Have you ever heard someone say: “It’s fine to be a Christian if Christianity makes you happy. But there’s no evidence at all to believe that Christianity is objectively true”? How do we respond to that kind of statement?
This is part two of a four-part series on basic arguments for the truth of Christianity. In part one, we looked at the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth and the Trilemma: was he Lord, Liar, or Lunatic? Given the tremendous impact that Jesus has had on Western civilization and the beauty of his life and teaching, most people are hesitant to write him off as an evil megalomaniac. Yet the only alternative to rejecting him as a Liar or a Lunatic is to accept him as Lord. In this essay, I want to examine a second, independent reason that we need to take Jesus’ claims very seriously: his resurrection.
The significance of the Resurrection
Modern historians universally believe that Jesus of Nazareth was killed on a Roman cross during the reign of Pontius Pilate. But for two thousand years, Christians have insisted that Jesus rose physically from the dead three days later. The historicity of the Resurrection is absolutely central to Christian theology because Jesus’ death and Resurrection are both tied to our salvation. While most religions teach that we are saved on the basis of the good things we do, Christianity alone teaches that we are saved on the basis of what Jesus did for us. The Bible insists that while we were still far from God, rejecting him, despising him, and running from him, God came near to us in Christ to bear our sin, to take our punishment and to die on the cross in our place. The Resurrection was God’s confirmation that Jesus was who he claimed to be and is our assurance as Christians that we have been justified and forgiven before God.
Given its theological significance, many people assume that the Resurrection is merely something that Christians believe, not an event for which there could be any historical evidence. But that is not the case. In fact, I would argue that even from a purely secular standpoint, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is quite strong. For instance, skeptic Jeffrey Lowder, the founder and former president of infidels.org, writes that a “strong historical case” can be made for the Resurrection and that “for theists [people who believe in God’s existence] … the resurrection is a plausible explanation.” Similarly, renowned atheist-turned-deist philosopher Anthony Flew affirmed that “the evidence for the Resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It’s outstanding in quality and quantity.” Orthodox Jewish scholar Pinchas Lapide even writes: “I accept the resurrection of Easter Sunday not as an invention of the community of disciples, but as a historical event.” So what historical evidence was sufficient to convince these non-Christians that the Resurrection should be taken seriously and not simply dismissed as a fairy tale? Although there are other lines of evidence, I’ll briefly consider four: the empty tomb, the belief of the apostles, the conversion of Paul, and the failure of naturalistic alternatives.
First, the majority of historians who have written on the subject agree that the tomb of Jesus was truly found empty by his disciples three days after his death. The strongest piece of evidence in favor of the historicity of the empty tomb is the report that it was discovered by women. This may not strike us as odd, but it is surprising given the extremely low status of women in the 1st century. If the early Christians were inventing narratives, why not ascribe the discovery of the tomb to more credible witnesses? Next, the apostles began preaching the Resurrection only six weeks after Jesus’ death in Jerusalem itself, the very city in which Jesus had been crucified. It is difficult to see how the fledgling Christian movement could have survived despite the opposition of the ruling authorities if the corpse of Jesus had been interred just a few miles from the temple. Finally, at the end of his gospel, Matthew provides what amounts to a dialogue between Christians and Jews regarding the body of Jesus. He states that the Jewish leaders of his day insisted that Jesus’ body had been stolen by the disciples, a claim which apparently was still circulating until the second century since it is repeated in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho and Tertullian’s Spectacles. But this accusation necessitates that the tomb was actually empty; obviously, the Jewish leaders would not have accused the disciples of grave robbery if Jesus’ body was still in the tomb. For these reasons, most skeptical accounts of the Resurrection do not simply dismiss the empty tomb as a legend, but try to provide some alternative explanation for it.
Second, it is nearly universally accepted by historians that the disciples genuinely believed that Jesus had actually been Resurrected and that they had encountered him. For instance, well-known skeptical scholar Bart Ehrman writes: “It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.” Renowned scholar Gerd Ludemann, who denies that the Resurrection occurred, similarly states that “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.” The reason for this consensus is the persecution endured by the apostles for their belief in the Resurrection. In 2 Cor., Paul describes the suffering he endured, including receiving forty lashes on five different occasions, being beaten with rods, and being stoned (2 Cor. 11:24-25). Given the tremendous suffering that the apostles faced, it is difficult to maintain that they knew the Resurrection to be false. The far more plausible explanation is that they truly believed that they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, whether or not it actually occurred.
Third, the conversion of Paul himself is an important piece of data. Paul had originally been a vehement opponent of the church and had even consented to the stoning of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. But while traveling to Damascus to continue his persecution of the early Church, Paul suddenly became a Christian, claiming that he had encountered Jesus on the road. Unlike the other apostles, Paul had not been a follower of Jesus during his ministry and was clearly no friend to the early church. Thus, his testimony can be regarded as that of a ‘hostile witness’, someone who had no incentive whatsoever to accept Christian testimony about the Resurrection unless he himself had an experience that he could unambiguously interpret as confirmation that Jesus was alive. Therefore, anyone who doubts the Resurrection must provide a plausible account of why Paul underwent such a dramatic conversion in such a short period of time.
Finally, it is interesting to consider the various alternative explanations. While the majority of NT scholars, regardless of their religious views, accept the three points listed above, non-Christian scholars do not accept the Christian explanation of these three facts: that Jesus did indeed rise physically from the dead. But if critics reject historicity of the Resurrection, how do they explain these pieces of data?
Many subscribe to some variant of the stolen body hypothesis, in which someone stole Jesus’ body from the tomb. The disciples were then subject to repeated, mass hallucinations over the next few days, which they interpreted to mean that Jesus had risen from the dead. Many years later, Paul also had some kind of hallucination, which he too interpreted as being an encounter with the risen Christ. This theory raises many questions; for instance, who stole the body? The sincerity of the disciples belief and the suffering endured rules out their participation. If Joseph of Arimathea, the owner of the tomb himself, removed Jesus’ body, why didn’t he tell any of the other disciples, especially since he was a follower of Jesus? And why would Jesus’ disciples, including the five hundred mentioned in 1 Cor. 15, be subject to the same mass hallucination over a period of forty days? And what would cause Paul to so radically alter his views about Jesus that he was willing to be stoned, beaten, and eventually executed for his beliefs?
The swoon hypothesis, which was very popular in the 19th century, asserts that Jesus did not actually die on the cross but fainted. He recovered consciousness in the tomb a few days later and appeared to his disciples before presumably dying again somewhere else. There are numerous problems with this explanation. First, crucifixion was a form of execution, not just punishment; the burden of proof therefore falls heavily on anyone suggesting that a crucified man managed to survive. Second, it is hard to see how the disciples could have imagined that a badly beaten man had been resurrected to life and immortality. Third, the swoon theory is only feasible if we reject a tremendous amount of material in the gospels, including repeated affirmations that Jesus died, descriptions of Jesus’ violent scourging at the hands of the Romans, the testimony of John that the Roman centurion present at the crucifixion stabbed Jesus with a spear to confirm that he was dead, and the fact that Jesus’ tomb had been sealed with a large stone. And, as with many alternative scenarios, the conversion of Paul must still be explained. For all of these reasons, modern scholars almost universally reject the swoon hypothesis and agree with atheist New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan in concluding that “Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”
Finally, one of my favorite explanations is known as the twin hypothesis. Proponents of this hypothesis claim that Jesus had an unknown identical twin who stole Jesus’ body from the tomb and impersonated Jesus after his death. Former evangelical Greg Cavin, who defended this hypothesis vehemently in a debate with Christian philosopher and apologist Dr. William Lane Craig, even insisted that the twin probably used make-up to simulate scars on his hands. While this view sounds extremely marginal, it was also proposed by well-known skeptic Dr. Bart Ehrman, who also appealed to it in a separate debate with Dr. Craig.
These alternative explanations are interesting for two reasons. First, they show that even critics tend to take seriously the facts mentioned above. They do not just dismiss the empty tomb or the appearances or the conversion of Paul as legends or myths; indeed, they incorporate these facts into their theories. Second, they show that something unusual clearly happened after Jesus’ death. There simply aren’t any naturalistic hypotheses which explain the historical data without recourse to any extraordinary events at all. All of them invoke swoons, hallucinations, grave robbers and even identical twins to account for what happened in the days following the crucifixion.
Given all these considerations, I think that the Resurrection really is the best historical explanation of all these facts. But if the Resurrection is true, it is hard to understate its importance. If some minor historical figure like Napoleon’s second cousin had been resurrected, this event would be surprising and unexpected, but it would be a mere historical curiosity. On the other hand, Jesus’ resurrection cannot be separated from Jesus’ claims. If God raised Jesus from the dead, then this action was the ultimate vindication of Jesus’ claims to be our king and our savior. The Resurrection of Jesus is not just some distant event of limited relevance; it is the turning point of human history. It is the dramatic climax of God’s plan to rescue sinful and corrupt people by sending his own Son to die in their place. Because the Resurrection actually happened in human history, Christians can be assured that God has taken away their sin, has declared them ‘not guilty’ and will one day return to put all things right that are now broken. As before, let me list a few pitfalls of this argument.
First, avoid entanglement in details. I made the same remark in the last post, but it bears repeating: this argument does not depend on biblical inerrancy or even inspiration. Indeed, the facts mentioned in this post are affirmed by most scholars, whether Christian or non-Christian. It is important to mention this point because conversations about the Resurrection can sometimes be derailed into long discussions about details like the number of angels at the tomb. A simple question to ask is: “How does this detail affect the existence of the empty tomb or the Resurrection appearances?” While there are apparent contradictions in the resurrection narratives, this is just what we would expect from any four independent accounts. And even if we could not reconcile all of the differences, none of the apparent contradictions casts doubt on the main points of the narrative, which is all we rely on for this argument. A long digression into the many ways to reconcile apparent inconsistencies in the biblical narratives is irrelevant to the question of whether Jesus rose from the dead.
Second, recognize the obstacle of naturalism. Naturalism is the philosophical position that nature is all that exists and it is a prevalent belief in our culture today. If naturalism is true, then -by definition- miracles cannot occur because miracles require causation by an entity outside of nature. While many people are unlikely to explicitly state that they are naturalists, their commitment to naturalism will show up as a willingness to embrace any alternative to the Resurrection, no matter how implausible. Because worldviews are so deeply embedded in the way we view evidence, they cannot usually be overturned in a single conversation. Instead, I would recommend challenging a skeptical friend with questions like: “Are you open to the possibility that miracles might possibly have occurred? Or are you so sure that they are impossible that no evidence is sufficient?” “Can you see how a person who was open to the possibility of the existence of God would find this evidence compelling or at least suggestive?” “Would you be willing to investigate other evidence that God exists and that miracles are possible?”
Third, be sure to draw people’s attention to the objectivity of the Resurrection. We live in a society in which religion is viewed as a wholly personal, subjective matter, like one’s taste in music or clothing. But the Resurrection is necessarily an objective, historical fact. Either Jesus’ tomb was empty or it was not. Either Jesus’ disciples saw, touched, and ate with Jesus after his death or they did not. Either way, the Christian message is making a claim to objective truth. The primary question is not whether we like Christianity or whether it moves us emotionally or whether it gives us a sense of purpose and community, but whether it is true. That is the question that we need to ask.
Finally, the Resurrection points to Jesus. The apostles did not preach the Resurrection merely as a historical fact, but as God’s seal of approval on the ministry of Jesus. As always in apologetics conversations, bring the discussion back to the gospel: who Christ is, what he did for us, and his offer of forgiveness to us.
Resurrection and Worldview – a longer essay expanding on these arguments and their relationship to our worldview
Neil Shenvi is a member of the Summit Church and works as a research scientist in the Department of Chemistry at Duke University. His full bio and testimony, along with more of his writings and apologetics resources, can be found here on Neil’s personal website.