Is there credible evidence for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? What is the most reasonable conclusion to draw and how should we handle alternate theories?
Hello, and welcome to Unapologetic, a podcast about defending, not apologizing for, our Christian convictions.
(0:13) This week, we’re going to talk about the Resurrection. It’s the week before Easter, and while it’s always a good time to talk about the Resurrection, there could be no better week. I think all too often as Christians, we think the Resurrection’s something that needs to be believed on almost a blind faith. “We weren’t there, we have no idea what happened. We just believe it because the BIble said it.” But I think there are actually good reasons to believe that the Resurrection took place. And some of those come from Scripture and some of those just involve taking a well-reasoned approach. Looking at all of the evidence and saying, “what’s the most reasonable conclusion here?” And so that’s what we’re going to do today, we’re going to look at the evidence and we’re going to see where it takes us.
(0:55) Our first stop is the empty tomb. The tomb must have been empty when the disciples started preaching. People believe they saw Jesus in the very city where He was killed, and so what can account for them putting their trust and being willing to die for Christ if they had not actually seen Him and the tomb wasn’t empty? If the tomb hadn’t been empty, the body would’ve just been produced. The easiest way to say, “No, Jesus is actually dead”, is to roll back the stone and say, “Look, there He is, you can see Him. You can smell Him. He’s still in the tomb.” But that is not what happened.
(1:33) We actually have early and independent sources that testify to the tomb being empty. There’s Mark writing pre-70 AD. Paul writes about what he learned in 36 AD when he visits Rome. John writes independently and has unique details, as do Matthew and Luke.
(1:50) One of the earliest and best attested facts about Jesus is that His tomb was empty. This is what John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University says: “Mark’s account is simple and understated. It’s not embellished. It’s not what you would expect if someone were making up the claims about the Resurrection.”
(2:09) Now we actually have some made-up accounts that we are totally sure are fictitious. And one of them would be the gospel of Peter. And Mark reads nothing like that. Mark is simple and understated, no high, divine titles or Christology (ideas about Christ). Now don’t misunderstand, Mark thinks of Christ as God, but it stands in stark contrast to something like the gospel of Peter, which has Jesus walking out of the tomb, heralded by a talking cross, angels, and all of this is witnessed by the Romans and the Jews. Any detail you could possibly want is in the gospel of Peter. But it’s made up. Mark, on the other hand, doesn’t seem like he has an agenda in that regard. He’s just simply reporting the facts.
(2:56) And Mark includes women at the tomb. And this makes no sense if you’re making up a story because women occupied a low social position. In fact, one of the daily prayers of a Jewish man was, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” This was the prevailing cultural view. Now, this was not God’s view, this is a distortion of what the Bible has taught from the very beginning. Because both man and woman are created in the image of God. But nonetheless, this was the view of the day, that women and their testimony were unreliable and not valuable. So you’re not going to make up women finding the tomb empty unless it actually happened.
(3:38) And this is an example of the Principle of Embarrassment. This is a principle that historians use when they’re trying to determine what’s actaully true in an historical account. And the principle of embarrassment simply says that “details most embarrassing to the author are most likely to be true.” We know this today. You’re not going to make up a story that makes yourself look bad. You’re just not going to do it. In fact, people are more likely to lie to make themselves look good than they are to lie to make themselves look bad. And yet we see that the Gospel writers consistently include details about themselves and Jesus that are embarrassing. And this leads us to ascribe great worth and credibility to what they say.
(4:22) So, if the empty tomb were a fabrication, men would have been the ones discovering it, not women. Jacob Kremer, a New Testament critic who has specialized in the study of the Resurrection, says, “by far, most scholars hold to the reliability of the Biblical statements about the empty tomb.” Now, these aren’t just evangelical Christian scholars, these are non-Christian scholars, and Christian scholars, and Catholic scholars, and anyone in between, who is simply a scholar in the area of the New Testament. There are non-Christians who study the New Testament. And in fact, 75% of scholars accept the historical accounts of the empty tomb. That is a remarkable number. Especially considering that it reflects Christians and non-Christians alike. So, we have really good reason to believe that the tomb was empty. That’s our first step, the empty tomb.
(5:18) Our second step, our second part of our case, is the post-mortem appearances, those after-death appearances, of Christ. The most condensed version of all of these accounts is in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, where Paul says, “For I passed on to you as of first importance what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. And that He appeared to Cephas, then to the 12, then He appeared to more than 500 of the brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all of the apostles. Last of all, as though to one born at the wrong time, He appeared to me also.”
(6:05) Virtually all New Testament scholars agree that Peter saw a post-mortem appearance of Jesus. Now, there is great disagreement about whether that was an actual flesh and blood Jesus in front of him or if it was a vision, a hallucination, or what. And we’ll talk about that later. But virtually all New Testament scholars agree that he did see some appearance. So that’s Peter.
(6:28) And then, it’s claimed that Jesus appeared to the 12 afterwards. We have good reason to believe this too. These were people who saw Jesus die and yet were willing to die for Him later on in life. Who’s going to die for a claim that this person they witnessed dying is actually alive now? You’re not going to die for something you know is false.
(6:52) And then, there’s perhaps the most astonishing claim of all that Paul makes there. That Jesus appeared to 500 people. And Paul obviously had personal contact with them, because he knew that some of them had died but that many of them were still alive. He’s basically saying, “the witnesses are there to be called and questioned. Go talk to them, go find out.” It would be just ludicrous and stupid to make up that 500 people witnessed this event that didn’t happen, especially if you’re basically saying, “go talk to them, go find out.” No one’s going to make up a line and say, “go talk to the people who can tell you that I’m lying.” It just doesn’t make sense.
(7:32) And the next appearance that’s talked about is the appearance to James. And during Jesus’ life, none of His brothers, including James, believed that He was God. And this is another example of the principle of embarassment. So, it’s included in the Bible that James and his other brothers didn’t believe He was God. In fact, they wanted to put Him away, they thought He was crazy. So what could account for the fact that after Jesus’ death, and after His ‘supposed’ Resurrection, James is in the Upper Room with the other disciples? He becomes a Christian, and ultimately he’s illegally stoned for his faith in his brother, who he used to think was crazy, and now believes is God. What can account for such a change? Perhaps only seeing the resurrected Christ.
(8:22) Even the skeptical New Testament critic, Hans Grass, acknowledges that James’ conversion is one of the surest proofs of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. And skeptical German critic, Gerd Ludemann, says emphatically, “It must be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’ death, in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
(8:50) Now, once again, I don’t want to make this case seem stronger than it is. There is disagreement about the nature of those appearances. Was it a bodily appearance? Or was it a hallucination or just a mental appearance? But people do agree and New Testament scholars agree in their majority that they had experiences where they thought they saw Jesus. And the question just simply becomes, “what’s the best explanation?”
(9:16) So, our first area that we looked at would be the empty tomb. The second would be the post-mortem appearances. And the third is the start of Christianity. What can account for Christianity actually getting started in the same city where its leader was executed as a criminal? You see, the Jews had no concept of a Messiah who would be executed as a criminal. They expected their Messiah to ride in on a horse and save them from Roman oppression, and restore Israel to its former glory as its own sovereign state and power. And instead, they got a Messiah who rode in on a donkey and got killed. That does not inspire confidence, that does not inspire people to put their trust in that guy who got killed.
(10:02) But, the Resurrection of Jesus reversed the catastrophe of the Crucifixion. It proved that Jesus came and ultimately had more power than they expected their Messiah to have. What He saved them from was not human rule on earth, but the spiritual rule of sin in their life.
(10:21) So, what best explains people being willing to die for a claim that a dead guy came back to life in the very city where He was killed? Well, it would only be seeing that person.
(10:33) So, after everything we’ve looked at these three areas, and we’ve looked at them very briefly, so much more could be said about this. The only serioius point of disagreement is on the physical nature of the Resurrection appearances. That’s where the disagreement is at today in scholarship.
(10:49) So quickly, we’re going to look at the three most popular hypotheses in culture today for what explains the Resurrection.
(10:57) The first is the conspiracy hypothesis, which says that the disciples stole Jesus’ body out of the tomb and then lied to people about His appearances. So that Jesus’ resurrection was really a hoax. Now, just to bias you a little about this. This hypothesis has been completely abandoned by modern scholarship. But it’s still out there in culture today. But it doesn’t explain that women were the ones discovering the empty tomb. It doesn’t explain why Mark and the other gospel writers would make up a fact that takes credibility from their claims. And the writings of the gospel writers don’t match what we would expect for a forged account, for instance the gospel of Peter, large talking cross, any detail and every detail you would ever want in order to prove your case. And it doesn’t explain the bodily appearances. It doesn’t explain why all these people thought they saw Christ and were willing to die for Him. You’re not going to die for a conspiracy you make up. People make up conspiracies and are a part of them to gain power and money and prestige, not to get themselves killed. And in fact, scholars have universally recognized that you can’t plausibly deny that the early disciples at least sincerely believed that God had raised Jesus from the dead, with so much conviction that they were willing to die for that belief.
(12:14) The other problem with this is ancient Judaism had no place for the Resurrection of an isolated individual, especially the Messiah. They thought there was going to be a resurrection of everyone at the end of time. So, trying to say, “oh, the Messiah, he’s resurrected, just him,” that doesn’t fit with Judaism at all. You’re not going to make it up that way.
(12:34) Another problem with the conspiracy hypothesis is that conspiracies themselves tend to be unstable, and unravel over time. And there’s no evidence of that happening. Much more could be said about it, but there are obviously a lot of problems which have led modern scholars to abandon that hypothesis.
(12:50) So that was the conspiracy hypothesis. What about the apparent death hypothesis, which says that Jesus was taken down from the cross but He wasn’t really dead? He was just unconscious. And He revived in the tomb and somehow escaped to convince His disciples that He had risen from the dead. He just basically swooned and you know, everything worked out. But once again, this hypothesis has virtually no defenders among New Testament historians today. How would a half-dead man roll the stone away from the inside? And how would a half-dead man convince the disciples and others that he was the risen Lord and conqueror of death? There’s no disagreement, generally, about the torture Christ underwent. So, 39 lashings, crown of thorns, carrying your own cross, actually being crucified, being stabbed in the side, these things aren’t generally contested.
(13:46) So, supposing that He survived all of that, how’s He going to convince anyone He’s God? Walking around half-dead, in need of urgent medical treatment? He’s not. And this is terribly implausible as a result. Roman executioners ensured that their criminals were dead, often by thrusting a spear into that person’s side, and this is exactly what’s recorded in the Gospels. And how would Jesus have been able to travel if He was in need of such medical attention? He wouldn’t have. So, modern biology, modern medicine, neither of these lend any credibility to a theory that says Christ could survive all of that and inspire enough confidence in people that He was God.
(14:27) The last popular theory that we’ll look at is the hallucination hypothesis. That the Resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations on the disciples’ part. Well this doesn’t explain the empty tomb. Matthew records that the Jewish officials actually bribed the Roman guards to say that His disciples stole the body. So this doesn’t explain that. It doesn’t explain why, even though this religion is getting started in Jerusalem, that no one points to the tomb and say, “it’s not empty, there’s a body in there.” It does not explain why that doesn’t happen, at all. And for someone in the ancient world, visions of the deceased were not taken as evidence that the person was alive, but as evidence that the person is dead. And it’s the same way today. A remarkably high percentage of people actually have some type of extra-sensory experience when a close loved one dies. Maybe they see that person, they hear that person, they feel that person’s touch on their shoulder. But none of this convinces people today that that person is alive, it convinces them and reminds them that that person is dead, and it was no different back then.
(15:36) Additionally, this hallucination hypothesis doesn’t explain all of the different people at different times and places having the same hallucination. There is no psychological precedence for this in any type of literature. Medical or questionable or any of it. It doesn’t exist. This theory was originally based on psychoanalysis from Sigmund Freud that has been universally dismissed. It also assumes that the disciples were prone to hallucinations, and there’s no evidence for this at all.
(16:11) We’ve looked at the three most common hypotheses and they all pretty much fall apart easily. They don’t stand up to just a reasoned and a reasonable test and scrutiny. On the other hand, the bodily resurrection hypothesis has the best explanatory power. It seems the most plausible, and by the bodily resurrection hypothesis, I mean that Christ literally rose from the dead after 3 days. That He conquered death and sin and is now at the right hand of God the Father, making intercession for us, providing a way for our atonement, our forgiveness, and our right-standing with God the Father. That hypothesis makes the most sense of the evidence. These other hypotheses have simply fallen apart, but not the resurrection hypothesis.
(17:00) So, it’s the most plausible, it’s the less contrived. It explains the empty tomb, the start of Christianity, the post-mortem appearances, and no other hypothesis compares. So why isn’t everyone a Christian, why doesn’t everyone believe in the Resurrection? Because some people just categorically deny the existence of God. It is a starting place for them, it is not a conclusion. And so any conquering of death and rising from the dead must be a fairytale. It just does not fit in their worldview. But that’s not from an examination of the evidence, that’s a starting place.
(17:34) I think another reason is, a lot of those people are not familiar with the evidence. And as Christians, a lot of times we’re not familiar with the evidence, the well-reasoned case that can be built for the Resurrection. And I’ve only scratched the surface today, I’ve given you the very high points. There’s a lot more that could be said.
(17:51) So as a Christian, celebrate Easter this week with a strength of conviction, that this is something we can engage in with our minds, with our hearts, with all of who we are. That we can have great conviction and great assurance that Christ really did rise from the dead. It’s not just something we have to take on blind faith. And if you’re a non-Christian listening to this, well thanks for making it this far! But maybe this is the time to start wrestling with the compelling evidence for the Resurrection. It can not be dismissed. You are responsible to make a decision about what you’ve seen, about what you’ve heard and ultimately come to answer the question that Jesus asked His disciples, “who do you say that I am?”
(18:32) Thanks for listening to Unapologetic this week. I hope you’ll join me next week as we dive into Scripture and reasons that we can trust it.