The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the central event of the Christian worldview. It is the climax of the Biblical narrative and foundational to all Biblical theology. In the resurrection, we see confirmation of Jesus’ deity, validation of Jesus’ sacrifice, and vindication of Jesus’ promises.
Modern minds have difficulty considering such a supernatural claim as an actual, historical event. The claims seem too farfetched, and the eyewitnesses lived too long ago. However, as we saw in the previous post, while miracles are extremely improbable, they are by no means impossible. Even David Hume, being largely responsible for the modern reluctance to believe in miracles, is willing to admit, “If the falsehood of the testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”
In other words, no matter how scientific our assumptions are going into the discussion, we must examine the evidence. Based on that evidence, if all natural explanations either make less sense or require greater miracles, then we are justified in believing that a miracle actually occurred. Fortunately for us, Christian thinkers over the years have carefully and skillfully worked through the issue, examining the evidence. (Remember: “No Blind Faith Here”)
So, did Jesus actually rise from the dead?
Here’s the thing…
It makes much more sense to believe that he did than to believe that he didn’t. Here’s why.
Regardless of what a person believes about Jesus theologically, there are several historical facts that no one can deny. Separately, these facts might be explained in some innocuous, less-miraculous way. Nevertheless, such explanations are inadequate considering the evidence. They simply do not add up, unless of course the resurrection actually happened.
Furthermore, these facts taken together present a story for which any natural explanation simply fails. While the supernatural explanation of Jesus Christ rising from the dead is extraordinary, natural explanations render the facts of the story impossible. Borrowing Hume’s logic, “the falsehood of the testimony [of Jesus’ resurrection] would be more miraculous.”
So, what are these facts? I’m glad you asked. Here are three.
Fact #1: Established Death
The crucifixion of Jesus is perhaps the most famous execution in world history. While some attempt to paint the crucifixion as a legend that never happened, most scholars see this idea as laughable. Ancient sources such as the Jewish historian Josephus, the Roman historian Tacitus, the Greek satirist Lucian of Samosata, and the Jewish Talmud all express unbelieving opinions about Jesus and Christianity. Yet they all refer to Jesus’ crucifixion as a recent historical event.
Michael Shermer, himself an agnostic/atheist and editor-in-chief of the magazine Skeptic, states:
Although I am no longer a religious believer, I think there is reasonable evidence that a man named Jesus probably did exist, and that there are good reasons to believe he was crucified by the Romans, which was a common tool of capital punishment at the time, employed against even common thieves, such as the two men crucified on either side of Jesus.
John Dominic Crossan, New Testament scholar and co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, believes that Jesus was an ancient sage, a nonviolent revolutionary. Yet he states, “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
These references to nonbelievers, ancient and modern, serve to demonstrate that the fact of Jesus’ death is well attested even by those who refuse to believe that he miraculously rose from the dead.
Objection: Swoon Theory
To counter this fact, many have proposed that Jesus did not actually die. He merely lost consciousness, appeared to be dead, and came-to days later. His followers assumed he rose from the dead, but as it turns out, he was never truly dead in the first place. This idea is referred to as the swoon hypothesis.
There are numerous problems with asserting that Jesus did not die on the cross.
- Soldiers wouldn’t allow it. It is a common knowledge that Roman soldiers risked execution for themselves for failing in their duties. We know they were convinced that they had done their job because they did not break his legs as they did with the two thieves. Even assuming they did fail, we have the problem of how a man who was tortured as much as Jesus was could escape a sealed tomb and overcome armed guards.
- Doctors wouldn’t believe it. In 1986, several medical doctors, writing for the Journal of the American Medical Association, examined the historical method of Roman torture of crucifixion. They then assessed the devastation Jesus’ body took in the process. They concluded that “interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.” To put it another way, Jesus’ survival would have required a miracle just as much as his resurrection.
- Disciples wouldn’t worship it. When the disciples saw Jesus, they were convinced he had risen. They did not pity him. They did not call for a doctor. They worshipped him. They immediately went from hiding as cowards to preaching as apostles. Even Thomas was eventually convinced.
As it turns out, the swoon theory causes more problems than it solves.
Fact #2: Empty Tomb
Things really got interesting when Jesus’ body came up missing. It is undeniable that something happened to the body of Jesus; within a few days of his death, it was no longer in the tomb. Of course, the Jewish leaders could have silenced resurrection rumors by simply producing a body. As mutilated as Jesus would have been, a replacement would not even need to resemble him. However, they did not go that route. Jesus’ death and burial were too public to do so. Instead, their official story was that the disciples had stolen the body, which consequently presumes that the tomb was empty.
Furthermore, there were no competing stories until hundreds of years later. Some have recently suggested that the women visiting that Sunday morning were merely at the wrong tomb. However, if that were the case, it would have been all the more simple for Jesus’ enemies to point people to the right tomb, body still inside. Dr. Habermas with Dr. Michael Licona writes:
“If the women and disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, all that the Roman and Jewish authorities would have had to do would have been to go to the right tomb, exhume the body, publicly display it, and clear up the misunderstanding. …not a single critic is recorded to have even thought of this explanation for the Resurrection during the first few centuries of Christianity.”
In fact, during the second century, Justin Martyr and Tertullian mention how the story remained in circulation. Perhaps it goes without saying, that the story itself would have been completely unnecessary if the tomb still contained a body.
Regardless of one’s conclusions about what happened to Jesus’ body, there is no denying that by that following Sunday morning, the tomb was empty. Géza Vermes, distinguished Oxford professor of Jewish studies and decidedly not a Christian, wrote that “when every argument has been considered and weighed, the only conclusion acceptable to the historian must be…one disconcerting fact: namely that the women who set out to pay their last respects to Jesus found to their consternation, not a body, but an empty tomb.”
Objection: Stolen Body
Could the disciples have stolen the body of Jesus as Jesus’ enemies claimed?
- Perhaps if they had the courage. But, how could men who were too afraid to support Jesus at the crucifixion be bold enough to defy Jewish leadership and to face armed guards? What happened in three days time to change their mind so drastically?
- Perhaps if they had the resources. But, what resources could be available to men who gave up their livelihood three years prior to follow their leader for whom they could not even provide a proper burial (hence Joseph of Arimathea)?
- Perhaps if they had the plan. But, how could they have put together a heist slick enough to dupe the Sanhedrin and give the soldiers the slip when Jesus was only arrested a few days earlier?
- Perhaps if they had the gall. But, how could they have borne the immense shame of stealing a corpse which was infinitely disgraceful in ancient Jewish culture?
As it turns out, the stolen body theory causes more problems than it solves.
Fact #3: Eyewitness Accounts
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, the Apostle Paul writes what is arguably the most important statement about Jesus’ resurrection. He mentions Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, concluding with a quick rundown of those to whom Jesus appeared. The eyewitnesses mentioned included Cephas (Peter’s Aramaic name), the twelve, over five hundred others at once, James (the half-brother of Jesus), and (so as to sequence the events) all of the apostles.
This statement is so important, not only because of how clearly it was reported but also because of how early it was stated. Bible scholars of every stripe, including atheists and agnostics, believe that this statement of faith predates Paul’s letters by nearly two decades. Most agree that the creed originated no more than three years after the death of Christ, probably sooner, possibly within a few months.
Why is it so important to understand how early this statement was circulating?
First, because as Paul later mentions, most of the eyewitnesses to the resurrection were still living by that time. He publicly invited anyone who would not believe him to interview the disciples and over five hundred other eyewitnesses who claimed to see the resurrected Christ. This was a bold move, but completely understandable seeing that he was confident enough to add his name to that list. (See verse 8.)
Second, because it rules out the possibility of insignificant experiences growing into inaccurate legends as some accuse. The number of people to whom Jesus appeared was not inflated by legend; it was preserved by creed. “In other words,” Dr. Habermas writes, “there never was a time when the message of Jesus’ resurrection was not an integral part of the earliest apostolic proclamation.”
Eleven ancient sources confirm the fact that Jesus’ followers claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, the most notable examples being the Apostles, Paul, and James. Even if we refuse to agree that they saw Jesus alive and well days after his death, the evidence irrefutably demonstrates that they saw something. Jewish scholar Paula Frederickson states:
“I know in their own terms what they saw was the raised Jesus. That’s what they say and then all the historic evidence we have afterwards attest to their conviction that that’s what they saw. I’m not saying that they really did see the raised Jesus. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what they saw. But I do know as a historian that they must have seen something.”
So, what did they see?
Objection: Several Hallucinations
A common explanation for the eyewitness accounts is that Jesus’ followers, immensely distraught from losing their leader, were hallucinating. Scholars such as Bart Ehrman claim that “visionary experiences led them to conclude that Jesus was still alive.” However, as with naturalistic explanations of the other facts, the theory lacks explanatory power.
- Hallucinations would not have been shared. When people hallucinate, it is a psychological phenomenon, which happens in the mind. Much like dreams, they cannot be shared. It might be reasonable to suggest that individuals, like Mary and Peter, hallucinated Jesus. But, the multiple times that an entire group saw Jesus makes the suggestion of simple “visionary experiences” untenable. Were the two on the road to Emmaus hallucinating the same thing at the same time? What about the disciples? What about the crowd of over five hundred?
- Hallucinations would not have been interpreted as resurrection. Even if Jesus’ followers really did hallucinate his appearances, even if they actually had “visionary experiences,” their first-century minds would not have concluded that Jesus had risen from the dead. Theologian N.T. Wright is well-known for asserting that the idea of an individual bodily resurrection would have been completely incompatible with Jewish or Roman thinking in the first century. Therefore, upon seeing what they thought was Jesus, his followers would not have assumed resurrection. Yet, that is what they emphatically claim.
- Hallucinations would not have happened to Jesus’ enemy. After Jesus’ death, Saul, a Pharisee and sworn enemy of Christianity, would not have been looking for Jesus, much less longing for him. He had no emotional distress or overwhelming grief that drove him to hallucination. Any suggestion that he was a candidate for any “visionary experiences” is, as Dr. Habermas states, “mere conjecture apart from historical data.”
As it turns out, the hallucinations theory causes more problems than it solves.
Combination of Facts
As weak as the naturalistic explanations for these three facts are, they become even more inadequate when the three facts are taken together.
- If Jesus’ death were not so certain, then an empty tomb and his appearance would almost be expected. But, he most definitely died.
- If the tomb had not been empty, Jesus’ death would have been the tragedy his followers thought it was. Any claim of a post-execution appearance would have been immediately dismissed or interpreted as a vision. But, the tomb was most definitely empty. Even if the body was stolen, the resurrection appearances remain unexplained.
- If there had been no resurrection appearances, Jesus’ death would still not have been questioned, and the empty tomb would have simply pointed to grave robbing. But, Jesus’ followers most definitely saw something. Even if they were hallucinating, the empty tomb remains unexplained.
The bottom line is that the miraculous bodily resurrection of Jesus is the only plausible explanation for all three facts. What is more, this is a huge oversimplification. This post is a simple reduction of a line of reasoning developed by Dr. Gary Habermas known as the Minimal Facts Approach. His argument in its fullest form addresses twelve undisputed facts, quadrupling the power of the argument.
As we approach Resurrection Sunday,
Believer, understand and appreciate the historical reality that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For us, it is the Father’s confirmation that our faith is not in vain and that we are no longer in our sin. It is the validation of Christ’s promise, “he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25) It is the foundation of our hope that one day he will “wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.” (Revelation 21:4, 5)
Nonbeliever, understand that the resurrection is not something that God demands you believe blindly. Jesus Christ is reaching out to you with the same nail pierced hands with which he drew in Thomas in all his doubt. This Sunday may be just another Sunday for you, but it doesn’t have to be. Doubt your doubts. See that in explaining away the resurrection you don’t rid yourself of the need for faith. You simply place your faith in the past two hundred years of scientific bias, forfeiting the past two thousand years of historical witness. What Jesus Christ has done for so many, he can do for you. You may not believe in the resurrection, but you should want to.
 Michael Shermer, “How Might a Scientist Think about the Resurrection”. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://michaelshermer.com/2017/04/how-might-a-scientist-think-about-the-resurrection/.
 John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (New York: Harper Collins 1994), p. 145.
 William D. Edwards, et. al. (1986). “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ”. JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 255(11), 1455-1463.
 Garry R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Pub., 2004), p. 98.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 694.
 “Does the ‘1 Corinthians 15 creed’ date to about AD 30?” Retrieved March 24, 2018, from https://beliefmap.org/bible/1-corinthians/15-creed/date/.
 Gary Habermas, “Tracing Jesus’ Resurrection to Its Earliest Eyewitness Accounts,” God is Great, God is Good (InterVarsity Press, 2009), 212.
 Habermas and Licona, p. 60.
 Ruth Graham. (2014, April 20). “A provocative new theory of Easter,” The Boston Globe. Retrieved March 28, 2018, from https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/04/19/provocative-new-theory-easter/bzerglIENc30gvxKgExDBL/story.html
 Gary Habermas, “Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: the Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories” (2001). Faculty Publications and Presentations. Paper 107. http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/lts_fac_pubs/107
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