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Not long ago, I shared some of the evidences that point to the historicity of the resurrection. I recommend you to read my original post before you continue on if you haven’t already. In a nutshell, the case for the resurrection is built on a few historical facts that nearly all of modern scholarship accepts, even some of the more skeptical critics.
As a friendly reminder: This is not an argument for the general reliability of the New Testament, but rather these facts come from historians who treat the Bible like any other ancient historical document. (I’ll point out that I do personally believe in the inspiration of scripture, but that’s not what I’m arguing for now). With that in mind, here are a few of the facts they accept about what happened shortly after the crucifixion for review:
- Jesus’ tomb was found empty by several of his followers.
- His followers believed they experienced appearances of the risen Jesus. Paul persecuted the church, and James was a skeptic. Both were converted because of postmortem appearances of Jesus.
- The origin of the Christian movement.
The resurrection hypothesis fits all these facts nicely, but that’s not to say that there haven’t been any objections made to the conclusion that God raised Jesus from the dead. Obviously, if Jesus really did rise from the dead by a divine miracle, the implications are…well…pretty huge, and for many that’s an unwelcome thought.
Critics driven by an earlier commitment to naturalism – that is the view that nothing but natural laws work in the world - have suggested different naturalistic hypotheses to fit the evidence over the years. However, due to a lack of overall cogency of these alternative explanations, most of these opposing theories have been set aside.
For the sake of time, I’ll list out the major ones here and address why they don’t really work in a rather terse way. If you’d like me to discuss any of these more in greater detail, just ask in the comments and I’d be happy to oblige.
Jesus wasn’t really dead, AKA “the Swoon Theory”
- The Journal of American Medical Association helped put this to bed. The Roman executioners knew their job and performed it well.
- A half-dead Jesus isn’t going to convince his own followers he’s the triumphant Lord over death. And he certainly wouldn’t convince skeptics like Paul or James. They wouldn’t have seen him as the risen Lord, but as someone in desperate need of medical aid.
The Resurrection is just a parabolic legend not meant to be taken literally
- Most scholars agree that the gospels are written in a historical genre.
- The Jesus leaders took the disciple’s belief in the resurrection seriously enough that they claimed the disciples stole Jesus’ body in response to the movement. That presupposes an empty tomb, which this theory doesn’t explain.
- Parabolic legends wouldn’t have convinced the church persecutor Paul or the skeptic James.
- It seems strange to die for something that you essentially know is a lie or a fanciful parable. The disciples were willing to suffer and die for what they saw.
- The resurrection was preached from the outset. (e.g. the creed in 1 Corinthians 15, the sermon summaries in the Book of Acts). The story is too early to allow for legend.
The appearances were hallucinations
- Appearances were to individuals, skeptics and most notably groups. Group hallucinations aren’t possible.
- Hallucinations can’t account for the empty tomb.
The disciples stole the body
- Liars make terrible martyrs. What did they gain out of it? Persecution, affliction, torture.
- Paul and James’ faith was based on appearances.
The disciples went to the wrong tomb
- The burial story is well established. Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb would have been a well-known site.
- The disciples faith – including the converted skeptics – were based on appearances, not the empty tomb.
Could any of these stories be joined to account for the evidence? I suppose they could, but when you have to combine extraneous hypotheses to your theory to save it from being falsified, you’re usually not doing yourself any favors. Also, when you assign a certain percentage of chance to a theory and then have to combine it to another, the probability of the various theories all being true goes down, not up. For example:
- The women and disciples went to the wrong tomb – 60% likelihood.
- The disciples later hallucinated appearances – 60%
- Paul suffered some sort of conversion disorder – 60%
(.6 x .6 x .6) =21.6% likelihood. So combining different theories to fit the evidence doesn’t help.
The existential value
Some say that faith is a blind leap in the dark, but in light of the historical evidence, it seems pretty rational to accept the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. I remember being a skeptic and reading 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul describes the resurrection appearances years ago and thinking how different these sorts of claims were when compared to other religions. I mean, citing that nearly 500 living witnesses who could be questioned upon request wasn’t the typical “just have faith” type of response I may have heard.
Part of me didn’t want it to be true. I didn’t really want to rearrange my lifestyle or view of the world. But part of me this was wildly appealing. If Jesus was resurrected, then there was hope in this life and in the one hereafter. Quoting Paul
And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
If Christianity was true, then there was meaning to life and life beyond death. This was in stark contrast to some of the nihilistic rap music from the likes of 2pac I was baptizing my mind with as a teenager.
I see death around the corner, any day
Trying to keep it together, no one lives forever anyway
Strugglin and strivin, my destiny’s to die
Keep my finger on the trigger, no mercy in my eyes
In a ball of confusion, I think about my daddy
Madder than a ****, they never shoulda had me
Rather than facing the absurdity of life without God and embracing its “unyielding despair” as the famed atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, the man from Galilee called himself the Resurrection and the Life and then backed it up. If Christianity has any chance of being true – and there is plenty of justification in believing that to be the case – then I believe it is worth accepting, or at the very least, taking a hard look at. Hopefully what I’ve shared helps remove a few intellectual barriers that one might have.
In a future posts, I hope to discuss objections to miracles and the exclusivity of Christianity.