Of all the teachings of Christianity, no doctrine is more central than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The truth of the resurrection has been attacked from every angle. New books and television media regularly appear questioning the resurrection, re-hashing old theories about what happened to Jesus’ body. Since the resurrection is crucial to Christianity, Christians ought to be able to give answers to these inevitable questions with proof and evidence.
The Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection
The first step in defending the resurrection from its detractors is to establish the fact of the historical events that took place as conveyed in the Gospels. As philosopher William Lane Craig notes in his book Reasonable Faith, “The issue is whether the gospel narratives are historically credible accounts or unhistorical legends.”
The Resurrection Empty Tomb
One of the easiest parts of the resurrection data to establish is the fact that the tomb is empty. Because the location of Jesus’ burial was known to those living in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that they would have believed the apostles’ claims about the resurrection of Christ if there was not an empty tomb. Jesus’ burial is widely attested in early, independent testimonies, both biblical and extra-biblical.
The fact that women are primary witnesses of the empty tomb in the Gospel accounts is further evidence of their authenticity. This is because, as is often noted, women were not considered reliable witnesses in first-century Jewish culture, so it would have been foolish for the authors to fictionally construct an account involving women in order to gain credibility.
Matthew 28:11 speaks of a myth that was spread among the Jews concerning the body of Christ. Apparently, the Jews were saying the disciples stole the body of Christ. This is significant because the Jews did not deny the tomb was empty, but instead sought an alternative explanation to the resurrection. The emptiness of the tomb is a widely attested historical fact.
However, just because the tomb of Jesus Christ was empty does not necessarily mean the resurrection happened. There are four alternative hypotheses to the resurrection that have been advanced over the years:
1. The Conspiracy Hypothesis
The conspiracy hypothesis says that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and continued to lie about his appearance to them. According to this account, the resurrection was a hoax.
This hypothesis is not commonly held in modern scholarship for several reasons:
- This hypothesis does not take into account that the disciples believed in the resurrection. It is highly unlikely that numerous disciples would have been willing to give up their lives defending a fabrication.
- It is unlikely that the idea of resurrection would have entered the minds of the disciples, as such an event was not connected to the Jewish idea of a Messiah. The scholar William Lane Craig writes, “If your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you either went home or else you got yourself a new Messiah. But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God has raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples.”
- This hypothesis cannot account for the post-resurrection appearances of Christ.
2. The Apparent Death Hypothesis
The second hypothesis attempting to explain away the resurrection is the apparent death hypothesis. This view says Jesus was not completely dead when he was removed from the cross. Once in the tomb, Jesus was revived and escaped, thus convincing the disciples of his resurrection.
This view is difficult to hold for a few reasons:
- It is unlikely that a half-dead man would have been capable of even getting up to walk, much less moving the huge stone that sealed the tomb, over-powering Roman guards, and fleeing from sight.
- This theory cannot account for the disciples’ attribution of resurrection to Christ, for if they had seen him after he was revived, they would have merely thought he had never died.
- It is also foolish to think the Romans, who had perfected the art of executing people, would have let one slip by without ensuring he was dead.
- Finally, given the physical torture described in the Gospel accounts, it is highly unlikely that Jesus could have survived crucifixion.
The Post-Resurrection Appearances of Jesus
In 1 Corinthians, an authentic letter composed by a man acquainted with the first disciples, the Apostle Paul claims that numerous people saw Jesus alive after his death (1 Corinthians 1:1).
It is fairly indisputable that Jesus actually appeared to the people that Paul mentions. Even the notorious New Testament critic Bart Ehrman admits, “we can say with some confidence that some of his disciples claimed to have seen Jesus alive.”
The gospels all speak of post-resurrection appearances of Christ. It would be quite ridiculous to suggest that each of these events was a hallucination. Few scholars argue, therefore, that on different occasions different groups of people had experiences of seeing Jesus. They therefore question whether the experiences were actual physical, bodily appearances of Christ. However, Paul leaves no room for a merely psychological experience. His theology of the resurrected body ensures that he meant that Christ actually, physically appeared.