Pro-Jewish story of Jesus, he would have been quickly refuted by the Disciples.
What exactly, then, did Paul believe about the Resurrection? Paul, through his own writings, communicates what he and the early Christians believed:
- Paul linked the resurrection of Jesus to the future resurrection of the believers. In Romans 8, we can see that Paul’s belief that through the Spirit, Christians will be resurrected in bodily form, just as Jesus was.
- In 1 Corinthians, Paul links our current bodies to our future bodies. We will not discard our bodies and take on some immaterial form. Rather, our “mortal form will be transformed into immortality.”
- It is helpful to compare physical and immaterial to natural and spiritual. As Licona notes, Paul seems to suggest that we will take on bodies given by the spirit and discard our natural, corrupted form. This should not be mistaken for trading a physical body for an immaterial one.
- While the Resurrection would entail a bodily and spiritual resurrection, it will also involve a transformation in a better form. Our bodies will be redeemed to what they were meant to be, rather than a rejuvenation of our present, corrupted forms.
Paul’s cultural understanding of resurrection would suggest that he believed Jesus had truly risen from the dead. Indeed, Paul’s language would be different if he didn’t believe a bodily resurrection had occurred. The evidence appears to indicate that Paul’s testimony corroborated the testimony of the other early evangelists and Disciples. Instead of making a story contrary to what the Disciples preached to invalidate the Gospel, Paul’s story agrees with them. The former murderer of Christians had now become one of them.
The unlikely survival of a Roman crucifixion, the Disciples belief and transformation in a risen Jesus, and the conversion and beliefs of the Apostle Paul provide plausible reasons for the empty tomb.
There is vastly more information available on this topic, and we encourage our readers to explore further on your own.
The Resurrection of Jesus by Michael Licona
The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright
The Fate of the Apostles by Sean McDowell
Cold Case Christianity by J. Warner Wallace
 Licona, 373
 Ibid, 374
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 372
 Licona 406
 Licona, 416
 Wright, 372-373