Jesus' Resurrection: Fact or Fiction

Scott Warner | Mar 19th, 2009

How would you respond to the objection that 'Jesus Christ did not physically rise from death'? Before we consider the evidence, I'd like to start by setting out some 'first principle' ideas.

Our aim

Our aim is to demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for all the evidence we have. Note that we will be 'demonstrating' the reasonableness of the resurrection rather than 'proving' it. 'Proof' is a much misunderstood category in debate and virtually useless in discussing history. Real knowledge can be achieved without comprehensive proof. It is a common fallacy to believe that because people can't have an exhaustive knowledge of something that, therefore, they can't have adequate knowledge. This is a handy hint to remember when defending Christianity in conversation.

Our assumption

One assumption we will be making is that the New Testament documents are essentially reliable and should be allowed into the courtroom as evidence.[1] In a more extended case for the resurrection this would have to be established rather than assumed.

Presuppositions and evidence

Sceptics and believers alike should be aware of their underlying presuppositions when they read the evidence for the resurrection. This is because people will interpret the evidence according to their presuppositions. If you presuppose a closed universe then a supernatural explanation is ruled out automatically irrespective of how powerful the evidence.[2] If you presuppose the possibility of an open universe then you will be at least open to a supernatural explanation. We must ask, "Is it the evidence itself, or my presuppositions that are shaping my conclusion on the matter?" Given that it is very hard, if not impossible to 'prove' that God doesn’t exist, sceptics should be open to the possibility that he does, and so be willing to go where the evidence leads. To rule out the possibility of the supernatural/miraculous is to assume all knowledge of time and space, a knowledge only God could possess.[3]

Miracle and history

Before we give a supernatural explanation it would be worth saying something about the relationship between historical research and supernatural causes. In history, just as in science, there is an unspoken commitment to 'methodological naturalism'.[4] Nevertheless, our approach is strictly in line with standard historical research, where we endeavour to answer the question: "What is the best explanation given all the evidence we have?"

Evidence and explanation

When it comes to showing the reasonableness of the resurrection we have two things to work with: (1) the evidence and (2) the explanation of that evidence.

In brief, the evidence consists of:

1. An empty tomb

2. Appearance reports

3. Transformed disciples

4. The existence of the church

What is extraordinary is that most historical scholars, non-Christian and Christian alike, agree on these pieces of evidence. The issue isn't so much with the evidence itself, but the explanation and interpretation of it.

For the believer it is important to take (1) the empty tomb and (2) the sightings together. For if there were just an empty tomb, then no one would have concluded that a resurrection had taken place. Rather, they would have thought that the body was stolen. Likewise, if there were only the sightings and no empty tomb, no one would have concluded that a resurrection had taken place. Instead, it would have been attributed to some form of grief-induced vision (which many claim to have). However, when taken together, the empty tomb and the sightings provide the evidence necessary to suggest an actual resurrection. In addition to this, there are extra pieces of evidence that need to be accounted for: the emboldening of previously cowardly disciples, the conversion of early sceptics, the existence and growth of the church, and the alteration of certain instilled Jewish traditions.[5] The cause of these facts is the issue at hand. There are a number of possible explanations, but we are interested in finding the most probable.

Let's now turn our attention to how sceptics explain the resurrection away.

Alternative explanations and their problems

If we presuppose a closed universe then miracles are automatically ruled out and so we must propose a naturalistic explanation. The problem with these objections is not that they are impossible, but that they don’t account for all the evidence, as the resurrection seems to. Some more famous ones are:

1. 'The whole story was a myth that built up over time'

This theory—often likened to 'Chinese whispers'—is totally overdone. We know from 1 Corinthians that Paul "passed on" the gospel of Jesus death and resurrection to the Corinthians during his first visit in around A.D. 55 (1 Cor 15:1-3). That’s only 20 years after the resurrection. But when did he "receive" it? According to his own testimony, Paul received the gospel in his encounter with the resurrected Jesus on the Damascus Road, around A.D. 35 (Gal 1:12; see also Acts 9). Only a couple of years after the resurrection had allegedly occurred, belief in it was circulating throughout the known world. Myth takes time to develop—at least 2-3 generations—so the resurrection doesn’t fit the category of myth.

2. 'The people of that day were gullible and impressionable'

This idea, however, does not fit with the philosophies of the time. Both Greeks and Jews had no inclination towards accepting a resurrected man. This wasn’t because they didn’t believe in the 'supernatural' but because it was contradictory to their worldviews.

For the Greeks, the body was base and corrupt. It was the prison for the soul, which was set free at death. The whole idea was for the soul to escape from the body. So, in the case of a resurrected man, the obvious question would be "Why would you want your body back?"

Similarly, the Jewish world would have scoffed at such an idea. They believed in a national resurrection at the end of history but certainly not an individual resurrection in the middle of history. That notion was inconceivable.

The idea that the resurrection spread because of the gullibility of the people is not plausible because, even if they were gullible, they were not ready or willing to believe in a resurrected man.

3. 'The disciples hallucinated'

This idea follows from the previous point. Why would the disciples, as members of the Jewish culture, hallucinate about something that contradicted their worldview? What information did all their imaginations feed upon to produce such a visionary experience? And can over 500 people hallucinate about the same thing, many at the same time (1 Cor 15:6)? This would indeed be phenomenal as hallucinations by their very nature are unique to each individual.

4. 'The disciples stole the body and then passed it off as a resurrection'

But why orchestrate a lie that no one in the surrounding culture is likely to believe? And, even if that's what happened, why would you be willing to suffer death for it? You would think that as each of the disciples were about to be killed one of them, at least, might 'fess up' and admit to their deceit. And with most of them being fishermen, could they have beaten off highly trained and motivated guards in order to steal the body?

5. 'The Jewish leaders stole the body'

But what would their motive be? If they had the body then why didn’t they reproduce it? It would have been a sure-fire way to quash the heretical Jesus 'cult' they so deplored. Instead, they resorted to threats, violence, and smear campaigns. The Jewish leaders clearly didn't have the body.

The best explanation

More could be said, but the cumulative case for Jesus’ resurrection is powerful. Not only does the resurrection offer a reasonable and most probable explanation for all the evidence we have, it also stands up in the face of alternative, but ultimately inadequate, theories. All this doesn’t 'prove' beyond the shadow of a doubt that it happened, but certainly leads to a 'beyond reasonable doubt' conclusion. You don’t have to feel like an idiot for believing it, but you’d be silly if you didn't want to share this history-making, universe-shaking, life-changing truth with someone you love.

[1] For a summary of this matter see Craig Blomberg, 'Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him And Why It Matters', 2008: http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/pdf-articles/Blomberg.pdf (accessed 13 February 2009).

[2] A closed universe is a universe closed off to any external or transcendent forces. It is a materialistic universe where all that exists is matter caught in a system of cause and effect; God doesn’t exist. On the other hand an open universe is a universe open to the possibility of God’s intervention.

[3] What I mean is that you would have to know every part of the universe and every moment in history to conclude that (a) God doesn't exist, and (b) no miracles have ever taken place anywhere at any time. If anyone had this knowledge then they would be a god and presumably capable of working a miracle! Or perhaps claiming "miracles are impossible" would be miraculous in itself!

[4] In this framework the 'naturalistic' worldview is assumed and so, as part of the historical 'method', supernatural causes are not allowed as explanations.

[5]Namely, (1) sacrifices are no longer offered at the temple, (2) a remarkable insistence arises that keeping the Mosaic law is unnecessary, (3) the Sabbath is changed to Sunday, (4) there is a movement from strict Monotheism to Trinitarianism, and (5) the Messiah is inextricably tied to a death and resurrection. The question must be asked, "What accounts for the sudden changes in these five deeply entrenched Jewish customs and beliefs?" To tamper with these sacred aspects of Jewish culture would

mean instant social and spiritual rejection.

Note: This article was recently printed in SALT magazine (Autumn 2009), however some of the text was changed without consultation with the author. In changing this text, we have, albeit it unintentionally, misrepresented the author's and are truly sorry for this. We have, therefore, decided to republish the article on webSalt in a form which better represents the author's intentions - eds.

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