According to Matthew 28:17, when the eleven apostles saw the resurrected Christ in Galilee, some of them worshipped Him, “but some doubted.” In context, the “some” refers to the apostles. This account is important on two fronts.

First, it argues for the historical veracity of the claims made about Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. Many skeptics argue that the gospels were not penned by eyewitnesses to the events, but by later disciples who freely embellished or invented many of the sayings and deeds they attributed to Jesus. This is unlikely given the nature of their reports, including this one.

If later disciples were embellishing, or inventing history it is highly unlikely that they would include embarrassing details such as this one. What purpose would it serve to report that the very pillars of the church—the apostles—doubted the resurrection of Jesus even after He personally appeared to them? At best it could only detract from the witness of Christ’s resurrection. After all, if some of Jesus’ own chosen apostles were not convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead—even after having seen Him alive—how can those who have not seen Him alive be expected to believe on Jesus through the mere testimony of the apostles? If the author was writing historical fiction, we would expect the apostles to emerge as the heroes of unswerving faith. We find just the opposite.

The author of Matthew’s gospel was so committed to accurately reporting history that he even recorded events that were incriminating and embarrassing. Such honest and transparent historical reporting argues powerfully for the historical veracity of everything else the author had to say about Jesus, including His resurrection from the dead.

This account is also important to the question of why Jesus limited His post-resurrection appearances to close followers and relatives. If His own apostles doubted upon seeing Him alive after having died, how much more those who were not previously disposed to believe in Him? Think of the Jewish leaders’ response to the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Jn 12:9-11). Apparently they believed Jesus raised him from the dead, but their response was not repentance. Instead, they plotted to kill Lazarus so as to prevent others from believing on Jesus due to this miracle.

We tend to think, and skeptics often claim, that people would believe in God if only they saw a miracle. For some that is true, but for most it is not. They will do their best to explain the miracle away before confessing the Creator as their Lord. We underestimate the rebellion bound up in the human heart. As Jesus said in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, “If they will not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded even if one rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

Post-script (2/10/2010): Since penning this post I have come to believe that the “some” who doubted in Mt 28:17 probably does not

refer to a subset of the 11 apostles, but to other disciples who were present at the Galilean mountain but not identified by Matthew.  The text says “the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus had appointed them.  And when they saw him they worshipped him, but some doubted.” (Mt 28:16-17)  The “they” most naturally refers to all of the 11, and thus it stands to reason that all 11 worshipped Jesus: when “they”—the 11—saw Him “they”—the 11—worshipped Him.  This caveat, however, does not change the overall point of the post.  It remains an unreasonable hypothesis to think Matthew—if he was writing fiction—would invent a story in which individuals who see the resurrected Christ for themselves still do not believe in Jesus.

This does invite a question, however.  Who were those that doubted if not some of the eleven?  They would most likely be part of a larger, unidentified group of witnesses that accompanied the eleven, all of whom were disciples of Jesus during His ministry.  There is good reason to speculate that this was the epiphany Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 15:6 in which Jesus appeared to more than 500 people at once.

There are two reasons for this speculation.  First, an appearance to so many people at once would require an outdoor setting.  A mountain would be an ideal location since it would be big enough, and it would be far enough from the populace so as not to attract the attention of the authorities!  The only two appearances described in the Gospels that occur outdoors and are not obviously limited to a small group of people are described in Matthew 28:16-20 and Luke 24:50-51.  The account in Luke, however, implies that the appearance began indoors and then proceeded outdoors to a mountain (Lk 24:36 ff.; Acts 1:3-12).  If this implication is valid, Luke’s account is ruled out as a possible appearance to the five hundred, leaving Matthew.

Second, Matthew tells us the disciples knew Christ was going to appear to them on the mountain in Galilee, so they traveled there for that express purpose (Mt 28:10, 16).  This appearance is unique, then, in that it was by appointment.  All the other appearances were unanticipated.  Given the fact that the 11 knew where and when Jesus was going to appear, it is highly plausible that they invited a multitude of Jesus’ followers to accompany them to share in this amazing encounter, so that they too may see the risen Christ and believe.  Both the location and the apostles’ foreknowledge of the appearance highly suggests that this appearance recorded by Matthew is the appearance to the 500 recorded by Paul.