People don’t come back from the dead.
They just don’t. Nobody even tries to make such audacious claims because it is just way too easy to disprove a dead body with live witnesses. Resurrections happen in Once Upon a Time, not in real life (good show, by the way). But there is one case which is still hotly contested today. One claim which has not yet died down (see what I did there?). Jesus Christ.
Over the last several months, we have discovered that archaeological discoveries, claims of accurate future predictions, the credibility of Jesus’ disciples, and the reliability of the accounts written about Jesus all appear to provide evidence favouring the validity of the Bible as a collection of historical works. However, even though Jesus’ disciples appear to have genuinely believed in who he was and that he resurrected from the dead, many critics argue that this does not necessarily mean the event actually happened. This is where we turn our attention today.
The resurrection is a big deal. Paul wrote that if the resurrection did not actually happen, the faith of all Christians is “in vain,” “worthless,” and “we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:14-19). If it didn’t happen, the claims that Jesus made and that his disciples made about Jesus are false. But if it did happen, those claims have been backed up by the greatest piece of evidence ever recorded in history: a man rising from the dead. But, of course, that’s a pretty massive claim to try and “prove” historically. How can we even approach it?
Most people don’t. Most people, even religious scholars, simply decide in advance of any evidence that Jesus of course did not resurrect from the dead because that is simply impossible. This is an unfortunately extremely biased approach which assumes everything and actually studies nothing. It assumes the conclusion and tries to study the evidence in light of the conclusion instead of arriving at a conclusion based on the evidence. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona are two scholars who have tried to limit their biases in analyzing the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. They take the “minimal facts” approach, which is to look at only the facts about the resurrection which nearly all scholars from all perspectives agree upon, and to determine the most reasonable historical conclusion based only on those facts.
There are at least three facts which fit this description, and a couple of others which come close:
- Jesus died by crucifixion. Yes, this is about as historically certain of a fact as we have. Yes, scholars from all beliefs and sides of the spectrum agree on this. No, you cannot believe that Jesus never existed or that he did not die in this manner unless you want to be deemed an eccentric Internet conspiracy theorist.
- Jesus’ disciples genuinely believed that they encountered the resurrected Jesus to the point that they were willing to die for this belief, and so were many others. This fact has already been discussed in prior posts.
- Paul, an enemy of Christianity who had Christians arrested and killed, also genuinely believed he encountered the resurrected Jesus to the point of changing his entire belief system and becoming a Christian missionary, also being willing to die for this belief.
In close company with these facts are:
- Jesus’ brother James, a skeptic who did not believe in Jesus, also believed he encountered the resurrected Jesus and became one of the primary leaders of the Christian church in Jerusalem, and was willing to die for this belief.
- The tomb where the crucified Jesus was buried was found empty three days later. This claim is the most contested of the five, but still is widely agreed upon. Disagreements on this point are purely speculative.
When it comes to hypotheses of what really happened in history, historians look for the theory which best fulfills the criteria of explanatory scope (it accounts for all or most of the facts), explanatory power (it accounts for the facts well), plausibility (it makes sense in light of the facts), less ad hoc (it assumes the least or very little) and illumination (it explains other historical problems).
One theory, of course, is that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened. This explanation certainly accounts for all of the facts well and makes sense in light of them with absolutely no assumptions being made. It is, after all, what the witnesses claimed. There are other theories…
Jesus’ disciples all experienced hallucinations caused by distress and/or expectation. This explanation accounts for the crucifixion and the disciples’ beliefs, but nothing else. It does not account for the disciples’ beliefs particularly well since the field of psychology at this point rejects the idea that people can share identical hallucinations. It is highly implausible that all of Jesus’ disciples had multiple hallucinations at the same time in the same place witnessing the same events involving their senses of sight, sound and touch all at once. It is also highly implausible that Paul, an enemy of Christianity, experienced any such distress or grief on his way to arrest and kill more followers of Jesus in Damascus (Acts 9). The disciples were not expecting Jesus to be resurrected, so this is implausible as well. Many assumptions are also made here.
Jesus didn’t actually die. He survived crucifixion and escaped the tomb three days later. Quite frankly, this is a ridiculous theory. It accounts for the crucifixion, disciples’ beliefs and empty tomb (and perhaps James’ encounter?), but does so quite poorly. The likelihood of surviving crucifixion is remarkably low, and the Romans were very efficient at it. They broke the victims’ legs to ensure their death, and we’re told they did not break Jesus’ legs because he was already dead. He was then stabbed in the side by a spear to make sure. Even if he survived by some miracle, he would have bled to death in the tomb, and he wasn’t going anywhere in less than three days. Even with all of this, any “resurrection appearances” would not be fooling anyone. This is highly implausible and makes a few large assumptions.
Jesus’ disciples stole the body. This explanation accounts for the crucifixion and the empty tomb, but none of the resurrection appearances or genuine beliefs in a resurrected Jesus. As a result, it fails to account for the majority of the minimal facts and thus does so poorly. I’m fairly confident that the disciples would not have stolen the body if they also genuinely believed that Jesus was resurrected. It is also implausible because a Roman guard (which likely meant 4-16 well-trained and dangerous soldiers) was posted outside of the tomb with a large stone blocking the cave.
…And that’s pretty much it. Seriously. There are no other theories about what really happened that can be taken seriously, and certainly none which account for all of the facts and do so well and plausibly. But, of course, this is exactly what you would expect if it did indeed really happen. As Dr. Michael Licona writes in his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, the resurrection hypothesis is the only explanation which fulfills all of the criteria, and no other hypothesis comes anywhere close.
We have established that archaeological research has authenticated many people, events and dates mentioned in the Bible, that the Bible appears to have accurately made predictions about the future, that Jesus’ disciples can be trusted in their accounts of his life, that the Bible we have today is what was originally written, and that the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelmingly the most historically supported explanation of those facts which are agreed upon by all scholars. Even if you remain skeptical about one or some of these claims, it is abundantly clear that the Bible cannot be easily dismissed as a historical work.
Why should we care? We’ll discuss that next.
Why do you have a hard time with the resurrection of Jesus?