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Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead after he was executed. Sceptics say this is scientifically impossible. What evidence is considered to support this claim, and what are the main arguments of both sides?
The story of the resurrection
Most readers will be aware of the story told in the Bible. Here is a summary:
- On Thursday evening, during the Jewish Passover festival in about 30 CE, Jesus was arrested and charged with blasphemy by the Jewish religious leaders.
- On Friday morning he was convicted by the Roman governor and crucified.
- By Friday evening he had died and his body placed in a nearby tomb to await full burial rites, which could not be completed on the Sabbath, which began at sunset.
- On Sunday morning, the Sabbath over, a small group of women went to the tomb to complete the burial rites and found Jesus had gone. The women, and later some men, were told by angels that Jesus had been raised from death.
- Over the next few weeks, many of his followers, individually and in groups, reported seeing Jesus alive.
- Six weeks after his first appearance, Jesus told his followers he was leaving earth.
What do secular historians make of this story?
Historians try to determine what historical facts can be established with reasonable confidence, then go on to draw conclusions from there. In the case of the resurrection, scholars are broadly agreed about what facts can be established. Some go on to express a view about whether they believe Jesus was really raised or not, but many say this is not a historical matter but rather a matter of personal choice.
As far as I can ascertain, the following are considered as historical facts by the majority of scholars, though certainly not all (many of these facts are found in Habermas 2005):
- Jesus was convicted and killed by crucifixion by the Romans. Marcus Borg:
“some judgments are so probable as to be certain; for example. Jesus really existed and he really was crucified”.
- He was buried in a tomb near Jerusalem.
- The tomb was later found empty. Classical historians Michael Grant and Robin Lane Fox thought so, and a survey of scholarly publications showed that about 75% of scholars draw this conclusion.
- His followers had some experiences in which they saw Jesus, or a vision of Jesus, after his death. Eminent scholar EP Sanders:
“That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know.”Even the sceptical Jesus Seminar concluded the same. However it is difficult to piece the accounts together into one consistent narrative.
- Belief that Jesus was resurrected was part of the christian belief from very early days, so couldn’t have been a legend that grew with time. 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.”
- This belief was a strong motivation for the subsequent expansion of christian faith across the Roman empire.
- A number of naturalistic explanations have been proposed, but the majority of scholars do not any of accept these.
Notice that these ‘facts’ do not necessarily imply belief in the resurrection, but acceptance of these facts may give support to belief in the resurrection.
Arguments supporting the truth of the resurrection
Most arguments that the resurrection occurred are based on a two step process:
Step 1. Historical facts
The seven historical facts are generally taken as the starting point. Nos 2 & 3 are the most contentious, but are argued as follows:
- The empty tomb is part of all the gospel accounts and assumed by Paul. The location of his tomb was known, and the disciples could not have preached that Jesus was risen if his tomb wasn’t empty. In fact, there is no record of any opponent of christianity arguing otherwise.
- It is inconceivable that the disciples made up the story of the appearances of Jesus, and continued to tell it without deviation even under severe persecution. The only viable alternative hypothesis is that they had some sort of hallucination, but it is hard to believe they had so many collective hallucinations, and harder to believe that they would have concluded Jesus had been resurrected rather than think it was a ghost. And hallucinations cannot explain the empty tomb.
As I said before, most historians accept the seven facts outlined.
Step 2. How to explain the facts?
If the resurrection didn’t occur, how can the seven facts be explained? All alternative hypotheses seem far-fetched.
As noted above, it is hard to believe the disciples made the whole thing up and consistently stuck to their story even when they were killed for it. Few scholars believe this is possible. Other hypotheses seem more likely.
Dying and rising gods?
But if the disciples genuinely believed Jesus had been raised when he wasn’t, how did they come to this belief? Some say it came from pagan religions based around dying and rising gods. However scholars are now convinced that this did not occur – most of the alleged parallels are simply not true and the Jews were not influenced by pagan religions anyway. If anything, the evidence suggests that some pagan religions took the christian story as their basis, not the other way round.
TND Mettinger of Lund University in Sweden, who made a study of dying and rising gods, concluded:
“There is, as far as I am aware, no prima facie evidence that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a mythological construct, drawing on the myths and rites of the dying and rising gods of the surrounding world. …. There is now what amounts to a scholarly consensus against the appropriateness of the concept”.
From Jewish beliefs about resurrection?
Another theory suggests that the disciples were distraught after the death of their leader, and, influenced by some elements in Jewish writings (mainly in the apocrypha) that spoke of the humiliation on earth and exaltation to heaven of a mysterious figure, came to believe Jesus had been resurrected as a vindication. But these writings are obscure, and the Jews didn’t believe in resurrection except at the end of the age. And of course there still remains the empty tomb.
A series of visions or hallucinations brought on by grief and disappointment is another theory advanced. Critics argue that hallucinations rarely produce positive responses and collective hallucinations are extremely unlikely. In addition, the Jews were familiar with the idea of a vision, but they never used this language about Jesus. Nevertheless, it it probably the most favoured naturalistic explanation.
Scholars believe claims that the resurrection was a later legend are mistaken because the evidence indicates that early christian creeds (some of which are found in the New Testament) show that the early christians believed Jesus had been resurrected right from the beginning.
It really happened?
So, the argument goes, the historical facts and the lack of a reasonable alternative explanation, make the resurrection story plausible and convincing. Oxford historian NT Wright:
“there is nothing that comes remotely near explaining these phenomena [the empty tomb and the appearances], except …. Jesus of Nazareth really was raised from the dead”.
Resurrection in its historical context
NT Wright presents some other factors which make it difficult to believe that the resurrection was an invented story:
- Jesus and the early christians proclaimed that God’s kingdom had come on earth. But to first century Jews, the kingdom of God meant the end of Roman domination, the coming of God’s justice and liberation on the earth and the dawning of a new age. This had manifestly not happened, so how could the christians believed it had? It was their belief that the new age had indeed commenced because Jesus had been raised.
- The early christians proclaimed Jesus as Messiah, the long-awaited agent of God’s kingdom. But to the Jews, the Messiah was a victor, and could not possibly have been crucified by the pagans. This was an enormous barrier, and it was only overcome because they believed Jesus had been resurrected.
- From the very beginning, the early christians proclaimed the resurrection as the re-embodiment of the once-dead Jesus. This was a foreign concept for first century Jews, who, if they believed in resurrection at all, saw it as something happening at the dawn of the new age as a vindication of righteous Jews. If a person was seen between their death and that future time, they would have been regarded as a ghost or an angel. The bodily resurrection of Jesus was a unique concept, which (it is argued) would not have been even thought of unless it happened.
So, Wright argues, not only does the fact of Jesus’ resurrection explain the recorded events best, it is the only way we can understand how the early christians arrived at such a strange belief.
Arguments against the historicity of the resurrection
The arguments against the resurrection fall into two main groups:
Doubts about the historical evidence
- Some sceptics deny that Jesus even existed. However the almost unanimous view of secular scholars is that he was a real person (see Was Jesus a real person?) and this argument is rarely used.
- It is argued that the resurrection stories do not come from eyewitnesses, and so cannot be considered to be reliable. However the matter of eyewitnesses is not settled. It is true that most scholars believe that the gospels were written down a generation after Jesus died, but there is neverthless good evidence that they were based on eyewitness testimony, and the gap between event and writing is short by ancient history standards.
- There are many apparent inconsistencies in the gospel accounts, and it is recognised as difficult to harmonise them. Therefore, it is argued, the stories cannot be trusted. However, historians (like reporters and police investigators today) are used to extracting what is validated by several witnesses and putting aside what isn’t – and this leaves the main historical facts (as outlined above) intact. Further, plausible harmonisations can be developed (see Reconstructions below). Nevertheless, the apparent inconsistencies could make belief more difficult for many people.
- Historians prefer to have multiple sources to give independent confirmation of events, and there are no accounts of the resurrection outside the New Testament. However, the New Testament is made up of five separate sources which didn’t come together in one collection for several centuries.
- Finally, it is argued that the accounts of the resurrection are biased, coming only from Jesus’ followers. But this gets back to whether they deliberately invented the stories, which few believe possible (as outlined above).
Doubts about the possibility of miracle
Perhaps the most prevalent criticism of belief in the resurrection is that miracles are simply unbelievable, especially one as amazing as this. However this depends on our assumptions – a christian will believe that Jesus was divine and God has the power to raise him from death, whereas an atheist will naturally not believe this.
Because of the doubts about the consistency and reliability of the various gospel accounts, christians have attempted to reconstruct a sequence of events that is reasonable and fits the facts. These reconstructions are speculative and go beyond what most historians would consider as reliable, but are useful tests of whether a harmonisation is at least possible.
The most scholarly reconstruction I know is by John Wenham of Oxford University, which is based on the following:
- The locations of the important places in the story, as shown on the map (these are not contentious).
- The identification of various characters in the story who are not clearly named in the gospels, which allows ambiguities in one gospel to be clarified from another gospel. (This is a little speculative, but reasonable.)
- The identification of the authors, or sources, of the four gospels with the traditional authors – Matthew (the disciple Matthew), Mark (based on Peter’s memories), Luke (based on several eye-witnesses, including Joanna) and John (the disciple John). These identifications have been much disputed, but are not unreasonable.
- A plausible sequence of events that leaves the followers of Jesus in three separate locations over the weekend – Peter, John and several of the women at John’s house in Jerusalem; Joanna at Herod’s palace where her husband was employed, and the rest of the disciples in Bethany.
- The writing of some parts of the gospel accounts from the viewpoint of each writer. So Matthew describes some events as he would have heard them at Bethany, Mark and John from the viewpoint of what was heard and seen in Jerusalem at John’s house, and Luke from the viewpoint of what Joanna was able to observe. This is probably the key to Wenham’s reconstruction, because it allows him to explain many of the facts which might otherwise appear to be inconsistent.
With these as his basis, Wenham shows how the different players moved around Jerusalem and fits all the events – Jesus’ capture, trial and execution, the appearances of Jesus and the reactions of his followers – into a coherent and plausible train of events. He doesn’t claim that it is true, or can be proven historically, but he does show that the gospel accounts can be plausibly harmonised, thus blunting one of the common criticisms of the gospel accounts.
Christian belief on the importance of the resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus is a central fact of christian belief. Christians believe it is, in a sense, God’s stamp of approval on Jesus’ ministry. It shows that Jesus, in his death, has defeated evil. God’s new world, his kingdom, has indeed begun. Jesus, the Messiah, is alive and leading his followers to play their part in bringing that new world into being, and inviting others to join them.
So, what can we conclude?
- At the very least we may recognise that it isn’t silly to believe that Jesus was resurrected. Jeffery Lowder , founder of the Secular Web site for the Internet Infidels, examined the arguments on both sides 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.
- The greatest challenge to the New Testament accounts of the resurrection can be satisfactorily answered. Although the New Testament accounts have apparent inconsistencies, though not enough to trouble most historians, John Wenham has shown that a plausible harmonisation is possible.
- While anyone with a naturalistic worldview will find it difficult to believe in such a miracle, anyone who believes in Jesus and his God should have no difficulty in accepting that God miraculously raised Jesus.
- Thus christians have good evidence for their belief, and the evidence is challenging to non-believers.