Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1)

Written by Michael Horner

risenseriesThis is Part 1 of a 4 part series – Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

Christianity stands or falls on the event of the Resurrection!

If Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, even the apostle Paul admitted that the Christian faith is worthless. Since they are not really forgiven by God, millions of Christians have been living under a delusion for almost 2,000 years and should be pitied more than all people.

On the other hand, if Jesus did rise from the dead, it substantiates his claims to being God. We can know for sure that there is life after death. We can be confident that God has visited this planet and proven His love for us and that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life, the bridge between us and our Creator.

The case for the historicity of the resurrection rests upon the evidence for three independently established facts. If it can be shown that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, that he did physically and bodily appear to many people after his death and that the origin of the Christian faith is inexplicable apart from his resurrection, then, if there is no plausible natural explanation that fits the data, one can rationally conclude that Jesus rose from the dead.1

One cannot rule out the resurrection because of a prior assumption that miracles are impossible. When a sceptic proposes that the resurrection accounts are legendary because they describe something miraculous, the naturalistic presupposition has become a part of the argumentation for the hypothesis, and the argument is circular.2 He has assumed the very conclusion he is trying to make, that a miracle like a resurrection is impossible. In point of fact, as long as it is even possible that God exists, miracles are possible. As philosopher W.L. Craig remarks, “That miracles are possible is… neutral ground between the opposing claims that miracles are necessary and miracles are impossible.” 3

What one should do then is try to honestly answer the question, ‘What does the evidence suggest is the most plausible explanation for the data?’ Clearly something happened in first century Palestine that has had a remarkable impact on the world. The issue is what is the best explanation for what happened. Which explanation or hypothesis is best supported by the evidence and best explains the data? It is easy to just criticize an existing hypothesis, like the resurrection, but what is needed is an alternative hypothesis that accounts for all the data with equal force. It is a comparison of hypotheses that must be done.

Now, even though we are going to be discussing the historical grounds for believing in the resurrection, grounds that I think are very good, I would not want to imply that there are not other grounds for believing in the resurrection, like one’s personal experience of the risen Christ.

1. The empty tomb

There are at least six lines of evidence that support the tomb being empty on that first Easter morning.

  • First, the origin of the Christian movement in Jerusalem would have been impossible without the empty tomb. If the tomb still contained the body, no one would have believed the disciples’ story of the resurrection. But thousands did believe. The founding of Christianity in the same city where Jesus was publicly killed and buried demands that the tomb was empty.
  • Second, the written account describing the burial is widely recognized as being historically credible. The inclusion of Joseph of Arimethea as the one who buried Jesus in his own tomb is one of the many reasons most scholars accept the accuracy of the burial story. It is highly unlikely that fictitious stories about a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling class, could have been pulled off.The absence of competing burial stories further enhances the credibility of the biblical account of the burial. If the gospel tradition were legendary, one would expect to find conflicting traditions, especially in Jewish literature, but there are none. Moreover, the burial and empty tomb story are a continuous narrative linked grammatically and linguistically. If the burial account is reliable, then the empty tomb account is likely also reliable.Now if the burial account were accurate, then the grave site (Joseph’s Garden tomb) would have been well known. And if the grave site was well known, no one would have believed that Jesus had risen, not the disciples, nor any of the thousands of others, unless the tomb was in fact empty. And you can be sure that if the body had still been in the tomb, the Jewish authorities would have exhumed it and exposed the whole charade. But in fact, even though they had every reason to want to refute Christianity, they could never produce the body of Jesus — inside or outside the tomb.
  • Third, the earliest anti-Christian propaganda confirms the tomb was empty. The Jewish religious leaders claimed the disciples stole the body. The fact that they never denied that Jesus’ tomb was empty, but only tried to explain it away is persuasive evidence that the tomb was in fact empty. Historically, this is evidence of the highest quality because it comes from the opponents of Christianity.
  • Fourth, the fact that Jesus’ tomb was never venerated as a shrine in the first century indicates that it was empty. It was customary was to set up a shrine where a holy man’s bones lay. There were at least 50 such sites in Palestine at that time. The absence of such a shrine for Jesus suggests the bones weren’t there.
  • Fifth, the testimony of the Apostle Paul implies the tomb was empty. Writing in about AD 55, Paul quotes an old Christian saying that Jesus died, was buried and rose on the third day. The idea that a person could be raised from the dead while the body remained in the grave would have been nonsense to Paul’s Jewish mind. The Jewish concept of resurrection was extremely physical. Paul is clearly assuming and implying an empty tomb here. As Craig points out, “Were this not so, then Pauline theology would have taken an entirely different route, trying to explain how resurrection could be possible, though the body remained in the grave.”4 Moreover, this saying concerning the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus is quoting is too early to be legendary. Paul would have learned it in his first two years as a convert, or at least no later than AD 36 when he visited Peter and James in Jerusalem. Thus, this formula is no later than five or six years after the resurrection, not enough time for legend to dominate.
  • Sixth, the burial and empty tomb accounts in Mark are based on a very early source. The high priest is mentioned without using his name, which implies that Caiaphas was still high priest when this story began circulating. If it had been written after Caiaphas’ term of office, his name would have been used to distinguish him from the next high priest. Since we know from history that Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18-37, this story began circulating no later than AD 37, within the first seven years after the events.

These six points are among many that provide a powerful case for the tomb being empty the Sunday morning after Jesus’ death. The move in scholarly circles in recent years has been toward the acceptance of the empty tomb, since it is very difficult to refute on historical grounds.

“The historian cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb…the evi-dence necessitates the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.” – Michael Grant

Historian Michael Grant concludes, “The historian cannot justifiably deny the empty tomb… if we apply the same sort of criteria that we would apply to any other ancient sources, then the evidence is firm and plausible enough to necessitate the conclusion that the tomb was indeed found empty.5

Most people who reject the empty tomb do so because of philosophical assumptions and prejudices such as, “miracles are impossible.” But this type of assumption may simply have to be changed in light of historical fact.

2. The conspiracy theory

What about the claim that the disciples stole the body? Although this theory may seem plausible at first, biblical scholars have universally rejected it for nearly 200 years. However, since it is often still offered as an explanation for the empty tomb at a popular level, a brief response is in order.

The conspiracy theory is morally, psychologically and physically impossible. It is hard to deny that the disciples were at least sincerely devout men who tried to pursue the righteousness that Jesus taught them. The conspiracy hypothesis forces us to regard them as cheap frauds and cunning deceivers, quite inconsistent with the ethics of their own writings. And what did they gain from this deception: power, wealth, prestige? No. Rejection, contempt, torture, and ultimately, martyr’s deaths!

Remember that the disciples were defeated, despondent and afraid after Jesus’ death, hardly in the frame of mind to plan a daring heist. In addition, it is psychologically impossible that one of the disciples could have convinced all the others to follow such a scheme without someone breaking rank or spilling the beans sometime in the next 50 years. People don’t die for a lie when they know it’s a lie!

Then there is the problem of the guards at the tomb making it physically impossible to steal the body. It cannot be emphasized enough that no modern biblical scholar would for a moment entertain the conspiracy hypothesis.

The empty tomb itself did not produce a belief in the resurrected Jesus. For most of the followers it was Jesus physically appearing to them that led them to conclude that Jesus had risen.

Next: Part 2 – The Appearances

Notes:
1. The outline and much of the content of this article have been derived from the writings and lectures of Dr. W.L. Craig. See especially The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus During the Deist Controversy, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985; Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989; The Son Rises, Moody Press, 1981; Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, Servant Books, 1988.
2. W.L. Craig, Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1989, pp. xv-xvii.
3. W.L. Craig, The Historical Argument for the Resurrection of Jesus During the Deist Controversy, The Edwin Mellen Press, 1985, p. 541.
4. W.L. Craig, Assessing the New Testament… p359.
5. Michael Grant, Jesus: An Historian’s Review of the Gospels, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977, p. 176.
6. The 5 Sources are the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke/Acts, John and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It is largely accepted that even though the gospels are interdependent in large sections, the appearance stories are independent traditions.

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7 Responses to “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? (Part 1)”

  • catfantasticiswrong says:

    Editor’s note: This comment has been removed because it violates our terms of service, specifically the rule against name calling.

  • Sharon Sharon says:

    to catfantastic my sympathy for not believing in the resurrection, if you go to Israel you would go to the tomb of where jesus was buried, he lived and died there Jesus says it and there fore i believe it

  • Kirolos says:

    Jesus Is Rise Up And I Belive In Him And I’ll Tell The World “I’ll Belive In Jesus All Days Of My Live And If The Glory Jesus Is Wrong About All That So Where is The Truth
    I Have More Than Prove That Lord Jesus Is The Truth
    There’s Some Proves That Make You Belive In My Lord Jesus Christ
    First:All The Religions Have Its Thoughts But No Prove There is The My First Prove
    The Tomb Of My Lord Jesus Have The Light That Fire The Wax Every Year And Here’s The Second Prove:Lord Jesus Of Is The Only Person Who Has The power To Rise Up From Death
    Have You Heard About Anyone In The Wrold Who Has The Power To Rise Up HimSelf From Death Impossiple And Lord Jesus When He Came To The Land To Save The All World He Never Use A Sowrd Or Magic But He Walk And Make Every Thing Good The Died Rise Up
    The The People Who Can’t Move Make Them Move And There’s More And More Proves On Lord Jesus That Tell Us That Is He Is The Right And The Truth And I Belive And I Prefer Die On Leaving My Glory Lord Jesus Christ Thanks

  • [...] A featured article series currently on TheLife.com, written by Canadian philosopher Michael Horner, investigates Jesus’ resurrection as final proof of Jesus’ divinity; ie, that not only did Jesus claim to be divine, but that the resurrection validated His claim. Please take a moment today to read “Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?” [...]

  • catfantastic catfantastic says:

    As a steadfast non-Christian, I can’t exactly speak for those folks, but I gather it’s something like this: even though this stuff didn’t literally happen, on a spiritual level the resurrection myth constitutes a symbolic triumph of faith and love over death.

    And these tend to be the folks who spend their time feeding the homeless and whatnot. If they’re not good enough for God, then God’s not good enough for me.

  • NGWANG EUGENE says:

    catfantastic.what matter is not what the so call chrstain believe for GODs does not base his decisions on what people believe.if you dont blieve in resurrection then from that very moment stop thinking there is a GOD for which you worship.on what hope do you base your believe on.

  • catfantastic catfantastic says:

    I think the apostle Paul was wrong. I’m not a Christian myself, but I know several Christians who don’t believe in the literal Resurrection, and still find depth and meaning and beauty in Christianity.

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