This 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.
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.
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.