We continue to celebrate the Easter Season by considering the Resurrection. Last week’s post was some simple reflections on Updike’s famous poem on the Resurrection; this week briefly considers some historical evidence for the Resurrection; the next couple weeks will consider other aspects of it and why it matters.
St. Paul famously wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is in vain,” while centuries later John Updike echoed him saying if He did not rise in His body, “the Church will fall.” Unlike every other religion and mythology, Christianity is unique in being based on a single historical event, without which it cannot survive (1); here then, I will consider briefly some evidence for that event sketching an argument developed by modern scholars such as N.T. Wright and William Lane Craig.
A good sketch of evidence for the Resurrection will have two parts, 1. Establish 3 facts (the empty tomb, appearances of the risen Christ, and the origin of Christian belief, and 2. Establishing that the best explanation of those facts is that the Resurrection really occurred.
I. The Three facts:
A). Jesus’ Burial and discovery of his empty tomb three days later.
1. The discovery of the empty tomb in multiply attested in early, independent sources. The pre-marken passion source, Paul’s letter to Corinthians mentions it, Matthew is an independent source since he includes the guard at the tomb, which is not in Mark.
2. Mark’s story is simple and lacks significant legendary development. (esp. compared to later Gnostic gospels which are real legends.
3. The empty tomb was discovered by women. Women were not regarded as reliable witnesses, so their presence indicates the account is probably legit, since no one would invent women as discovers of the empty tomb.
4. The earliest Jewish allegation that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body (Matt. 28.15) shows that the body was in fact missing from the tomb. The only reason to put that story there was if the Jews were really claiming that Jesus’s followers stole his body, by which they admitted the tomb was empty.
5. The disciples could never have preached the Resurrection unless the tomb were really empty. No one would have believed them
- For these and at least 3 other reasons, Gary Habermas found in a survey that 75% of scholars admit the empty tomb. “Experience of the Risen Jesus” Dialog 45 (2006):292.
B. Appearances of the risen Christ on multiples occasions to multiples individuals.
1. “The list of eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances which is quoted by Paul in I Cor. 15. 5-7 guarantees that such appearances occurred. These included appearances to Peter (Cephas), the Twelve, the 500 brethren, and James.”
2. The gospels account for multiples appearances, including to the women. The latter are probably reliable for the reason given above. They would not have been made up.
3. The appearances were physical. Paul in Corinthians implies this, Jesus invites Thomas to touch his side, Jesus eats a fish. If the appearances were not physical, the disciples would not have said Jesus was raised, they’d say they saw his ghost.
- Even the radical skeptic Ludemann agrees that these appearances happened. He simply disagrees on the best explanation of them, by arguing that they are simply hallucinations.
C. The Origin of Christian Belief: The Disciples Came to Believe, in Spite of Every Reason Not to, That Jesus Was Really Raised From the Dead (This section is largely from NT Wright).
1. The ancient world always used the word “Resurrection” to mean a physical bodily resurrection. And they universally, from Plato, to Homer, through ancient Greece and Rome, agreed that Resurrection in this sense did not happen.
2. The sole exception was the Jews, who came to believe there would be a Resurrection of all the just, at the end of time.
3. Among the early Christians, however, this belief underwent some remarkable changes: a. Resurrection moves from the periphery to the center, b. Early Christians came to believe one man has been raised ahead of time, c. Early Christians came to believe that the Messiah has been raised, d. Resurrection becomes something Jesus’ followers could contribute to in the present life.
4. Finally, in early Christianity, as opposed to Judaism and paganism, there was virtually no spectrum of belief of life after death.
5. Beliefs in life after death, being very important and precious to people, tend to be very conservative. For Christians to 1). show such changes and 2). agree almost completely, this demands explanation
Part II- The explanation of these three facts.
The most probable explanation of these three facts is that Jesus of Nazareth really did rise from the dead leaving behind an empty tomb. It easily exceeds other explanations in explanatory scope, power, and other criteria for best explanation.
Please Note- none of these arguments assume the Bible was written early or that it was written by the first generation. I only claim that it is sufficient, when treated as a historical source, to establish the facts listed above.
- Beginner/Popular Level:
NT Wright, Surprised By Hope Rethinking Heaven and the Resurrection, chap. 3-4.
William Lane Craig, The Son Rises
Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ
William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, chap. 8.
NT. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God.
(1). Of course, we cannot confuse the existence of the event with evidence for the event. If the Resurrection were shown not to have occurred, then Christianity would fall, but it might have occurred and there could simply be little evidence for it (though I think the evidence remarkably good).