And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless. And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins.
1 Corinthians 15:14-17
I remember asking myself this question during a writing assignment for one of my freshman college courses: Is Christianity true? Is belief that Christianity is true irrational or are there good reasons to think it is true?
That passage by Paul is direct and blunt. “And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless” (1 Cor. 15:14). The validity of the Christian faith is founded upon the fact that Christ claimed to be God, was crucified, and three days later rose from the dead confirming the scriptures and Jesus’ radical claims self-concept as the divine Son of God. If you are a Christian, your faith hinges upon this and not anything else. If you are not a believer then all your objections, no matter how important they may be, are irrelevant in light of the resurrection. If Christ is risen, than that means it was literally a miracle and therefore, God exists and Christianity is true. If Christ is not risen, then as Christians, everything we believe in is a lie and is utterly worthless.
The following is the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. This is an argument that is defended by Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig, Michael Licona, and Gary Habermas (highly recommend Mike Licona’s painstaking work on the historiography of the resurrection of Jesus titled: The Resurrection of Jesus). Before I examine the evidence, it is worth pointing out that accepting the resurrection hypothesis presupposes that the New Testament is inspired by God or even trustworthy. Indeed, biblical criticism is an important subject, and while I accept that the Bible is trustworthy and inerrant, it is ultimately irrelevant for this particular subject. In other words, these facts I present in this post are accepted by serious historians from all sorts of different religious and metaphysical backgrounds. I would argue that there are good historical grounds to think that the resurrection is historical and true. I do not think there are any good naturalistic explanations that undermine or disprove the resurrection hypothesis. Indeed, these rival explanations to the resurrection are an impossibility. Using the model of inference to the best explanation, I list out six facts about the life of Christ which can lead one to the conclusion that Jesus’ resurrection is true.
- Jesus’s Radical Self-Concept as the Divine Son of God.
- Jesus was tried on the eve of Passover by the Roman prefect, Pontus Pilate, on the charge of blasphemy. He was then condemned and executed by crucifixion.
- On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.
- On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
- The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite their having every reason not to.
The potency of these facts are overwhelming considering the skeptic will have to explain away not just one but all all five facts. Moreover, when all five facts are taken into consideration, it creates a powerful case that the best explanation of these facts is that God raised Jesus from the dead.
1. Jesus’s Radical Self-Concept as the Divine Son of God.
There have been some that have claimed that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God and was merely a man. This belief is more so prominent within the circles of Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and from other forms of pseudo-scholarship. The claims are that Jesus’ claims of divinity did not come until much later and were invented by the early Christian Church.
The big problem with this hypothesis is that it is inexplicable how monotheistic Jews could have attributed divinity to a man they had known, if he never claimed any such things himself. It is important to understand that Judaism was strictly monotheistic. We are talking about a culture that view God as being so transcendently high that they vehemently refused to even write out or pronounce his name! It would have been blasphemous to say that a human being was God. Yet this is precisely what the earliest Christians did proclaim and believe about Jesus! Such a claim must have been rooted in Jesus’s own teaching and it is totally inconceivable to think this stemmed from Jewish teachings.
In Matthew 11:27, Jesus claims that, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father; and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” This particular verse is drawn from an old source which was shared by Matthew and Luke, which scholars call the “Q” document. “Q” is short for quelle which in German means source. The hypothesis makes an assertion that there was an earlier source that Matthew, Mark, and Luke drew upon for their source material. In essence, Q predates any of the synoptic gospels (synoptic gospels are Mark, Matthew, & Luke). Moreover, it is unlikely the Church invented this saying because it says that the Son is unknowable. Yet, for the post-easter church we can know the Son personally. Therefore, it is impossible for this verse to be a later invention by the post-easter Church. The significance of this verse is that Jesus thought of himself as the exclusive and absolute Son of God and the only revelation of God to mankind.
Outside of the New Testament, there are sources that are hostile towards Jesus’ ministry that acknowledge that Jesus had a radical self-concept as the Son of God. There was a great hostility from Jews towards the Jesus movement:
It is taught: On the eve of Passover they hung Yeshu and the crier went forth for forty days beforehand declaring that “[Yeshu] is going to be stoned for practicing witchcraft, for enticing and leading Israel astray. Anyone who knows something to clear him should come forth and exonerate him.” But no one had anything exonerating for him and they hung him on the eve of Passover. (The Talmud, Sanhedrin, 43a).
This is a source that acknowledges that “Yeshu” which is the Hebrew for Jesus committed blasphemy and that he had thought of himself as divine.
Given that there are good historical grounds to think that Jesus had a radical self-concept as the divine Son of God, it shatters any notion that Jesus could be simply a “good teacher,” or a “good man.” C.S. Lewis sums it up beautifully:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity).
2. Jesus’ Trial and Crucifixion.
According to the New Testament writings, Jesus was condemned by the Jewish Sanhedrin on the charge of blasphemy. Jesus was then delivered to the Roman authorities and executed for the treasonous act of setting himself up as the King of the Jews. Not only are these facts confirmed by independent biblical sources like Paul and the Acts of the Apostles, but they are also confirmed by extra-biblical sources which are independently written from the New Testament. Corenilus Tacitus, who is consider one of the greatest Roman historians, wrote the following about a man named ‘Christus’ (which is a reference to Jesus Christ):
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind” (Tacitus, The Annals, 15.44).
Jesus is also mentioned by 1st century historian and Jewish-Roman writer Flavius Josephus:
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Messiah. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.3 & 63)
The crucifixion of Jesus is recognized even by the very skeptical Jesus Seminar as “one indisputable fact.” The very skeptical and popular New Testament critic, Bart Ehrman, writes in his blog that “the crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans is one of the most secure facts we have about his life.”
It is difficult to think that if the crucifixion one of the most indisputable facts about the life, then this is an enormous problem for those who claim that Jesus never claimed to be divine– why was he crucified on the charges of blasphemy? If Jesus did not claim to be divine, then he was no threat to the Roman Empire or to the Jewish Sanhedrin. Their sole reason for killing Jesus was because he had a self-concept of being the divine Son of God. It does not make sense to execute Jesus if he wasn’t challenging the status-quo of the culture at the time. The crucifixion in itself, gives us good grounds to think that Jesus thought of himself as the divine Son of God.
3. On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion, the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers.
There are good reasons to think that Jesus’ tomb was empty after his crucifixion.
First, the disciples after Jesus’ death, began to preach that Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This is the same city where Jesus visited, preached, and was buried. It is highly unlikely that the disciples would have been able to convince anyone of Jesus’ resurrection if the body still in the tomb. As Paul Althaus writes, the resurrection proclamation “could not have been maintained in Jerusalem for a single day, for a single hour, if the emptiness of the tomb had not been established as a fact for all concerned.” If Jesus’ corpse was still in the tomb, the Jewish authorities would have wasted no time in exhuming the body which would have in effect, crushed the Jesus’ movement and refuted any of the disciples claims of Jesus’ being raised from the dead.
Second, the earliest Jewish arguments against Christianity evidently admit that the tomb was indeed empty. In Matthew 28:11-15, there is a reference made by the Jewish authorities in claiming that the disciples stole the body of Jesus. Ironically, this statement actually assumes that the tomb was empty and they were trying their best to explain it away. Other independent Jewish writings, such as the Toledoth Jesu, a compilation of early Jewish writings, is another source acknowledging this. So why would they admit that the tomb was empty unless the evidence was too strong to be denied? Dr. Paul Maier calls this “positive evidence from a hostile source. In essence, if a source admits a fact that is decidedly not in its favor, the fact is genuine.”
Third, the empty tomb narrative in the gospel of Mark was written seven years after Jesus’ death. Rudolf Pesch, an expert on Mark states that this pre-Markan source, never mentions the high priest by name. Pesch writes that, “This implies that Caiaphas, who we know was high priest at that time, was still high priest when the story began circulating.” For “if it had been written after Caiaphas’ term of office, his name would have had to have been used to distinguish him from the next high priest. Furthermore, Pesch argues “that since Paul’s traditions concerning the Last Supper (cf. 1 Cor. 11) presupposes the Markan account that implies that the Markan source goes right back to the early years.” Pesch in essence argues that the passion narrative was written around 37 A.D. just within seven years of Jesus’ death. It is inconceivable to think that the empty tomb narrative is a legendary narrative considering it takes about two centuries for legendary stories to circulate. According to A. N. Sherwin-White, a professional historian, that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be “unbelievable.” More generations would be needed in order for legendary stories to have developed.
Fourth, in the gospels, the women followers were the first to discover that the tomb of Jesus was empty. This is significant because in 2nd century palestine, Women’s testimony was considered worthless. This is evident in such rabbinic expressions as “Sooner let the words of the law be burnt than delivered to women” and “Happy is he whose children are male, but woe to him whose children are female.” Women were also forbidden to serve as witnesses in a court. If the empty tomb narratives are simply made up or are later legendary accounts, it makes no sense in placing individuals that directly undermine the story. The fact that every gospel writer has women discovering the tomb demonstrates that the gospels writers were writing sincerely and they were honest in their reporting.
John A. T. Robinson of Cambridge University, states the honorable burial of Jesus is one of “the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus.”According to Jakob Kremer, an Austrian specialist on the resurrection, “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements concerning the empty tomb.” As D. H. van Daalen points out, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”
4. On multiple occasions and under various circumstances, different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.
This is a fact that is almost universally acknowledged among New Testament scholars today. There are only three explanations to fact: they were lying, they hallucinated, or they really saw the risen Christ.
Perhaps they were lying? The disciples of Jesus basically made up this entire story that Jesus was raised from the dead. But this seems highly unlikely given the situation. After Jesus’ death, the disciples were on the run, in hiding, and dismayed at the death of their leader. Then all of the sudden, they claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ and they were found boldly preaching that Christ was resurrected from the dead. Moreover, ten of the disciples died and they never once recanted the gospel. In essence, why would ten individuals die for a lie? Moreover, how could the disciples keep such a lie under wraps? Eventually it would have been found out that they were lying and Christianity would have died right there. No serious New Testament scholar that I have studied promote’s such an absurdity.
The second theory is that the disciples hallucinated. Perhaps the disciples so grieved by the events, hallucinated that Jesus was actually alive? But this too, is problematic because hallucinations are always a singular event and do not occur spontaneously in large groups of individual people. Have you ever asked someone else, “boy that was a good dream last night!” They wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about because hallucinations are singular occurrence! Also, why hallucinate something that was beyond the disciples understanding or expectation? Their expectation of the Messiah was one who would have been much like Davidic figure; one who was a political and military figure that would overthrow the oppressive Roman authorities. They did not expect nor believed in a dying, much less, a rising Messiah!
The theories that the disciples lied or hallucinate fail miserably in explaining away the disciples experiences of Jesus postmortem. The only other alternative that is left is that Jesus’ disciples genuinely believed that they saw the resurrected Christ. Even Gert Lüdemann, perhaps the most prominent current critic of the resurrection, admits, “It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus’s death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ.”
5. The original disciples believed that Jesus was risen from the dead despite them having every reason not to.
Despite having every predisposition to the contrary, it is an undeniable fact of history that the original disciples believed in, proclaimed, and were willing to go to their deaths for the fact of Jesus’s resurrection. As I previously stated before, ten of Jesus’ followers died gruesome deaths in proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. They did this at not only the risk to their own lives, but also they forsake their status in society, they gain no wealth by believing, and it flew in the face of reason and survivability to preach such things. Why would they risk their identity and their lives for something that was not true? There are no reasonable explanations. The only explanation that makes sense is the one the disciples originally had; that Christ was raised from the dead. C. F. D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes that, “we have here a belief which nothing in terms of prior historical influences can account for—apart from the resurrection itself.”
Given these facts of Jesus’ life, I think there is good rational reasons to believe in the disciples original belief: that God raised Jesus from the dead. I cannot explain all of these factors without the resurrection; there is simply no naturalistic explanation to any of them. More importantly, that God exists and that there is life beyond the grave. The Christian can have every confidence in the validity of their faith that Jesus Christ is Risen and reigns.