“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:13-19).
Christianity encompasses many things and touches every aspect of life. At the heart of it all is this astonishing claim: that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. As St. Paul makes clear, the whole fabric of Christianity unravels if the Resurrection is not true. Christ’s rising is not a sidelight to the Gospel message, something that we can take or leave without touching the core of Christian belief. It is the key to everything else, the cornerstone upon which the whole structure of the faith is built.
This being so, it is a natural for someone who is weighing the Christian view of life to ask: what is the basis for this remarkable historical claim? Why are Christians so confident that Jesus rose from the dead? What is the evidence for it? Can a case be made that shows the claim to be reasonable from a historical point of view, or is this just one of those odd legends that tend to crop up around the lives of famous and admired people? This brief article is an attempt to answer that question, and to set out the historical case for the Resurrection.
The Historical Data
Sensible and unbiased people would agree to the following six historical observations:
- A Jew named Jesus bar-Joseph lived in the first century in Palestine. He was a kind of peoples’ Rabbi, and he gained a following as a miracle-worker and prophet in the tradition of Elijah, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. He aroused serious opposition due to his teaching, and he was tried and put to a criminal’s death by the Roman procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, according to Roman legal procedures.
- The Christian Gospels that chronicle the life and teaching of Jesus are testimonies based on eyewitness accounts, and were written within some few decades of the events they describe. They purport to be historically true. Whatever one thinks of their content as regards the Christian faith, they are legitimate historical sources that accurately convey a good deal about their time, and at least provide an understanding of what the early followers of Jesus thought and believed about him.
- Shortly after the death of Jesus, his close disciples publicly claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they had seen him and spoken with him on numerous occasions. None of them later changed their minds or recanted their claim, and many of them were put to death because of their belief.
- The disciples of Jesus made the further claim that the now risen Messiah, the Christ, was the divine Son of God in human form, and that he was still alive on earth and could be encountered and known, not as an enfleshed human but by an inward meeting with his Holy Spirit. That is, they didn’t simply say that Jesus had risen and was now off in some distant spiritual place, but that he was still mysteriously alive and active on the earth.
- The tomb in which the Romans buried Jesus and over which they had set a guard was found to be empty, and no one at that time or since has ever been able to find his body.
- The believing society set on foot by the disciples of Jesus has been among the most influential, most extended, and most comprehensive religious movements the world has known. It has touched and often transformed peoples and civilizations from every continent. Millions have believed it for thousands of years. Some 2 billion people now call themselves Christians.
These historical data need an explanation. Things happen for a reason. How is one to make sense of them?
Explanations of the Historical Data
One way to account for the evidence is to say that Jesus was indeed who the early Christians thought he was, and that he did what his disciples said he did. He was God incarnate, and he rose from the dead. This explanation covers the evidence very well. It explains the accounts about Jesus in the Gospels, it explains the tenacious belief of the disciples, it explains why the tomb was empty, and it explains why billions of people have claimed over the centuries to have come to know a living Christ. It is the simplest and neatest explanation for covering all the historical data.
But there is an obvious difficulty with this explanation: people don’t usually rise from the dead. As the early Christians well knew, this was an extraordinary claim. It is not the sort of thing to be easily accepted or believed. One might be inclined to say that it just didn’t or couldn’t happen. Yet thoughtful people know that there still needs to be a reasonable explanation for the historical data. Those who have been unwilling to admit the Resurrection have devised various alternatives. Here, in brief, are the main theories that have been formulated over time.
1. The “Stolen Body” theory.
This theory, or some variant of it, is the most immediately obvious alternative. If we are to believe the Gospel accounts, it was already making the rounds as soon as Jesus’s grave was found to be empty. The theory suggests that the Apostles and their associates hid or destroyed the body of Jesus and then gave out the report that he had miraculously risen from the dead.
One way to account for the evidence is to say that Jesus was indeed who the early Christians thought he was, and that he did what his disciples said he did. He was God incarnate, and he rose from the dead... It is the simplest and neatest explanation for covering all the historical data.
There is an initial plausibility here. We have an empty grave and a missing body, and if that body didn’t walk out of the tomb, someone must have taken it out. Who else but his disciples? But the initial plausibility runs into serious difficulty with the data. First of all, there are practical problems with the proposed thieving operation. How were Jesus’s disciples to get into a tomb that was sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers under an order from their Procurator? And if once this band of scattered and dispirited ex-fishermen did somehow manage to overcome a group of professional soldiers and get into the tomb, what did they do with the body? As readers of Agatha Christie know, disposing of the body is always the most difficult part to pull off. Corpses have a way of showing up, especially if people are eagerly looking for them, as the enemies of Christ and his followers were surely doing in order to stop these dangerous rumors of resurrection.
But the greatest difficulty with the theory is not found in the practical details surrounding the theft of the body. It comes from a different direction, and deals with what might be called the theory’s psychological possibilities. The claim that the disciples stole the body in order to fake a resurrection rests on two assumptions. First, the disciples needed to be expecting or at least hoping for such a resurrection to take place; otherwise faking it would make no sense. Second, to pull off a stunt like this the Apostles and their circle had to be religious hucksters of the worst sort, deceitful frauds down to the last man.
Concerning the first of these: when the disciples of Jesus went about proclaiming that Jesus rose from the dead, they also claimed that his rising was a proof that he was the divine Son of God. From the point of view of Jewish belief, this was a shocking and unlikely thing to suggest. Jesus’s subtle but unmistakable claim to divinity was what brought him into so much conflict with the Jewish religious authorities. From all we can tell, his disciples also had a hard time grasping this idea, and constantly misunderstood Jesus when he spoke about it. As a result they were deeply discouraged when Jesus was taken and killed. When they first encountered him alive they were surprised and alarmed. It was the fact of the Resurrection itself that opened them up to an understanding of the identity of Jesus that would have otherwise been hard for a Jewish believer of the time even to conceive of. Declaring that a criminalized and crucified man was God’s divine son was hardly a deceptive winning formula upon which to pin one’s fortunes.
The second assumption has been even more difficult to swallow. How likely is it that all the leading followers of Jesus, all the Apostles (apart from Judas), and all their circle, were scheming and cynical liars? Mary Magdalene? Jesus’s own mother? Are the figures of Peter and Andrew, James and John, simple fishermen from the upcountry of Galilee, believable as perpetrators of the most gigantic hoax in history? And further, as the lawyers like to ask, Cui bono? Who stands to gain? L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, apparently once said that the way to become a millionaire in America was to found a religion. He then founded one according to which he claimed to be a 30,000 year-old alien, and he became a millionaire. In such a case one may reasonably doubt the claim to ancestry, since it was so very convenient for the one doing the claiming. What did the Apostles get out of their supposed scam? Nothing but trouble: hard labor, persecution, exile, and violent death. Yet none of them ever broke rank and recanted. Is that the typical behavior of liars and frauds? Do people go lock-step to their deaths for a scheme they have dreamed up?
The weight of these difficulties has meant that very few people have ultimately been able to buy the idea of the stolen body. Whatever the Apostles may have been, most have thought that they were at least sincere in their beliefs. The writings they left behind have the ring of sincerity, and their subsequent behavior was that of people who believed in what they were doing. They may have been mistaken or deluded, but it is hard to think of them as scheming liars.
2. The “Wrong Grave” theory.
If Jesus did not rise from the dead, and yet all his followers firmly and sincerely believed that he did, there needs to be an explanation for their mistaken confidence. One theory suggests that there was a mix-up concerning the location of the grave. When Mary Magdalene and the other women went to anoint Jesus, they were mistakenly directed to the wrong grave, and they found it empty. This gave rise to the idea that Jesus had risen. The women came back with the news, the Apostles went and found the empty tomb, and the legend of the Resurrection was born.
This theory also presents serious difficulties. It again assumes that the followers of Jesus were expecting him to rise from the grave, something that is not at all clear and that contradicts their own accounts. John’s telling of the story makes this clear. When Mary Magdalene found the grave empty, she did not think Jesus had risen; she came to the more obvious conclusion that someone had moved the body. She only realized her mistake when the gardener she accosted to find where they had placed him turned out to be Jesus himself, resplendently alive.
Was he a mere man, or is he God himself among us? That is precisely where God seems to have wanted the question to land.
A yet more significant problem with the theory has to do with the persistence of the error involved. Even if all the followers of Jesus stupidly got the location of his grave wrong, it can hardly be expected that the enemies of the new movement would make the same mistake. “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, and yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us!” (Acts 5:28). So said the angry Jewish ruling Council to the Apostles. The simplest and most effective way to silence these troublemakers and to quash their movement was to produce Jesus’s body. They and the Romans would certainly have known where the grave was to be found, and they had a strong motivation for sorting out any possible mix-up. Yet neither then nor at any later time was there any claim that Jesus’s corpse had been found. The existence of the empty tomb and Jesus’s disappearance from it were acknowledged by both the friends and the enemies of Jesus.
3. The “Mass Hallucination” theory.
Another explanation has suggested the possibility that the disciples of Jesus, desperately desiring to see their crucified master alive, worked themselves up together into an extreme psychological state such that they “saw” his resurrected body, or at least thought they did.
This theory gained a certain vogue in the early days of psychology, when all kinds of unexplainable things were being ascribed to psychological states. Psychologists have become more cautious about such explanations as the practice and experience of psychology has matured. Apart from the inherent unlikelihood of the event, this theory says nothing about how the tomb came to be empty in the first place, which is the primary piece of historical data. It again assumes that the disciples expected and desired the Resurrection to occur, and as a result fell prey to exaggerated wishful thinking. It also seems implausible that a hallucinatory experience would provide the basis for a lifelong commitment to a costly religious movement. Were there no hard-headed and non-susceptible people among the early disciples? No one who later came to wonder whether that odd experience might have been the result of a particular fit of nerves at a difficult time?
4. The “Cool of the Tomb” theory.
Yet another explanation of the early Christians’ belief in the Resurrection suggests that Jesus was thought to be risen because he was never actually dead. When he was taken down from the cross and placed in the tomb, he was only thought to be dead. But as Miracle Max once said, “There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” According to this rendering, in the cool of the grave, Jesus revived. He then made his way out of the tomb and was seen by his disciples, who mistakenly declared the Resurrection.
One is here tempted to say, “I’m not making this up.” This theory has actually been put forward, and shows how difficult it has been to come up with a sensible account of the historical data that denies the Resurrection. The difficulties with this theory are obvious and worth only a brief mention. The hardest thing to believe about it is that anyone could be so stupid as to make such a ridiculous mistake. If Jesus, after the horrific treatment he had received, from the forty-nine lashes to the actual crucifixion and piercing by a lance, still somehow managed to cling to life, he would have been a ghastly and pitiable sight. Had he managed to crawl out of his grave, anyone encountering him would not have thought that a dead man had risen; only that a man in extreme torture at the edge of death had been mistakenly buried alive. Finding Jesus in this state the disciples would have run to him to help him and tend to his wounds, not declare him resurrected. Beyond that, the theory assumes that Roman soldiers, not noted for being slack in their duties, couldn’t tell whether a man was dead or alive. One also wonders: how did Jesus in his half-dead state roll away the stone at the tomb’s mouth? And if he was seen by his disciples, why did he not tell them the truth? And what happened to him after that? Did he simply disappear?
That about tells the tale of possible theories. Those mentioned above are the best ones going. Others only get more bizarre. If we were to employ Ockham’s famous razor, we would go with the theory that most obviously “saves appearances,” the one that most easily and simply deals with the data, and that would be that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead. To this it might be countered: “It is true that alternative theories to the Resurrection are unsatisfactory and improbable. But as Sherlock Holmes once said, ‘ When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ It is impossible that a man could rise from the dead; therefore one of these admittedly improbable solutions must be the right one.” To which a Christian might respond: “We agree that it is impossible for a man to rise from the dead. We agree that it is an event that never happens. That is precisely our claim: that Jesus was not merely a man, but was also the divine Son of God, and he did what no other human ever has done or could do. What is impossible for a man is not impossible for God.” An unbeliever might then respond, “I don’t think that there is a God or that Jesus was God’s divine Son, and therefore I still hold the Resurrection to be impossible.” But it should be noted that this is no longer a historical argument; it is a religious and philosophical one. There is no a priori reason why God could not take human flesh. And if once he did, there is no historical problem with his behaving differently from other humans; in fact it is to be expected that he would.
All of this does not prove that the Resurrection of Jesus took place. But it does show that there are no reasonable historical grounds to think it impossible or unlikely. The whole question of the Resurrection therefore turns, not on historical data, but on what one thinks of Jesus Christ. Was he a mere man, or is he God himself among us? That is precisely where God seems to have wanted the question to land.
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