The very idea of a resurrection

Not Jesus' tomb, but a tomb none the less.

Image by callmetim via Flickr

I’ll be the first to admit it – the very idea of a resurrection, naturally speaking, is a pretty zany idea. (Yes, I said zany) It’s seen an affront on our modern sensibilities. Dead people simply do not come back to life after three days. So it seems crazy to some that Christians hang their faith on such an improbable event that supposedly happened in history.

But really, that is actually just a philosophical objection to miracles. It’s one I used to have, and I believe it’s worth answering. I’ll attempt to do so in a future post. But for now, believe it or not, regardless of what one thinks philosophically about miracles, there is actually some very solid historical evidence that backs up the claim of Jesus’ resurrection without appealing to Biblical inerrancy or special revelation. Rather historians approach the bible as any other work of ancient antiquity. Contemporary historical scholarship – liberal, moderate and conservative – share in common the acceptance of some bare facts about what happened after Jesus was crucified that might surprise you.  So what are these facts? There are actually several, but for now I’ll give just three.

1. The empty tomb

This fact is a little more contested, but Dr. Gary Habermas of Liberty University has compiled a list of more than 2,200 sources in French, German, and English in which experts have written on the resurrection from 1975 to the present. 75% agree to the empty tomb of Jesus. There are many reasons why they do, I’ll lay out three here.

  1. Christianity started and spread like wildfire in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was buried. The Jews and Romans both did not appreciate this young, new movement at all, which is exactly why they crucified Jesus. All they needed to do was produce a body and it would’ve ended it right there, or at the very least, ended it for the majority of Christians who would then begin to doubt the apostles claim of seeing the tomb empty.
  2. Stronger still, the enemies of Jesus did not contest that the tomb was empty. In fact, Matthew 28:15 tells us that the earliest Jewish response was to accuse the disciples of stealing the body.  Think about that for a second. Rather than just pointing to where Jesus was buried and just have a good laugh at the disciples’ expense, their opponents themselves admit the tomb was empty by saying the disciples stole the body.
  3. Women, of all people, were the first to report the empty tomb to the disciples and written in the gospels. In that day making up such a story would actually hurt their case, because women were second class citizens and were treated more like property than people. Take for instance such rabbinic sayings found in the Talmud, such as “blessed is he whose children are male, but cursed is he whose children are female”, or “sooner let the words of the Law be burnt, then to be delivered to the hands of women”. The famous Jewish historian Josephus notes that women’s testimony was not accepted in court. If the story was made up, the disciples would’ve reported themselves as the first witnesses of the empty tomb, and not damage their own case with this embarrassing admission.

2. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.

On multiple occasions and under different circumstances, people and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead. This fact is virtually undisputed among contemporary scholarship, even from among the most skeptical of scholars such as Gerd Lüdemann.

For one, we have Paul, who became a convert to Christianity after persecuting the church based on an experience with the risen Christ. He claimed the disciples saw the risen Christ.  Secondly, we have extremely early evidence of an oral tradition being passed along from 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 which says:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

Scholars believe this is a creed because of its style and non-Pauline language.  Paul converted around 1-3 years after the crucifixion.  This creed probably goes back at least to Paul’s fact-finding visit to Jerusalem around AD 36, when he spent two weeks with Peter and James (see Galatians 1:18-2:9).  At the very latest, he could have had it no later than when he visited the Corinthians in 51 AD. So this is extremely early source data, stuff historians geek over. It’s definitely far too early for legendary development.

Finally, no matter what critics think of the gospels, we also have them as source data of what the disciples believed they had saw written within 25-60 years after the fact.

Most importantly, we know they believed it. We have several ancient sources that show the disciples willingness to suffer and die for their claim. While people convert to different religions all the time, and may indeed be willing to die for their beliefs, the disciples would have known what they were suffering for was a lie or not. And liars tend to make bad martyrs.

3. The Jewish theological beliefs of the early Christian community underwent several alterations that are unexplainable apart from the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

These mostly come from historian N.T. Wright, and they are listed as follows.

  1. Jews had a long-going debate of the nature of the afterlife and resurrection. You can see this reflected in Jesus’ own time. The Sadducees believed there was no resurrection. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection (and Jesus sided with them) and that it would happen on the last day. There was no debate within the Christian community after the resurrection: You go to heaven when you die and then get a body identical to Jesus’ resurrection body on Judgment Day.
  2. Resurrection goes from a peripheral issue in Judaism to a central one in Christianity.
  3. There is also a new metaphorical concept of resurrection, referred to as being ‘born again’. The spirit of a person is already resurrected upon believing upon Jesus. (Romans 6:1-11). The body one day will be resurrected.
  4. There is a new association of the concept of resurrection to the Messiah. The Jewish Messiah was not thought to ever die, which is why they all abandoned Jesus, and why Peter went so far as to deny him.
  5. The idea of a single man resurrecting from the dead before the ‘last day’ was an entirely new idea.  Now Jesus is the “firstfruits” of those who rise.
  6. The Christians had a new eschatology which centered around the return of Christ.
  7. The concept of a suffering Messiah, bearing the sins of the world becomes part of the central message. This was a foreign idea before.

All told, these facts are rather inexplicable and naturalistic explanations don’t offer a full explanatory scope for them. In fact, most naturalistic explanations that have been contrived over the years have fallen by the wayside. The inference to the best explanation, whether we like it or not, is that the resurrection actually happened. The reason those who deny it does not seem to based on historical information, but because of their own presuppositions.

In future posts I’ll discuss some of the competing explanations and then we’ll deal with the so-called problem of miracles.


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