The Resurrection of Jesus

The Resurrection of Jesus

Introduction

The Resurrection of Jesus has been considered, since the very beginning of the Christian faith, to be the most important historical event in the history of mankind and the foundation of Christianity (1 Corinthians 15:14-19). The question of the truth-claim that God raised Jesus from the dead has bred arguments and counter-arguments throughout the millennia. Skeptics ancient and modern have declared this resurrection implausible, improbable, or impossible. However, despite all modern skepticism, the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead has never been more substantiated.

Preliminary Considerations

The claim of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is one which cannot be answered in a vacuum. For, if the modern naturalist is correct, then God does not exist, miracles are impossible, and Jesus could not have been raised from the dead. However, if the Judeo-Christian God exists, then it is at least possible that Jesus was raised. Our metaphysical beliefs about reality are foundational to this study, but such an investigation is outside the scope of this paper. For our purposes, we will consider that it is at least possible a God like the Christian God exists.

Second, some may claim that we don’t have enough information about Jesus to properly study this question. However, if we consider the Gospels and Paul’s letters not as “books of the Bible,” but as historical documents which were written in varying times and places, we can see that we have documents about Jesus transmitted throughout the Christian church long before they were compiled into a Bible. We will assume as part of this investigation that we have substantially accurate documents written by first-hand witnesses, or those who knew such witnesses.

Finally, some may claim that historical investigation of a miracle is illegitimate from the outset. David Hume argued that belief in a miracle is never justifiable due to its inherent improbability, but Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, refutes this claim by pointing out that this would render all improbable events unable to be believed by anyone.1

The Historical Resurrection: A Cumulative Case

With preliminary considerations out of the way, let us begin examining the evidence for the claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. This is a cumulative case, that is, we will be building our case as an abductive argument to the best explanation. We have several lines of evidence which I believe point to the affirmative conclusion. Our evidence will generally come as “internal” evidence written by Christians in defense of our proposition.2

As an aside, neither internal evidence nor evidence from unbelievers (“external”) is inherently more useful. sFor example, we would not consider a history book claiming the holocaust was a real event to be biased, but we would likely consider one claiming the holocaust is a myth to be biased. In a similar sense, all “external” evidence and polemics against the resurrection come from a worldview in same way “internal” evidence does.

The Burial of Jesus

Crucifixion

That Jesus Christ was murdered on a cross is a fact disputed by very few, and those few usually have theological considerations.3 Groothuis notes that, “New Testament scholars of all persuasions find no reason to doubt the biblical and extra-biblical material witness that Jesus was crucified.”4 Michael Licona, Associate Professor of Theology at Houston Baptist University, identifies four reasons to believe that Jesus was crucified: that his death is multiply attested, that those attestations are early, that the Gospel passion narratives are attested by various historical criteria such as embarrassment, and that those who are crucified essentially never survived.5 Therefore, we are on solid ground to consider Jesus’ death by crucifixion within our background knowledge.

Burial

When we consider the burial of Jesus, we consider what happened to the body of Jesus after his crucifixion. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 is considered by most historical scholars to contain a Christian tradition learned by Paul directly from the original disciples in Jerusalem within 2-3 years of Jesus’ death.6 It states:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.7

All four gospels relate that Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin – which condemned Jesus to crucifixion – asked Pilate for Jesus’ body and laid him in his own tomb.8 Ordinarily, we might expect for a condemned man to be thrown into a criminal’s graveyard, perhaps a pit. However, we know that some crucified have been given proper burials.9 So Jesus’ burial, as recorded, is not entirely implausible.

Timothy McGrew, Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, argues that it is highly unlikely Mark would invent Joseph, who seems such an implausible character.10 The weight of evidence and the criterion of embarrassment points toward Jesus receiving an honorable burial.

The Empty Tomb

That the tomb became empty likewise has strong historical plausibility. We have multiple independent attestations (Paul plus the four gospels and Acts) each arguing that the tomb was empty. Although Paul does not explicitly state that there was an empty tomb, he does state that Jesus was buried and then raised on the third day, which would certainly imply an empty tomb.11 Both Paul’s implication of an empty tomb and the Gospels are certainly within living memory of the event.12 Gary Habermas, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University, finds that most scholars believe the Passion and Resurrection narratives among the Gospels provide 3-4 independent testimonies, that Mark utilized a pre-Markan tradition, and that Acts provides further early testimony to the empty tomb.13

William Lane Craig, Professor of Philosophy at Talbot Theological Seminary, notes the simplicity of the Markan empty tomb narrative. He writes, “The resurrection itself is not witnessed or described, and there is no reflection on Jesus’ triumph over sin and death, no use of Christological titles, no quotation of fulfilled prophecy, no description of the Risen Lord.”14 This simplicity, as opposed to, for example, the 2nd century gnostic Gospel of Peter, points to its historical nature.

Finally, we may note that the Gospel accounts of the empty tomb were embarrassing to early Christians. The Gospels all note that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb, yet Paul’s early creed leaves the women out. N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at University of St. Andrews, notes that there is no plausible reason for these women to be invented, for the testimony of women was not acceptable in society at the time.15 The criterion of embarrassment therefore attests to the historical reliability of the empty tomb account.

Counter-Argument - Joseph of Arimathea Moved the Body

Some popular-level skeptics16 argue that while Joseph of Arimathea was historical, he never intended to keep the body of Jesus in his tomb. Before the third day, Joseph moved the body and reburied it in a place more appropriate for a crucified criminal.

Craig responds to this view17 by pointing out that this does not explain any evidences for the resurrection beyond the empty tomb, which will be discussed below. Furthermore, we have no evidence of any dispute between the Jews and Christians over where the body was located; the only dispute we have recorded is in Matthew regarding whether the disciples stole the body.18

Counter-Argument - No One Knew Where It Was

James Crossley, Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St. Mary’s University, makes the argument that none of the disciples knew where the empty tomb was. Mark’s Gospel, the only independent source according to Crossley,19 ends without the women telling anybody about the missing body. Because the Gospel of Mark ends with the women telling nobody,20 Crossley therefore argues that “the author of Mark did not know where Jesus was buried and thus has to invent a story to explain where it was.”21 Furthermore, according to Crossley, Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 only passes on general tradition, not eye-witness testimony.22

In response, we must first note that most scholars do not take Matthew, Luke, and John as altered versions of Mark, but as fully independent resurrection traditions.23 Wright sees it as a little more complex, but nonetheless concludes, “We must assume that each of the evangelists had access to ways of telling this story which went back via different, though ultimately related, oral and perhaps written traditions.”24 Paul’s arguments in 1 Corinthians 15 are generally held by New Testament scholars to have been checked for accuracy with the Jerusalem disciples.25

Regarding the idea that Mark did not know where the body was buried because the women did not tell anyone in his account, Licona argues that Mark’s warning in verse 1:44 shows it is far more likely that Mark in 16:8 was explaining that the women said nothing on their way to tell the disciples the news.26

Counter-Argument - Paul Believed in Spiritual Resurrection

The German New Testament scholar Gerd Lüdemann argues that Jews may not necessarily have believed only in physical resurrection.

There were various notions of resurrection around, one of which was bodily…Paul himself distinguishes between two notions of body in 1 Corinthians 15: (1) the body that is flesh and blood and cannot inherit the kingdom of God…(2) the body that is spiritual and every Christian will get. So 1 Corinthians 15 itself is a witness to the fact that Paul obviously did not know anything about the empty tomb and that he did not need it for his concept of resurrection.27

N.T. Wright spends a long time on this passage (1 Corinthians 15:42-49) and rejects the modern western notion of “natural” as scientific and “spiritual” as something “remote, detached.” Wright instead contends that this passage is contrasting someone who animated by the natural and one animated by the Spirit of God.28

The Post-Mortem Appearances

The post-mortem appearances of Jesus are related by both Paul and the Gospel authors. Paul relates these appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8. In this early creed, Paul lists several appearances of Jesus: to Peter, to the disciples, to five hundred at once, to James (the brother of Jesus), to all the apostles, and finally to Paul. That this creed is early and directly from the Jerusalem disciples, likely Peter and James, is generally undisputed in scholarship.29 Habermas points out that Paul, in Galatians 1:18-19, 2:1-10, reports that he met with the Jerusalem disciples, and he assumes in 1 Corinthians 15:11 that the Corinthian church knows he preaches the same thing which the Jerusalem disciples preach.30

The Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John all recount appearances of Jesus to the early disciples and women. McGrew and McGrew note that these appearances occurred not in an attitude of expectation, but of fear, not an attitude of confidence, but of skepticism and uncertainty.31 Furthermore, these accounts are not “‘spiritualized’ but rather circumstantial, empirical, and detailed. They not only purport to give a number of his statements, they also state expressly that he deliberately displayed empirical evidence that he was not a spirit but rather a physical being.”32 These are not scattered, singular reports. There are multiple group appearances and singular appearances, extended appearances and short appearances, appearances involving food, and those involving extended conversations. Furthermore, all of these factors are mixed together. Discounting that the disciples made them up,33 we are not left with much to explain why these accounts exist.

As with the empty tomb, women being the first witnesses to the resurrected Jesus, as related in Matthew 28:9, Luke 24:1-3, and John 20:14-16 fulfills the criterion of embarrassment for the appearances of Jesus. Why would the authors of Matthew, Luke, and John add women as these first witnesses unless these were the stories being told among the early Christians at the time?

The Conversion of Paul

The conversion of Paul is one of the strongest arguments for the historicity of the appearances. The appearance of Jesus to Paul is noted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:8, and further explored by the author of Acts’ three accounts of Paul relating this encounter. Before his conversion, Paul is described as one who is hunting down Christians as heretics to the Jewish faith.34 Paul describes himself as a “Hebrew of Hebrews,”35 and as one who was taught by Gamaliel, a great Jewish teacher.36 What possible reason would Paul have for deserting all he has ever known, his power and prestige, to travel the world poor, often imprisoned or attacked for his preaching? The answer Paul himself gives is an appearance of Jesus.37 To include this appearance with the disciples, as he does in 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul must have believed this was a physical appearance, even if it was different from the others (as Paul notes in the same verse).

That Paul was martyred for his belief in the risen Jesus is nearly historically certain. Sean McDowell, Assistant Professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, has made a powerful case for the historicity of Paul’s martyrdom. After a thorough review of the evidence, he accords Paul’s martyrdom the highest possible historical probability.38

What does this martyrdom prove? McDowell writes, “[The Apostles’] willingness to face persecution and martyrdom indicates more than any other conceivable course their sincere conviction that, after rising from the dead, Jesus indeed appeared to them.”39 Not many, after all, are willing to die for what they know to be a lie. Many would not even be willing to die for the truth. Whatever changed these men, Paul included, had a powerful, life-altering impact.

The Conversion of James, Brother of Jesus

Several Gospel passages show that Jesus’ family did not believe he was the Messiah, but that they believed him crazy and mocked him over his supposed Messiahship.40 However, after the resurrection James became a leader of the church.41 What could be the reason for his change of heart? 1 Corinthians 15:7 provides the clue: Paul reports a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to James. Dale Allison, Professor of New Testament Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, believes there is not enough information about this appearance and concludes that it is plausible it was the testimony of others that drove James’ conversion.42 Licona concludes, however, that the most plausible explanation for James’ conversion is the reported appearance of the resurrected Jesus.43

That James was martyred for his Christian belief was also examined by McDowell. McDowell, after a thorough review of the evidence, concludes that James, the brother of Jesus was stoned to death with near historical certainty, and it is “very probably true” that it was as a martyr.44

Counter-Argument - Disagreements and Contradictions

Some opponents of the resurrection will point to supposed contradictions in the passion and resurrection narratives in the Gospel accounts to prove that the resurrection never occurred. The objections may range from the question of the ending of Mark,45 to how many women were at the tomb. Eminent resurrection skeptic Bart Ehrman of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill writes, “And rather than being fully consistent with one another, they are widely inconsistent, with discrepancies filling their pages, both contradictions in details and divergent large-scale understandings of who Jesus was.”46

There is much that may be said about the alleged contradictions in the narrative, but I will limit myself to two thoughts. First, this does not spell the end for the resurrection even if it is true. First, Habermas notes that despite these supposed contradictions, historians can, in fact, agree on most of the major facts of the passion and resurrection narratives.47 Second, Groothuis notes that, “If each account perfectly mirrored the rest, this would likely be a sign of collusion, not accurate history told from differing (but equally truthful) perspectives.”48 Therefore, assuming we have basically reliable documents, and there are many reasons to think so, we are on solid ground to simply bypass this argument.

Counter-Argument - Visions and Hallucinations

The most popular counter-argument against the claim of the appearances of Jesus is the hallucination hypothesis. The hallucination hypothesis has enjoyed the skeptical spotlight for some time now. One of the most forceful and well-known proponents of the hallucination theory, Gerd Lüdemann, said,

I have studied reports of visions of Mary, and I think that we have here a similar phenomenon. Though her body decayed, she has been seen again and again…When we talk about visions, we must include something we experience every night when we dream…A vision of that sort was at the heart of the Christian religion; and that vision, enforced by enthusiasm, was contagious and led to many more visions, until we have an ”appearance” to more than five hundred people.49

Lüdemann argues that Peter’s vision was a result of grief,50 while Paul had a sort of “inner revolt” leading to his mental breakdown and vision.51 The hallucination theory has been examined in-depth by scholars on both sides of the debate. In response, Licona notes that this hypothesis is faulty from the start, “Psychoanalyzing persons who are not only absent but who also lived in an ancient foreign culture involves a great deal of speculation and is a very difficult and chancy practice.”52 We may additionally note with Craig the sheer variety of these experiences: to women, to Peter, to his estranged brother, to two disciples, to twelve disciples, to an enemy of the faith, and Paul even reports an appearance to five hundred at once.53 Craig further notes that no one seemed to think this was a hallucination or vision, but that it was physical.54

Furthermore, we may note that hallucinations do not explain the empty tomb. We must explain both the empty tomb and the resurrection appearances. We may, of course, combine hypotheses together, but this makes unlikely events even more unlikely.

McGrew and McGrew give a detailed analysis of Bayesian probability. They note that for the hallucination theory to work even for one disciple would require:

…an extraordinary level of detailed delusion, seamlessly integrated…with his experience of those around him. Such delusions do occur in waking life in those who suffer from severe mental illness, but such illness is mercifully rare and is accompanied by other noticeable conditions that were absent in the case of the disciples.55

By applying Bayesian reasoning and taking into account all 13 apostles, and not merely one, McGrew and McGrew reach the conclusion that the Bayes’ factor is 10^3956. Whether or not one agrees with the exact number is immaterial. The fact is that the odds of having the evidence we have and yet the hallucination theory being true are astronomically small.57

Allison has an interesting take on this hypothesis. Noting that he believes a physical resurrection is unlikely for theological reasons, he points to strange phenomena and experiences of apparitions, including some he has experienced first-hand.58 Allison asks for further study on these apparitional encounters. He comes to the (perhaps reluctant) conclusion that Jesus rose bodily, yet his highlighting of these, perhaps veridical, modern day phenomena in which recently deceased loved ones appear in powerful ways may need more investigation.59

Nonetheless, Wright and others have made the vision theory implausible with their extensive studies of first-century Jewish beliefs and the writings of Paul. As has been noted above, a Jewish belief in a “spiritual” resurrection is simply implausible.60 Furthermore, if that were the case, it does not explain the empty tomb, it does not explain the nature or variety of these appearances, and it does not explain the appearances to unbelievers such as Paul, and to skeptics such as James and his brothers.

Conclusion

It is clear that no alternative hypothesis can explain the evidence in anything close to the depth and scope of the resurrection hypothesis. There is much more to be said on this topic, but there is not space enough here. We could make a case for an early high Christology revering Jesus as divine, which requires an answer to the question of “why?”. We could further investigate Pagan myths of “dying and rising gods” noting how different the story of Jesus’ resurrection is. We could further investigate Jewish beliefs in the one, end-of-times resurrection, and how implausible it would be for a group of Jews to reinterpret the scriptures and invent such a story as the death, resurrection, and Godhood of the Messiah. But, the evidence we have explored is enough to confidently claim that despite all modern skepticism and scholarship, God raised Jesus from the dead.

  1. Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 533-534.

    For more on Hume’s objections and Groothuis’ counter-arguments, see Groothuis, 533-538. 

  2. For more on the reliability of the Gospels, see:

    Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels and Acts, 2nd. ed. (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 2007).

    Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View: Undesigned Coincidences in the Gospels and Acts, (Chillicothe, OH: DeWard Publishing 2017). 

  3. e.g. Muslims 

  4. Groothuis, 540. 

  5. Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 304-311. 

  6. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 319. 

  7. Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible unless otherwise noted (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

  8. Matt 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42 

  9. Michael Wilkins, Craig A. Evans, Darrell Bock, and Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Gospels and Acts: The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible, (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), 8311-8314, Kindle. 

  10. Timothy McGrew and Lydia McGrew, The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland, (West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.), 606. 

  11. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed., (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 365. 

  12. My definition of living memory lasting until the end of the 2nd century follows Sean McDowell, The Fate of the Apostles: Examining the Martyrdom Accounts of the Closest Followers of Jesus, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015), 3.

    McDowell follows Markus Bockmuehl, “Peter’s Death in Rome? Back to Front and Upside Down,” Scottish Journal of Theology 60 (2007), 7-13. 

  13. Gary Habermas, “Jesus Did Rise from the Dead,” Debating Christian Theism, eds. J.P. Moreland, Chad Meister, and Khaldoun A. Sweis, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 478. 

  14. Craig, 367. 

  15. Wright, 607-608. 

  16. Such as Jeffery Jay Lowder, “Historical Evidence and the Empty Tomb Story: A Reply to William Lane Craig,” The Secular Web, 2001, accessed April 16, 2017, https://infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html 

  17. Craig, 376-377.

    cf. Dale Allison gives eleven reasons to believe the Joseph of Arimathea story is historical: Dale Allison, Ressurecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters, (New York: T & T Clark International, 2005), 352–363. 

  18. Implied by Matthew 28:11-15. 

  19. As the others rewrote the Markan account to explain the women telling nobody. Crossley, 489-491. 

  20. And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. (Mark 16:8) 

  21. Crossley, 488. 

  22. Ibid. 

  23. Habermas, 478. 

  24. Wright, 591. 

  25. Habermas, 472.

    See below: “The Post-Mortem Appearances” 

  26. Licona, 347. 

  27. Gerd Lüdemann, “Opening Statement: Gerd Lüdemann,” in Jesus’ Resurrection Fact or Figment: A Debate Between William Lane Craig & Gerd Lüdemann, eds. Paul Copan and Ronald K. Tacelli, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 44-45. 

  28. Wright, 347-356. 

  29. Habermas, 471-472. 

  30. Ibid., 472. 

  31. McGrew and McGrew, 609. 

  32. Ibid. 

  33. Which virtually no skeptic will defend today. cf Craig, 371. 

  34. Acts 8:3 

  35. Philippians 3:4-7 

  36. Acts 22:3-5 

  37. Acts 9:1-19 

  38. McDowell, 113-114. 

  39. Ibid., 2. 

  40. Mark 3:20-35, Mark 6:2-6, John 7:1-5, John 19:25-27 

  41. Galatians 1:19, 2:9 

  42. Allison, 262-263. 

  43. Licona, 458-460. 

  44. McDowell, 134. 

  45. See above: “Counter-Argument - No One Knew Where It Was” 

  46. Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), (New York: HarperCollins, 2010), 144, Kindle. 

  47. For example, that the disciples saw what they believed to be appearances of the risen Jesus.

    Gary R. Habermas, Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?, Gary Habermas Online Resources, 2005, accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.garyhabermas.com/articles/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005/J_Study_Historical_Jesus_3-2_2005.htm 

  48. Groothuis, 562. 

  49. Lüdemann (2000), 45. 

  50. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection Of Christ: A Historical Inquiry, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 1820-1821, Kindle. 

  51. Lüdemann (2004), 1881-1888, Kindle. 

  52. Licona, 505. 

  53. Craig, 377-380. 

  54. Ibid., 383. 

  55. McGrew and McGrew, 628. 

  56. Ibid. 

  57. McGrew and McGrew note that the skeptic Michael Martin estimates the probability at 1/500, while Richard Swinburne estimates it at 1/1000. (Ibid., 628fn31) 

  58. Allison, 275-277. 

  59. Allison, 277-285.

    cf. Allison on the disciples and bereavement: Allison, 364-375.

    It is worth noting that Allison’s ultimate, perhaps reluctant, conclusion once all the historical data has been accounted for is that Jesus rose from the dead. 

  60. See above: “Counter-Argument - Paul Believed in Spiritual Resurrection”. 

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