Evidence for the Resurrection

Introduction

“If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[1] That quote—from the Bible—makes it clear that the Christian faith is worthless unless Jesus was actually resurrected from the dead. Thus, for someone considering Christianity, or for the skeptic trying to disprove Christianity, the validity of the resurrection must be determined.

Fortunately, the resurrection is an historical event that can be tested with methods that objective historians use to assess any historical event. What we find is that only a supernatural resurrection of Jesus adequately explains the few, basic historical facts that are regarded as virtually indisputable by nearly all historians.

Readers who don't believe God exists or that supernatural events can occur, may dismiss the resurrection as impossible, no matter how convincing the data. But if they can set aside bias and preconceptions, and concentrate just on the evidence, they will find a strong case for Jesus' resurrection.

Historiographical Method

Historians have a challenging task.  They attempt to determine what actually occurred in the past while working with an incomplete set of historical data that is subject to selective reporting, faulty memory, the original author’s bias, and unreliability of eyewitnesses.  Dr. Michael Licona summarizes the historian’s plight:

The past only survives in fragments preserved in texts, artifacts and the effects of past causes. The documents were written by biased authors, who had an agenda, who were shaped by the cultures in which they lived (and that are often foreign to us), who varied in both their personal integrity and the accuracy of their memories, who had access to a cache of incomplete information that varied in its accuracy, and who selected from that cache only information relevant to their purpose in writing. Accordingly, all sources must be viewed and employed with prudence.[2]

Furthermore, each historian approaches a study with his own bias, or “horizon,” by which we mean “how historians view things as a result of their knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.”[3]  For example, some historians’ horizons preclude even the possibility that miracles might occur; thus, any explanation of the facts surrounding Jesus’ death will be biased to exclude supernatural influence.

Scholars suggest that studies of Jesus’ resurrection have perhaps not always been pursued with the objectivity and intellectual rigor that modern historians would like to see. Luke Timothy Johnson speaks of "a bewildering variety of conflicting portraits of Jesus, and a distressing carelessness in the manner of arriving at those portraits." John Dominic Crossan complains of the numerous—and contradictory—portraits of the historical Jesus. For him, this "stunning diversity is an academic embarrassment. It is impossible to avoid the suspicion that historical Jesus research is a very safe place to do theology and call it history, to do autobiography and call it biography."[4]

To correct this problem, Licona suggests that historians must work diligently to “transcend their horizon.”  He proposes six suggestions to help counteract potential bias.  Key among those is the need to adopt a reasonable methodology, publicly disclose one’s horizon and potential bias, and offer objective explanatory hypotheses that account for all relevant facts. Licona has recently concluded just such a historiographical study of the resurrection.

Minimal Facts Approach

Licona calls his study a “minimal facts” approach. Building on prior work by Dr. Gary Habermas, Licona reexamined the evidence for the resurrection from the perspective of objective, non-biased historians by employing these steps:

  1. Assess the validity and credibility of each relevant historical document using methods and criteria employed by accomplished, objective historians.
  2. Grant no special status to Biblical documents; treat them as any other texts from antiquity.
  3. Using only those documents considered highly credible, ascertain basic historical facts that are essentially indisputable and agreed upon by an overwhelming consensus of scholars.
  4. Finally, consider how well various hypotheses explain these few, basic historical facts.

Note that with this approach, one need not argue for the reliability of the entire New Testament, but only for a small set of ‘minimal facts’ that are “accepted by the majority of critical New Testament scholars, both liberal and conservative.”[5]

Sources

A significant number of ancient documents are available to the historian to help assess what occurred at the time of, and following, Christ’s death. In his book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Licona methodically reviews all the pertinent documents written within 100 years of Jesus’ death. He assesses each document with regard to “the likelihood that it provides independent testimony relevant to the present investigation”[6] of the resurrection, using this scale:

Highly Probable;  Possible;  Unlikely;  Indeterminate;  or Not Useful (i.e. no pertinent information).

Licona assesses the historical reliability of the gospels, letters of Paul, and pre-Pauline material (including the oral creeds of the early church), as well as a variety of Christian and non-Christian extra-biblical sources. Importantly, of all these historical texts, Licona rates only two documents—the letters of Paul and the early creed contained in 1 Corinthians 15—as being “highly probable” of containing independent testimony with regard to investigation of the resurrection. Several additional documents are rated “possible”, and a significant number are dismissed (for purposes of this study) as being “unlikely,” “indeterminate,” or “not useful.”

Summarized below are the ratings that Licona assigns to all of the documents considered.

Not Useful, or
Indeterminate
Unlikely
Possible
Highly
Probable
Biblical
sources
Pre-Markan tradition
“Q”
4 Gospels
Speeches in Acts
Rom 1:3b-4a
Luke 24:34
Letters of Paul
I Cor 15:3-8
Non-
Biblical
sources
Tacitus
Pliny the Younger
Seutonius
Mara bar Serapion
Thallus
Lucian
Celsus
Rabbinic sources
Gospel of Thomas
Gospel of Peter
Gospel of Judas
Revelation dialogues
Josephus
1 Clement
Polycarp
Barnabas


Perhaps surprisingly, Licona assigns the four New Testament gospels a rating of only possible, stating that “there is much debate over what may and may not go back to Jesus and his original disciples. For this reason, in terms of whether the resurrection narratives in the canonical Gospels largely reflect independent apostolic tradition, I will assign them a rating of possible.”[7]

The letters of Paul are broadly considered quite important early documents, dated AD 48-65, within 18-35 years of Jesus’ death.[8] Paul knew the major Jerusalem apostles: Peter, James and John; and he claimed that the risen Jesus appeared to him. Licona concludes that “it is highly probable that Paul preserves apostolic testimony pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus.”[9]

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, the passage 15:3-8 is of special importance.  It is considered to be perhaps the most valuable passage for use when considering historical resurrection claims, in part because of its very early age. “Most scholars who provide a date think that Paul received this creedal tradition between two and eight years after Jesus’ death, or approximately AD 32 to 38.”[10] Licona rates the validity of this passage as highly probable:

Virtually all critical scholars who have written on the subject, including rather skeptical ones, maintain that in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 Paul has provided tradition(s) about Jesus that he did not form but rather received from others, as he claims. There is likewise widespread agreement that it was composed very early and may very well be the oldest extant tradition pertaining to the resurrection of Jesus.[11]

In general, some might accuse Licona of being overly critical of the documents. Even so, the documents that do survive his judicious review provide a solid body of information. He says:

What we do have is good. We have reports that Jesus had been raised from the dead from at least one eyewitness (Paul) and probably more (the Jerusalem apostles preserved in the kerygma). These reports are very early and provide multiple independent testimonies, as well as testimony from one who had been hostile to the Christian message previous to his conversion experience.[12]

Bedrock Facts

Using only this small set of most-credible historical documents, Licona uncovers specific facts that are nearly universally agreed upon as being historically true. These facts become “historical bedrock” for further analysis, as he explains:

Some facts are so strongly evidenced that they are virtually indisputable. These facts are referred to as "historical bedrock" since any legitimate hypothesis should be built on it.  … Historical bedrock includes those facts that meet two criteria. First, they are so strongly evidenced that the historian can fairly regard them as historical facts. Second, the majority of contemporary scholars regard them as historical facts.[13]

Gary Habermas had previously identified twelve bedrock facts regarding the resurrection of Jesus, facts that he notes are “accepted as historical by virtually all scholars who research in this area, regardless of the many differences in their thought.”[14] They are:

  1. Death by crucifixion
  2. Burial
  3. Disciples lost hope
  4. Empty tomb
  5. Disciples experienced the risen Jesus
  6. Disciples lives are transformed
  7. Resurrection proclaimed early
  8. Disciples preach in Jerusalem
  9. Gospel includes death and resurrection
  10. Worship on Sunday
  11. James (Jesus' brother) converted to Christianity
  12. Paul experienced risen Jesus, and then converted

Licona, however, adopts even more stringent criteria for bedrock facts, choosing only those few that are virtually indisputable, as he explains: “Given the pitfall of horizons that await a haphazard historian, painting a historically responsible portrait of Jesus requires the use of historical facts that are regarded as virtually indisputable.”[15] Given this high hurdle, Licona narrows down to only three bedrock facts, quoted verbatim below:[16]

Three Bedrock Facts:

  1. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  2. Very shortly after Jesus' death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them.
  3. Within a few years after Jesus' death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to him.

Because of his stringent criteria, Licona confidently states the following:

[This] is a collection of facts pertaining to the fate of Jesus that a nearly unanimous consensus of scholars on the subject agreed on. These scholars span a very wide range of theological and philosophical convictions and include atheists, agnostics, Jews and Christians who make their abode at both ends of the theological spectrum and everywhere in between. We therefore have the heterogeneity we desire in a consensus.[17]

In short, nearly all historians and scholars agree with these three facts. Let’s look at each of these three bedrock facts in more detail.

1. Jesus died by crucifixion

Nearly every historical scholar, including detractors of Christianity, will grant that Jesus died by crucifixion. “The event is multiply attested by a number of ancient sources, some of which are non-Christian and thus not biased toward a Christian interpretation of events.”[18] Liberal scholar John Dominic Crossan, of the Jesus Seminar, concedes: “That [Jesus] was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.”[19] In fact, very few historians have suggested that Jesus did not die as a result of crucifixion, and none of their theories have received much following from either the academic or medical communities.[20]

2. Disciples believed Jesus had arisen

Very soon after Jesus’ death his disciples began claiming that Jesus had arisen from the dead and appeared to them multiple times. “Historians may conclude that subsequent to Jesus' execution, a number of his followers had experiences, in individual and group settings that convinced them Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to them in some manner. This conclusion is granted by a nearly unanimous consensus of modern scholars.”[21] Several factors lead historians to make such a conclusion:

1.      The resurrection doctrine was contained in early oral creeds of the newly emerging Christian church. One of the early creeds, which most scholars date between AD 32 and 38,[22] states:

  • That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures
  • That he was buried
  • That he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures
  • And that he appeared.[23]

2.      After Jesus’ death, the disciples suffered for their beliefs and at least several died as martyrs.[24] Their willingness to suffer and die indicates the sincerity of their beliefs.

3.      There is no hint that any of the disciples ever recanted their testimony or walked away from the Christian community.[25]

3. Paul converted from persecutor to missionary

Paul’s conversion is important because he had been adamantly opposed to the new church, even persecuting its members. But within a few years after Jesus' death, Paul converted after experiencing what he interpreted as a post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to him. Further, His letters are “the only verifiable reports by a verifiable eyewitness of the risen Jesus himself.”[26] 

Why did one who so vehemently persecuted Christians suddenly become one? Paul himself and Luke report that it was because he firmly believed he had experienced an encounter with Jesus, who had been raised. … Moreover, the large majority of scholars grant it, regardless of where they lie on the theological spectrum.[27]

Resurrection Hypothesis

Thus we have three nearly universally accepted bedrock facts that must be well explained by any hypothesis concerning what occurred to Jesus after his death. We will begin with the resurrection hypothesis (i.e. that Jesus rose from the dead), which Licona states as follows:

Following a supernatural event of an indeterminate nature and cause, Jesus appeared to a number of people, in individual and group settings and to friends and foes, in no less than an objective vision and perhaps within ordinary vision in his bodily raised corpse.[28]

This hypothesis adequately and fully explains the three historical bedrock facts. It is a plausible explanation, unless the historian’s worldview / horizon precludes the possibility of a supernatural event. Licona argues that, since historians cannot know with certainty whether or not supernatural events occur, “they should neither presuppose supernaturalism nor a priori exclude it. Instead, they should examine the evidence without prejudice in either direction and select the best explanation” of the bedrock facts.[29] We should note that “naturalism, and especially metaphysical naturalism, is no less a philosophical construct than supernaturalism and theism.”[30]

Given the difficulties historians face (as discussed earlier), Jesus' resurrection will never be established via historical method with the degree of certainty many desire; however, that limitation applies to all historical knowledge.[31] But as we will see in a moment, the resurrection hypothesis explains the bedrock facts much more fully than do any of the alternative theories.

Naturalistic Hypotheses

A number of naturalistic theories have been put forth as attempts to explain the bedrock facts. Before assessing four of the main hypotheses, it is worth noting this general observation:

Alternative theories, such as those alleging various species of fraud, swooning, hallucination or other subjective psychological explanations, and legend have all failed to disprove this event [the resurrection]. Even critical scholars seldom propose such theses, which is understandable for a number of reasons.[32]

1. Hallucination. When current scholars attempt to discredit the resurrection, they most frequently employ some sort of hallucination theory. Such theories were popular in the nineteenth century, and have recently experienced a bit of resurgence;[33] however, they contain significant problems. First, the conditions typically conducive to hallucinations were not present.[34] Second, “psychoanalysis is notoriously difficult even when the patient is seated in front of you, but it is virtually impossible with historical figures.”[35] Third, such theories fail to explain how the disciples, as a group, came to believe that the risen Jesus appeared to them. Hallucinations are subjective individual experiences; just as with dreams, people cannot share hallucinations.[36] Psychologists who study this topic note the lack of occurrence of group hallucinations:

I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination.[37]

Finally, hallucinations would not explain why the authorities never simply produced the body of Jesus. Accordingly, Habermas concludes that “it is little wonder that hallucination hypotheses and similar subjective theses have generally been rejected by critical scholars.”[38]

2. Jesus never existed. Though non-scholars may sometimes question it, “surprisingly few scholars have asserted that Jesus never existed.”[39] This hypothesis fails to explain the bedrock facts and ignores overwhelming evidence for Jesus’ historicity—early creeds, gospel biographies, archaeology, and non-Christian sources. Authors “may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar.”[40]

(For more on this topic, see my blog post.)

3. Jesus wasn’t dead. The “swoon theory” proposes that Jesus never really died, he simply swooned. This theory was popular in the nineteenth century, but is not suggested today by any credible scholar, for two primary reasons. First, the Romans were highly skilled executioners; no one survived crucifixion. Second, even if Jesus survived, he would have been in horrible physical shape and in need of medical attention. “A half-dead, staggering sick man who has just had a narrow escape is not worshiped fearlessly as divine lord and conqueror of death.”[41] The swoon theory simply does not explain the disciples’ belief that they had seen the risen Jesus.

4. Conspiracy. Finally, some attempt to deny the resurrection by proposing that the disciples conspired to make up the whole story. Pascal soundly refutes this proposal:

Imagine these twelve men meeting after Jesus’ death and conspiring to say that he had risen from the dead. This means attacking all the powers that be. The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost.[42]

But not one of the twelve ever recanted their story of the resurrection. Furthermore, what possible motive would convince them to perpetrate a fraud and endure persecution, ostracism, and martyrdom? They suffered much but gained nothing of worldly value (e.g. wealth, power, possessions, status) for their troubles. And why make up a story that has women as the discoverers of the empty tomb? In those days, a woman's testimony was considered unreliable for use in court. Finally, these men were not “movers and shakers” with means; instead, they were simply “a bedraggled assemblage of tax collectors, fisherman and other commoners.”[43] Yet something caused an immense change in their character, demeanor, and confidence. These men would not knowingly have given their lives for a lie they made up.

Habermas points out that few serious scholars today, Christian or not, give credence to any of the naturalistic explanations. When these theories were first being proposed during the nineteenth century, “the nineteenth century liberals exposed many weaknesses in each other’s theories. The result was that shortly after the turn of the century none of these theses was left standing.[44] That rejection continued through the twentieth century. Habermas concludes:

This recent trend in theological and philosophical circles is actually rather remarkable. That critical scholars across such a broad theoretical spectrum generally agree in rejecting naturalistic approaches as explanations for the resurrection of Jesus tends to indicate the many weaknesses of these alternative efforts.[45]

Conclusion

Why then, do some scholars continue to reject the possibility that Jesus arose from the dead even though all of the naturalistic explanations have been soundly debunked?  The answer is that these scholars are tied to their worldview. Their worldview creates bias and clouds their ability to objectively assess the best explanation of the bedrock facts. Licona gives an example:

In my new book on the resurrection of Jesus, I provide a critique of Dr. Craffert’s [naturalistic] view. Yesterday he told me he thought I did a good job summarizing his view. … He then asked me whether I agreed that it comes down to one’s worldview. I answered “yes” then asked him, “If God exists, do you think the evidence is strong enough to show that Jesus rose from the dead?” Dr. Craffert said, “Yes.” I wish more skeptical scholars were as honest as Dr. Craffert. Many play around with wildly speculative hypotheses when their real objection is worldview.[46]

Craffert admits that the bedrock facts provide convincing evidence, but his worldview—his belief that God does not exist—will not allow him to conclude that Jesus supernaturally arose from the dead.

According to Licona, the three “bedrock facts” are so strong that the only legitimate reasons for rejecting the resurrection hypothesis are philosophical and theological.[47] If one’s worldview holds that God does not exist or that supernatural events cannot occur, it is impossible to accept that the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred.

But given the weakness of naturalistic hypotheses, if one sets aside the question of worldview, “neither presupposing nor a priori excluding supernaturalism, and examines the data, the historical conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead follows.”[48] Only a supernatural resurrection adequately explains the bedrock facts.

 


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:14, ESV.

[2] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010), 38.

[3] Licona, 38.

[4] Licona, 47.

[5] Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 540.

[6] Licona, 200.

[7] Licona, 208.

[8] Licona, 208.

[9] Licona, 209. Emphasis mine.

[10] Gary R. Habermas, The Risen Jesus & Future Hope (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2003), 17.

[11] Licona, 233-234.

[12] Licona, 275-276.

[13] Licona, 56.

[14] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 9.

[15] Licona, 277.

[16] Licona, 302-303.

[17] Licona, 279-280. Emphasis mine.

[18] Licona, 312.

[19] John Dominic Crossan, Jesus, A Revolutionary Biography. (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994), 145, as quoted in Habermas, 17.

[20] Licona, 313.

[21] Licona, 372.

[22] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 17.

[23] 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (NIV).

[24] Licona, 366.

[25] Licona, 371.

[26] Licona, 437.

[27] Licona, 400.

[28] Licona, 583.

[29] Licona, 602.

[30] Licona, 604.

[31] Licona, 587.

[32] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 10. Emphasis mine.

[33] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 10.

[34] Licona, 484.

[35] William Lane Craig, in Tacelli and Copan, eds. Jesus Resurrection: Fact or Figment? (Downers Grove IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 50, as quoted in Licona, 483.

[36] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 11.

[37] Gary A. Sibcy, PhD., Licensed Clinical Psychologist, as quoted in Licona, 484. Emphasis mine.

[38] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 12

[39] Gary R. Habermas, The Historical Jesus. (Joplin MO: College Press, 1996), 46.

[40] F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1964), 119, as quoted by Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 120.

[41] Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 183.

[42] Pascal, Penses 310/801, 125, as quoted in Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 558.

[43] Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, 559.

[44] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 14. Emphasis mine.

[45] Habermas, Risen Jesus, 15.

[46] Michael Licona, personal correspondence he posted on Facebook, November 21, 2011.

[47] Licona, 608.

[48] Licona, 608.