In The Fate of the Apostles, I argue that the willingness of the apostles to die for their faith provides convincing evidence that we can trust their testimony. However, as critics have pointed out, this rightly assumes that the apostles had a resurrection faith. If the apostles believed for some other reason, then their willingness to suffer and face martyrdom would be inconsequential to the truth of Christianity.
So, how do we know the apostles had a resurrection faith?
While some critics doubt the centrality of the resurrection, the majority of scholars accept that Christianity was a resurrection faith since its inception. In The Resurrection of The Messiah, New Testament scholar Christopher Bryan begins his inquiry with the assumption that three established facts can be considered “historical certainties,” one of which is the centrality of the resurrection in the earliest Christian self-definition. Bryan is not alone in his estimation. According to ancient historian Paul Barnett, “It was this twin conviction, that Jesus was the Christ and that God had raised him alive from the dead, that drove and energized the first disciples and that alone accounts for the rise of Christianity as we encounter it in the historical records.”
What gives these scholars such confidence? The centrality of the resurrection can be seen from early creeds, the apostolic kerygma, Paul’s letters, and the Apostolic Fathers.
Early Christian Creeds
Early Christological creeds, verbal proclamations of the faith that circulated before their inclusion in various New Testament books, are often considered the most promising glimpse into the earliest Christian beliefs before the composition of the New Testament writings (beginning c. AD 50). These creeds provide a window into the earliest known Christian beliefs that motivated the proclamation of their faith, the most common elements of which were the death and resurrection of Jesus, which demonstrate the present Lordship of Christ.
Examples include Romans 1:3-4, 4:24b-25, 1 Thessalonians 4:14, 1 Peter 3:18, and 1 Corinthians 15:3-7. These creeds likely predate the composition of the NT books and provide the earliest glimpse into Christian beliefs, and in the case of 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, possibly within 3-5 years of the death of Jesus.
Speeches in Acts
We also find evidence for the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus in the apostolic preaching in Acts. Speeches in Acts make up approximately one-third of the book’s content.
In his Pentecost speech, Peter describes how God appointed Jesus to do wonders but 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). The resurrection is mentioned in most evangelistic speeches, to both Jews and Gentiles, as well as in other passages throughout Acts.
Paul fills his letters, especially the book of Romans, with affirmations of the resurrection as well. N.T. Wright observes, “Squeeze this letter [Romans] at any point, and resurrection spills out; hold it up to the light, and you can see Easter sparkling 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.”
Paul’s letters confirm the central place the resurrection held in the early preaching of Peter in the book of Acts. Yet the theme of resurrection is not limited to Acts and the letters of Paul. With the exception of Hebrews, all the major books of the New Testament make resurrection a central focus.
The resurrection is at the heart of the biblical and pre-biblical proclamation of the earliest Christians. Yet it is also central to many of the generation of believers shortly after the apostles, known as the Apostolic Fathers. For instance, 1 Clement 42:3 says, “When, therefore, the apostles received his commands and were fully convinced through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and persuaded by the word of God, they went forth proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God was about to come.”
In his Letter to the Magnesians 11, Ignatius wrote, “You should be fully convinced of the birth and suffering and resurrection that occurred in the time of the governor Pontius Pilate.” Resurrection permeates many of the rest of his letters. In the Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, Polycarp says, “He [Jesus] persevered to the point of death on behalf of our sins; and God raised him up after loosing the labor paints of Hades.” Their belief in the resurrection helped both Ignatius and Polycarp face martyrdom boldly.
For all the first-century disagreements within the church, the lack of any evidence for disputation on the resurrection speaks loudly as to its centrality and universality among the first believers.
James Dunn observes, “It is an undoubted fact that the conviction that God had raised Jesus from the dead and had exalted Jesus to his right hand transformed Jesus’ first disciples and their beliefs about Jesus. It is also natural that they should have focused their earliest preaching and teaching on filling out the consequences of that basic belief.”
It is important to grasp the significance of the earliest Christian kerygma for the lives of the apostles. Although they were Galileans and their lives were in danger since the arrest and death of Jesus, they stayed in Jerusalem to proclaim the resurrection. This shows their understanding and acceptance of the basic meaning of the crucified and risen savior. Otherwise, they hardly would have engaged in missionary work. If they wanted to persuade Jews in Jerusalem to believe in Jesus, it would be counterproductive to invent fictitious stories whose falsehood could easily be discovered. Thus, their preaching only makes sense if they truly believed Jesus had risen from the dead, and if the historical evidence was there to confirm it.
Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog at seanmcdowell.org.
 Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3-4.
 Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 186.
 Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1997), 143-70.
 Acts 1:21; 2:24, 31-32; 3:15; 4:2, 10-11, 33; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30, 33-34; 17:3, 18, 31; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 25:19; 26:8, 23.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 241.
 James D.G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem: Christianity in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 2:1169.