Why Does It Matter?
Christians confess that the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central event of all history. It marks the beginning of God’s renewal of all creation, and it gives us a basis for hope in our own future deliverance from the corrupting effects of sin and death. The apostle Paul said that if Jesus was not truly raised from the dead, then our faith is a lost cause, and Christians should be pitied more than anyone else on the planet (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). But if Jesus has indeed risen and conquered the grave, then that stands as the most powerful testimony for the truth of the Christian faith and for our hope in a new embodied existence. In an age where the very possibility of miracles is suspect, believers face a tremendous challenge in defending the historical truth of Jesus’ resurrection. But it is possible to meet this challenge head-on by starting on the skeptics’ own ground.
What Are the Facts?
There are four historical facts related to Christ’s resurrection that even most skeptical scholars generally agree are true. These facts are: 1) Jesus was buried in a tomb after his crucifixion; 2) this tomb was found empty on the third day after his crucifixion; 3) Jesus’ disciples claimed to have seen him alive on several occasions after his death; and 4) these disciples experienced a radical change in their lifestyle and beliefs due to their conviction that Jesus had risen from the dead. If we can establish these four pieces of evidence, then we find that the best explanation for them is that Jesus really did rise from the dead.
The first piece of evidence is the burial of Jesus, which can be considered a historical fact because we have multiple, independent sources for it. Jesus’ burial is recorded in all four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), but our earliest source is Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church (1 Cor 15:4), which was written as early as 55 AD—only twenty-five years after the event, and well within the lifetimes of most eyewitnesses!
The second piece of evidence is the empty tomb, which we also have several sources for. It’s recorded in all four gospels, and it is clearly implied in 1 Corinthians 15 (would it make any sense for Paul to say that Jesus was buried and then raised, but that his body was still in the tomb?). On top of that, in each of the gospels, we read that the first eyewitnesses to the empty tomb were women. But in first-century Jewish culture, women were considered unreliable as witnesses. So if the gospel authors were making the story up, why present women as the primary witnesses? Wouldn’t that undermine the story’s believability? But the fact that the gospel authors are all in agreement on this “embarrassing” detail strongly suggests that they were more concerned with presenting the truth than with furthering their own agenda.
The third piece of evidence is the post-mortem appearances of Jesus. The accounts of these appearances are very numerous. We read about his appearances to the women disciples, the apostles, and later Paul (who had previously been a persecutor of Christians) on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). The most detailed list of post-mortem appearances occurs in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, which, as mentioned above, was written far too early to be legendary, and could have been refuted by eyewitnesses if false.
Finally, the fourth piece of evidence is the life-changing conviction of the disciples that Jesus was resurrected. This is perhaps the most certain historical fact of all the four, because we have the very testimony of the disciples themselves in the New Testament. And as later church tradition tells us, every last one of the apostles (except John, who spent his final years in exile) ultimately died for his faith in the risen Messiah. What is so peculiar about this historical fact is that it has no precedent in ancient Jewish belief. Most Jews expected a general resurrection of the dead at the end of history, but no one ever thought that anyone could be resurrected in the middle of history. So how is it that we can account for the fact that all of Jesus’ followers came to the sudden and unanimous conviction that their crucified leader was resurrected?
What Does It All Mean?
Although there are a few radical scholars here and there who will reject one or two of the above lines of evidence, most agree that they are historical facts. So the question becomes, how do we put all of the pieces of the puzzle together? How can we make sense of it all in a coherent way? Several theories have been put forward to explain these facts without resorting to divine intervention, but they all fall short for one reason or another.
The first theory put forward by skeptics is the swoon theory. This states that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross; he only fainted or “swooned,” woke up in the tomb, reappeared to his disciples and convinced them that he had risen from the dead. But this theory is riddled with problems. To begin with, it underestimates the efficiency of Roman execution. Crucifixion was a brutal death by asphyxiation, and it is hardly likely that anyone could survive it. And not only that, but John 19:34-35 tells us that a Roman soldier also thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to ensure that he had indeed died. But even if Jesus could survive all that, are we really to believe that he could wake up after three days in a tomb, with no food or water, manage to roll away a massive boulder, sneak past the Roman guard, and somehow convince all his followers that he was the victorious conqueror of death? Such a scenario seriously stretches credibility.
Another theory advanced by the critics of Christianity is the stolen-body theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ followers secretly stole his body in the middle of the night and told the world that he had been raised from the dead. But there are several difficulties with this view as well. First, we have to ask, could the disciples have even pulled it off? For this to have happened, all of the Roman guards would have had to be asleep at the same time, and the disciples would have had to break the seal on the tomb without waking them up. But even if that were possible, we are still faced with the question of motive. What would the disciples have had to gain from telling such a story? Not money, or fame, or power—in fact, quite the opposite. Jesus’ disciples faced persecution, ostracism, and ultimately martyrdom for their testimony to the resurrection. It is possible that someone might die for a lie if they believed it to be true, but who would ever die for what they knew to be false? And lastly, this theory cannot account for the conversion of doubters and opponents of Christianity like James and Paul, who claimed to have seen Jesus risen from the dead.
A third theory suggested to explain away the facts is the hallucination theory. According to this view, Jesus’ disciples only experienced hallucinatory visions of him, which were brought on by their state of severe emotional distress. But these visions convinced them that Jesus had indeed resurrected, and they therefore devoted the rest of their lives to that conviction. This is probably the weakest of all the skeptical theories. First, it cannot account for an empty tomb at all. If the disciples were only experiencing hallucinations, then what happened to the actual body of Jesus? Second, hallucinations don’t occur en masse. They occur on an individual level, but Jesus’ most-mortem appearances were public and frequent. And according to John 21:12-13, Jesus actually ate a breakfast of fish and bread with his disciples! Do hallucinations do that? Lastly, even if the disciples were experiencing hallucinations, how did they then come to the conclusion that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, rather than, say, simply a ghost? As mentioned above, Jewish theology at that time had no precedent for an individual being resurrected before the end of history.
So if all of the skeptical theories fall short, then by process of elimination, we can only conclude that Jesus was actually physically raised from the dead. It might be too fantastic a claim for many, but in the words of Sherlock Holmes, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” But for those who can accept the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, it has massive life-changing consequences. It means that Jesus’ testimony about himself—that he is the Son of God made flesh to atone for the sins of humanity and to inaugurate a new creation—must be true. And such a testimony, if true, demands our obedient response.
William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith, 3rd edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008. Chapter 8.
Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears. Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Chapter 9.