The resurrection

Arguing the resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus is a central fact of christian belief. Christians believe it is, in a sense, God’s stamp of approval on Jesus’ ministry. It shows that Jesus, in his death, has defeated evil. God’s new world, his kingdom, has indeed begun. Jesus, the Messiah, is alive and leading his followers to play their part in bringing that new world into being, and inviting others to join them.

But how should we justify our belief to sceptics? I suggest we should start with the conclusions of secular scholars.

What do secular historians make of this story?

Historians try to determine what historical facts can be established with reasonable confidence, then go on to draw conclusions from there. In the case of the resurrection, scholars are broadly agreed about what facts can be established. Some go on to express a view about whether they believe Jesus was really raised or not, but many say this is not a historical matter but rather a matter of personal choice.

As far as I can ascertain, the following are considered as historical facts by the majority of scholars, though certainly not all (many of these facts are found in Habermas 2005):

  1. Jesus was convicted and killed by crucifixion by the Romans. Marcus Borg: “some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example. Jesus really existed and he really was crucified”.
  2. He was buried in a tomb near Jerusalem.
  3. The tomb was later found empty. Classical historians Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox thought so, and a survey of scholarly publications showed that about 75% of scholars draw this conclusion.
  4. His followers had some experiences in which they saw Jesus, or a vision of Jesus, after his death. Eminent scholar EP Sanders: “That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.” Even the sceptical Jesus Seminar concluded the same. However it is difficult to piece the accounts together into one consistent narrative.
  5. Belief that Jesus was resurrected was part of the christian belief from very early days, so couldn’t have been a legend that grew with time. Bart Ehrman: “For it is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution.”
  6. This belief was a strong motivation for the subsequent expansion of christian faith across the Roman empire.
  7. A number of naturalistic explanations have been proposed, but the majority of scholars do not any of accept these.

Notice that these ‘facts’ do not necessarily imply belief in the resurrection, but acceptance of these facts may give support to belief in the resurrection.

Arguments supporting the truth of the resurrection

Most arguments that the resurrection occurred are based on a two step process:

Step 1. Historical facts

The seven historical facts are generally taken as the starting point. Nos 2 and 3 are the most contentious, but are argued as follows:

  • 2. The empty tomb is part of all the gospel accounts and assumed by Paul. The location of his tomb was known, and the disciples could not have preached that Jesus was risen if his tomb wasn’t empty. In fact, there is no record of any opponent of christianity arguing otherwise.
  • 3. It is inconceivable that the disciples made up the story of the appearances of Jesus, and continued to tell it without deviation even under severe persecution. The only viable alternative hypothesis is that they had some sort of hallucination, but it is hard to believe they had so many collective hallucinations, and harder to believe that they would have concluded Jesus had been resurrected rather than think it was a ghost. And hallucinations cannot explain the empty tomb.

As I said before, most historians accept the seven facts outlined.

Step 2. How to explain the facts?

If the resurrection didn’t occur, how can the seven facts be explained? All alternative hypotheses seem far-fetched:

  • As noted above, it is hard to believe the disciples made the whole thing up and consistently stuck to their story even when they were killed for it. Few scholars believe this is possible. Other hypotheses seem more likely.
  • But if the disciples genuinely believed Jesus had been raised when he wasn’t, how did they come to this belief? Some say it came from pagan religions based around dying and rising gods. However scholars are now convinced that this did not occur – most of the alleged parallels are simply not true and the Jews were not influenced by pagan religions anyway. If anything, the evidence suggests that some pagan religions took the christian story as their basis, not the other way round. TND Mettinger of Lund University in Sweden, who made a study of dying and rising gods, concluded: “There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. …. There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept”.
  • Another theory suggests that the disciples were distraught after the death of their leader, and, influenced by some elements in Jewish writings (mainly in the apocrypha) that spoke of the humiliation on earth and exaltation to heaven of a mysterious figure, came to believe Jesus had been resurrected as a vindication. But these writings are obscure, and the Jews didn’t believe in resurrection except at the end of the age. And of course there still remains the empty tomb.

So, the argument goes, the historical facts and the lack of a reasonable alternative explanation, make the resurrection story plausible and convincing. Oxford historian NT Wright: “there is nothing that comes remotely near explaining these phenomena [the empty tomb and the appearances], except …. Jesus of Nazareth really was raised from the dead”.

Arguments against the historicity of the resurrection

The arguments against the resurrection fall into two main groups:

Doubts about the historical evidence

  • Some sceptics deny that Jesus even existed. However the almost unanimous view of secular scholars is that he was a real person (see The Jesus myth theory) and this argument is rarely used.
  • It is argued that the resurrection stories do not come from eyewitnesses, and so cannot be considered to be reliable. However the matter of eyewitnesses is not settled. It is true that most scholars believe that the gospels were written down a generation after Jesus died, but there is neverthless good evidence that they were based on eyewitness testimony, and the gap between event and writing is short by ancient history standards.
  • There are many apparent inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, and it is recognised as difficult to harmonise them. Therefore, it is argued, the stories cannot be trusted. However, historians (like reporters and police investigators today) are used to extracting what is validated by several witnesses and putting aside what isn’t – and this leaves the main historical facts (as outlined above) intact. Further, plausible harmonisations can be developed (see Reconstructions below). Nevertheless, the apparent inconsistencies could make belief more difficult for many people.
  • Historians prefer to have multiple sources to give independent confirmation of events, and there are no accounts of the resurrection outside the New Testament. However, the New Testament is made up of five separate sources which didn’t come together in one collection for several centuries.
  • Finally, it is argued that the accounts of the resurrection are biased, coming only from Jesus’ followers. But this gets back to whether they deliberately invented the stories, which few believe possible (as outlined above).

Doubts about the possibility of miracle

Perhaps the most prevalent criticism of belief in the resurrection is that miracles are simply unbelievable, especially one as amazing as this. However this depends on our assumptions – a christian will believe that Jesus was divine and God has the power to raise him from death, whereas an atheist will naturally not believe this.

Reconstructions

Because of the doubts about the consistency and reliability of the various gospel accounts, christians have attempted to reconstruct a sequence of events that is reasonable and fits the facts. These reconstructions are speculative and go beyond what most historians would consider as reliable, but are useful tests of whether a harmonisation is at least possible.

Map of Jerusalem

Map of first century Jerusalem (from J Wenham)

The most scholarly reconstruction I know is by John Wenham of Oxford University, which is based on the following:

  • The locations of the important places in the story, as shown on the map (these are not contentious).
  • The identification of various characters in the story who are not clearly named in the gospels, which allows ambiguities in one gospel to be clarified from another gospel. (This is a little speculative, but reasonable.)
  • The identification of the authors, or sources, of the four gospels with the traditional authors – Matthew (the disciple Matthew), Mark (based on Peter’s memories), Luke (based on several eye-witnesses, including Joanna) and John (the disciple John). These identifications have been much disputed, but are not unreasonable).
  • A plausible sequence of events that leaves the followers of Jesus in three separate locations over the weekend – Peter, John and several of the women at John’s house in Jerusalem; Joanna at Herod’s palace where her husband was employed, and the rest of the disciples in Bethany.
  • The writing of some parts of the gospel accounts from the viewpoint of each writer. So Matthew describes some events as he would have heard them at Bethany, Mark and John from the viewpoint of what was heard and seen in Jerusalem at John’s house, and Luke from the viewpoint of what Joanna was able to observe. This is probably the key to Wenham’s reconstruction, because it allows him to explain many of the facts which might otherwise appear to be inconsistent.

With these as his basis, Wenham shows how the different players moved around Jerusalem and fits all the events – Jesus’ capture, trial and execution, the appearances of Jesus and the reactions of his followers – into a coherent and plausible train of events. He doesn’t claim that it is true, or can be proven historically, but he does show that the gospel accounts can be plausibly harmonised, thus blunting one of the common criticisms of the gospel accounts.

Conclusion

So, what can we conclude?

  1. At the very least we may recognise that it isn’t silly to believe that Jesus was resurrected. Jeffery Lowder , founder of the Secular Web site for the Internet Infidels, examined the arguments on both sides and concluded: On the basis of the available evidence (and the arguments I’ve seen), I conclude that a rational person may accept or reject the resurrection.
  2. The greatest challenge to the New Testament accounts of the resurrection can be satisfactorily answered. Although the New Testament accounts have apparent inconsistencies, though not enough to trouble most historians, John Wenham has shown that a plausible harmonisation is possible.
  3. While anyone with a naturalistic worldview will find it difficult to believe in such a miracle, anyone who believes in Jesus and his God should have no difficulty in accepting that God miraculously raised Jesus.
  4. Thus christians have good evidence for their belief, and the evidence is challenging to non-believers.

References

  • Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present, Gary Habermas 2005.
  • Marcus Borg and E Sanders quotes taken from ‘The Jesus Debate’ by MA Powell.
  • Bart Ehrman quote from Gary Habermas, 2005.
  • TND Mettinger quote from ‘The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East’ (2001).
  • NT Wright quote from ‘Jesus, the final days’, CA Evans & NT Wright (2008). See also Wright’s ‘Simply Christian’.
  • Easter Enigma, John Wenham (1992).
  • The Contemporary Debate On The Resurrection, Jeffery Jay Lowder.
  • ‘Reasonable Faith’, William Lane Craig (2008).
  • ‘Who moved the stone?’ Frank Morison.
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14 thoughts on “The resurrection

  1. heavenly says:

    Jesus is the Way, the Truth (and only), and the Life! If you with all your heart, cry out for the Living God, (not any (false) gods or force spirituality, but deeply and honestly want to know the True God . Then He is respond you just as He did with Abraham, as Abraham had a childish and meek faith. As He did with Moses, as He did with Paul, as He did with other saints, as He also did with (even) me a simple seeker with a heart of a childlike. No one , nothing , no other power will dare to come or response, when your heart is meek and pure. For He alone is Faithfull and Truth. All other powers are from the devil forces thats denying Christ and denying the One True God of Israel, Maker of heaven and earth, the supreme Creator of all good things and Love Himself , the real Father! Amen!For the lake of fire is waiting for those who mocking Him, His Holy Word(Jesus) despite that they know better. If you do not know better, you should not be judging. For its not man you are judging but denying and judging God Himself. Please back up and repent before its too late.

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  2. Peter Russell says:

    I have just posted a blog at http://www.peteruss.co.uk which seeks to answer the question ‘Can we really believe the stories about Jesus?’ I studied Theology at Cambridge in the early 70s and have had a lifetime of being challenged by liberal and sceptical theologians. It rejoices my heart that over the last 40 years my belief in the truth of the stories of Jesus is stronger than ever. My blog seeks to explain why. Peter Russell January 2016 peter.russell@abbacts.co.uk

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  3. westofthebluemountains says:

    Isn’t it possible that Jesus was not dead when taken off the cross, but was just unconscious and after he was placed in the tomb recovered and appeared to his disciples, after which he departed for other places ?

    There have been examples in modern days of people believed to be dead, even on a table in a morgue, but were found to still be alive.

    Some people think he travelled to India among other places.

    http://www.markmason.net/ch4ex2.htm

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  4. westofthebluemountains says:

    I couldn’t see any evidence presented in your writings that proved Jesus was actually dead when he was placed in the tomb.

    There is a lot of confirmation bias in the writings of the Apostles. They wanted to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead, otherwise they had wasted their time following him. Yes, a few were sceptical at first, but when they saw Jesus in person they believed, but in the absence of a definite proof that Jesus actually died on the cross, we have to consider the possibility that he did not.

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  5. unkleE says:

    “Isn’t it possible that Jesus was not dead when taken off the cross, but was just unconscious”

    I suppose almost anything’s possible, but I think few think that is a very likely scenario. The Romans were brutal executioners and Jesus would have suffered enormous physical damage. They wouldn’t have let him be taken down until they were sure he was dead. And if somehow he did survive, he would have been so wounded he would have taken a long time to recover. I don’t think he would have convinced anyone he had been resurrected, and certainly not that he was the divine conqueror of death!

    For these reasons, most historians apparently believe that his disciples truly had visions of him, but they are divided about whether they were genuine appearances of a resurrected Jesus, or hallucinations, or that the historical evidence leaves that question open.

    So I think it is a matter of probabilities, and since I believe there is good evidence that Jesus was divine, I think the resurrection is the most likely conclusion.

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  6. westofthebluemountains says:

    ” And if somehow he did survive, he would have been so wounded he would have taken a long time to recover.”

    ——————————————————————————–
    Maybe not for someone capable of raising others from the dead.

    But, it’s all a matter of belief and so it’s not really worth arguing about.

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  7. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    I am trying to defend the resurrection in an apologetic way. I’m saying that there’s a scholarly consensus, that:

    1) Jesus was crusified and burried.
    2) The tomb was found empty.
    3) Jesus post-mortem appearances.
    4) The disciples were convinces that Jesus had been resurrected.

    I’m trying to defend it the William Lane Craig-way. But now I’m being asked: “Where do you find the scholarly consensus?”

    And to my horror I only find this being asserted by apologetics!
    Not on wiki – neither in USA or Denmark. And not in other general encyclopedias. Do you know of any?

    Regards
    Thomas

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  8. unkleE says:

    Hi Thomas, how are you going?

    These statements are based on a study published by Gary Habermas. Habermas surveyed more than 2000 academic papers published in the period 1975-2005 that discussed the resurrection. He found that:

    “Of these scholars, approximately 75 per cent favor one or more of these arguments for the empty tomb, while approximately 25 per cent think that one or more arguments oppose it. Thus, while far from being unanimously held by critical scholars, it may surprise some that those who embrace the empty tomb as a historical fact still comprise a fairly strong majority.” (p141)

    “With few exceptions, the fact that after Jesus’ death his followers had experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus is arguably one of the two or three most recognized events from the four Gospels, along with Jesus’ central proclamation of the Kingdom of God and his death by crucifixion. Few critical scholars reject the notion that, after Jesus’ death, the early Christians had real experiences of some sort.” (p149)

    This seems to me to be quite strong evidence of the academic consensus – well beyond mere assertion – but I have found that sceptics tend to argue that it isn’t very reliable or conclusive. Some accuse Habermas of bias (he is a christian). But it is nevertheless the best solid evidence we have of the academic consensus.

    I hope that helps.

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  9. Thomas says:

    Dear Unkle

    I’m doing fine 🙂
    How are you?

    I have been studying debates and texts on the resurrection of Jesus for a time now. And while it is very interesting, I also think that there is a trap: Turning what should have been a devotional practice into a cognitive battle of what is to be rationally believed.

    What I do think is good about these discussions though is that they show that it is definitely not irrational to believe in the resurrection. That’s good because then you can believe without worrying about the whole faith being irrational.

    But I also see something else:
    It seems to be the case for many of these debates – on the christian side – that believing in the resurrection is more important than being unselfish and self-giving.
    My own intuition tells me that LOVE is more important than belief in resurrection. The resurrection is most important in another regard though, namely that without it God would not have inaugurated the Kingdom and Jesus would not have sent the Holy Spirit to us.
    But I think that it is unfair that the very (cognitive) *belief* in it should be more important than cultivating self-giving love.

    Unfair for two reasons:
    1) Of course it can be hard to grasp. Especially in our time.
    2) Unfortunately I think it can be cognitive grasped without doing long term inner changes and transformations for the person/christian.

    The old widow with the few coins, the children, the lepers … would one really demand of people like these that they had to come to terms with and understand the arguments of the christian side in a debate between professors?!
    – I don’t think so. But cultivating love – *yes, the love that Jesus preaches and acts upon* – should be every man’s and woman’s goal day by day. And Jesus speaks about this love with a precision and with pictures even children can understand.

    *** By the way: Isn’t the Sermon on the Mount expressing the same idea? That self-giving love really is what it is all about?***

    Jesus (Sermon on the Mount):
    Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!

    AND IF love is the most important thing to cultivate – more important than cognitive beliefs – THEN I think it is possible to grasp the belief about the resurrection on a more personal basis. And what helps is this: That the apologetics defend it rationally … so you wouldn’t end up with a battle between heart and mind.

    Does this make sense?

    About Gary Habermas’ study:
    I have heard that it isn’t published – even though he has been asked to publish it. Doesn’t this reduce his trustworthyness on the subject?

    Regards
    Thomas

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  10. unkleE says:

    Hi Thomas, I think I agree with everything you say here.

    Love, which is the self giving love that God has for us and wants us to have for others, not just a self-gratification love, is indeed the most important things for us. I think your distinction between the objective importance of the resurrection to the establishment of God’s kingdom and its subjective importance to us, is very good.

    So, yes, it all makes sense. I think you understand better than many christians who have been believers all their lives.

    Re Habermas. The study is published, in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, but he hasn’t published his list of studies. Yes he does get criticised for that, and I don’t know why he hasn’t done it. But I don’t think it’s all that unusual. If someone does a study of the effectiveness of certain drugs and publishes the results, I don’t think they would usually publish the details of the laboratory tests – they would be their own data, and they wouldn’t necessarily want to share that with competitors. So I don’t find it a problem, but some do. I think they use it in an attempt to evade his findings, but the same information is available for anyone else to collect, if they have the time and patience and the access to academic journals. So that’s how it is.

    Hope that helps.

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