Did Jesus really rise from the dead?
“For I delivered 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 twelve. After that He appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep; then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also.” I Corinthians 15:3-8.
Several significant conclusions can be drawn regarding Paul’s testimony that point to its authority and historical reliability. First, there is almost no question among scholars that Paul wrote I Corinthians. Even in the most skeptical scholarly circles, this conclusion is almost unquestioned.
Second, in I Corinthians 15:3, Paul records an early creed that pre-dates the writing of the epistle.
According to Gary Habermas, an eminent scholar on the historicity of the resurrection, “numerous evidences indicate that this report is much earlier than the date of the book in which it appears.” One is justified in this conclusion on the basis of several reasons.
First, the technical terms delivered and received traditionally indicate the imparting of oral tradition In this custom, also referred to as “traditioning,” the Jewish teachers would pass on their teachings to their students, who would in turn pass them on to their own students. Thus, Paul is recording material that he had previously received from others.
Furthermore, there is good reason to think that Paul received this material from Peter approximately three years after Paul’s conversion. In Galatians 1:18-20, Paul records his visit to Peter and James, both of whom are listed as eyewitnesses in I Corinthians 15. In this account, Paul uses the Greek word historeo, signifying that his visit was of an investigative nature. What was the primary subject of Paul’s inquiry? The immediate context suggests that the chief topic of conversation concerned the nature of the gospel (Gal. 1:11-16), which included reference to Jesus’ resurrection (I Cor. 15:1-4). For this reason, most scholars ascribe an early date to this creed and agree that Paul received the material from two to eight years after the crucifixion of Jesus, between A.D. 32-38.
Setting the stage
What is the big deal about resurrection? Does it matter if Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead? We can almost all accept that Jesus was a good teacher of excellent character. Isn’t that enough? Why do we always need to complicate things further by insisting on a resurrection?
“And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” 1 Cor 15:14-19.
Paul, in this passage, is expressing the unrivalled importance of resurrection to our Christian faith. If Christ has not been raised:
- Our preaching is useless.
- Our faith is useless and futile.
- We automatically become false witnesses.
- We are still in our sins.
- Those who are dead in Christ are lost.
- We are a bunch of people to be pitied since we have no hope after now!
The good thing though is that Christ has been raised. We can all celebrate this fact and discuss it happily.
A very strong case can be made for the trustworthiness of the New Testament, but those who argue for Jesus’ resurrection from trustworthiness must be prepared to answer questions raised by skeptics. Since most Christians are unable to do this, I would like to discuss a method developed by professor Gary Habermas. He calls it the minimal facts approach, where we consider only those historical facts related to the resurrection of Jesus that are so strong that the vast majority of scholars, including skeptical ones, agree that they are facts.
The strength of this approach is that a skeptic cannot deny the resurrection of Jesus simply because he or she does not believe the Bible. The New Testament, at minimum, tells us much about the beliefs of the first-century church, and historians are able to determine with reasonable certainty a number of teachings and actions of the apostles and Jesus Himself.
Here are the three most important minimal facts related to Jesus’ resurrection:
Jesus’ death by crucifixion
This event is reported even outside of the New Testament. The Jewish historian Josephus reported it toward the end of the first century, and the Roman historian Tacitus likewise reported it in the beginning of the second century.
The Roman historian Tacitus, in his Annals (written ca. AD 115), book 15, chapter 44,describes Nero‘s scapegoating of the Christians following the Fire of Rome. He writes that founder of the sect was named Christus (the Christian title for Jesus); that he was executed under Pontius Pilate; and that the movement, initially checked, broke out again in Judea and even in Rome itself. In his words: “Christus, the founder of the [Christian] name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius. But the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, by through the city of Rome also.”
Josephus Flavius (95 AD) in his bookTestimonium Flavium wrote: “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
The Jewish Talmud, a Jewish book of their own history has this to say about Jesus: “Jesus the Nazarene was hanged and a herald went forth before him forty days heralding, Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery and instigated and seduced Israel to idolatry. Whoever knows anything in defense may come and state it.” But since they did not find anything in his defense they hanged him on (Sabbath eve and) the eve of Passover.”
Almost all secular scholars of note agree that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. There is no way to get around this fact except one decided to ignore proven historical records.
Jesus’ empty tomb
One must consider that Jesus’ resurrection was proclaimed in Jerusalem, the same location where Jesus had been publicly executed and buried. If the tomb had been occupied, Jewish or Roman authorities would only have had to go to the tomb and view the corpse and the claim of a resurrection would have been demolished immediately, but there is no indication that this occurred. Jesus’ enemies instead claimed that His disciples had stolen His body, which appears to be an alternate explanation for an empty tomb. This is reported not only by Matthew (28:13), but Justin Martyr reported that the Jewish leaders were making the same claim in his day (c. AD150). It also is significant that the primary witnesses to the empty tomb reported by the Gospels were women, who in general had a low status in the first century. If you are going to invent a story you want people to believe, why invent witnesses who would be unbelievable? An invented story more likely would have portrayed Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus or the disciples themselves as the witnesses. We instead find the male disciples, who were to become the church’s leaders, hiding behind closed doors in fear while the women check out the tomb!
Jesus’ resurrection appearances
A number of people, friends and foes, reported that Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them. That Jesus’ disciples had claimed this is reported by Paul (1Cor.15:11), by a disciple of Peter named Clement (1Clement42:3 – Having therefore received a charge, and having been fully assured through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ and confirmed in the word of God with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth with the glad tidings that the kingdom of God should come.), and by various early oral traditions embedded in the New Testament writings (1Cor.15:3–7). The historical data also indicate that a skeptic (James) and, more important, an enemy of Jesus (Paul) became followers of Jesus after experiencing what they believed were post- resurrection appearances of Jesus. Paul, according to his own testimony, had persecuted Christians severely prior to his conversion (1Cor. 15:9–10; Gal.1:12–16, 22–23; Phil.3:6–7). Luke corroborates Paul’s testimony in Acts (chaps.9,22,26) and we perhaps have an early oral tradition to this effect (Gal.1:23). Early, eyewitness, and multiple testimonies mount a strong case for Paul’s conversion. No less than11 ancient sources report that the disciples of Jesus, who then included James and Paul, were willing to suffer continuously and even to die for their testimony that they had seen the risen Jesus. This suggests that they sincerely believed what they were proclaiming; after all, liars make poor martyrs.
Going where the evidence leads
The task of the historian is to weigh various possibilities and to identify the best explanation for the facts. This process is much like putting together a puzzle. The correct solution to a puzzle uses all of the pieces and does so without having to force any of the pieces to fit. In a similar manner, the best historical explanation incorporates all of the facts without forcing any of them to fit that explanation. Let’s see how this works with regard to three explanations for the resurrection accounts.
Suppose Jesus’ grieving followers merely hallucinated that He had risen from the dead and appeared to them. Do the facts fit using this theory?
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion? Yes. Jesus’ agonizing death would be a reasonable cause for the grief required on the part of the disciples to hallucinate that He was resurrected.
- Jesus’ empty tomb? No. If the resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations, Jesus’ body would have remained in the tomb.
- Jesus’ resurrection appearances? No. Many of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances were reported to have occurred in a group setting. Hallucinations, however, like dreams, occur in the mind of an individual; thus, even if all the members of a group simultaneously hallucinate—an incredible claim itself—they would not experience the same hallucination. Grief hallucinations also cannot account for the appearances to James or Paul. Paul especially would not have been grieving.
The hallucination theory, accordingly, is very weak, since it cannot account for most of the facts.
This theory explains away the resurrection by assuming that Jesus never really died on the cross, but that he merely passed out or swooned under the torture. According to this theory, the cool air in the grave resuscitated him. Do the facts fit using this theory?
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion? No. Proponents of this theory do not seem to understand what is meant by crucifixion. No one survives that kind of torture. Also given the fact that Jesus had been severely whipped and was then pierced with a spear on the cross, there was no way he could have survived that.
- Jesus’ empty tomb? No. If he did not die, he must have been in a really bad shape. Please someone explain how he would have been able to move the stone over the grave and overpower the guards watching it.
- Jesus’ resurrection appearances? No. Well, a weak Jesus would not inspire hope and power in people would he?
Suppose Jesus really did rise from the dead. Do the facts fit using this theory?
- Jesus’ death by crucifixion? Yes. There can be no resurrection if there is no death.
- Jesus’ empty tomb? Yes. There can be no resurrected body if there is no empty tomb.
- Jesus’ resurrection appearances? Yes. This certainly explains the transformed lives of the disciples and the conversions of the skeptics James and Paul.
The resurrection theory accounts for every fact and none are forced. The pieces of the puzzle come together beautifully. It is by far the best explanation. (Try fitting together the resurrection facts using a few other theories, such as the disciples stole the body, the resurrection was a legend that developed over time, or Jesus only appeared to be dead.)