Over at HonestUncertainity, there is a challenge of sorts to demonstrate why you believe (or do not believe) in the literal resurrection of Jesus. (Perhaps, some here – on both sides – would like to send in a submission.) As we approach Easter, I thought I would post my response to the challenge here.
First I would like to deal with two preconceived ideas that hinder
someone from accepting the story of Easter and then I will develop the
positive case on that foundation. A bit of defense, then offense.
Objection #1) Science disproves miracles, so therefore the resurrection is impossible from the start.
Atheistic philosopher Michael Ruse said, "…miracles lie outside
of science, which by definition deals with natural, the repeatable and
that which is governed by law." Perhaps surprisingly, I agree with that.
Christian philosopher William Lane Craig defines a miracle as "an event
which is not producible by the natural causes that are operative at the
time and place that the event occurs."
We have to start by defining a miracle, which a resurrection obviously
is, because so many debates and discussions are destined for
pointlessness because of the same word having several different
meanings to the individuals involved.
Miracles, as defined above, do lie outside of science and therefore
cannot be judged or evaluated in that manner. They would be similar to
a subject like ethics in this regard. Science does not make ethical
judgments and they do not speak to miracles.
The Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga humorously describes those
who refuse to allow for the miraculous because science cannot speak to
it as "like the drunk who insisted on looking for his lost car keys
only under the streetlight on the grounds that the light was better
there. In fact, it would go the drunk one better: it would insist that
because the keys would be hard to find in the dark, they must be under the light." Most of the objections simply beg the question and assume a priori that miracles are impossible.
The definition described above lies in stark contrast with the famous
skeptic David Hume, who called miracles a "violation of the laws of
nature." J.P. Moreland uses a famous example to demonstrate why this is
not the case. Suppose you saw a falling apple. That, of course,
demonstrates the scientific law of gravity. What if you reach out and
catch the apple before it hits the ground – are you violating the laws
of nature? Obviously not, you are a person with free will intervening
in a situation which prevents the natural outcome from taking place. If
a Creator God, specifically the One of Christianity exists, would He
not fall under that same category? If He chose to intervene in a
particular situation, He would not be violating any rules, but would
rather simply be exerting His free will in a situation. The natural
laws are simply a description of what happens regularly by natural
means. They cannot rule out miracles.
One of Hume's reasons for discounting the resurrection specifically is
the enormity of evidence against bodily resurrection. We have had 2,000
years of evidence since Jesus was supposed raised – dead people stay
dead. Wouldn't that in and of itself outweigh any evidence on Jesus'
side? Not really because you are not proposing two opposite statements.
You could believe that everyone who has died since the time of Jesus
stayed dead and at the same time hold that Jesus was resurrected. There
is no contradiction between those statements. The opposite of Jesus was
raised from the dead is not that everyone since then has stayed dead.
The only opposite statement is that Jesus stayed dead. At that point,
you have to demonstrate evidence against that particular situation.
If you followed Hume's rationale you could never really believe in
anything because virtually everything happened only once – beginning of
the universe, beginning of life, birth of David Hume. Those things
occurred only once and no other time in history do we have any evidence
of them ever occurring again, so if we accept Hume's arguing we must
believe that Hume himself was never born into a universe that never
existed with a planet that never had life on it. We must not confuse
probability with possibility. Just because something is highly
improbably does not mean that is is not possible.
Above all else, we have the notion of God. If you allow for a God who
exists outside of time and has free will to intervene, as humans do,
then how can you not allow for the miraculous as a possibility? As C.S.
Lewis said, "If we admit God, must we admit miracles? Indeed, indeed,
you have no security against it. That is the bargain."
Finally, Hume presents us with his famous dismissive of miracles,
particularly the resurrection of Jesus: "Extraordinary events require
Let's step away from the realm of miracles (since Hume does not specify
the type of extraordinary event) and suppose on the morning of
September 11, 2001, you had a friend call you and tell you that if you
were anywhere near the World Trade Center building to run away because
an airplane was about to hit it. That's an extraordinary claim and one,
at the time, which seemed virtually impossible to fathom.
You were on your way to the WTC for work that morning. Should you
believe your friend, even though he sounded crazy and suggested
something totally far-fetched? Part of it would rely on how reliable
your friend is. Sure, he is suggesting something that was totally
unheard of, but he's not usually one for this kind of practical joke.
What if he tells you that he is on the plane at that moment and he sees
the men that are responsible?
We have an eyewitness that you have found to be generally trustworthy
give you information that could be life altering? If you disregard it,
you could die. If you believe it, you would either be saved or feel
foolish for being tricked. All in all, you would not be thought of as
irrational for believing that an extraordinary event was about to
happen because you had evidence from a trustworthy source. That leads
to the next objection.
Objection #1) The Bible is not a trustworthy historical source.
For starters, much of the reason people doubt the Bible is because
they doubt the miraculous. Hopefully, I have demonstrated that it is
entirely rational to believe in miracles. In fact, it is entirely
irrational to not allow for miracles if you allow for God. Therefore,
we cannot simply dismiss the New Testament narratives simply because
they include the miraculous. That's coming to the conclusion before the
Before, we even get to the Gospels themselves, we can put together a
very compelling narrative of Jesus using strictly extra-biblical,
non-Christian histories (Tacitus, Josephus, Thallus, Pliny the Younger,
Emperor Trajan, Jewish Talmud, etc.) recorded shortly after Jesus' life
and death. Of interest to our particular topic, he can see that he was
crucified under Pilate (Tacitus, Josephus), it happened on Passover Eve
(Talmud), Darkness occurred (Thallus), his disciples believed that he
rose from the dead (Tacitus, Josephus), they were willing to die for
that believe and they worshiped him on Sunday as a god (Pliny the
Not only does this give us compelling evidence about Jesus, but also
about the trustworthiness of the New Testament records. The events
described there are retold from non-Christian perspectives in other
historical documents of the era.
Within the NT and besides the Gospels, we have the letters of Paul
which were written earlier than Gospels (or at least most of them
were). Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church was written around
A.D. 55 (that places it around 20 years after Jesus' death). In the
letter he includes a creed that he "received" which says that Christ
died for our sins, was resurrected and appeared to more than 500. Even
if you date the creed at the moment Paul's letter was written that
places it only 20 years after the fact.
Could anyone around 30 years or older be convinced that the Berlin Wall
being torn down was just a legend that has developed? Of course not,
there's people alive today that saw it happen. We can see the
consequences of it to this day. Same with the resurrection. When Paul
wrote his letter, he mentions that some of those who saw Jesus had
died, but many were still alive. Not only were those eyewitnesses
alive, but so were the skeptics who would have loved to refute
everything that Paul and the early Christians were saying.
As far as the NT as a whole, atheist John A.T. Robinson, known for his role in the "Death of God" movement, wrote a book called Redating the New Testament.
In it, he admits that most of the NT books, including all four Gospels,
were written sometime between A.D. 40 and 65. That information is
important considering the most frequent charge against the Gospels is
that they developed as legend over time.
At the most recent count, there are upwards of 6,000 handwritten Greek
manuscripts of the New Testament and some 9,000 in other languages of
the time periods shortly after the NT events. So not only do we have
numerous transcripts of the NT, which allow us to test each against all
the others to accurate preserve the original writings, we also have
extremely early manuscripts. In the John Rylands museum in England,
there is a portion of the Gospel of John which dates between A.D.
117-138. It was found in Egypt, which means that John's Gospel was
already being copied and transmitted to believers across the region
within decades. The next closest time gap is the Iliad (500 years). It also has the next closest number of manuscripts (643).
Some manuscripts found with the Dead Sea Scrolls date between A.D. 50
and 70. Some scholars believe that they are portions of six NT books
(Mark, Acts, Romans, 1 Timothy, 2 Peter and James). While some dispute
the identification (aware of the implications), they have yet to
identify any other non-New Testament texts that those fragments could
be. If one of those fragments do belong to Mark, the New York Times
wrote that it would prove Mark "was written only a few years after the
death of Jesus."
Not only do we have numerous and early manuscripts of the NT, we also
have quotings from the NT in early church fathers. We would be able to
recompose the entire New Testament, with the exception of 11 verses,
using just the writings of 2nd and 3rd Century Church leaders.
All of those allow us to be virtually assured that the New Testament,
you can purchase today is the same as the one written in the first
century. Of all the variances in the 6,000 manuscripts, only 400 in all
those copies changed the meaning of a verse, only 50 of those were of
any real significance and none of those affected a single doctrine of
the Christian faith that is not completely ascertainable through other
areas in the New Testament.
We also have archaeological evidence which supports the New Testament
narratives. In the last 16 chapters of Acts alone, there are 84
historically verifiable facts that are stated. In the Gospel of John,
often challenged as the least reliable, there are 59 historically
confirmed (through outside sources) or historically probable (because
they contain facts that would be unlikely to be fabricated by a
disciple of Jesus). Overall at last count, there were 140-plus
eyewitness details included in the NT narratives, along with 30-plus
historically verifiable people.
With the resurrection account, many claim that it is hopelessly
contradictory. When you look at the supposed contradictions, they are
actually simply differing accounts focusing on different details. For a
point by point harmonization of the Gospel accounts, you can read
Harvard Law professor and attorney Simon Greenleaf's work.
Now, hopefully, we can allow that it is rational to allow for miracles
and read the New Testament narratives as historically accurate.
However, none of that implicitly demonstrates the specific fact of the
resurrection. Why believe in it specifically?
Did Jesus literally rise from the dead after his crucifixion?
I hope the previous groundwork of miracles and the New Testament
will allow us to move beyond those objections into the resurrection
itself. Building upon those, here's the case.
First of all, we should establish that the vast majority of scholars,
be they ultra-liberals to super-conservatives, agree on 12 historical
facts as Gary Habermas says.
1. Jesus died by Roman crucifixion.
2. He was buried, most likely in a private tomb.
3. Soon after, his disciples were discouraged, despondent, etc.
4. Jesus tomb was found empty very soon after his interment.
5. The disciples had experiences they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus.
6. Due to these, the disciples were completely transformed and willing to die for their beliefs.
7. Proclamation of the resurrection took place very early, from the beginning of the church.
8. The disciples testimony about the resurrection took place in Jerusalem, where Jesus had just been killed.
9. The gospel message centered around the death and resurrection of Jesus.
10. Sunday was the primary day for gathering and worshiping.
11. James, Jesus' brother and a skeptic, was converted after he believed he saw the risen Jesus.
12. A few years later, a persecutor of Christians, Saul, converted after he believed he saw the risen Jesus.
To disprove the resurrection, a theory must be able to explain these 12 historical facts.
Theory #1 – NT records are legend, embellishments or straight out lies.
Hopefully the previous portions of this defense would remove this
theory. Most would hold to this because they have an a priori objection
to the resurrection, not because they have diligently researched it and
came away unmoved.
As Honest Uncertainty noted in his post posing the question, why would someone die
for a legend, an embellishment or a lie? It is a historical fact that
Christians were killed for believing that Jesus was God and did come
back from the dead.
There is a distinction that must be made, people will die (and kill)
for a lie, but they will not die in mass numbers for something they
know to be a lie. Yes, followers of numerous religions have died and
killed because they honestly believed their faith to be true. But the
early Christians would have known the truth. Someone would have had to
take Jesus' body. If followers of Jesus took it, why would they die for
something they knew to be false. If, for whatever reason, enemies of
Jesus took it, why did they not parade it around town to destroy the
religion from the out set.
Something happened and merely dismissing it, does not get to the bottom of the question.
Theory #2 – Hallucination theory
Maybe the disciples just ate a bad kosher meal and hallucinated a risen
Jesus. But then how would there have been multiple appearances to
multiple individuals and multiple times? But even if somehow all of
them had synchronized dreams, what about the tomb? How did it get
empty? This can't explain it.
Theory #3 – Witnesses went to the wrong tomb
Why couldn't the women have just gone to a different tomb by mistake?
That one's empty, so they believed what they wanted to about Jesus. But
this doesn't explain the empty tomb or the believe of the disciples
that they saw Jesus alive. Notice in the Gospel accounts that the empty
tomb, by itself, does not convince most of the disciples. They are not
truly sure of what happened until they see him.
Theory #4 – Swoon theory
I have to say this is my favorite one because of the absurdity you
have to believe in order to accept it, but yet so many otherwise
intelligent people hold to this in order to avoid having to accept the
miraculous did occur.
First of all, everyone thought Jesus was died – friends, enemies,
everyone. And it's not like he was put to death by unexperienced
executioners. The Roman government had developed crucifixion because of
the way it painfully killed it's victims. They knew how to kill and
knew when someone was dead. The soldier at the cross plunged his spear
into the side of Jesus, to assure he was dead. Pilate wanted to double
check Jesus was dead. You can be sure the Jewish leaders who had called
for his death would have made sure he did not come down until he was
In a 1986 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association,
three medical doctors stated that "clearly, the weight of historical
and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to
his side was inflicted … the assumptions that Jesus did not die on
the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge."
But just for argument's sake, let's say somehow Jesus survived the
beatings, the crucifixion and the spear. After that, he was embalmed in
75 lbs of bandages and spices. Then placed inside a cold, dark, damp
tomb with a gigantic stone rolled in front of the entrance to prevent
anyone from going in (or coming out). Even if he went in there alive,
how in the world would he have not done anything but bleed to death in
But again, just for argument's sake, let's say somehow he survived all
of that and was able to roll the gigantic stone away and over power the
armed Roman guards outside, what does he do now? Limp around Jerusalem
hopping that his disciples don't look too close or push too hard? If
his disciples had seen Jesus after all of that had happened and no
resurrection took place, they would not have been inspired to go out
and die for him. They would have been worried that he was about to die.
A bloody, weak, mess of a man is not an inspiration for belief in
a resurrection. Not only that, how does he make all the appearances he
does, after that. In one instance, he walks for several miles with two
of his followers and then disappears. Forget the disappear, how is he
going to walk that far after all he has endured.
Believing in the swoon theory requires more faith than belief in the resurrection!
Theory #5 – It was a spiritual resurrection, but not a physical one.
What on earth is this supposed to explain? First, there would still
be an empty tomb problem. It would still be miraculous for the spirit of Jesus
to be floating around talking to people. Also, you have numerous places
in the NT where they stress the physical nature of the resurrection –
able to touch his body, eating food, etc.
Theory #6 – Disciples stole the body
This goes back to the first theory – why? Why would they steal the
body and then get beaten and killed for what they knew to be a lie? We
look back and see that they began a world enveloping faith, they would
have no way of knowing that would happen – unless they truly believed
that Jesus was God's Son and had come back from the dead. That would
inspire them and encourage them to believe that the entire world could
be changed based on the life and death and life again of this Man, who
Theory #7 – The faith of the Disciples caused them to believe things that didn't happen
Once again, what about the empty tomb? Why wouldn't the Pharisees
and the Roman Government have simply brought out the body and ended the
Also as William Lane Craig says, their faith was a result of the
resurrection, not the other way around. Before they saw the risen
Jesus, they didn't believe. Even the empty tomb didn't prove anything
to most of them.
Theory #8 – New Testament writers copied pagan myths
Again, this doesn't explain so many of the facts surrounding the resurrection – empty tomb, changed lives, etc.
As literary critic, myth creator and skeptic-turned-believer C.S. Lewis
wrote, "All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian,
that's my job. And I prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the
Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply
showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I've read a great many
novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among
early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind
Theory #9 – Jesus was crucified, buried and came back to life.
This is the only explanation that gives satisfying answers to all the facts surrounding the event in question.
If we allow that miracles are possible and if we acknowledge that we
have a reliable historical account from the New Testament, what are the
objections to this? If God is present, miracles and possible, and even
likely in the event he wants to communicate with us or confirm a
communication as being from Him or approved by Him.
The New Testament, when evaluated with an objective lens in comparison
with all other historical documents of its time, stands alone in it's
original trustworthiness and the reliability it has in communicating
the same today as it did originally.
No other theory has the explanatory power that the New Testament account has.
In conclusion, in his book The Reason for God, Tim Keller describes how every Easter he tells those at his church that regardless of their beliefs, they should want
the resurrection to be true. He concludes his chapter on the subject
this way: "Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing
we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened,
however, that means there's infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves
out for the needs of the world. In a sermon, N.T. Wright said:
this world matters! That the injustices and pains of this present world
must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love
have won … If Easter means Jesus Christ is only raised in a spiritual
sense – [then] it is only about me, and finding a new dimension in my
personal spiritual life. But if Jesus Christ is truly riven from the
dead, Christianity becomes good news for the whole world – news which
warms our hearts precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts.
Easter means that in a world where injustice, violence and degradation
are endemic, God is not prepared to tolerate such things – and that we
will work and plan, with all the energy of God, to implement victory of
Jesus voer them all. Take away Easter and Karl Marx was probably right
to accuse Christianity of ignoring problems of the material world. Take
it away and Freud was probably right to say that Christianity is
wish-fulfillment. Take it away and Nietzsche probably was right to say
it was for wimps."
But we don't have to take away Easter. We have Easter and we can have life, both in this world and the next, because of it.
Related: Previous post on defense of the resurrection.