I have been arguing in this space, (most recently in the context of questioning Mormonism) that most religions do not offer any good reasons for believing what they believe. On the other hand, orthodox Christianity offers many good reasons – it accepts wholeheartedly the challenge of being philosophically and evidentially defensibly. It asks you to look at the evidence and use your head. Some commenters on my previous posts have asked for some of that evidence, so here is a bit of it: evidence for the resurrection of Christ.
Let me be clear that it is not the only piece of evidence. I always tell people that I am a Christian because I am convinced it is true and I am convinced it is true because it most adequately answers all of the big questions of life, not just a couple that I happen to like. For example, compared to worldviews like naturalism (materialism) or pantheism, Christianity has by far the better answer for why there is evil in the world or why there is such a thing as consciousness.
And even in the one area I am going to discuss, there is much more evidence for it (and types of evidence for it) than I am going to present. I am convinced that Jesus rose from the dead and lives today and I am going to present some historical arguments for that that I think are compelling. But in the interest of full disclosure, one of the main reasons I believe Jesus is alive is that I have a relationship with Him. Now, I do think you need the evidence I am about to present to validate my experience and make it understandable, but I don’t discount non-empirical evidence such as the testimony of the Holy Spirit.
So, having made those qualifications, let me present some empirical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection is the cornerstone of Christianity – if it didn’t happen, Christianity is false, no matter what experiences you might have, so having good reasons to believe it is true is very important.
Based on the data, I believe the resurrection can be proved with at least as much certitude as any universally believed and well-documented
event in ancient history. We not need to presuppose anything controversial like the Bible is infallible or that miracles happen (I just ask that the skeptic does not presuppose that they do not.) We need only start with a couple of pieces of data that no one denies:
- The existence of the text – the New Testament accounts of Jesus and the resurrection
- The existence of the church – that group of people that believes it
What is the best explanation of the data?
I think it can be boiled down to 4 possibilities:
1. The authors of the text were deceivers. – they lied about it and people bought it
2. The authors of the text were myth-makers. – they never intended for it to be taken literally – it is an inspirational myth that people
3. The authors of the text were deceived. – they actually believed it but were simply wrong
4. It is true.
- The authors of the text were deceivers.
The authors of the text knew that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and they simply made up the story. Different proponents of this theory camp
have different ideas about how it worked, but the major ones would be that:
- The writing came about hundreds of years later by people who didn’t know Jesus
- It was written by his followers, but Jesus never actually died (swoon theory or replacement theory)
- It was written by his followers, who stole his body or bribed the officials to lie about the empty tomb, or something like that.
The text was not written later. The manuscript evidence for the New Testament is extraordinary. There is huge scholarly consensus that the texts we have were written in the first century, many within thirty years of Jesus life and all in very close to their current form. I think we will see good internal evidence for this as I go along and if you want to talk about some external evidence, follow some of the links in the right hand column about evidences for the reliability of scripture.
The writers had no motive. The disciples simply had no reason to lie and every reason not to lie. They were Jews who had been expecting a political savior to overthrow Rome and now, according to this theory, they decide to make up some crazy story about a spiritual savior who is head of a spiritual kingdom. It would not only not get them any worldly power and influence, but it would cause them to be persecuted,
not only by Rome,but by there own people, the Jews. They became outcasts without hope of any future, even in Heaven. You do not give up everything for something you know to be false. Men become martyrs for something that may be false, but which they believe to be true, but they do not die, particularly as a group, for something they know to be false. Its one thing for some cult leader somewhere to die for a story he made up to attract followers and power and money and prestige and sex or whatever. It is quite another for a whole group of men to make up a
story which caused them to lose everything and hold onto it even in the face of death.
Which leads to another refutation of the conspiracy theory. Conspiracies don’t hold together, especially in large groups. Someone always cracks. It seems weird that every single person who ever knew about the lie went to there death without spilling the truth. People went so far as to deny Christ under torture, but they never confessed that it was all a ruse?
Some other facts to think about within the conspiracy theory context: A bunch of fishermen became the most clever, intelligent fantasy
storytellers of all time?
Also, men who were weak, fearful bumbling idiots before Christ’s death somehow were turned into bold world-changing ambassadors for the
faith they made up? Does fiction inspire that kind of courage?
Here’s something else to think about: If it was a lie, they argued for it very stupidly, because they based the whole religion on the fact that Jesus had appeared to more people than just them and that some of these people were still alive. The faith grew very early on after Jesus – Biblical
texts are dated to within 30 years and the testimony of the resurrection can be dated back to within two or three years of the death of Christ – and they argued specifically that they didn’t make this stuff up by referring to others who had witnessed the resurrected Christ:
1 Cor 15:3-8
3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter; and then to the Twelve. 6After 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. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
Pretty silly way to argue if it is all a hoax. It would be like me making up a story about Ronald Reagan – there’s still plenty of people around to refute it. A truly outlandish story like the resurrection would never get off the ground without solid support.
Which leads to the next theory:
- The writers were myth-makers: they never expected the story to be taken literally.
Refutation: Mythical stories, written to make an inspirational or moral point but not to be taken as history, are not placed within a very recent time frame with actual historical characters and detailed, verifiable events.
First, they are generally vague about place and time: “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away,” for example. This is the case with the other dying and rising gods of ancient lore that many people say the resurrection account was styled after. Those stories were never placed in an
actual historic context The writers of those myths would never say, as the gospel writers did, that Jesus’ story happened “during the reign of Caesar Augustus, under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.”
And they would certainly not say “while many of you reading were still alive”. Myths can be about real people, but they take time to develop. The stories must be placed in the distant historical past, so that no witnesses are around to refute it.
Also, myths don’t include details that are not relevant to the story. Every part of the story has meaning and the plot keeps progressing toward
a neat conclusion. Every scene from Star Wars or Lord of the Rings moves the plot forward. This is how myth is written, but that is not how the gospels are written. It’s eyewitness testimony, not purposeful fiction. For example, in John the author records that Jesus writes in the sand with his finger. We never know what he wrote and nothing else is made of it. The only explanation for its inclusion in the story is that John saw it happen. He was simply recording events. As Peter Kreeft accurately summarizes: “If this detail and others like it throughout all four gospels were invented, then a first century tax collector (Matthew), “young man” (Mark), a doctor (Luke), and a fisherman (John) all independently invented the new genre of realistic fantasy nineteen centuries before it was reinvented in the twentieth.
To make this point further, compare the gospels accounts of the resurrection with the account from the gospel of Peter, a forgery from around
125 AD. In the Biblical accounts, two women planning to put spices on Jesus body are surprised to find an empty tomb and are very confused about what has happened. (Note that having women finding the body is a silly detail in it own right if you were making it up, as women had no authority in the culture and would be disregarded as reliable witnesses.)
In the gospel of Peter, as William Lane Craig describes it, “the tomb is not only surrounded by Roman guards but also by all the Jewish Pharisees and elders as well as a great multitude from all the surrounding countryside who have come to watch the resurrection. Suddenly in the night
there rings out a loud voice in Heaven, and two men descend from heaven to the tomb. The stone over the door rolls back by itself, and they go into the tomb. The three men come out of the tomb, two of them holding up the third man. The heads of two men reach up into the clouds, but the head of the third man reaches up beyond the clouds. Then a cross comes out of the tomb and a voice from Heaven asks, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” and the cross answers “Yes””
The point is that this is what you get when the imagination goes to work. This is exactly what you would expect from someone making up a mythical resurrection story – Alice in Wonderland type stuff. But the gospels do no do that. They give us eyewitness accounts of the tiniest details of real events and they appeal specifically to people who were eyewitnesses of these events for verification.
I wouldn’t make up a mythical inspirational story about a god coming down to earth and dying and rising again by saying it “As many of
you personally witnessed, last year at Chapman University in Professor Smith’s History class Joe Adams, the student from 222 Palm street, right after he ate lunch and turned in his paper, turned water into wine, walked on water, and, oh ya, died and rose from the dead”.
So, if the writers were not deceivers and not myth makers, they must have been deceived.
- The disciples were deceived.
This is the last bastion of defense against the historicity of the resurrection. The evidence against the disciples being deceivers or myth makers is so strong that even the scholars on a recent 20/20 investigation into the resurrection admitted that all evidence points toward the disciples sincerely believing that Jesus had literally rose again.
Those scholars camped on the hallucination theory. They believed the disciples saw something, but that it wasn’t the physical Jesus. However,
the hallucination theory doesn’t hold up for the following reasons:
1) Too many witnesses, too big a group: hallucinations are generally private and subjective, don’t happen to 500, especially all at once, it the same place at the same time
2) Hallucinations come from within – are projections of what we already know, at least unconsciously – they are what we expect or want – the resurrected Jesus was not looked for and did unexpected things.
3) Not only did the disciples not expect it – they did not believe it at first
4) Hallucinations last a few seconds or minutes, this one hung around for forty days
5) Hallucinations usually happen only once, except to the insane. This one returned many times, to ordinary people
6) Hallucinations do not eat – this one did.
7) The disciples touched him.
8) They also spoke with him and he spoke back – one does not hold generally profound discussions with figments of your imagination, unless you have the kind of mental disorder that isolates you. But this hallucination conversed with at least eleven people at once, for forty days
9) The disciples could not have believed the hallucination if Jesus body had still been in the tomb, therefore even within
the hallucination theory, we are left with accounting for an empty tomb. If the apostles had hallucinated and spread their story, the Jews would have stopped it by producing a body – unless the disciples stole it, in which case we are back to the disciples being deceivers, with all that theory’s difficulties. A hallucination would explain only the post-resurrection appearances, it would
not account for the empty tomb and inability to produce a corpse. No theory can explain all the data except a real resurrection.
I find that the hallucination theory is generally held by people with a prior commitment to materialism. The say, the resurrection couldn’t have happened because resurrections don’t happen. It is blind trust in a naturalistic worldview that fails to adequately address the evidence.
Which leads to the final theory – that it is actually true.
This is where I hang my hat. I am convinced that the most rational and evidentially supported explanation of the existence of the text and the church is that Jesus actually rose from the dead and that this fact is the foundational, although certainly not the only, reason to accept that Christianity is the most rational and evidentially supported worldview.