He Is Risen: A Defense of the Historicity of the Resurrection
The resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith; its occurrence either demonstrably proves Christianity as true or its falsity disproves the faith. Here I outline an argument for the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ – an argument similar to, albeit slightly more thorough and well-studied – than the one which persuaded me to become a Christian approximately two years ago.
On the Possibility and Evidence for Miracles
Before we begin, I must state that my argument will only be directed toward those who believe that miracles are possible. If you think the resurrection impossible for “scientific” reasons – if you think that there are physical laws about the universe that cannot be violated – please stop reading (and pick up instead, perhaps, a copy of C.S. Lewis’ Miracles), because my argument for the resurrection will not be very effective if you think it is a priori impossible. In this essay, I will only attempt to persuade those who think that perhaps miracles are possible, but are uncertain if the resurrection itself occurred.
Of course, I would like to point out that science cannot demonstrate the physical impossibility of miracles. Science observes patterns and constructs natural laws from these patterns. Yet miracles, by definition, violate this pattern and are unrepeatable. If a scientist is unable to replicate a miracle, that can by no means be considered proof that the miracle did not occur. If we instead consider logical possibility, we see that miracles are possible. The standard list of logically impossible objects consists of square circles, married bachelors, and the like. There is nothing to suggest that miracles should fall in this list; philosophers universally agree that miracles are logically possible.
The question of possibility, of course, does not change their probability. Just because an event could happen doesn’t mean that it is likely that it did happen. This is why the discussion of miracles often relies upon their improbability. Of course, miracles are, by their very definition, improbable occurrences. Unfortunately, probabilities are generally determined by empirical evidence; scientists repeat experiments in controlled circumstances to ascertain the likelihood of particular events. But no Christian would defend Christ’s resurrection as a repeatable event. Accordingly, no scientific evidence is capable of defining the probability of Christ’s resurrection, nor of the probabilities of the alternative explanations. The question, then, is not whether the actual resurrection of Jesus is a probable event as defined by some scientific calculation (which it is not), but whether there is enough evidence to establish that the resurrection actually occurred in only one instance, regardless how improbable it is or was.
So what sort of evidence could we use to prove that a miracle occurred? Would you have to see it with your own eyes? No Christian claims that Jesus is going to appear resurrected before your very eyes today. Even if you did see Jesus with your own eyes, there are fairly good odds that you wouldn’t believe it; you might think you were hallucinating. Perhaps you could have at least a group of eyewitnesses for “seeing it with your own eyes” to count. Yet again, no one claims that Jesus resurrected should be observable for anyone today. To demand scientific evidence or first-hand evidence (even corroborated) is to ask the impossible, and to reject the resurrection on only this basis is to commit a fallacious appeal to ignorance.
The only type of evidence that we are left with is historical evidence. There were eyewitnesses at the time, and they wrote down their experience as evidence. The key task for any historian today is to determine the nature of the eyewitness stories. The testimony exists: it only remains for the historian to explain what brought about the eyewitness evidence. We are looking for the best explanation for why that evidence exists. Is hallucination a good explanation? Is lying a good explanation? Is a miracle a good explanation? Which one can we truly call the best?
One’s answer to this question often depends upon one’s previous assumptions. As Anthony Flew noted during his atheist days, “if we were in a position to suppose [there is a Power external to the world], then no doubt the case for the occurrence of these particular miracles, as well as for that of the supreme miracle of the Resurrection, would be open and shut.”1 An atheist may completely reject the possibility of miracles, on the basis that there is no one to perform them, and thus he will refuse to allow them to enter into his explanatory framework. Of course, I do not have the space to go through the various arguments for or against God’s existence. Instead, I must assume that my reader is agnostic, that you think it’s possible that God exists and interacts with the world but you are not fully committed to this proposition. With that assumption in place, we will look at the question of best explanation with regard to that supreme miracle – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You may wonder why the Resurrection is the supreme miracle. Why not the turning of water into wine, or the feeding of the thousands, or the driving out of demons? A simple answer: none of these miracles are the foundation of the Christian faith. For Jesus was crucified mockingly as “the King of the Jews,” and all these miracles would be meaningless in light of Jesus’ death… if he had not later risen from the dead. The resurrection stands out because it is the foundation of Christianity. It is a key part of the gospel.2 It is the final demonstration of the fact that Jesus was, in fact, the Christ – the Messiah – the one predicted in the prophecies, the one who would conquer death to usher in life in God’s kingdom.
Nothing But the Evidence
My argument is that the best explanation for the historical evidence is that Jesus Christ experienced a bodily resurrection after his burial. There are several facts that most historians agree upon:
1. Jesus Christ lived and was crucified.
2. Jesus Christ was buried and his tomb was discovered empty.3
3. A variety of witnesses claimed to have met Jesus after his death.
4. His disciples believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.4
As NT Wright explains, “the historian must therefore ask why the early Christians made this claim about Jesus, and why they reordered their lives accordingly.”5 Even those who doubt Christ’s bodily resurrection will acknowledge these four facts, but they will provide alternative explanations. As critical thinkers, we need to ascertain which of these explanations best accounts for the evidence at hand.
Option 1: Bishop John Shelby Spong, an Episcopalian who strongly doubts the possibility of miracles, provides the following possible explanation: Peter, distraught by Jesus’ death imagines that he saw Jesus. Spong explains, “Simon [Peter] saw. He really saw. Jesus had been lifted into the living God. It had nothing to do with empty tombs or feeling wounds. It had to do with understanding that Jesus made God real and that God had taken the life of Jesus into the divine nature… Simon rallied his mates with his vision… inside the liturgy of the celebration of the Tabernacles, the story of Easter unfolded… Here the narratives were developed and here the legends grew.”7
It’s unclear exactly how Spong believes the legends developed, but he seems to ignore the fact that the notion of Jesus as Messiah is an essential feature of its initial expansion. NT Wright explains, “the idea that Christianity began as a non-messianic movement and then, when it went out into the wider world, suddenly developed all kinds of traditions about Jesus as Messiah, ought to be counter-intuitive to anyone thinking historically.”8 The first apostles wouldn’t have started the movement if they didn’t believe Jesus to be the Messiah. In the face of his death, his status as Messiah was completely disproven. Spong’s explanation is incredibly psychologically dissatisfying, as well as anachronistic. The idea of Peter thinking that he “saw” without really seeing fits more in line with a modern spiritualism than with the traditional Hebrew culture of which Peter was part.
Option 2: Bart Ehrman, a Biblical critic and once Evangelical turned skeptic, proposes another alternative: “Jesus gets buried by Joseph of Arimathea. Two of Jesus’ family members are upset that an unknown Jewish leader has buried the body. In the dead of night, these two family members raid the tomb, taking the body off to bury it for themselves. But Roman soldiers on the lookout see them carrying the shrouded corpse through the streets, they confront them, and they kill them on the spot. They throw all three bodies into a common burial plot, where within three days these bodies are decomposed beyond recognition. The tomb then is empty. People go to the tomb, they find it empty, they come to think that Jesus was raised from the dead, and they start thinking they’ve seen him because they know he’s been raised because his tomb is empty.”9
Ehrman clearly buys the story of the Roman guards; yet he completely fails to explain their behavior in a historical context. The Roman guards would have been killed for letting the corpse go missing; they would not think of putting Jesus’ body into a common grave, for that would guarantee their death. Finally, it fails to give a clear explanation of why people start thinking they’ve seen Christ after his death. Ehrman’s theory may account for the first two facts mentioned above, but it completely fails to address the last two, and is actually incompatible with them. The simplest theory to explain how people could have witnessed the risen Jesus is that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead.
Option 3: Gerd Ludemann suggested that “Peter received the first vision, which is to be interpreted psychologically as failed mourning and the overcoming of a severe guilt complex… This first vision became the initial spark which prompted the further series of visions mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor.15. The subsequent appearance of Christ can be explained as mass psychoses (or mass hysteria.)”10
The problem is that mass psychoses are extraordinarily rarely, if ever, observed. The odds of all 12 apostles (as well as the 500 witnesses Paul reports in 1 Corinthians 15) having several collective hallucinations is incredibly low, especially multimodal ones (involving multiple senses visual, auditory, and touch). If we accept the hallucination story, we must assume that all 12 apostles had similar group multimodal hallucinations for 40 days until Jesus’ supposed ascension. This is even more incredibly improbable.11
A classic cited example of mass psychoses is the Salem Witch Trials. Of course, these trials were conducted on the evidence of several young girls, of whom, one later confessed to be lying. This example supports the general principle that the extraordinary claims of a group are more likely to be fabrications rather than the result of mass hallucinations. This poses the obvious question: how do we know that the apostles weren’t simply lying?
Authenticity of the Gospels
Those who claimed to be afflicted by witches only had to enter convulsions to persuade witnesses that they were being attacked by witchcraft, but all of the apostles went through immense suffering and clung to their beliefs even more fervently because of persecution. It is one thing to lie, and an entirely different thing to be crucified for a lie from which one could easily come clean. They could not be considered the same as martyrs today, who die for something they believe in. They would be dying for something that they knew was patently untrue, which seems psychologically bizarre.
Time and time again, I have had people tell me that Jesus was no different than Mohammed or David Koresh. That he, and his followers, were probably lying just as other religious “prophets” so often did. The problem is that Jesus and the apostles are nothing like these other “prophets.” Mohammed quickly used his religion to amalgamate political power and create a theocratic kingdom over the Arabian Peninsula; Jesus’ followers resisted political power and advocated obeying the ruling authorities even when it led to their death. David Koresh was notorious for sexually abusing children, which was obviously made easier by his status as a cult leader; the disciples and Jesus, on the other hand, were known for their high moral character, their celibacy, and their preaching of extraordinarily strict standards of sexual morality. While other false prophets had the promise of political power or the opportunity for satisfaction of sexual perversions in this life, the disciples had little to gain from their actions besides death and intense suffering.
In addition, the gospels are extraordinarily unsympathetic to the apostles. They are often portrayed as being foolish, confused, or stumped by Jesus’ teachings. Peter, the “rock” of this new church, is not only called Satan by Jesus, but also denies him three times. It would be very strange indeed, for the apostles to lie through the Gospels with the intent of making themselves look worse. The fact that they do not simply erase these lines from the narrative makes their story significantly more believable. Astonishingly, in several of the gospels, the first witnesses were women. In that society, women were considered inferior to men and would be substandard witnesses. If the apostles were fabricating a story, it would accord with their views to make a man the first witness to the empty tomb; it would have been unfathomable to concoct such a story and insert a woman as the first eyewitness to the resurrection. Instead, their inclusion of women suggests that the writers are not simply creating a convenient story, but rather, reporting the truth.
Finally, the gospels are notorious for their accuracy. Luke, in particular, is a detailed historian. Sir William Ramsay wrote, “Luke is a historian of the first rank… Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness.”12 Luke includes the names of rulers, dates, locations; all of which are surprisingly accurate. Although in the past it was common to question Luke’s accuracy, archaeological discoveries time and time again have demonstrated that Luke was correct (and that his critics were simply uninformed due to the lack of archeological evidence).
The apostle’s obvious candor in these cases suggests that they are fundamentally honest. Even Bart Ehrman acknowledges that “when you know that a person is prone to lying, then you can never be sure that he or she is to be trusted; but if you know that a person is completely reliable, then you can trust that person even when he or she is telling you something you can’t otherwise verify.”13
Some will say that the gospel accounts differ on the details, and thus we cannot believe any of them. But the differences between the four gospel accounts do not make their claims significantly less plausible. In fact, it would be incredibly suspicious if they agreed in perfect detail, for that would suggest that the authors of the accounts collaborated. Instead, the different descriptions of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances seem almost like the authors are competing for who first met him.14 The differences in the accounts are more understandable as minor differences which occur when different people relate a story of the same event, and would not make sense if the apostles were collaborating to promulgate a concocted story.
Finally, it doesn’t make sense for the apostles to lie about Jesus’ resurrection. After his death, their natural assumption was that he was not the Messiah. The Israelites did not think that their Messiah would be hung upon a cross; they expected him to reign over the throne. They did not anticipate that he would die; they expected him to lead them in a victorious battle to kill their Roman oppressors. Jesus’ death embarrassingly was understood to prove that his claims were false. Let’s not forget that the women who would find the empty tomb were only going there to perform burial rites. When confronted with Jesus’ death, a faked accusation of resurrection was not the first idea that would pop into the disciples’ minds. Rather, “his followers realized that they had espoused a lost cause, and that the only procedure remaining to them was a quiet return to their homes and previous occupations.”15 As NT Wright explains:
“The options before them were clear. If their would-be Messiah had been killed, they could have crept back home, thankful to escape with their lives. They could have done what the post-135 rabbis did, and declared that they were finished with dreams of revolution, and that from henceforth they would find a different way of being loyal to Israel’s god. Or they could, of course, have found another Messiah… Since Jesus of Nazareth had blood relatives who were known as such two generations after his death, there would have been no problem in finding some relation on whose shoulders a revived hope might be placed… [James] was clearly regarded as the, or at least a, central point of authority in the Jerusalem church, and hence in the worldwide church…”16
But they choose none of these paths. Instead they choose to tell a story that they themselves find unbelievable at first.
The Best Explanation
Some would argue that a miracle can never be considered the “best explanation,” that history can never rely on the explanation of a “miracle.” Interestingly enough, many of these people would agree with the previous discussion that miracles are not a priori impossible. If an event can occur within history, then it does not make sense to create a criterion for the study of history which would preclude reporting the truth about that event. As William James says, “a rule of thinking which would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth if those kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule.”17
I think there is a healthy level of skepticism that history should apply to any account of miracles. Yet when faced with no good alternative explanations, it is not unreasonable to think that perhaps the eyewitnesses were reporting the truth.
After considering the strongest alternative explanations for the Resurrection, it seems that “only the Easter fact can provide an adequate cause for the Easter faith. Unless the historic Person to whom the disciples had given their initial allegiance actually returned to life and made contact with them, their belief had no rational origin.”18
The best explanation – the rational origin – of the disciples’ beliefs is that three days after Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, he rose from the dead. The disciples ate with him; they felt his flesh; they learned from him. They saw him die upon the cross and then they saw him in a glorious new body that they themselves didn’t recognize at first. This prompted the disciples to give up everything they knew to persuade others to follow the man they knew to be the Messiah, the incarnate Deity, the third man of the Godhead. As they relentlessly pursued this mission, they changed the course of history by professing not only that Jesus died on the cross to redeem mankind, but more importantly, declaring that “He is Risen!”19
1 Note that Flew became a deist after writing this. Habermas, Gary, and Anthony Flew, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? The Resurrection Debate. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987. p. 7.
2 See Paul’s description of the gospel he shared with the Corinthians in 1 Cor 15.
3 There is a bit more debate about the second half of this statement – whether the tomb was found empty. A few scholars will reject this, but most recognize that if the tomb was not empty, it would have been extraordinarily easy for the Romans and the Jews to disprove the Christians’ claims, preventing 3 and 4 from occurring.
4 Craig, William Lane and Ehrman, Bart. “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman.” Col- lege of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts. March 28, 2006 .
5 Wright, NT. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. p. 554
6 Note that this list is representative, though not exhaustive.
7 Spong, John Shelby. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994. p. 257-260.
8 Wright, NT. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. p. 557.
9 Craig, William Lane and Ehrman, Bart. “Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman.”
10 Ludemann, Gerd. What Really Happened to Jesus. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995. p. 130.
11 Forster, Charles. The Jesus Inquest. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Monarch Books, 2006. pp. 153, 168.
12 Ramsay, Sir William M. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London: Hodder & Stouton, 1915.
13 Ehrman, Bart. Misquoting Jesus. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2005. p. 130.
14 Jones, Tamsin. “Introduction to Christian Thought” lecture, September 2010.
15 Tenny, Merrill C. The Reality of the Resurrection. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963. p. 135.
16 Wright, NT. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2003. p. 560.
17 James, William. “The Will to Believe.” Philosophy of Religion: An Anthropology. Ed. Louis P Pojman. p. 375
18 Tenny, Merrill C. The Reality of the Resurrection. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1963. p. 142.
19 If this short summary has piqued your interest, I highly recommend The Jesus Inquest by Charles Foster (for the casual reader) or The Resurrection of the Son of God by NT Wright (for those who really want to plumb the depths of this subject).
Jordan Monge ‘’12, a Philosophy and Religion joint concentrator in Quincy House, is the Editor-in-Chief of The Ichthus.Tags: apologetics, Christianity, CS Lewis, death, Easter, faith, fraud, God, gospel, guilt, Harvard University, historicity, Incarnation, Jesus, miracle, NT Wright, proof, religion, resurrection, skeptic, theology