Saturday, April 11, 2020
Evidence for the Resurrection: Analyzing Possible Explanations
Over a series of several posts, I have laid out the evidence for four historical facts that are accepted by a consensus of scholars. They are:
1) Jesus died by crucifixion.
2) Shortly after his death, Jesus' followers had real experiences that they interpreted to be appearances of the risen Jesus.
3) As a result, their lives were transformed to the point of bring willing to die for their belief in the resurrection.
4) Jesus' brother James and the Apostle Paul, skeptics and opponents of Jesus, became followers of Jesus after post-resurrection appearances and ultimately died for their testimony of the resurrection.
I also explained evidence for a fifth historical fact that is accepted by a majority of scholars, that the tomb where Jesus was buried was later found empty. While I feel this fact would clinch the case for the resurrection, I will be making a very strong argument without it. If you are willing to grant these historical facts, please read on, but if you are skeptical of these "bedrock" facts, please review the previous posts and my post on the reliability of the New Testament before continuing.
A key distinction between Christianity and other religions is that it hinges on a specific event in history. Something happened in first century Judea that led to the previously mentioned bedrock historical facts. We are going to examine several competing hypothesis to see whether they coherently and comprehensively explain the facts of history. So, let's get started!
Hypothesis #1 - Legendary Development
This is a pretty popular theory that suggests that Jesus didn't really rise from the dead, but this story slowly developed over time. The resurrection is just a myth that, while it may be inspiring, can be discarded along with other ancient legends. Unfortunately, this contradicts evidence that the resurrection reports appeared soon after Jesus' death, far too early to allow for legendary development. The church creed that Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 contains the important details of the resurrection and likely dates to within three years of the event.
Furthermore, the legendary development theory fails to account for the transformation of Jesus' brother James and the Apostle Paul. Would skeptics and opponents of Jesus be willing to completely alter their lives and ultimately die for a legend? Additional, Jesus' followers suffered and died for what they claimed to see and hear, not for cleverly developed myths (1 John 1:3, 2 Peter 1:16).
Hypothesis #2 - Deliberate Deception
The next hypothesis is the cousin of the first, but instead of developing over time, the resurrection accounts were intentionally fabricated by the disciples. Given the immensity of the eternal promises secured by the resurrection, such deception would be one of the cruelest plots ever foisted upon mankind. It would be completely out of character with the apostles' letters to the early church, which exhorted believers to "not love with words or tongue but with actions and truth." ( 1 John 3:18). It would be odd for the same disciples to die for their testimony of an event they invented. It would be even stranger for Jesus' brother and Paul to be persuaded by such a lie and even lay down their lives for it. This theory simply fails to explain the transformation of Jesus' followers and opponents that occurred after real experiences that they interpreted to be post-resurrection appearances.
The deliberate deception hypothesis could be further developed to include the conjecture that the disciples stole Jesus' body prior to proclaiming the resurrection. To steal the body, the disciples would have needed to overpower the guards posted at the tomb (Matthew 27:62-68). The passage doesn't specify whether the guard was Roman or Jewish, but in either case it seems unlikely that the same men who deserted Jesus at his arrest would attempt such a risky theft and one is still left with the problem of explaining their transformation and martyrdom.
Hypothesis #3 - Hallucinations
A popular theory is that Jesus' followers had hallucinations that they interpreted to be post-resurrection appearances. There are some serious problems with this explanation. First, Jesus is reported to have appeared to different groups on multiple occasions (Matthew 28:8-10, 16-20, Luke 24:13-53, John 20:19-31, 21:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:5-8). These reports contradict the science of hallucinations.
First, most psychologists reject the possibility of mass hallucinations. Although Leonard Zusne suggest that mass hallucinations could occur under conditions of "expectation and excitement," the condition of the disciples was the exact opposite (Habermas). They were depressed and not expecting a crucified and resurrected Messiah. Not to mention, opponents like Paul and James would have neither excitement nor expectation.
Second, accounts of the post-resurrection appearances describe Jesus eating and asking his followers to touch him. He says, "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." (Luke 24:39). Hallucination theories fail to account for such details.
Finally, hallucinations do not generally transform lives. Studies indicate that even those who hallucinate often disavow the experiences when confronted with those who did not see the same thing (Lambert). However, the historical record shows no evidence of anyone retracting their testimony of the resurrection. Instead, it shows evidence that witnesses of the post-resurrection appearances were willing to suffer and die believing in the reality of these experiences.
Hypothesis #4 - Swoon Theory
The swoon theory posits that Jesus never died, but merely fainted and was later revived in the tomb. Not only has this theory been rejected as implausible by medical experts (Edwards), it is hard to imagine a severely wounded Jesus, in need of urgent medical attention, inspiring transformation in the lives of his followers, skeptics, and opponents.
Hypothesis #5 - Wrong Tomb or Mass Burial
Some skeptics propose that Jesus' followers may have gone to the wrong tomb and, finding it empty, erroneously assumed a resurrection. This theory ignores the unanimous gospel record that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a well known religious leader at the time. If the disciples had gone to the wrong tomb, their error could have been easily corrected by skeptics and opponents of the resurrection. Furthermore, it ignores that Jesus' followers and some opponents had real experiences with the risen Christ that sparked their transformation. The historical record shows they experienced more than just going to the wrong empty tomb.
Other skeptics propose that Jesus was buried in a mass grave, so his body could never be located and the resurrection accounts were either deliberately fabricated or developed over time. Here we run into a recurring problem. This theory fails to explain real post-resurrection experiences that sparked transformation in both followers and opponents, ultimately leading to martyrdom.
Hypothesis #6 - Anything but a Resurrection
It has been my observation from watching debates between Christians and non-Christians (usually atheists), that the skeptic will often refuse to provide a theory to explain the historical bedrock facts that support the resurrection. Their response is essentially, "We don't need to provide an alternative explanation to reject the resurrection. We reject the resurrection because resurrections don't happen." Notice that theory is not based on an evaluation of the evidence, but on a prior commitment to naturalism. Before even starting the investigation, supernatural explanations have already been eliminated from contention. Despite claiming to be open-minded and rational, such a response betrays a mind that is only open to some possibilities.
What about the Empty Tomb?
Thus far, I have not referred to the empty tomb when explaining problems with alternative theories to the resurrection. This has been intentional to demonstrate that these theories can be convincingly refuted without granting the empty tomb. However, if the empty tomb is accepted, it is the nail in the coffin for these alternative theories, pun intended.
If the resurrection accounts were myths or fabrications, Jesus' body would have still been in the tomb, unless someone is willing to accept the highly improbable and problematic suggestions that Jesus' disciples stole the body or went to the wrong tomb. Likewise, if the post-resurrection appearances were mere hallucinations, the tomb would not have been empty. The only alternative theory that could account for the empty tomb is the swoon theory, but this fails for both medical and logical reasons. It is also important to note that the resurrection claims originated early and in Jerusalem, where the tomb was located. If the tomb was not empty, opponents of Christianity could have squashed the resurrection "myth" by simply producing Jesus' remains.
Hypothesis #7 - He is Risen. He is Risen Indeed!
There is only one theory that coherently and comprehensively explains all the historical data, the claim that Jesus has risen from the grave. It explains why Jesus' followers reported real-life resurrection experiences that transformed them from fearful deserters to bold martyrs. It explains why Jesus own brother, James, and zealous opponent, Paul, became devoted followers who were willing to lay down their lives for their testimony of the resurrection. It explains why women were uniformly reported to be the first witnesses of the resurrection, despite the skepticism this would bring to the report. It explains how the resurrection accounts originated when there was no pre-existing expectation of a crucified and resurrected Messiah. Of course, it explains why the tomb was empty.
Remember, this is only the minimal facts argument, based only on historical facts agreed to by a consensus of scholars. Further arguments could be made to support the resurrection. For example, the Old Testament contains scores of prophecies and an overall narrative that confirms Jesus' identity as Messiah.
Why Evidence for the Resurrection Matters
In the introduction to this series, I shared one of my favorite quotes from C.S. Lewis: "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and, if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important." If Jesus has not risen from the dead, then the central claims and teachings of Christianity are false, and should have no bearing on our lives. The Apostle Paul makes the same point, writing, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." (1 Corinthians 15:14). If Jesus has not been raised, Christianity may provide some moral platitudes and cultural traditions, but is not worth following with all our heart and soul.
However, if Christ has been raised, then the central claims of Christianity are true and the staggering promises of the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life are too important to ignore. The author of Hebrews writes, "If...every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?" (Hebrews 2:2-3). If Jesus has risen, the only right response is to repent from our sins and believe and follow him.
A Word of Encouragement for Believers
Perhaps there are some believers reading this series who feel that they don't need evidence in order to believe in the resurrection or even that seeking evidence to support our beliefs demonstrates a lack of faith and spirit of unbelief. Allow me to offer a couple of reasons why knowing evidence for the resurrection is beneficial for all Christians.
Sometimes, we have questions about or may be challenged by skeptics on secondary issues. These could include questions about human origins, tough teachings in the Old Testament, or the existence of evil and suffering in the world. These are important issues to wrestle with and should be taken seriously, but our faith does not ultimately depend on our ability to answer them. In some cases we may have to live with some lingering questions and uncertainty, but that is when we can fix our eyes on Jesus, the cornerstone of our faith, with complete certainty that he has defeated death.
Some Christians might discourage seeking evidence, thinking with good intentions that faith is stronger when someone believes God without evidence. Also, it isn't hard to find mocking memes from skeptics that make statements such as "Faith is belief without evidence." Both positions miss the mark of the Biblical teaching on faith. The disciples appealed to their eye-witness testimony, miracles, and fulfilled Old Testament prophecy - all forms of evidence - to convince others of the resurrection. Jesus performed miracles to demonstrate his identity and even encouraged people to believe in him on account of the evidence of his works (Matthew 11:1-6, Luke 7:48-53, John 14:11). Furthermore, we are called to "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." ( 1 Peter 3:15). You may not need evidence to believe in the resurrection, but you can be prepared to answer the questions of friends and family members, particularly young people who are leaving the faith in part because the church has not been able to answer their intellectual doubts.
A Word of Encouragement for Non-Believers
I have been engaged in apologetics long enough to know that not everyone is going to agree with my arguments. However, I have also learned that skeptics often reject Christianity without having investigated the evidence, with a prior commitment to a naturalistic worldview, and being swayed by mockery and rhetoric. If this is you, I would encourage you to take a fresh look at the evidence for the resurrection and the truth of Christianity. Read some books on the subject, which will go much deeper than a single blog series. Set aside any naturalistic bias, tune out the mocking voices of atheist memes, and be willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
However, be forewarned that despite the focus of this series on evidence, the journey to faith in Christ is more than an intellectual exercise. It is also an examination of the heart. It is a call to abandon our pursuit of our own desires, where we sit on the throne of our hearts, to turn and follow Jesus with a desire to do his will. No, evidence alone will not be enough. We need God to give us a new heart that desires to know and follow him. I am confident that if you ask God to answer your intellectual doubts and give you a heart to follow him, he will meet you along the way. May God bless your journey!
Edwards, M.D., William, Gabel, Mdiv, Wesley, and Hosmer, M.S., Floyd. "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ". Journal of the American Medical Association, March 21, 1986.
Habermas, Gary. "Hallucination Theories to Explain Jesus' Resurrection." Christian Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2001.
Lambert, Shea. "Hallucinations and the Post-Death Appearances of Jesus." September 20, 2000, p. 2-9.