Look, we both know it: sometimes it seems like the resurrection of Jesus is a bit far-fetched. We all know it’s not scientifically possible for a dead person to be alive again. In fact, people have been questioning the actuality of the resurrection since it happened. Join Sharm Davy as she explores some reasons why it might not be insanity to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
So what do you know about the resurrection?
Most people who deny the resurrection know very little about it. Some think that the resurrection has only recently been challenged due to a need to reconcile it with today’s scientific and/or secular worldview, but the reality is that it has been challenged from within and outside the church since the first century. The intellectuals of the day mocked Paul’s teaching on the resurrection (Acts 17:32) and the Corinthian church doubted the resurrection (1 Cor 15:12). Yet few facts in the history of mankind have been discussed with as much fervor, or over as long a period of time, as the resurrection. One way of sharing the good news of the resurrection with non-believers is to present the conclusions of historians over the ages.
Scripture is no fairy-tale
“Christus, from whom the name has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”
Tacitus, Annals, XV.44.4
Before even a discussion on the resurrection can be had, one must be convinced of the credibility and historicity of Gospel accounts. In non-Christian circles the Bible is often seen as the rantings of religious fanatics, conspiracy theorists or mass propaganda by power-hungry individuals. Yet even a cursory investigation reveals the historicity of the gospels in testifying to the life and crucifixion of Jesus. Extra-biblical sources such as The Annals written by Roman senator and historian Tacitus record unambiguously that the man Jesus, also known as Christ, suffered under Pilate.
The mystery of a whole bunch of hallucinations
We have mentioned that the resurrection of Jesus Christ has been discussed to death (rather ironically) by both Christian and non-Christian scholars. Historians largely agree that the empty tomb is an event set in history. There are numerous recorded sightings of Jesus, from individuals (Acts 9:1-9, Matt 28:9) to groups of up to 500 (1 Cor15:6). Historian and scholar Gary Habermas notes how the original experiences of the disciples, after much critical research, has been ‘recognised as historical by virtually all scholars.’ Even the harshest critics of the resurrection agree that the disciples had actual experiences that turned them from defeated, cowering former followers of Jesus to courageous evangelists.
The crucifixion, to put it mildly, was the lowest point for the disciples. One of their own, Judas, betrays Jesus (John 13:21). Peter who had said he would die before disowning Jesus (Matt 26:33-35) denies knowing him 3 times (John 18:13-27). The one whom they believed to be the Son of Man, the Son of God, was dead. Gone was their hope that he was the Messiah, the redeemer of Israel (Luke 24:21). Confused and despondent, the disciples continued to fear the Jews after the crucifixion (John 20:19). Yet their disposition changes overnight – from cowering fear to the boldest certainty such that they became fearless preachers of Jesus’ resurrection in the very city where Jesus had been crucified. It is difficult to understand their change of heart without the resurrection – they truly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead and had commissioned them to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20).
How then do historians who do not hold to the resurrection account for this? At this point many turn to naturalistic theories. For example, the swoon theory claims that Jesus merely fell unconscious on the cross and later revived. The hallucination theory claims that people (including masses of people) merely experienced auditory and visual hallucinations of the resurrection Jesus. According to fraud theory Jesus’ body was stolen from the tomb, potentially by the disciples (who later made up resurrection accounts). The legend theory posits that the resurrection was a legend that developed over time and later recorded as a factual account.
All these theories were thoroughly debunked in the 19th century by non-Christian scholars themselves for reasons that can be discovered in an easy Google search. However, later scholarship has seen the revival of naturalistic theories, even though there has been no change in historical landscape. Habermas responds to this, pointing out that most of the arguments for hallucination theories, although put forward by new scholars, are rehashings of the old ones. Thus the Gospels, as documents rooted in a time and place in history, and in the absence of credible alternative theories, provide a tenable case for the resurrection.
The mystery of a very pointless deception
Today, a view commonly held by non-believers is that early Christians faked resurrection accounts. It is difficult to see what would motivate the disciples to deceive people about the resurrection when all they stood to gain was painful death, and not to mention the near-impossible logistics of stealing and then hiding Jesus’s body from a protected tomb. Any fabrication by Gospel authors would also have to be rather amateurish as they record women as the first to see the resurrected Jesus. This was at a time when the testimony of women was not only invalid according to Jewish principles of evidence, but also downright embarrassing.
Therefore the only plausible explanation we are left with is that Gospel writers recorded the facts as they understood them.
When we deny the resurrection we are forced to concoct the most convoluted theories to explain the numerous sightings of the resurrected Jesus and the rise of the early Church. For example, scholar Gerd Lüdemann proposes that Peter was so consumed by the guilt of denying Christ, and Saul (aka Paul) by his secret attraction to the Christian message, that they both found psychological release in hallucinating visions of Christ. The alternative to denying the resurrection due to its improbability is to accept a whole series of improbable events, each one more incredible than the next!
But the resurrection is scientifically impossible!
Indeed it is! Something scientifically possible would hardly be a miracle, and Jesus would not have been seen as the conqueror of death and the Prince of life. Yet the Christian faith is no mere theoretical deliberation or philosophical enquiry – our faith is based on a Saviour who stepped into history to become history. Today, the tomb is still empty, and Jesus is still risen! This Easter let us by the power of the Spirit boldly proclaim the resurrection of our Lord Jesus who is Son of God (Rom 1:4), forgiver of sins (1 Cor 15:17), conqueror of death (Rom 6:9), and judge of the world (Acts 17:30-31)!
Sharm Davy is an MDiv student at Ridley College (Melbourne)