Most religious systems that have been developed in the last two thousand years have had some sort of testimony of Christ, whether he was merely a manifestation of the gods, a Hindu deity, a great prophet, and so forth. But the earliest testimony that most closely corresponds to his life suggests that he was the Son of God, was crucified for the sins of the world and was raised from the dead. It seems to me that if we are persuaded of this, all other religious claims fade into irrelevancy. We do not need to study all of the world religions to know the truth if we come to know that Jesus of Nazareth has been raised from the dead. But this raises the most crucial question of human history: did Jesus rise from the dead?
Any doubts that we have about Christian belief can be alleviated through the answer to this question. When we come to know that Christ has risen, everything else should fall into place. We need not be burdened about the claims of atheists and other religious systems. Once it is revealed to us that Jesus Christ is risen, all other doubt should, in affect, be easy to overcome because we know that Christ has been risen from the dead. To this end, the resurrection has been investigated from a historical angle to determine its’ legitimacy.
We can examine the resurrection from a historical angle by looking at the events surrounding the death of Christ and figuring out what best explains these events. It is my contention that the hypothesis “God raised Jesus from the dead,” is by far a much better explanation than the naturalistic explanations, and is therefore the most plausible explanation of the events surrounding the death of Jesus.
So did Jesus rise from the dead? I will examine four events surrounding his death, explain how we can know that they actually occurred, and explain why the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation of these events.
First Event: Jesus’ Burial By Joseph of Arimathea
A strong indicator of truth in historical text is if the text is embarrassing to the writers. Joseph of Arimathea, as a member of the Jewish court, volunteered to bury Jesus, as even his followers were too afraid, angry and upset to ensure that their leader received a proper burial. Thus Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention, as the early Christians would have been more likely to say that it was they who fulfilled this deed.
This embarrassing story is cited in the very early source material; in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, and in Mark’s gospel. This is in proper alignment with another method of determining authenticity. If the source material is close in time with the event, it is likely that it is not a fabrication.
In the words of the late historian of Cambridge University, John A.T. Robinson, “[The burial of Jesus in the tomb by Joseph of Arimethia] is one of the earliest, and best attested to facts about the death of Jesus.”
This fact is so important because so long as the Jewish Sanhedrin knew where Jesus was buried, the disciples would not succeed in claiming that he had risen. The authorities would just indicate the tomb and halt their campaign. But despite the importance of the body being in Jewish custody…
Second Event: Jesus’ Tomb Found Empty
Similar to Jesus’ burial, this story, too, embarrassed the writers. Jesus tomb was found empty by a group of women. If a group of men were writing a fictional story about themselves, I find it incredible to think that they would say that they were cowering in fear, while the courageous women ventured to the tomb and found it empty.
Further, under that regime, the testimony of a woman was worthless. To create a woman as the only witness to a lie in that era is not something that somebody would do if they wanted to be believed.
But the best evidence is the reaction of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Rather than pointing at the tomb and displaying dead Jesus and destroying the resurrection story in one fell swoop, they were forced to tell everybody that the disciples stole the body. Since they believed that the disciples stole the body, that entails that the tomb was in fact empty. The most powerful evidence for the empty tomb was that enemies of the Christian movement confirmed it.
To quote Austrian historian, Jacob Kremer, “By far, most historians hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical account of the empty tomb.”
Third Event: Many People Claims To Experience Jesus Alive After His Death
The list that Paul published in his letter to the Corinthians confirmed this fact. He listed 500 people, including government leaders, and several individuals who were still alive.
If it was the case that Paul was lying about the spoken words and testimony of a Jewish government leader, his crime would have warranted death. But Paul did not die until years later. Moreover Paul referred to hundreds of people; many of whom could have spoken up, who could have been tracked down, and therefore could have halted the Christian movement before it ever got off the ground.
But many people will say that these experiences of Jesus were hallucinations. The problem with this idea is that hallucinations occur only in an individuals mind. But with the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, under different circumstances, different groups of people saw him alive after his death. If they were hallucinating, it is incredible that so many people, including enemies and skeptics (such as Saul of Tarsus), would claim to see Jesus alive after his death.
Thus Doctor Gerd Ludemann, an atheist New Testament scholar has written, “It may be taken as historically certain that the disciples had experiences of Jesus, where he appeared to them alive, after his death.”
Fourth Event: The disciples had suddenly been stricken with the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, despite being given every reason to the contrary.
In traditional Judaism, the Christ was thought to come as a powerful military leader, free the Jews from the Roman Empire, and establish his kingdom on earth. When a false Messiah arose, the Jews dealt with them in the same way: crucifixion. In doing so, they showed that this person was a liar and a heretic, and even under the curse of God. So when Jesus was crucified as a criminal, the apostles were given the impression that he was a liar, a heretic, and under the curse of God.
Therefore, one has to wonder how to disciples came to believe so strongly in Christ that they were willing to sacrifice their lives for a lie that they knew was a lie. Were the apostles willing to chuck Judaism, just to invent the story of a resurrection of a man who they knew was a liar, all for the glory of being beaten, tortured, and eventually murdered, just as they saw their leader being murdered.
Their leader was dead. The disciples ran away, Peter denied knowing him (John 18:15-27), and Thomas said that he would not believe in the Lord unless he appeared to him and allowed an examination (John 20). They had no motive to think that Jesus was the Christ, and every incentive to think that he was just another false Messiah.
Despite that, the disciples came to believe strongly in the truth of the resurrection that they were willing to die for the truth of that belief.
What Can We Draw From This?
In summary, we have four facts surrounding the crucifixion of Jesus.
1 – Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
2 – On the Sunday following his crucifixion, Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
3 – Under different circumstances, in different locations, several different groups of people had experiences of Jesus alive after his death.
4 – The disciples had suddenly been stricken with the belief that Jesus had risen from the dead, despite being given every reason to the contrary.
In his book Justifying Historical Descriptions CB McCullagh lists six steps which historians use for giving historical facts. They are explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, not being ad hoc/contrived, being in accord of accepted beliefs, and outstripping its’ rival theories. The hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead passes all of these tests.
Explanatory Scope: It explains why the tomb was empty, why hundreds of people had experiences of Jesus, and why the Christian faith came into being.
Explanatory Power: It explains why the body of Jesus was gone, why people repeatedly saw Jesus alive, despite his earlier public executions.
Plausibility: Given the historical context of Jesus’ life and claims, the resurrection is a confirmation of those claims.
Ad Hoc: For a theory to be ad hoc means that it requires the creation of several other theories to save itself from being falsified. But this is not guilty of that. It only requires the following statement to be true: it is possible that God exists.
In accord with accepted beliefs: I could conceive of a possible objection to this, namely that people cannot rise from the dead. But this would be a very bias assumption. It would assume that God does not exist and miracles are not possible. But the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead in no way conflicts with the accepted belief that people cannot rise from the dead, naturally.
Outstripping Rival Theories: Through history, various rival hypothesis have arisen, for example, the Conspiracy Theory, The Apparent Death Theory, The Hallucination Theory, and so forth. Such hypothesis have been rejected by contemporary scholarship for the reason that they do not meet the other five requirements necessary to that of a historical hypothesis.
If you would like to discuss this further, come join our Theology Discussion Group