The Historical Reality of the Resurrection
Christianity is a religion based on facts. This is a hard pill to swallow in our present generation. Postmodern religion is less concerned about knowledge and facts and more concerned with faith and what is believed. In spite of this current philosophy, the Bible clearly shows us that the two go hand-in-hand. Faith and belief must be founded upon facts and knowledge. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:21; John 8:32; et. al.).
In no area is this more important than in the case of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is no faith if there is no event. Consider the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 and the numerous implications:
And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
If the resurrection is not a literal fact of history, then the apostles wasted their time with preaching, all Christian faith is vain and worthless, neither we nor our loved ones will ever be raised, we are still in our sins, and we should be pitied by others because of our ignorance. In addition to this, the salvation of man is intricately connected to the resurrection (Romans 10:9; Acts 17:31; 1 Peter 3:21; etc.). Obviously, we must know the truth about this issue.
Enemies of the truth are more than willing to share their convictions. The revered book of the Muslim religion, the Qur’an, teaches that Jesus never really died on the cross (Surah IV: 156-57). Numerous others have come up with all manner of alternative theories to try and explain away a literal resurrection. Whether it is via best-selling novels, popular websites, documentaries on The Discovery Channel, or special pieces on one of the major television networks, the efforts of these groups are proving to be detrimental to the faith of many. Luke Timothy Johnson of Emory University stated, “Americans generally have an abysmal level of knowledge of the Bible. In this world of mass ignorance, to have headlines proclaim that this or that fact about [Jesus] has been declared untrue by supposedly scientific inquiry has the effect of gospel. There is no basis on which most people can counter these authoritative-sounding statements” (Van Biema 57).
Some have attempted to defend the case for the resurrection in a negative fashion by debunking false theories (cf. Overton, Kreeft and Tacelli). These false ideas include the Swoon Theory, the Conspiracy Theory, the Hallucination Theory, or the Myth Theory (re: myth and legend cf. Boyd and Eddy). The idea is that if all the false theories can be shown to be untenable then, by default, Christianity is proven true. Instead, we will take a positive approach. Following the work of Habermas and Licona, we will present affirmative evidence that proves the case of the resurrection to be true. Some would seek to make the resurrection only a spiritual account, not rooted in history. Even Antony Flew, internationally known philosopher and highly respected antagonist of the resurrection, stated that there are three fundamentals that must be agreed upon in order to have an intelligent discussion about this subject. First, the rising from the dead is literal and physical. Second, the resurrection of Jesus is of supreme theoretical and practical importance. Third, such identification is a defining and distinguishing characteristic of true Christianity (Habermas and Flew 3).
Historians of all fields employ certain principles to determine whether a particular account of history is credible. Habermas and Licona present five such principles that will be considered here (36-40): (1) multiple, independent sources support historical claims, (2) attestation by an enemy supports historical claims, (3) embarrassing admissions support historical claims, (4) eyewitness testimony supports historical claims, and (5) early testimony supports historical claims. The case for the resurrection of Jesus is so strong because it has testimony from all five of these categories. Such will be pointed out below.
The positive case for the resurrection begins with the fact that Jesus died by crucifixion. Eyewitness testimony comes from the apostle John. Early testimony is found in all four gospels. Enemy testimony comes from Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian (qtd. in Habermas and Licona 49).
Even John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar wrote, “That [H]e was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be” (145). If Jesus did not really live and then really die there would be no resurrection to discuss. Honest historians admit evidence shows He lived and died.
The second fact is that the disciples of Jesus believed that He rose from the dead and appeared to them. Just before the death of Jesus, all disciples deserted their leader (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50). They were deeply distraught, feeling as though their cause was lost. Then after the death of Jesus, a transformation takes place. The lives of the disciples are changed to such a degree that they are now willing to endure persecution and martyrdom. Such conviction indicates that they were not just claiming Jesus rose from the dead for some type of personal gain. They really believed He rose from the dead. According to J. P. Moreland, this is significant because, “People will die for their religious beliefs if they sincerely believe they’re true, but people won’t die for their religious beliefs if they know their beliefs are false” (qtd. in Strobel 247). This answers the objection of those who propose any of the theories such as conspiracy to steal the body, myth, or even modern martyrs. The difference is modern martyrs act solely out of their trust in beliefs that others have taught them while the apostles died for holding to their testimony that they had personally seen the risen Jesus. All the authorities had to do was get some of these disciples to
recant their bold claims. Were news to spread that several of the original disciples of Jesus had recanted, Christianity would never have been the same. Likely it would have died out in short order. Yet numerous early sources such as Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement of Rome, Dionysius of
Corinth, Tertullian, and Origen all record that the disciples were willing to die for their claim (Habermas and Licona 56-59).
The third fact is that hardened skeptics were turned into staunch believers. Example number one is Saul of Tarsus. Paul himself wrote that he was once upon a time a brutal persecutor of the church but was converted to the cause of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Galatians 1:12-16;
Philippians 3:6-7). In addition to this, Luke records the same thing in Acts 8, 9, and 22. There also appears to be oral tradition circulating among Christians in Judea (Galatians 1:22-23). What would drive such an opponent of Christianity to change his mind and life? Paul said it was the resurrection. Example number two is James, the brother of Jesus. According to passages like John 7:5 and Mark 3:21, 31; 6:3-4, the fleshly brothers of Jesus did not believe He was divine. Yet, later evidence suggests James soon became a leader in the church established by Jesus (Acts 15:13; Galatians 1:19; 2:9). What could have been the cause of this turnabout? The resurrected Jesus appeared to His brother (1 Corinthians 15:7).
The fourth fact is that key social institutions of Jewish life changed quickly and dramatically. For centuries Jews had closely guarded their divinely ordained traditions, passing them down from generation to generation. Then, suddenly, they alter or eliminate them. They no longer offer sacrifices. They no longer believe the Law of Moses brings salvation. They gather to worship on Sunday rather than Saturday. They worship Jesus as God. They admit to a Messiah that would suffer and die rather than destroy the Roman army. The only reasonable explanation for such a radical change is that these Jews had seen the risen Jesus (Strobel 251).
The fifth fact is the most obvious one of all: the tomb was empty. It is important to keep in mind that both the crucifixion and the establishment of the church took place in Jerusalem. Christianity would have never seen the light of day had there still been a body in the tomb. The Jews or Romans could have simply produced the body and the uprising fades away. But instead of His enemies claiming Jesus was still dead, they began to make up stories about a stolen body (Matthew 28:12-13). William Lane Craig points out that this conspiracy theory, i.e. that disciples stole the body, is untenable. He states that the one
. . . who holds to this theory must believe (1) that the twelve poor fishermen were able to change the world through a plot laid so deep that no one has ever been able to discern where the cheat lay, (2) that these men gave up the pursuit of happiness and ventured into poverty, torments, and persecutions for nothing, (3) that depressed and fearful men would have suddenly grown so brave as to break into the tomb and steal the body, and (4) that these imposters would furnish the world with the greatest system of morality that ever was. (27-28)
Who can believe it?
In accordance with this, if the empty tomb is merely legend, why did the storytellers claim Jesus first appeared to women? In both Jewish and Roman cultures women were lowly esteemed and their testimony would have been considered questionable at best. The Jewish Talmud, in
Rosh Hashannah 1.8, states: “Any evidence which a woman [gives] is not valid (to offer), also they are not valid to offer.” Darrell Bock asks, “Would one make up a story to sell a difficult idea (physical resurrection) to a skeptical culture by beginning with people who had no cultural
value as witnesses?” (279). Therefore, the empty tomb appears to be historically credible based upon the principle of embarrassment.
In light of the foregoing material, we can conclude that it is reasonable to believe that Jesus Christ did conquer death. Frightened followers became unflinching proclaimers of the resurrection. Skeptics became leaders in the cause of Christ. Jews gave up cherished generational
traditions. The tomb was empty. In the words of Oxford University church historian William Wand, “All the strictly historical evidence we have is in favor of [the empty tomb], and those scholars who reject it ought to recognize that they do so on some other ground than that of scientific history” (93-94).
Bock, Darrell. “The Historical Jesus: An Evangelical View.” The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Eds. James K. Beilby, and Paul R. Eddy. Downers Grove: IVP, 2009.
Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Lord or Legend? Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007.
Craig, William Lane. The Son Rises: The Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus. Eugene: Wife & Stock, 1981.
Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.
Habermas, Gary, and Antony G.N. Flew. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.
Habermas, Gary, and Michael Licona. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004.
Kreeft, Peter and Ronald Tacelli. Handbook of Christian Apologetics. Downers Grove: IVP, 1994.
Overton, Basil. “The Resurrection of Jesus.” The Spiritual Sword. 1.3 (1970): 33-37.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Van Biema, David. “The Gospel Truth.” Time. (April 8, 1996): 57.
Wand, William. Christianity: A Historical Religion? Valley Forge: Judson, 1972.