Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: ‘Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you….In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.’ When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ – Acts 17:22,30-32
The earliest followers of Jesus were emphatic about the centrality of the Resurrection to the gospel, the core message of Christianity. To those in the city of Corinth who were questioning the necessity and perhaps even the factuality of the Resurrection, the apostle Paul wrote: ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins’ (1. Cor. 15:17). The reason for this connection is clear if we understand the gospel itself. The gospel of Jesus does not say: “Here are the rules; if you obey them, God will bless you. Otherwise, God will curse you.” Rather the gospel says: “You have broken God’s rules and deserve God’s curse. But Jesus was crucified for your sins and raised to life as a declaration that payment was made in full. You can now be accepted by God not on the basis of what you have done but on the basis of what Jesus has done for you.” Without the Resurrection, says Paul, Christians would have no assurance that they are accepted by God or that Jesus has truly paid their debt in full. Consequently, the factuality of the Resurrection is of utmost importance to Christians.
But the factuality of the Resurrection is also of great importance to atheists and agnostics. Many people ask “if God does exist, why doesn’t He provide us with some miraculous sign? Why doesn’t He perform some amazing miracle that would be so inescapable as to leave us in no doubt of His existence?” I think there are several serious assumptions implicit in such a question, but let me pass them over for now and ask in response: what if He has? What if there is one clear, central miracle in the very midst of human history? Let me even suggest that the miracles most agnostics are thinking of are actually far less useful than the one that God has provided. After all, the message “GOD EXISTS!!!” written across the moon in thirty foot high flaming letters (with apologies to Douglas Adams), might tell us that God exists but it would tell us almost nothing useful about Him. It still would leave us with no idea who this God is, what He is like, or how we can relate to Him. On the other hand, the Resurrection of Jesus is God’s vindication of His ultimate revelation to humanity, Jesus Christ himself. In raising Jesus from the dead, God was declaring that this humble, poor, itinerant carpenter from Nazareth who preached about holiness and judgment and love and forgiveness, was His unique and beloved Son through whom we could be reconciled to Himself. Consequently, considering the historicity and meaning of the Resurrection is important for Christians and non-Christians alike. If it did indeed occur, then it is the pivot on which all of human history turns.
In this essay, I’d like to make the case for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the first half of the essay, I’ll present several arguments for the historicity of the Resurrection. However, it would be incomplete to conclude the essay having only presented the evidence. When it comes to our consideration of the Resurrection, several major issues arise concerning our worldview, our presuppositions, and ultimately our motivations. So in the second half of the essay, I’ll discuss how our precommitments color our response to the Resurrection and our response to Jesus himself. My hope is that regardless of your current beliefs, this essay will draw you into a deeper reflection on the claims of Jesus Christ.
One of the more interesting essays I’ve read on the subject of the Resurrection was written by agnostic Jeffrey Jay Lowder, the co-founder and former president of the atheist website infidels.org. In his essay The Historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection he talks about how he first encountered evidence for the Resurrection during a talk by Christian apologist Josh McDowell and later while listening to a debate between atheist Frank Zindler and Christian William Lane Craig (to whom this essay is greatly indebted). I’ll quote Lowder’s introduction at some length because I find it so honest and interesting:
‘Did Jesus rise from the dead’, I asked myself. Josh McDowell, the Craig-Zindler Debate, and the fact that my Christian friends always talked about it (I didn’t understand its importance at this point), all had me wondering.
Eventually I decided to investigate for myself. As I began to survey the secular literature for critical information on the resurrection of Jesus, I was completely surprised by what I found. Or, more accurately, what I didn’t find…I found that it was extremely difficult to find anything in the freethought literature about the historicity of the resurrection…
Gradually, out of sheer frustration with the shortage of material critical of the McDowell school of apologetics, I started seeking information on the Internet about McDowell. One thing led to another, and I am now the editor of The Jury Is In: The Ruling on Josh McDowell’s “Evidence”, an on-line refutation of Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict…
Just as I was about to discard the resurrection of Christ as “another illogical religious belief,” I was reintroduced to another Christian apologist, whose apologetic for the resurrection I found extremely difficult to deal with as a critic.
William Lane Craig, who in my opinion is the best Christian apologist today, is a top-notch scholar, and a highly competitive debater to boot (the same Craig who defeated Zindler)… In my opinion, Craig makes a very strong case for the historicity of the resurrection, a case which I don’t think the secular literature has given serious consideration.
In this essay, I want to discuss why I think the resurrection is an important historical issue that needs to be addressed by both Christians and skeptics. Next I examine the whole question of miracles, and the implications for this debate. Then I want to give brief overview of popular and scholarly arguments for and against the resurrection, and outline the strengths and weakness of both sides.
Notice that Lowder acknowledges that it is possible to make a strong case for the historicity of the Resurrection. This acknowledgment is important, because many skeptics dismiss the Resurrection off-handedly, assuming that no evidence could possibly exist. A second mistake people often make is to approach the Resurrection as if it were a purely subjective, personal issue rather one that is accessible to objective investigation. On the one hand, as I’ll discuss in the next section, it is impossible to consider the Resurrection apart from considerations of worldview, presuppositions, and our personal response. However, if the Resurrection of Jesus is real event that occurred in history, then we can also approach it from a historical perspective.
Before we can examine the evidence, we must first assess the reliability of the New Testament documents since these provide us with the most accurate information we have about the life and ministry of Jesus. One of the easiest ways to discount the historicity of the Resurrection and of Christianity in general is to claim that the records we have of Jesus’ life are legendary rather than historical. The main problem with such claims is that they run counter to a massive amount of evidence that we have for the general historical reliability of the New Testament.
First of all, the idea that the New Testament accounts are purely legendary creations contradicts the (non-Christian) scholarly consensus regarding the dating of the New Testament documents. The scholars who originated the idea that the New Testament was purely mythological assumed that the New Testament documents were composed in the second or third centuries, long after any eyewitnesses had died out. The discovery of numerous early manuscripts, the most compelling of which is probably the Rylands Library papyrus, has demonstrated that these late dates are completely implausible. The Rylands fragment contains passages from the Gospel of John and is believed to have originated in Egypt sometime around 125 A.D., placing a fairly hard upper limit on the composition of the Gospel of John, the latest of the four gospels. Consequently, the majority of non-evangelical scholars now date all four of the gospels between 65 A.D. for the gospel of Mark (which is believed to be the earliest gospel composed) to 120 A.D. for the gospel of John (interestingly, early Christian historians recorded that John was the youngest disciple and died of extreme old age in Patmos). I personally think the NT documents were written earlier than this, but even if we assume that these dates are correct then the gospels would have been composed within the lifetime of the apostles and other eyewitnesses of the life of Jesus. In contrast, proponents of the “Jesus myth” theory must push the composition of these documents back much later to plausibly argue that all true information about Jesus, if he existed, was lost in the sands of time before the New Testament was written (see A Somewhat Lengthy Response to The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man for a response to one such work).
Second, non-Christian authors from the first- and second-centuries confirm the accounts of Jesus and the early Church that we have in the New Testament. From non-Christian authors such as Josephus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, and Tacitus, we learn that a man named Jesus lived in first-century Palestine in Judea during the reign of Pontius Pilate, that he was called the Christ (the Greek word for ‘Messiah’), was crucified under Pilate, and was worshipped as a god by his followers who continued to grow in number despite his crucifixion. These accounts also confirm several other details mentioned in the New Testament, such as the name of Jesus’ brother James (Gal. 1:19), the practice of communion (1 Cor. 11:20-29) (or at least a communal fellowship meal, Acts 2:42-47), the refusal of Christians to acknowledge other gods (1 Cor. 10:18-21; Luke 12:8-9), and the moral practices of the early Christians (Gal. 5:19-24). Although we have a great deal of information about Jesus and the early Church from extra-biblical Christian writers (Clement, Ignatius, Justin Martyr), some of whom explicitly mention having contact with eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life or the subjects of his healings (Papias quoted by Eusebius), I think these non-Christian sources are the most compelling because the authors had no allegiance to Christianity or any desire to bolster the claims of what they considered a ‘mischievous superstition’.
Third, a substantial amount of archeological evidence supports numerous central and supporting details in the New Testament. For instance, archaeologists have found the burial box of the high priest Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57-67), the synagogue at Capernaum (Mark 1:21-28), Jacob’s well (John 4), the pool at Bethesda (John 5:1-14), the pool at Siloam (John 9:1-14), the theater at Ephesus (Acts 19:29), Herod’s palace at Caesera (Acts 23:33-35). In Acts, Luke uses the correct regional titles for government officials in Thessalonica (‘politarchs’), Ephesus (‘temple wardens’), Cyprus (‘proconcil’), and Malta (‘the first man of the island’). Physical evidence such as inscriptions have also confirmed such figures as governor Pontius Pilate, Gallio proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17), Erastus city treasurer of Corinth (Rom 16:23), Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene (Luke 3:1).
In summary, the idea that the New Testament documents are legendary and mythological does not accord with either their date of composition or the large amount of supporting evidence that we have for their historical accuracy. For more information on the historicity of the New Testament, the classic text is F.F. Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?. More recent works include John McCray’s Archaeology and the New Testament and Richard Baukham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Of course, the general reliability of the New Testament does not prove that the Resurrection occurred, but it does prevent us from discounting these documents as legitimate historical sources or dismissing them entirely without ever considering their claims.
Having made a brief case for the general reliability of the New Testament documents, let’s now consider the evidence for the Resurrection in particular. In my opinion, the case for the historicity of the Resurrection does not hinge so much on a single piece of evidence as on the collective weight of many pieces of evidence. In this section, I’ll present what I believe are several of the most convincing pieces of evidence and will also discuss some of the objections to each.
1. The Resurrection accounts pass three major critical tests for historicity.
Modern critical scholars –such as the participants of the widely known Jesus Seminar- assume that only a small fraction of the New Testament is historical and that the majority of the material is either fictional or only loosely based on historical facts. To determine what material is historical, they use three major criteria 1) the criterion of multiple attestation 2) the criterion of embarrassment 3) the criterion of dissimilarity. If a saying or action recorded in the New Testament gospels meets one or more of these criteria, it is considered more likely –though by no means certain- that this material is historical. Obviously, as an evangelical Christian, I believe that there are serious flaws in the assumptions made by these scholars. But as we will see below, the Resurrection accounts meet all three of these major criteria of historicity.
a) the criterion of multiple attestation – scholars assume that incidents which are recorded in more than one independent source are more likely to be authentic. The Resurrection clearly meets the criterion of multiple attestation. In fact, I don’t know if there is any other event in the New Testament attested by more sources. Mark (Mark 16), John (John 20) and Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 15:1-8) all give independent accounts of the Resurrection. In addition, Matthew (Matt. 28) and Luke (Luke 24) – which are both believed to rely on Mark’s gospel as a source- provide details in their accounts of the Resurrection that appear to be independent of Mark’s account. Hence, we potentially have five independent accounts of the Resurrection within the New Testament. Given that scholars accept attestation by even two independent sources as an indication of historicity, the Resurrection clearly satisfies this criterion.
b) The criterion of embarrassment – scholars assume that incidents which would have created embarrassment or difficulty for the early church are more likely to be authentic . To see how this criteria is applied to the Resurrection, we need to consider that in all the gospel accounts, the first witnesses of the Resurrection are women (see Mark 16:1-3 which scholars believe is the earliest gospel account written). Although this fact does not seem particularly surprising to modern readers, we should remember that women in the ancient world were accorded such low status that their testimony was not valid in a court of law. Hence, there must have been tremendous pressure on the early church to alter the Resurrection accounts to make Peter or one of the other prominent male disciples the first witnesses of the Resurrection. The fact that all the accounts preserve the discovery by female disciples is most plausibly explained by the hypothesis that the gospel writers did not feel at liberty to tamper with the historical record.
c) The criterion of dissimilarity – scholars assume that if sayings or events in the gospels are incongruous with Jewish, Christian, or pagan beliefs, they are more likely to be authentic. In this case, we run into a problem since the Resurrection could not possibly be incongruous with Christian beliefs; in fact, the earlier Christians held that this event was the cornerstone of all Christian belief! However, it is interesting to consider how a belief in the bodily Resurrection of Jesus would have been viewed by either Jewish or pagan (Greek) society. The Jews believed in a general resurrection of all people at the end of time (as Christians still do today), but the idea that a single individual could be Resurrected in the middle of history would have been preposterous. In fact, in the decades before and after Jesus there were many people who claimed to be the Messiah, who gathered large followings, and who were eventually captured and killed by the Romans. In no other case did the followers of these figures ever claim that their leader had been Resurrected. Such a belief would have been bizarre and unbelievable to contemporary Jewish ears. Similarly, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus would have been repugnant to Greeks, who believed that matter was evil. The idea of a spiritually “resurrected” god may have been plausible; indeed, later Gnostic beliefs expunged the distasteful idea of a physical resurrection. But a physical Resurrection would have been both implausible and unpalatable to Greeks. In this sense, the Christian doctrine of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus appears to have no antecedents in either Jewish or Greek culture and therefore meets the criteria of dissimilarity (see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Chapters 2-4 for a discussion of the pagan and Jewish concepts of the soul, the afterlife, and the possibility of resurrection).
As seen above, these criteria corroborate- although they do not prove- the historicity of the Resurrection accounts. To argue that the accounts are complete fabrications, one would have to answer the following questions: 1) why do we have five independent accounts of a fictitious event? One could deny these sources are independent and argue that a single, extremely early account (prior to Paul’s letters in 50-60 A.D.) was elaborated and modified by five different authors; however, in no other case do scholars believe there is such a single source to which all the evangelists and Paul had access. Why would we hypothesize such a source only in this case? 2) why do all four gospel accounts record women discovering the empty tomb? This fact would have been incredibly embarrassing to the early church. If the accounts were complete fabrications, why did the authors not advance Peter or John as the first witnesses? 3) where did the idea of a bodily Resurrection come from? No other crucified Jewish messianic figure was ever claimed to have been bodily Resurrected. Such a claim would also have been a major stumbling block to the Greeks that the apostles were trying to evangelize (see the incredulous Athenians response to Paul in Acts 17 quoted at the beginning of this essay). Pagan myths of gods dying and rising in some spiritual realm (to mark the advent of Spring, for instance) were not equivalent to the bold assertion that a Jew from Nazareth physically rose from the dead with nail marks in his hand and ate fish with his disciples. If the Resurrection was invented to attract converts, why invent such an implausible, distasteful story? In my opinion, dismissing the accounts as complete fabrications is hard to square with the evidence. Instead, many critics who reject the Resurrection still believe that the accounts preserve certain historical elements such as the discovery of an empty tomb by women and the disciples’ belief that they had seen Jesus.
2. Based on their character and the suffering they endured, the apostles must have actually believed that Jesus had been resurrected.
There are two complementary points here, although the latter may carry more weight than the former depending on one’s cynicism. First, anyone who has read the New Testament recognizes that the ethical standards of the apostles were incredibly high. These men had given up all they had to follow Jesus and to learn from him. They are the ones who recorded Jesus’ beloved and utterly radical teachings on loving ones’ enemies and turning the other cheek (Lk. 6:27-36; see also Mt. 5:43-48). They founded early Christian communities that were heavily populated by slaves, outcasts, and the poor (1 Cor. 1:26-31). They brought together people of all races and classes and viewed one another as brothers and sisters (Gal. 3:26-30). Based on these observations, it would be extremely incongruous if these same men were consciously lying about having seen Jesus and were encouraging thousands of other Jews and Gentiles to risk persecution and death for a man whom they knew to be dead. In response, the obvious suggestion is that the disciples must have had some selfish ulterior motives for the promulgation of Christianity. But we then must explain our second observation: the extreme suffering and persecution endured by the apostles.
In Acts 4-5, it is recorded that Peter and John were both beaten and imprisoned for preaching about Jesus’ Resurrection just a short time after it occurred. We have good evidence that Peter was crucified in Rome under the reign of Nero and that the apostle John was exiled to Patmos and died hundreds of miles from his home. Josephus tells us that James, the brother of Jesus and another witness of the Resurrection, was stoned to death. The apostle Paul, who also claimed to have seen the risen Jesus, was imprisoned numerous times, flogged, beaten, and stoned before being executed in Rome around 69 A.D. We have less information about the other apostles, but according to early church historians, eleven out of the twelve apostles were put to death for their Christian beliefs. Even if we are not certain whether all the apostles were martyred, there is almost no doubt that they suffered terribly for their faith. Yet there is no record of any of them ever renouncing their belief that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. All of this raises the question: what did the apostles have to gain? Surely, a man might die for what he believes to be true, but would anyone die for what he knows with certainty to be a lie? I can think of many examples of men and women dying for their beliefs, but cannot think of any examples of people dying for what they know to be false. Of course, the martyrdom of the apostles does not prove that Jesus did rise from the dead, but it seems to indicate that the apostles truly believed that they had seen him risen from the dead.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rebuttal to this point as most skeptics are willing to affirm that, based on their willingness to suffer and die, the apostles must have believed that Jesus was indeed Resurrected.
3. The rapid growth of the early church and the accusation of a stolen body are consistent with the conclusion that the tomb was indeed empty.
Two pieces of evidence support the conclusion that the tomb in which Jesus was placed was actually empty. First, the rapid spread of Christianity in Jerusalem and throughout the Roman world does not seem plausible if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. According to the book of Acts, the apostles began to preach about the Resurrection approximately forty days after Jesus’ crucifixion (see Acts 2). In his first sermon to a crowd of thousands, Peter declared that Jesus’ tomb was empty because he had risen from the dead. How would such a claim have led to a growing Jewish-Christian movement if the body of Jesus lay accessible in the tomb, especially given the animosity of the civic and religious leaders in Jerusalem to the Christians’ preaching? In fact, the second point is related to the first. We have no evidence that the Jewish leaders ever produced a body to counter the claims of the apostles. But at the end of Matthew’s gospel we do have a fascinating statement about the dispute between the Jewish leaders and the early Christians (Mt. 28:11-15). Matthew says that the Jewish leaders claimed that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body, but that this claim is impossible because the tomb was guarded by soldiers. Matthew’s statement is clearly an apologetic: he is trying to refute a Jewish counterargument to the Resurrection. But why would he refute such a counterargument if the Jewish leaders were instead arguing that there was still a body in the tomb? This passage seems to indicate that the early Christians did have to respond to the accusation that they stole the body, but never had to respond to the charge that the tomb was not empty.
Again, many skeptics take the account of the empty tomb seriously enough to construct scenarios which could account for its existence (see below). If one wants to refute the idea of the empty tomb, I think that the most plausible way is to claim that the early Christian movement in Jerusalem was too small to attract attention before it was too late for the authorities to produce a body. To make this explanation plausible, one would have to dismiss the accounts of the rapid growth of the early church presented in Acts. Furthermore, given Jesus’ very public crucifixion at the hands of the Romans and the rapid growth of the Christian movement within Jerusalem and throughout the Roman Empire, it seems unlikely that the apostles claims could have flown ‘under the radar’ until it was too late (recall that Suetonius appears to attribute the expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 50A.D. to their continual debates about Jesus). In addition, why would Matthew have included a rebuttal to the claim that the disciples stole the body if no one had ever claimed that the body had been stolen? And why would someone claim that the body had been stolen unless the tomb was indeed empty? Although I think it is possible to deny the empty tomb, the evidence that we have seems to support its factuality.
4. Paul, a vehement opponent of Christianity, suddenly became its most vocal proponent, attributing his conversion to an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus.
All of the evidence so far mainly deals with the testimony of those who were Jesus’ intimate followers from the very beginning of his ministry. Therefore, one might envision constructing an alternative scenario based on some kind of hallucination or even a conspiracy by the disciples. However, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus offers a completely independent data point that must be incorporated into any explanation (after his conversion, ‘Saul’ changed his name to ‘Paul’). According to both the book of Acts (see Acts 8:1-3) and Paul’s own letters, Saul of Tarsus was a violent persecutor of Christians. But he went from being the early church’s greatest opponent to one of the leading Christian apostles after claiming to have encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus (see Acts 9:1-17; Gal. 1:11-17). The weight of this piece of evidence is profound. First, Paul’s conversion put him at immediate odds with the Jewish religious leaders in every city to which he travelled. In his second letter to the Corinthians, which is undisputedly regarded as authentic by non-evangelical scholars, Paul records the hardships that his faith has brought him:
Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. – 2 Cor. 11:24-27
But in this case, the physical consequences of his conversion are perhaps even less of a factor than the religious consequences. Paul was a very well-educated, devout Jew of the party of the Pharisees, one of the most strict and pious of the Jewish sects (see Phil. 3:4-6). Like many Pharisees, he regarded the claims of Jesus’ followers – that their master was the divine Messiah – to be not only false, but utterly blasphemous (see Acts 22:2-5, 1 Tim. 1:13). In contrast, Peter, John, and the other disciples were mostly uneducated fishermen who had been intimately associated with Jesus throughout his ministry. Therefore, it is conceivable that they could have gradually become convinced of Jesus’ messiahship and divinity as he taught them. However, Paul underwent a complete transformation of his worldview in a matter of days. He went from regarding Jesus as a false prophet who would lead his followers into perdition, to believing that he was the unique Son of God who alone offered salvation to all mankind. I have not read of anyone who denies that for this radical shift to occur, some event of tremendous psychological magnitude must have taken place.
The most common explanation that I have heard for Paul’s conversion is some kind of hallucination or seizure. Again, such an explanation affirms that Paul truly believed he had seen the risen Jesus and therefore accounts for his subsequent sincerity. Not being a trained psychologist, I cannot say whether this explanation is technically plausible, but as a layman it does strike me as unlikely. Is it common for a epileptic fit to completely and permanently alter one’s deepest beliefs? It might be possible, but I can’t imagine that it happens routinely.
5. In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he claims that hundreds of witnesses saw the risen Jesus at the same time.
In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which is undisputedly attributed to Paul and is usually dated between 53-57 A.D., Paul is countering the claims of aberrant teachers who assert that bodily resurrection is impossible. To refute their claims, Paul points out that bodily resurrection must be possible since Jesus rose from the dead. He then makes the following statement:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. – 1 Cor. 15:3-8
In addition to affirming the Resurrection appearances of Jesus that are recorded in the gospels, Paul states that 500 Christians saw the resurrected Jesus at the same time. It is important to note that Paul adds that most of these witnesses are still living, the implication being that the Corinthians could potentially go and question them.
If we want to rebut this point, there are two possibilities. First, we could claim that Paul was fabricating Jesus’ appearance to five hundred eyewitnesses. But this explanation seems unlikely since the other people mentioned in Paul’s list of Resurrection appearances are independently confirmed by other sources in the gospels. If these other people really believed that they had seen Jesus, then what evidence do we have that this final item was fabricated? Also, travel was relatively easy between Corinth and Jerusalem during the Pax Romana. Would Paul risk making a blatantly false public statement that could be easily verified? Alternatively, we could claim –as many skeptics do- that there was indeed an appearance to five hundred eyewitnesses, but that this appearance was some kind of mass hallucination so that the witnesses were sincere, but deceived.
6. The alternative explanations of the Resurrection are highly improbable.
Lastly, I think it is very important to consider what alternative, naturalistic explanations have been put forward to explain the Resurrection. As I mentioned before, many skeptics assume that there must be some plausible, naturalistic explanation for the Resurrection without ever considering the evidence. Therefore, as Jeff Lowder mentioned in his essay, the implausibility of alternative claims can come as quite a surprise. The following is a list of the major competing naturalistic explanations for the Resurrection:
a) the “swoon hypothesis” – Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but merely fainted. He was buried alive but later reawoke in the tomb and appeared to his disciples who believed he had been Resurrected.
b) the “reburial hypothesis” – Jesus was supposed to be buried in a criminal’s grave, but due to Sabbath time constraints, Joseph of Arimithea had to temporarily place Jesus’ body in his own tomb. After the Sabbath, Joseph reburied Jesus in the unmarked criminal’s grave without telling his disciples. The disciples came to the tomb, discovered it empty, and imagined that they saw Jesus.
c) “the twin hypothesis” – Jesus had a twin brother, probably Thomas called Didymus (Gk. for ‘twin’). Jesus died on the cross, but later the disciples saw his twin from a distance and rumor spread that Jesus had been resurrected.
d) “the hypnosis hypothesis” – Jesus used hypnosis to fake the resurrection and convince his disciples that he had risen from the dead.
e) ‘the stolen body hypothesis’ – someone, probably Jesus’ family members, stole Jesus’ body to rebury it elsewhere without the disciples’ knowledge. The disciples came to the tomb, discovered it empty, and imagined that they saw Jesus.
Although there are others, the theories listed above are the most frequently used alternative explanations for the Resurrection. They are not wildly unpopular, marginal ideas that I am setting up as straw men. These are the real, alternative explanations that have been used by serious, knowledgeable skeptics during public debates with Christians. Without pointing out the specific weakness of these explanations, two general observations can be made:
First, what is significant is that the skeptics who advanced and make use of these theories apparently believe that some kind of explanation for the New Testament account and the testimony of the apostles is historically necessary. They do not advance the extremely popular – but historically implausible- claim that the New Testament accounts are all mythological and can simply be dismissed or ignored. Second, the only element of the Resurrection narratives that all of these scenarios actually addresses is the empty tomb; independent explanations of Paul’s conversion and the three-hundred eyewitnesses mentioned in 1 Cor. 15 are still needed, even if we are willing to attribute the disciples’ experiences to grief-induced hallucination.
Based on the evidence presented in this section, one is led to the conclusion that naturalistic alternative accounts for the Resurrection are, on an absolute scale, highly improbable. No one doubts the Resurrection because there is a highly probable alternative explanation. In fact, every alternative explanation relies on a series of unlikely, independent, chance events (a body stolen by grave robbers, grief-induced hallucination on the part of the disciples, repeated mass hallucinations of the other Resurrection witnesses, an epileptic fit on the part of Paul) that cumulatively produced the evidence we now have. It is very important for skeptics to reflect on this fact. Any explanation for any other historical event –say the Kennedy assassination- which depended on grave robbery, repeated mass hallucinations, and the life-transforming seizure of a hostile witness would be regarded as wildly implausible. Yet this is the best explanation provided by alternative theories.
To understand why the average person is skeptical of the historicity of the Resurrection, we need to dig deeper than the evidence itself. The reason the average person is skeptical of the Resurrection is that they are evaluating the probability of alternative naturalistic explanations relative to the supernatural explanation. They reject the Resurrection not because the naturalistic explanations are plausible, but because they believe that any naturalistic explanation, no matter how implausible, is more plausible than a supernatural explanation. Consequently, it is impossible to discuss belief or disbelief in the Resurrection without turning to the subject of worldview, which will be the topic of the next section.
To begin this section, I’d like to return to Jeff Lowder’s essay’s The Historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection. After summarizing the significance of the Resurrection, the presuppositions of atheistic and theistic worldviews, and the contemporary state of the debate over the Resurrection, he concludes his essay with the following remarks:
Both sides [atheists and Christians] are correct within their worldview… Unless atheists can demonstrate that theism is irrational or that the historical evidence for a material resurrection is lacking, they are unlikely to convince many theists to reject the resurrection. Similarly, Christian apologists need to recognize that, until atheists are shown that theism is plausible, atheists will continue to regard the resurrection as a highly implausible event… I think it is rational to both accept and reject the resurrection. I think there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection (a lá Craig), but I also think there are good reasons to reject such arguments. I realize this may sound like a cop-out to some, but I think it is quite reasonable, especially when the issue of prior probability is taken into consideration.
If we consider this statement carefully, it is quite surprising. On the one hand, Lowder says that there are two ways to convince Christians that the Resurrection did not happen: first, if it can be demonstrated “that theism is irrational” or second, if it can be shown “that the historical evidence for a material resurrection is lacking”. On the other hand, he says that atheists will be convinced that the Resurrection did happen only if they can be convinced “that theism is plausible.” In other words, Lowder is saying that it is not the historical evidence for or against the Resurrection that is ultimately behind the disbelief of atheists, but their atheism itself. Is this really the case?
To assess his statement, we need to examine in more detail the issue of belief formation. Many modern atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris would claim that the atheistic position is one based solely on reason and rationality, unlike religious belief which is founded on faith (which they usually define as belief that is independent of -and often contrary to- evidence). Science and reason, they would argue, are the opposite of religious claims because they exclude any element of the subjective and are based purely on objective fact and empirical evidence. However, such claims can only be maintained if one does not look carefully into how reason, rationality, and the scientific method actually work. In reality, reason and logic and the scientific method cannot operate independent of presuppositions. Philosophers of science and mathematicians now recognize that there is no field, not even symbolic logic, which can be formulated without assuming a set of axioms, propositions which are taken “on faith”. It is certainly helpful to consider which presuppositions are the most useful and which have the most explanatory power, but at the end of the day, presuppositions are not rigorously, empirically justifiable. At the root of every chain of reason and logic, we find a firm, unmovable, inescapable foundation of presuppositions– beliefs that are logically prior to any empirical evidence.
Although this claim is probably horrifying to many atheists, it can be formulated rigorously using Bayes’ theorem. Bayes’ theorem is the mathematically rigorous formula that expresses how we evaluate the truth of some hypothesis based on our evidence and our prior knowledge/assumptions. Bayes’ theorem states that the conditional probability P(H|E) that some hypothesis H is true given some evidence E depends on three quantities: the conditional probability P(E|H) of E given H, the prior probability P(E) of E, and the prior probability P(H) of H. Bayes’ theorem can be expressed as a very simple formula: P(H|E) = P(E|H) P(H) / P(E). For the purposes of this essay, the key observation is that the probability P(H|E) that some hypothesis is true necessarily depends on the background probabilities P(E) and P(H), which demand some a priori knowledge of the likelihood of both hypothesis H and evidence E.
An example will help to illustrate how this formula works in practice and how the prior probabilities P(E) and P(H) influence our conclusions. Let’s say that I am an astronomer and I detect a radio signal from Neptune that encodes the message “Hello earthlings”. I would like to know the probability that there is intelligent life on Neptune (hypothesis H) based on the detected signal (evidence E). The first element needed to apply Bayes’ theorem is P(E|H), the probability that if there is intelligent life on Neptune (hypothesis H), I would detect the signal (evidence E). The second element is P(H), my estimate of the probability that there is intelligent life on Neptune independent of (i.e. prior to) my observation of the signal. The third element is P(E), my estimate of the probability that I would observe the signal “Hello earthlings” whether or not there is intelligent life on Neptune. Each of these three factors will influence my calculation of P(H|E). For instance, I might consider it very likely that there exists intelligent elsewhere in the universe, leading to a high a priori probability P(H) and hence a high value for P(H|E). However, my colleague Dave might consider it highly improbable that there exists intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. He would therefore use a much lower value for P(H), leading to a low value for P(H|E). Even if we were to completely agree on the validity of the evidence itself and the values of P(E) and P(E|H), our assessment of the a priori probability P(H) would alter our conclusions. This example is only an illustration, since our assumptions about the probability of the existence of extraterrestrial life are usually not properly basic – that is, they are not strict presuppositions but are themselves derived quantities. Prior probabilities play a much more important role when the evidence we are examining touches on very fundamental assumptions that each of us makes about the nature of reality.
Our consideration of the Resurrection is one such case; therefore Bayes’ theorem will prove extremely helpful in identifying how our presuppositions influence our conclusions. To formulate our discussion according to Bayesian inferenece, we let H be the hypothesis that Jesus rose from the dead and we let E be the evidence that we’ve outlined above: the Resurrection accounts in the NT, the testimony of the apostles, etc… To calculate the probability that Jesus rose from the dead given the observed evidence, we need to estimate: 1) The probability P(E|H) that if Jesus did indeed rise from the dead that we would observe the evidence E, 2) The a priori probability P(E) that we would observe the evidence E regardless of whether Jesus rose from the dead or not, 3) The a priori probability P(H) that Jesus rose from the dead. We can write down one other equation that will be helpful. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then the cause of his Resurrection was either natural or it was not natural (that is, it was either the natural outcome of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology or it violated these laws). Thus we can write P(H) = PN(H) +PS(H) where PN(H) is the a priori probability that there was a natural cause for Jesus’ Resurrection (i.e. Jesus’ wounds spontaneously healed due to a quantum fluctuation) and PS(H) is the probability that there was a supernatural cause for Jesus’ Resurrection (i.e. God raised Jesus from the dead).
The advantage of writing out these equations is that we can identify precisely where atheistic and theistic assessments of the Resurrection differ. For instance, atheists and Christians would probably assign very similar values to P(E|H), PN(H) and P(E). Atheists and Christians would agree that if Jesus rose from the dead, the New Testament accounts and the apostles’ testimony follow naturally (i.e. P(E|H) is large). Both atheists and Christians would also agree that PN(H) is incredibly low; from what we know of human physiology the chance of someone spontaneously rising from the dead after actually dying is astronomically small. Finally, atheists and Christians might differ somewhat on the value of P(E), the probability that the New Testament accounts and the apostles’ testimony would have arisen whether or not the Resurrection happened, but I suspect that the values would differ only by a few orders of magnitude.
Essentially, Christians and atheists differ significantly only on a single term in our equations: PS(H), the probability that a supernatural cause effected Jesus’ Resurrection. The difference in this one term seems to account for the fact that atheists disbelieve the Resurrection while Christians accept it. To a Christian or a theist in general, it is possible that God could raise someone from the dead; the precise value we assign to PS(H) will depend on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes in history (i.e. does God have the power to raise someone from the dead? Does God desire to make himself known to humanity? What are God’s purposes for humanity?). However, an atheist who believes that miracles are impossible by definition must assign a value of zero to this quantity. If we work through the math of Bayes’ theorem, we find that an atheist will regard the probability of the Resurrection as roughly the same as the probability of a corpse spontaneously and naturally reanimating, which both Christians and atheists would agree is astronomically small. Roughly speaking, the final probability P(H|E) that we assign to the Resurrection will be proportional to PS(H); hence our assessment of the evidence for the Resurrection depends unavoidably on our assumptions about the plausibility of God’s existence and his intervention. As Lowder said in his essay, it is not fundamentally the evidence for the Resurrection that differentiates Christian and atheistic conclusions, but our presuppositions about the miraculous.
One common objection to this argument is that a disbelief in the supernatural is not an assumption at all, but rather a thoroughly empirical, evidence-based belief. This line of reasoning says that since there has never been a single example of the miraculous in all of history, the only reasonable conclusion is that miracles cannot happen. There are three major problems with such a statement. The first is that this argument is circular. If we are examining the Resurrection to determine whether or not a miracle has occurred in the middle of human history, then we cannot appeal to the statement that miracles have never occurred in human history to settle the question. To do so is to assume the answer to the very question we are trying to evaluate. Second, quantum mechanics has radically changed the deterministic, Newtonian view of the universe on which this objection is based. Quantum mechanics tells us that there is a non-zero probability for any event at all to occur. Of course, extraordinary events like the spontaneous materialization of a ham sandwich are extraordinarily improbable; but we can no longer object that they are forbidden by the laws of physics (for more information, see my essay Quantum Mechanics and Materialism). Third, even if we ignore the significance of quantum mechanics, the claim that the observed regularity of the universe rigorously implies the impossibility of miracles is simply a logical fallacy (see renowned atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell’s essay ‘On Induction’ for a discussion of the impossibility of proving the uniformity of the natural laws by induction).
Consider a biologist studying sheep to determine whether they can ever be black. After observing thousands of sheep, all of which are white, would he be justified in concluding by induction that every sheep in the world is white? Of course not. If he tried to justify his conclusion by saying “Everyone knows that sheep are universally white,” we would tell him that he is mistaking an assumption for a conclusion. Now imagine that physicists are trying to determine whether the laws of nature can ever be violated by supernatural intervention. After conducting millions of experiments and never seeing a clear violation of the natural laws (with the caveat about quantum mechanics mentioned above), are they justified in concluding that the natural laws are never violated in the universe? Of course not! If we respond that “everyone knows that natural laws cannot be violated by supernatural intervention”, we need to recognize that we too are mistaking an assumption for a conclusion (see again Russell’s essay ‘On Induction’). We cannot prove that natural laws are the same in regions of the universe that have not been observed or that they will continue to hold in the future, or that they occasionally do not break down without any natural explanation (indeed, that’s what a miracle is!). Christians have historically affirmed the uniformity and consistency of natural laws because of the biblical belief that God created an ordered universe that obeys ordered laws that He ordained. Both Christians and atheists would therefore affirm the uniformity of the natural laws apart from supernatural intervention. The difference is that Christians allow for the possibility of such intervention on presuppositional grounds while atheists disallow it also on presuppositional grounds.
In conclusion, we have seen that our assessment of the Resurrection hinges on our presuppositions. As was stated by Jeff Lowder in his essay, the fundamental reason that Christians find the Resurrection plausible is that their worldview allows for the possibility of the supernatural. Similarly, atheists reject the Resurrection not because of a lack of evidence per se, but ultimately because of their belief that supernatural intervention is extremely improbable if not outright impossible. Although I agree with Lowder’s conclusions at a human level, I think it is useful to consider what the Bible has to say our attitude towards God and how it influences our conclusions.
In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul talks about the fundamental problem of humanity, which he defines as sin. However, Paul identifies sin not simply as breaking God’s rules, but ultimately as running away from God as a person. Deep in the heart of every man and woman, whether they are religious or irreligious, is a desire to be free of God’s authority. I’m sure we all recognize the terrible human ability to rationalize. Perhaps we ourselves have been in situations of great temptation to dishonesty or greed and have been surprised how easily our hearts provided plausible justification for acts that we knew to be wrong. What Romans 1 says is that there is a cosmic rationalization that goes on daily in every human heart as we try to deny our utter dependence on God, our sinfulness before Him and our need for His forgiveness.
If Paul’s indictment in Romans 1 is correct, then we immediately see the consequences for our ability to reason. As we said earlier, reason cannot operate apart from presuppositions, which we use to evaluate any evidence with which we are presented. But if all of us have a deep-seated desire to escape from God’s authority, then we will invariably gravitate towards assumptions and beliefs that allow us to escape what we feel is the dreadful weight of God’s presence in our lives. One way to escape God’s presence is through atheism and irreligion, denying that God exists. Another way to escape God’s presence is through religion, creating a system by which we can manipulate God and feel superior to others. In either case, our desire to live our own lives independent of God will color all of our reasoning. No one can claim to be a truly objective, disinterested observer when it comes to evaluating the claims of the Bible. As a Christian, I have a strong predisposition to affirm the reliability of the Bible because I am staking my whole life on the belief that Jesus is God himself come to rescue us from our sins. But a skeptic has an equally strong predisposition to reject the reliability of the Bible because they are staking their whole life –implicitly or explicitly- on the belief that Jesus is not God and does not call them to repent and put their trust in Him.
Where does that leave us? After reading Jeff Lowder’s excellent essay, I e-mailed him a question that his essay seemed to leave unanswered: I asked him how someone can change their worldview. If, as he says, our presuppositions determine our acceptance or rejection of the Resurrection, how does one ever change one’s mind? How is it possible to question one’s assumptions if they are truly foundational?
I don’t know how a secular person would answer this question, but the biblical answer is that an intervention is required. Our situation is like that of an alcoholic, drinking himself to death. He certainly has the ability to will and to act and to reason. But beneath all of these abilities is a fundamental and insatiable desire to keep drinking. As long as this remains his deepest desire, he will use all of his abilities and his volition and his reason to avoid any suggestion that he has a problem, to spurn any attempt to reach out to him. In the same way, as long as our deepest desire is to live as our own Lord and Savior, we will turn every power at our disposal towards this end. But the good news of the gospel is that God is a God of salvation, of rescue. He does not rescue good, holy, moral people; he rescues lost, sinful, rebellious people. Christians are not Christians because they are better or wiser or more humble than non-Christians, but because of the sheer saving grace of God through Jesus. The claim of the Bible is that God can interact directly with the human heart, making Himself known and showing us what Jesus has done on the cross to rescue us. When we begin to realize that Jesus came not to condemn, but to rescue, when we begin to recognize that ‘the punishment that brought us peace was upon him’ (Isaiah 53), then and only then do our hearts begin to soften.
To Christians reading this essay, I hope that the historical evidence for the Resurrection has strengthened your faith in ‘the truth of the things you have been taught’, as Luke puts it. However, the discussion of the presuppositional aspects of all belief is also very relevant to us. In the Bible, God calls us to walk by faith. Contrary to popular descriptions, biblical faith is not blind belief independent of evidence; instead, biblical faith is best understood as “personal trust”. In the context of this essay, we could understand God’s call to Christians as a call for our faith to be presuppositional or, in other words, foundational. As I have described in this essay, every human being holds to certain beliefs that are faith assumptions. These assumptions can relate to scientific principles (like a belief in the uniformity of the laws of physics) or to epistemology (like a belief in the objective truth of sensory stimuli) or to philosophical positions (like a belief in mind-body dualism). But if God is our creator and our sustainer, the source of all goodness and truth in the universe, then what should be more foundational than our trust in Him? Certainly a Christian can hold other presuppositions like the uniformity of the laws of physics. But our ultimate foundation needs to be Jesus Christ himself.
To non-Christians reading this essay, I hope you have been challenged by the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and motivated to investigate further. But I also hope you’ve seen how many of your conclusions have a deep root in your basic assumptions about reality. Evidence can only take us so far. At some point, we will run up against the faith commitments that we all have, whether Christian or skeptic. That is why, in the end, it is not the evidence for the Resurrection, but Jesus Christ himself whom you need to consider. Jesus claims to be God himself and to have the right to our absolute obedience. Yet Jesus also claims to be our savior, our friend, our comforter, and our good shepherd who suffered, wept, and died to bring us restoration with God. Paradoxically, in serving him we do not find bondage but freedom: freedom from sin, from fear, and from condemnation. God did provide an extraordinary sign in the form of the Resurrection that we might see it and trust in him, but even more relevantly, he gave us an extraordinary person. It is the person of Jesus Christ himself that is the ultimate argument for God; his character as revealed in Scripture is the ultimate miracle; and He Himself is the only sure foundation on which to build our lives.
The historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection by Jeff Lowder: an excellent essay by agnostic/freethinker Jeff Lowder on the importance of the Resurrection for both Christiand and atheists. Lowder concludes that the prior probability of God’s existence is the key factor in determining a person’s assessment of the historicity of the Resurrection.
The Ehrman-Craig debate: the transcript of a debate on the historicity of the Resurrection between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and agnostic Bible scholar Bart Ehrman. This essay relies heavily on the framework that Craig uses in all of his debates as well as his application of Bayes’ theorem. The main differences are that his presentation is far more elegant and that he is far, far more knowledgeable than I am. Transcripts and recordings of Craig’s debates can be found online and I highly recommend them.
William Lane Craig debate archive at Common Sense Atheism: this extensive archive is maintained by lukeprog, an atheist with a grudging admiration of Craig’s debating abilities. The site contains links to a huge number of Craig’s debates on various topics, including the Resurrection, the existence of God and the possibility of morality without God. See also a written transcript archive here.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel: an accessible book that lays out the evidence for the historicity of Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection. Although written for non-scholars, it does a good job of providing an overview of the historical evidence.
The Reason for God by Tim Keller: one of the best overall apologetics for Christianity that I’ve ever read. Keller structures the book by first examining the major objections people have to Christianity (‘there just can’t be one true religion’, ‘how could a good God allow suffering”, etc…) and then presenting a positive case for the Christian worldview. There are two good chapters on the reliability of the Bible and the Resurrection, and the rest of the book is fantastic.