Note: Some material for this blog is adapted from “Beyond Death” by Gary R. Habermas and J. P. Moreland (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub. 2004) and “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” by Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids; MI: Kregel, 2004).
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming. Of course, the collective witness of the New Testament is that Jesus rose from the dead. But within that collective witness there are some intriguing passages.
For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 states, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.” There are two intriguing things about this passage of Scripture. First, 1 Corinthians was written in 51 A.D., a mere eighteen years after Jesus rose from the dead. Second, the apostle uses the language of established tradition, “received-passed” on to you. Taken together, Paul writes about the death burial and resurrection of Jesus as an established tradition within eighteen years of the events!
The often made claim by critical scholars that the resurrection of Jesus is a myth that slowly developed within the Christian tradition simply will not explain the evidence. The resurrection of Jesus was the centerpiece of the early Christian movement.
The apostles saw themselves as eyewitnesses of the death and resurrection of Jesus, and this message was their central proclamation (Acts 2:23-24, 32, 3:15; 4:10; etc.).
Gary Habermas describes twelve historical facts: (1) Jesus’ died by crucifixion; (2) Jesus was buried; (3) Jesus’ disciples doubted and despaired because Jesus death challenged their hopes; (4) The tomb in which Jesus had been buried was discovered to be empty just a few days later; (5) The disciples had real experiences that they believed were actual appearances of the risen Jesus; (6) The disciples were transformed and were even willing to die for the truth of these events; (7) The gospel message (death, burial, resurrection) was at the very center of preaching in the early church; (8) The gospel was even proclaimed in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus had died; (9) The Christian church was firmly established by these apostles; (10) The primary day of worship was Sunday– the day Jesus was reported to have risen; (11) James, Jesus’ previously skeptical brother, was converted when he believed he saw the resurrected Jesus; (12) Paul, a leader in the persecution of the church, was also converted by a real experience that he believed to be the risen Jesus.
Naturalistic Theories do not adequately explain the historical situation. Some will argue that someone stole the dead body of Jesus. But how does this help explain anything? If Jesus’ body was stolen by disciples, then how do we explain the transformation of the disciples from fearful to being willing to die for a lie that Jesus was resurrected? What does this gain them? How do we explain all of them willing to die decades later for a hoax? Besides how does this explain Paul and James becoming believers? Others might suggest that the body was stolen by the Jews or Romans. But how does this help explain anything? While this position may explain the empty tomb, it does nothing to explain the rest of the evidence. It surely doesn’t explain the transformation of the disciples. How does this explain Paul and James becoming believers? Besides, the Jewish or Roman authorities could have produced the corpse of Jesus (if they had it!) and destroyed the emerging church.
Another naturalistic theory is that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross. The theory goes like this: Jesus passed out (somehow surviving flogging and crucifixion), was wrapped in grave clothes (yet still managed to breathe), and came to in the cool air of the tomb. He busted out of the grave cloths, rolled away the stone, overpowered the Roman soldiers, and showed himself alive to his disciples (as someone who seriously needed medical attention!). N.T. Wright says it well, “Roman soldiers knew how to kill people… [and] First-century Jews knew the difference between a survivor and someone newly alive.” (Wright).
Another naturalistic theory is that the women, disciples, Paul, and James, and many others all hallucinated, thinking they saw Jesus resurrected. Yet, psychologists have often pointed out that only certain types of people hallucinate, here there are people of all persuasions. Further, it is unlikely that two would hallucinate the same thing, here we have dozens of men and women, friend and foe, groups and individuals, over a forty day period of time, all seeing the same thing! Further, hallucinations are often of things people expect to see; and it’s obvious that no one expected to see a risen Jesus– especially Paul or James. Besides, a simple trip to the tomb and a look at the stinking corpse of Jesus could quickly dispel any hallucinations of his resurrection.
Some scholars suggest that the resurrection of Jesus is the stuff of early legend, and the resurrection developed over decades or centuries of time. The problem, of course, is that the reports of Jesus’ resurrection were early, within days of the event. The resurrection was not a peripheral doctrine that could evolve and be embellished, it was the central message of the apostles from the beginning. Further, there is no precedent in other religious literature for a resurrection story to develop. “In fact, not one clear case of an alleged resurrection teaching appears in any pagan text before the late second century A.D., almost one hundred years after the New Testament was written” (Habermas and Moreland, Beyond Death, p. 121). Besides, how do we explain the empty tomb? What about the transformed apostles and the conversions of James and Paul?
Naturalistic explanation do not satisfy, and that is why most critical scholars have abandoned these fanciful theories, but beyond silly naturalistic theories, there is real evidence for the resurrection. To the evidence we now turn.
Evidence for the Resurrection
First, Jesus’ earliest followers provide eyewitness testimony and had experiences where they surely thought they were seeing a risen Jesus.
Second, this eyewitness testimony was reported early. There simply wasn’t time for a resurrection myth to gradually develop. As mentioned earlier, there are written accounts within twenty years of the events. Noted ancient historian, N.T. Wright argues that the Gospels are not later adaptations of early Christian theology; rather, the resurrection accounts are the foundation of the Gospels.
Third, Jesus’ earliest followers were so convinced by their experiences of seeing Jesus that they were willing to die for their faith. While many people are willing to die for a political or religious cause (i.e. Muslim terrorists, Jonestown, David Koresh, Heaven’s Gate), but “the disciples died for more than being sold out to a cause. They willingly gave their lives precisely because they were absolutely convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus… their transformations were not caused by ideology, like the others, but their new outlook was based on personal experience– their profound conviction that they had actually seen the risen Jesus.” (Habermas, To Everyone an Answer, 198)
Fourth, Jesus’ resurrection is at the center of apostolic preaching. It was not a side doctrine that developed and was embellished over time.
Fifth, the apostles received their view of the resurrection from Jesus’ resurrection. N.T. Wright argues that the Christian concept of resurrection is utterly unique. There is nothing like it in paganism. Jewish views of the afterlife are notoriously vague. Immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostles proclaimed a resurrection body– historically speaking, where did this idea come from if not from Jesus? Wright contends that if the apostles were to make it up, it makes far more sense for them to argue for a spiritual resurrection.
Sixth, the Jewish and Roman leaders were not able to disprove the resurrection.
Seventh, Jesus’ tomb is empty. If Jesus tomb could have shown to be occupied, this would certainly be a strike against Christianity. Every other religious leader is still buried in their tombs.
Eighth, the conversion of Saul (Paul), and James is powerful evidence for the resurrection. Critics turned believers. We love stories of how Atheists become believers. How can we explain the change in Saul from persecutor to apostle? Or, how do we explain James– the half-brother of Jesus who was an ardent unbeliever in his brother’s teaching until he saw the resurrected Jesus (1 Cor. 15:7)?
Ninth, Jesus made resurrection appearances to hundreds of people (1 Cor. 15:4-8).
Tenth, the emergence and shape of the early church argue strongly for the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, apart from Jesus’ resurrection it is very difficult to explain the church, historically speaking. The church is a resurrection movement with the central symbols of the church, baptism and communion, pointing to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Eleventh, Sunday (the day of resurrection) became the day for worship instead of the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday). Every time Christians gather for worship on Sunday, they are proclaiming the resurrection.
Twelfth, for two thousand years believers have proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is not merely a historical proclamation but a proclamation that they have experienced the transforming power of the resurrected Jesus through faith.
Nearly all scholars today (conservative to critical) agree that the evidence for the resurrection is powerful and that naturalistic explanations are problematic to say the least. So, the trend today is to assert something like, “well, something must have happened, but we really cannot know for sure.” Many scholars claim a reverent agnosticism. But why must we stop here? I see several problems with the agnostic position. Habermas sees several problems with scholarly agnosticism concerning the resurrection. I summarize some of his thinking below.
First, the agnostic is guilty of not reckoning with the evidence. Intellectual honesty insists that evidence must be followed, or new counter evidence and explanations advanced. If the agnostic believes the case is evidentially good, they should believe it. Unless of course, the skeptic wants to simply assert their position in blind faith, and forget about evidence.
Second, the agnostic is often guilty of presuppositions concerning the evidence. Most agnostics assert an anti-supernatural position and claim that miracles (such as a resurrection), and other supernatural events do not happen. Yet, merely asserting a position (even with lots of educational credentials), does not make it true. Real evidence must be advanced. To simply assert one’s bias against the outcome of the evidence is not acceptable, especially if one agrees the evidence itself.
Third, the agnostic often fails to appreciate other evidence of the supernatural realm. I am thinking here of Near Death Experiences (or, NDEs). In their fascinating book, “Beyond Death” Gary Habermas and J.P. Moreland review the evidence from thousands of near death experiences. In fact, in 1982, Gallup polls revealed that about 23 million Americans have had near death experiences. George Gallup, Jr. was so shocked by the study that he conducted it three times– all with the same results. Research is extensive in this field, involving psychologists, philosophers, and medical professionals. The evidence is simply stunning. Well beyond seeing a light, thousands of cases have been documented with details like people leaving their bodies and having conversations with people who they did not know were dead (but who had died miles away). All this while their own EEG was flat-lined, (no brain activity), in some cases for three hours. The evidence for life after death is powerful indeed.
So, if there is credible evidence for an after-life, credible evidence for a supernatural realm, and credible evidence for Jesus’ resurrection– the agnostic is simply standing in a weak position that is stubbornly refusing to go where the evidence leads.
For those of you who are sitting on the fence trying to decide whether or not to become a Believer in Jesus Christ; I want to say this– get off the fence! This whole thing is true! Turn from your sins and believe in Jesus as your Savior! Do it today!