The resurrection is obviously a central part of christian belief – some say it is the amazing event that explains everything else, others that it is an impossible to believe event.
So is it something that makes christianity harder to believe, or easier?
Evidence according to the historians
Christians and non-christians have come to widely differing conclusions about the truth of the resurrection. Historians may be no different, but they try at least to get a good understanding of whatever historical facts they can. It turns out that a majority of historians, believers or not, agree on a few basic facts:
- Jesus was executed and placed in a tomb near Jerusalem.
- His tomb was later found to be empty.
- His disciples, and Paul, had visionary experiences of Jesus after his death.
- The disciples believed Jesus had been resurrected right from the very early days of the christian movement.
- This belief was a major motivation in the spread of christianity.
These basic facts don’t prove Jesus really was resurrected, but they provide the basic evidence on which arguments can be built.
If the resurrection occurred, it explains the evidence we have, including the early christians’ belief in Jesus as divine and their willingness to endure persecution to spread the message about him. If it didn’t occur, then other explanations of the facts must be found.
NT Wright on the resurrection
Historian NT Wright argues that the Jews readily accepted the idea of ghosts or angels of the dead, but had no concept of resurrection of the body except at some future time when Israel would be freed from bondage to Rome and the faithful martyrs vindicated. With Israel still in bondage to Rome and Jesus crucified by the hated Romans, no-one was going to believe in Jesus as the Messiah bringing in the new age of the kingdom of God – unless he had truly risen. If he hadn’t risen, they’d have explained things in other ways.
Naturalistic explanations include:
- The tomb wasn’t really empty, or else there was no tomb and Jesus’ body was disposed of some other way, the disciples had visions or hallucinations due to grief and disappointment, and this was strong enough to motivate them; or
- the disciples made the story up later when no-one could really check the facts; or
- the whole thing was a much later legend that grew up in the next generation.
#1 is the most common view today. Few believe the disciples invented the story and scholars are now generally sure that Jesus’ followers believed he had been resurrected right from the beginning. 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.
But the difficulties with all three alternatives lead some scholars to simply say they don’t know what happened.
Problems with the text
The resurrection stories in the New Testament appear to be inconsistent. Some details vary (which women visited the tomb on Sunday morning? who did they see there?) and it is hard to harmonise the accounts. Scholars accept that while some details vary, the central facts are the same, and so the different accounts lend weight to those central facts. Nevertheless, the difficulties with the text and the uncertainties about whether these are eyewitness accounts have become perhaps the main reasons given to reject the stories as true.
However in an engrossing and brilliant book (Easter Enigma, 1992), Oxford scholar John Wenham has shown that the accounts can be harmonised into a plausible narrative. His key insight is that each account tells the story from the perspective of different eyewitnesses who were based in different locations at the time, and so wrote the facts that they had seen. Scholars haven’t generally taken up John’s ideas, but they show that most of the apparent problems can be satisfactorily explained
Natural vs supernatural
One objection often raised against the resurrection is that science has shown it is impossible. Dead men don’t come back to life.
But science can only show what normally happens, and christians agree – dead men don’t normally come back to life. But, christians say, this isn’t a normal case – this is a miracle done by the God who created the universe.
In the end, we can either accept the possibility of the supernatural and a miracle, or we cannot. The question is, if a person is agnostic about the supernatural, is the historical evidence enough to convince them that God exists and did this miracle?
Assessing the evidence
So how does the evidence stack up? Many christians believe it and many non-christians don’t – that’s not news. But here are a few assessments which carry a little more weight (to me at any rate):
Frank Morison was the pseudonym for Albert Henry Ross, an English advertising agent and freelance writer who was sceptical of the resurrection (back almost a century ago). Treating the gospel texts as ordinary historical documents, he investigated the resurrection and came to believe it occurred.
Jeffery Lowder is an atheist who began the Secular web. He is as fair-minded a person as you’ll find on the internet and I generally respect what he writes, even if I disagree. He reviewed the evidence or the resurrection 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.
Christian vs atheist debates
Philosopher WL Craig has engaged in many public debates with atheists, and is generally regarded as very successful. One of his standard arguments is one for the resurrection, based on the “minimal facts” outlined at the beginning of this post. Philosopher Gary Habermas debated former atheist philosopher Antony Flew several times, both publicly and privately (they were good friends) over 20 years. In the first formal debate, Habermas was judged to have won. Flew later wrote that the resurrection was the best attested miracle claim in history.
None of this proves anything, but it does illustrate that believing the resurrection isn’t silly and can lead people to change their view of christianity..
So, does the resurrection story make christianity harder to believe, or easier?
I have never used the resurrection as an argument for the existence of God or the truth of Jesus as his “son”. I defend its truth as something that is easy to believe if we believe in Jesus. But the evidence for the resurrection seems stronger to me now than it used to, thanks to NT Wright, Habermas & Craig, and John Wenham.
I now think it is clear that the argument for the historicity of the resurrection is strong enough to stand on its own. It won’t convince anyone who is strongly committed to naturalism and won’t accept the possibility of miracles, but I think for most people it adds to the evidence that Jesus was the “son of God”.
I have recently updated the webpage on the resurrection, and you’ll find further references there.
Relevant to this post are:
- Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present, Gary Habermas 2005.
- Easter Enigma, John Wenham (1992).
- The Contemporary Debate On The Resurrection, Jeffery Jay Lowder.
- Christian Origins and the Resurrection of Jesus: The Resurrection of Jesus as a Historical Problem. NT Wright.
- Who moved the stone? Frank Morison.
Picture: Garden tomb, Jerusalem on Wikimedia Commons. I don’t suppose it is very likely that this is actually the tomb of Jesus, but perhaps it looked something like this.