The Evidence for the Resurrection




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Preface: this is a written version of my talk at Drew University on April 11th, 2001. I'm writing it in web format to be more accessible. Right now the English is a little stilted, because it is a direct representation of my notes. Hopefully in the future, this will change. Please feel free to e-mail me with any questions or comments. I also highly recommend some books and other references at the end.



Introduction

Jesus claimed to be God by His words and His actions. These are big claims. Big claims should not be simply accepted. Instead, they require evidence.

If I claimed to be God in the flesh, I hope you would reject the claim. Why? There is no evidence for the claim.

The Gospels record that the Resurrection is our evidence for the Christian faith (Matt. 12: 38-41; Acts 17:31). If this is supposed to be our evidence, and the event has not happened Christians are wasting their time.

The greatest passage in the Bible regarding this point is in I Corinthians 15. If I may paraphrase what the apostle Paul wrote on this topic. He stated that if the Resurrection did not happen, then our preaching is useless. Our faith would be useless. They would be false witnesses regarding God. Our faith would be futile. We still be in our sins. Dead Christians are lost. If only for this life, we are to be most pitied.

So if Jesus is still dead, Christianity is pointless.



Groundrules for my Argument

I will not use circular logic. Namely, "the Resurrection happened because the Bible says so." No, I want to show an objective basis for believing in the Resurrection.

I will not assume the Bible is inspired by God, nor will I assume it is without error. However, I will assume it is generally historically accurate. There are many good resources that show this point. It is not the point of this writing to show that the Bible is the Word of God (which I believe). It will suffice to say at this point that the people who claimed authorship of the books of Scripture actually did write the books attributed to them.

I won't be basing my argument on the subjective experience of myself or others. "Jesus is alive. I know this because I feel different inside." That does lend some weight, but I don't think it establishes a historic fact like this one.

It will be my contention that the Resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of all the facts.



the Evidence

Jesus died on the cross and was buried. His earliest enemies knew this to be true. And no one, until Mohammed, doubted that he died on the cross.

Justin Martyr, circa 150, refers the Roman emperor to the works of Pontius Pile in his archive for the reports of Jesus' death and miracles. His death is mentioned by Cornelius Tactitus around 112-124 A.D. Lucian of Samosata, Josephus, and the Letter of Samosata all mention Jesus' death. Jewish Talmudic writings also corroborate this fact.

I have already mentioned I Corinthians 15, written by the apostle Paul. Versus 3 through 5 are believed to be an early Christian creed dated to the first 5 years after Jesus' death. Mark, the earliest gospel at around 40 A.D., records Jesus' death. These report Jesus' death very early.

While some skeptics have doubted the existence of Jesus, let alone his death, there is no basis for this. The earliest Christian record, the secular record, and even the enemies of Christianity all knew the fact of Jesus' death.

The second piece of evidence is that the tomb was empty the first Easter morning. While this is a more controversial piece of evidence, it is backed by solid historical evidence.

The Christian movement started in Jerusalem. If the tomb was occupied, this would be the last place to start. Produce Jesus' body or point to the tomb and the movement would have been over.

This is also part of the earliest Christian testimony. It is implicit in the early creed from I Corinthians 15. It is mentioned in Mark, the early gospel, and all the other gospels.

Despite these good reasons, there is one reason that shows the empty tomb to be a fact, while showing God's sense of irony at the same time. From the gospel of Matthew (chapter 28) to Justin Martyr to Teretullian to Toledot Yeshu (a Jewish medieval work based off of earlier sources) the counter-argument to the Resurrection was that the disciples stole the body. The disciples then countered that there were guards at the tomb. The Jewish authorities then argued that the guards fell asleep.

They May Be Looking...

Stop for a second. What are the opponents of Jesus admitting? The empty tomb. We have positive evidence from a hostile source that Jesus' grave was empty.


Here is a good article which establishes the fact of the empty tomb in more detail.

The third piece of evidence, which is clearly shown from the New Testament and extra-biblical sources, is that the disciples claimed to have post-resurrection experiences with Jesus.

The last piece of evidence is that these same disciples went out and suffered for this message.

Christian historian Eusebius records deaths of Peter, Paul, James the brother of Jesus and James the brother of John. Acts 12:2 records the death of James, the brother of John. Josephus records the death of James, the brother of Jesus. Clement of Rome (d. 100) mentions the deaths of Peter and Paul. Oral tradition of the early church records many of the martyrdoms of the apostles. When I was watching the History Channel, a historian on a show about the apostles said (and she didn't appear to be a believer) that these extra-biblical traditions show us accurately where the apostles went and how they died.

Whatever doubts arise about whether certain apostles were martyred, the testimony of second and third generation believers indicates most of the apostles died for their testimony. Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Justin Martyr are examples of these believers who also died for what they believed. If the student is willing to die, how much more so the master?



It is my contention that the only plausible explanation for all these facts is the Resurrection of Jesus.



Counter-Arguments

But before we come to that conclusion, let's consider the most common counter-arguments to the Resurrection. I draw these arguments from a wide variety of sources and skeptics. Some I have even encountered for the first time in different talks I have given. Let's see how they try to explain the facts we have already established.

The Legend Theory

Some people have argued that the Resurrection is a legend that grew up over time. This was a leading theory for a long time. However, this isn't taken seriously by many today.

We have already seen that there were a number of historical people who believed in the Resurrection. Once again, the gospels and I Corinthians 15 show us the early timeframe of this belief, which does not allow enough time for legendary development.. The witness to the Resurrection is firmly rooted in history.

The Disciples Stole the Body

As we have already mentioned, the earliest counter-argument to the Resurrection was that the disciples stole the body. Variations of this argument wish to argue for some conspiracy of the disciples. Even though they knew what they were preaching they went out and preached there message. Never recanting, getting beaten, getting executed, going to prison. They killed the Master, sounds like fun.

This can be easily dismissed. Chuck Colson mentions that during Watergate some of the most powerful people in the world could not keep a conspiracy together in the face of minimal jail time. Why would we think that simple blue-color types would be able to do any better?

Any counter-argument has to account for the sincerity of the disciples. Now, sincerity is not equivalent to truth. This can't be overemphasized. People die for lies all the time. But it strains credulity to believe that people died for something they knew to be false.

Other Moral Motives

It is stated in this theory that the disciples, knowing the falsehood of their message, propagated their message because it made people moral.

The disciples were known for their extreme ethical purity. But they preached a lie and wanted people to believe a lie? This again is a huge stretch.

Furthermore, it ignores the actual message. The disciples were not propagating a message like Taoism or a ethical philosophy. Their message from day one was about Jesus. The center of the faith was about a person. Many of us are used to going to churches that preach week in and week out self-help messages or about being good. While we are concerned with being good, we are concerned about it for one reason. Jesus. In the final analysis, this objection fails to understand the message of Christianity.

Wrong Tomb Theory

Some have argued that the disciples simply went to the wrong tomb, in trying to account for the empty tomb. Some have also argued that the Romans and the Jewish authorities also forgot or didn't know where Jesus was buried. Or maybe some third party stole Jesus' body.

Although this argument isn't entirely convincing, let's, for the sake of argument, grant that it is a plausible explanation for the empty tomb. (How the Romans, His followers, and the Jewish authorities can all be wrong will be left to your imagination.) We will ignore the New Testament evidence that the Romans, the Jewish authorities and the disciples knew where Jesus was buried.

This theory has another problem. It fails to account for the appearances to the disciples.

The disciples didn't just see an empty tomb and conclude Jesus rose from the dead. They claimed to eat with Jesus, talk to Jesus, touch Jesus, fish with Jesus. And lastly, they claimed to see Him ascend into heaven.

This is a far cry from just seeing an empty tomb.

Swoon Theory

Popularized by the book the Passover Plot, this theory states that Jesus didn't die on the cross. He was resuscitated when he hit His cold tomb.

Crucifixion is a horrible form of torture. You actually die from suffocation. And the Romans were excellent in their trade. There is no chance that Jesus would have survived the cross.

But let's assume He did. If you did survive a crucifixion, you will die soon after. And if you do survive, you won't be confused for the Risen Lord and Savior. You are more likely to have a medic called for you.

Brain-Washing?

Some have tried to argue that the disciples were brainwashed into believing that Jesus was resurrected. One must ask, brainwashed by whom? Jesus.

First, we should notice that no one had complete control over the disciples' environment, which is necessary for brainwashing. They came into contact with opponents frequently.

Also, we should notice that the disciples were incredibly disheartened about the death of Jesus. If they were brainwashed, someone did a really lousy job doing it.

How also do we account for the empty tomb? This theory tries to account for their sincerity, but leaves the empty tomb unexplained.

Lastly, Paul and James the brother of Jesus were skeptics at first. They were outside of this group originally. We must also account for their experiences.

Hallucinations/Hypnosis/Hyper-Suggestibility

The most common argument I see today is a variation of a hallucination argument. Due to the disciples expectations or their dearest wishes, they had visions or thought they saw Jesus. Once someone thought they saw something, everyone jumped on board thinking they saw something too.

The first flaw we should note with this theory is that it does not account for the empty tomb. Besides this, there are other major problems with this theory.

This theory proposes mass-hallucinations that are consistent with each other. This would be a bigger miracle than the Resurrection. Hallucinations are by their nature subjective.

Also, the nature of the experiences are varied, with numerous different people in numerous different locales. The experiences are also protracted at times. They do not have the character one normally associates with visions due to their complexity.

True, masses of people may think there is the Virgin Mary appearing in some potato in some refrigerator. These events do not involve complex interactions with the hallucination. Once again the character of the appearances do not seem to fit what hallucinations or episodes similar to these are like.

Plus, the disciples come from varied walks of life from different areas. Only a small percentage of people are considered hyper-suggestible or are prone to hallucinations. For people who are supposed to be hyper-suggestible, they had a hard time understanding Jesus most of the time. It is only after the Resurrection that the disciples began to fully understand what Jesus was saying.

Furthermore, there was no expectation on the part of the disciples. Wish-projection is not able to account for the experiences. Their meeting with Jesus is shocking. The disciples were in the midst of great despair. They were not expecting Jesus to come back.

Dr. William Lane Craig argues that hallucinations are projections of the mind. As such, they cannot have new content. The Jewish belief of the time was for a general resurrection at the end of history, not a resurrection like Jesus'. This can be seen in the gospel of John, when Jesus raises up Lazurus.

I would also note at this point, that, to my knowledge, we don't see anything similar claims like this even after the spread of Christianity. I may be wrong due to my lack of knowledge, but I do not know of any parallel in history of a bunch of historical people claiming to see someone raised from the dead in a glorified body. There have been a lot of brainwashed cult members whose leader has died (the most likely candidates), but nothing like this.

Did the disciples also wish-project seeing the many miracles recorded in the gospels? Did they wish-project seeing people born blind start seeing? Did they wish-project seeing people raised from the dead by Jesus?

Why did these appearances, if the disciples are susceptible to them, suddenly stop?

Lastly, these types of theories do not account for Paul and James, as mentioned in my previous section.

This type of theory is very ad hoc. There is no evidence for it. Clearly, people are grasping at straws.


It is apparant to me that no counter-argument deals sufficiently with any of the four main pieces of the evidence (Jesus' death, the empty tomb, the appearances, and the sincere proclamation of the Christian message). And none of them even try to handle all four. If they try to handle the sincerity of the disciples and the appearances, they leave the empty tomb out. If they try to handle the empty tomb, they leave the appearances unexplained.

Supporting Evidence

Besides the four main facts we have already established, I would like to mention some more facts that further back up the Resurrection explanation.

The New Testament does not have the marks of fabrication.

Women discover Jesus first, and women in that time were not considered reliable. If you were making up a story, this is not how you would make it up.

Secondly, the disciples look really bad. I mean really bad. They deserted Jesus. If you were making up a story, why would your leadership claim to have abandoned their Lord.

Third, the accounts are simple and lack the exaggeration common to mythology and legends.

Old Testament Prophecy Backs Up the Resurrection.

Whatever route of escape is left for the skeptic, I feel it is destroyed by Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament predicts a suffering servant who bears our sins, dies and is raised again is Isaiah 53, written 700+ years before Jesus. Daniel 9 states that the Messiah will come and will die before the temple is destroyed, which happened in 70 A.D.

If we argue against the Resurrection, we have to account for these prophecies. The only thing I would be able to come up with is that sincere people tried to force their message to fit the Old Testament. First, they didn't have control over these events. Secondly, we already showed that they were sincere people. The best alternative explanation is just that these prophecies are a huge coincidence.

Real Reasons for Rejection

It has been my experience that when you push hard enough on this topic you come up with two real objections that underlie all other objections.

The first one is an anti-supernatural bias. Miracles can't happen because miracles can't happen. This is arguing in a circle, which is a logical fallacy. Any evidence is discounted because miracles are ruled out a priori. Well, if you rule miracles out before you begin, guess what? The evidence will be unconvincing. I could go further on this, but I won't. I would highly recommend to people who are interested in this objection (best summed up by the skeptic David Hume) to read the works of C.S. Lewis, especially his book Miracles.

There is also a problem of the will. . Part of the Christian message is that He died for our sins. What does this tell us? One of the things it tells us is that we aren't good enough to make it on our own. This hurts our pride. While the cross is a message of how much God loves us, some people can't look beyond what it tells us about ourselves and how we stand before God on our own.

We also don't want to change. Part of the Christian message is a call to repent of our sins and turn towards God. If people acknowledge the truth of the message and of the Resurrection, they are acknowledging they have to do something we don't want to do. Despite this, I have actually run into more intellecutally honest non-believers. After giving this talk, some have told me that they believe Jesus is raised. They still don't want to be a Christian. More power to them.

Conclusion

Jesus said that He is the Resurrection and the Life. Not only does he bear our sins, but He is our life. Through faith, we can be united to Him. If we are united to His death, we will be united to Him in His life. Paul says that Jesus is the firstfruits from the dead. His Resurrection is the promise of things to come for those who believe in Him.

Please feel free to e-mail me.

Appropriate Links:

Good Articles on Resurrection

Dr. Craig's Articles

Empty Tomb Article

The Bible Documents Are Reliable

Gospels as Historical Sources

Historical Reilability of the New Testament (book)

Non-Biblical References to Jesus Prior to 200 AD

The Case for Christ (excellent book)

Josephus References for Jesus

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