Resurrection-soldiers at the tomb

The Resurrection of Jesus: A Look at the Evidence

In Foundations, Jesus by Steve Wilkinson2 Comments

I can’t lay claim to being great at planning, as I had intended to finish this series some time ago. But with it being Holy Week, and with Easter just around the corner, it seemed a perfect time to conclude by looking at the evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus.

In part I, The Resurrection of Jesus: A Christian Apologetics Cornerstone, we looked at importance of this event to Christianity, as well as look at the nature of testimony and bias. In part II, The Resurrection of Jesus: Investigation & Apologetic Approach, we looked at how we might approach such an investigation and how some of the various ‘camps’ approach the subject. We noted how the majority of people seem so ignorant of the facts, that they are satisfied by silly Internet memes. And, that the more ‘scholarly’ skeptics come up with explanations which fall short of encompassing the data.

In this third part, we’re going to work through some of the data. As I’ve noted previously, I’m not going to attempt to cover all the bases, as entire books and doctoral dissertations have been produced at that kind of depth. I’m only going to brush the surface, but I’d like to give you a feel for it. Consider it a starting point for your own investigation.

The basic argument goes something like this. We have a set of data, consisting of points with varying degrees of historical certainty, for which any explanation must cover, especially the more historically certain pieces of data. We have a historical figure who was alive at point A, dead at point B, and allegedly alive at point C. There is no serious contention about points A and B. The focus is almost entirely on point C, the Resurrection.

It is easy to come up with an explanation if we don’t pay attention to the entire set of data. One could say, “Well, Jesus followers were so intent on this movement succeeding, that they just made up the Resurrection account.” That sounds good until you start to look at ALL of the data. First, it doesn’t fit much of the actual historical record, including factors which someone making up such a story within that context would fail to include or would state differently (such as women as witnesses). Second, it would be hard to establish a motive for doing so within a Jewish/Roman context. Third, it would be highly unlikely for a number of conspirators, acting relatively independently, to give up their lives defending a lie. And then try explaining how a religious movement, which those in power were trying to squelch, could flourish based on a lie. Remember, this all took place in a city with a population estimated at maybe 40,000. Even without modern media, it would be pretty hard to miss such an event, or fail to check out lying adherents.

Some have tried to get around such problems by varying the explanation slightly. Maybe it was a hallucination, so the disciples really did believe it happened. That clears up some of the above problems, but ignores most of what we know about hallucinations, and again, ignores the actual account. For example, “To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God.” (1)Acts 1:3, NET That doesn’t sound anything like hallucination, so we’re back to a lie.

What are some of these points which need to be taken into consideration? Here is a short list: the mode of death, crucifixion; the report of blood and water from the wound; the despair of Jesus’ disciples; the empty tomb; the Roman guard; Joseph of Arimathea; testimony of women; report of a literal risen Jesus; the resurrected Jesus ate fish; transformed disciples, including skeptical James and converted Paul; Sunday worship and extreme growth of the early church; the eye-witness nature and detail accuracy of the accounts; external reference to the event in secular texts, etc.

Even seemingly insignificant pieces of data in this puzzle become powerful in that they are hard to otherwise explain. For example, how does one account for a change in the worship pattern of a bunch of Jewish people to Sunday morning? It seems we’re always back to trying to defend the lie or hallucination explanation.

Or, for those who would like to say this was all a later development, invented for theological purposes, they have to have explanations for things like: Paul’s citing of what appear to be creeds from VERY early after the actual events; the knowledge of details, such as burial practices only in effect for roughly a 100-year timespan.

Think through the following list of attempted explanations, and see if you think they even begin to hold up: unknown or wrong tomb (where the ancients that daft? what about eating fish, etc?); twin of Jesus (seriously?); hallucination or legend (already covered); existential or spiritual resurrection (see above); swoon theory (crucifixion); disciples stole the body (lie); authorities hid the body (why & conflict with historical accounts).

However, as Dr. Craig Hazen once noted, there is one theory, apart from the claimed Resurrection, that works: Jesus was an alien. (2)Apologetics Canada Conference keynote, 2011 It seems possible that Jesus was not God, but instead some kind of being with extraordinary powers who was able to trick the various Jewish figures throughout history to invent Judaism, and then fulfill those ‘prophecies’ by allowing himself to be crucified, beaming out to heal, and then beaming back to the disciples and others. As I think about that, I guess it works, (apart from all the other arguments for God necessary to put a cohesive worldview together).

Tinfoil hats aside, one then starts to question which is actually more likely… a super-unlikely grand cosmic conspiracy, or that what is portrayed in the Bible could be true. While the modern, highly revered discipline of science sometimes has trouble deciding if it can weigh in on the matter of deity, there is quite a bit of evidence we can examine about the likelihood of aliens or their potential ability to even visits us in the first place (before we get to the conspiracy aspect of it).

Ahh, the skeptic will say, but the majority of this ‘evidence’ comes from Biblical sources. That doesn’t count, right? First, if this is what you’re saying, go back and read my first two articles on the topic. That the evidence originating in Judeo/Christian writings could so easily be dismissed is just hand-waving. But let’s entertain that thought for a minute. What might we know if, for the sake of argument, we tossed out the documents contained in the Bible?

J. Warner Wallace has put together an excellent list of hostile pagan and Jewish sources regarding Jesus, “Is There Any Evidence for Jesus Outside the Bible?” In it, he has a paragraph which sums up the data, and I’d like to include the relevant section of it here. (Reading the whole thing is eye-opening.)

“He was persecuted by the Jews for what he said, betrayed by Judah Iskarioto. He was beaten with rods, forced to drink vinegar and wear a crown of thorns and crucified on the eve of the Passover. His crucifixion occurred under the direction of Pontius Pilate, during the time of Tiberius. On the day of his crucifixion, the sky grew dark and there was an earthquake. Afterward, he was buried in a tomb and the tomb was later found to be empty. He appeared to his disciples resurrected from the grave and showed them his wounds. These disciples then told others that Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven. … The disciples were also persecuted for their faith but were martyred without changing their claims. They met regularly to worship Jesus, even after his death.”

This summery contains a number of our most important points, and remember, we’ve excluded the Bible. Do any of the alternate theories encompass this data? Not that I can see. But again, there is no good reason for us to limit ourselves to hostile, extra-Biblical witness. This exercise simply shows that what is external to the collection of documents we Christians consider ‘The Bible’ is in general historical agreement.

And so, we end up full circle. Is the Resurrection possible, even likely, and in fact the best explanation we have? Or must one come up with an alternate explanation, no matter how ludicrous it might be? It seems that for most skeptics I come across, we’re back to a priori convictions driving the results, or sheer ignorance and an unwillingness to take a serious look.

This Easter, we Christians already know that Jesus lives, Hallelujah! But it is always nice to see how the historical data backs up our claim. For the skeptic, such an investigation should give pause. The Internet memes on which so many place their faith, are demonstrated empty of substance. With a little study, we should be equipped to expose this blind-faith, hopefully sparking a new journey of investigation to a clearer view of Jesus.

Update: Wednesday, April 30, 2014

I found a couple of great resources recently, which are quite interesting and unique. The first is by my friend J Warner Wallace (mentioned above). He puts his background as a homicide detective to work in this podcast in examination of the Resurrection account. For example, he talks about a medical explanation of the account of Jesus sweating blood. Amazing information which solidifies the testimony as eye-witness and authentic.

Abductive Reasoning and the Case for the Resurrection (Podcast)

The second is yet another amazing episode of Unbelievable? radio podcast from the UK. Justin Brierley produced a special Good Friday episode looking at the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial clothes of Jesus. I’ve always had an interest in this piece of possible evidence, and its authenticity now appears more likely than ever.

The Turin Shroud – a relic of the resurrection?

Both of these podcasts are also highly recommended and well worth subscribing to get every episode.

Gary Habermas
William Lane Craig
Mike Licona
N.T. Wright – The Resurrection of the Son of God
Craig Hazen – video (starts about 28:30 min in)
J Warner Wallace – excellent compilation of information on Jesus – new Alive resource (I haven’t seen this yet, but knowing Jim, I’m pretty confident it is excellent.)
Eric Chabot – The Earliest Record for The Death and Resurrection of Jesus: 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7

Image credit: Resurrection of Christ by Waiting For The Word