The secular historical case for Jesus's resurrection is perhaps the most popular argument for the truth of Christianity today in apologetics (=defense of the faith). There are some things you just wouldn't expect prominent atheist debaters to be saying about this case, unless it were surprisingly strong:
Antony Flew (professor at Oxford): “The evidence for the resurrection is better than for claimed miracles in any other religion. It's outstandingly different in quality and quantity,”1
Jeff Lowder (founder of infidels.org): “I remember thinking to myself that if I took the time to investigate the resurrection, I could make anyone who believed it look like a fool. Or so I thought. …I was about to discard [it as] ‘another illogical religious belief,’ …[yet] I found extremely difficult to deal with as a critic.”2
On this topic, I've worked through 22 of these peer-reviewed books myself (and partially through several more), ultimately organizing a lot of the complex points and counterpoints into a BeliefMap's unique debate flow-chart (see it here). Since I'm very familiar with the debate now, I have been intrigued by the new movie Risen, which takes one of the evidences for Jesus's resurrection and works an entire plot around it. Although the movie is thrilling and stays close to the Biblical narrative where it needs to, I think it is ultimately bad for apologetics and stumbles in its presentation of the Gospel. I'll offer some brief thoughts with my film critic and evangelist hats on, and then we'll dive into the historical case with my apologist hat on.
My skills as film critic are probably neck and neck with my skills as a witch doctor, but let me share the essential plot and some evaluative thoughts anyways. You probably know the plot. The movie's protagonist is a stalwart solider (tribune) named Clavicus, played by Joseph Fiennes. He and Pilate confront a situation when the much-feared talk of Jesus's resurrection surges, caused by his body's disappearance in a context where Jesus had prophesied his resurrection (hence the need for guards). To prevent unrest, an investigation involving grave-digging and detective-like interviews of joyful Christians gets underway. The movie indirectly introduces awareness of the trial, crucifixion, and appearances through Cavicaus's eyes, and in a creative high-quality way that never feels forced, boring, or predictable--all downsides I confess to having prepared myself for. This really is a decent Hollywood movie.
My favorite part is the last third. Up until then, I wasn't bored but I can't say I felt any real emotion other than a mitigated version of that sense of mystery you might remember from the movie Signs (before confirming the aliens were real). When Clavicus finally crashes in to see the risen Jesus lovingly interacting with his friends (the circle of the 12), the emotions also come crashing in. The mystery and suspense built-up worked well, and about every sporadic interaction seen with this interesting risen man is mysterious and emotionally captivating. The is my favorite Jesus as portrayed in cinema.
As an evangelist, I think one unfortunate feature of Risen is its failure to present the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Clavicus yearns for peace and ultimately life eternal, but the gospel and eternal life (in Biblical language) is traditionally seen as much more than merely continual conscious existence. Not one mention or allusion to our sin or guilt before God is made, which can give viewers a very skewed understanding of what the “good news” (Gospel) of Jesus Christ actually is.
There are three main evidences for Jesus's resurrection, and while the movie hits on parts here and there, don't expect it to give even a decent survey. That's not a big deal, but what truly disappointed me was the random and unnecessary invention of evidence, almost entirely stripping the resource of its value as a responsible apologetics device for believers to share. (I'm not saying the movie was aiming to aid in apologetics, but that was my hope.) In fact, Risen creates more problems than it solves. Lets survey the evience for Jesus's resurrection, noting some hits and misses, and then discuss the main problem it raises.
Historians are confident that the apostles genuinely believed Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead. As Liberty University professor and specialist Gary Habermas wrote in 2004,
“I recently completed an overview of more than 1,400 sources on the resurrection of Jesus published since 1975. I studied and cataloged about 650 of these texts... perhaps no fact is more widely recognized than that early Christian believers had real experiences that they thought were appearances of the risen Jesus. A critic may claim that what they saw were hallucinations or visions, but he does not deny that they actually experienced something.”3
The two most popular attempts to explain this fact non-miraculously are by saying that either the apostles hallucinated, or that they saw a Jesus who had simply swooned on the cross and presented himself alive afterwards.
Hallucination? The movie implicitly rules out hallucination the only visual way it can: by drawing attention to the group nature of the appearances and Jesus's thoroughly physical interaction with the apostles. Most of the problems with the hallucination hypothesis unfortunately just can't be captured on film.
Faked death? Attempts to explain the appearances by supposing Jesus survived crucifixion are similarly ruled out, since the movie clearly showed Jesus's lifeless unblinking corpse on the cross, being speared in the side and yet interacting with the apostles in full health during his appearances. One this latter point, I was reminded of skeptic David Strauss's famous comment:
“It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulcher, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment... could have given to the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, ... Such a resuscitation... could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.”4
Although this “swoon theory” is never mentioned, it could have been, and if so it would have been nice for a character to notice how impossible it would be for Jesus to move the massive sealing-stone from the inside. The movie also accurately showed the soldiers noting the lifeless corpse in its tomb before their guarding shift started. As specialist Raymond Brown observes in his 2 volume work on Jesus's death (part of the Yale Anchor series),
“[if there was a guard, they] would have taken the elementary caution to have the sepulcher checked to see that the body was still there before they sealed it on Saturday.” [Death of the Messiah (Doubleday, 1994) 1309.]
In the Cambridge Companion to Jesus, Markus Bockmuehl echoes many historians in asking,
“why should first-century Jews find themselves compelled to use the distinctive language of resurrection in the first place? After all, the walking dead were a well-known phenomenon until the advent of modern medicine. [...For example,] Apparitions of Moses and Elijah, both believed to have been bodily assumed to heaven, attended later Jewish teachers from R. Aqiba in the second century to Shabbetai Tzvi in the seventeenth...” 5
Why not say Jesus had undergone an ascension to heaven or exaltation? Why employ a specific Jewish eschatological (end times) term that was distinctly understood by Jews to apply only at the end of human history and for all humans (rather than just one) ? Arguably, the only plausible explanation is that Jesus really did rise and indicate that his coming to life was in this particular genre, and not simply an ascension or exaltation.
Mislabeled hallucination? Perhaps Jesus really did prophesy his resurrection, and so that was the lens the apostles interpreted his appearances through. However, that pushes the question back to naturalistically explaining the appearances and how unlikely it is that a random Jewish prophet would prophesy his unique “resurrection,” which is such an oddly unJewish thing to do.
Jesus's body, which was bured in a known Jerusalem tomb, went missing. This was the bread and butter of the movie and there are very good reasons to believe the body went missing, reasons that convince most historians.
First, Mary Magdalene et al. visually saw Jesus's tomb empty (a fact historians can be confident in for several reasons).
A perversion of this final point was the emphasis of the movie. It's a perversion because it is unlikely that Romans would have sought the body this early on, a plot detail only made realistic by unrealistically positing that Tiberius would be visiting and Pilate didn't want any unrest in the form of rumors about a risen messiah. Historians regularly highlight this fifth evidence for the missing body in its unperverted form. For example,
Craig Blomberg (professor at Denver Seminary): “…the Jewish authorities, who had every reason to want to refute Christianity, could never produce the body of Jesus inside or outside a tomb.” 6
C. E. B. Cranfield (professor at Durham University): “The fact that with the will and the powers and resources they surely had, they [Jewish authorities] never produced the body must count as a significant consideration in favour of the truth of [the empty grave]”.7
Was the guard invented? To naturalistically explain the empty tomb, the hypothesis of theft is often invoked, and here the movie's response depends in part on the presence of guards. Apologists should be aware, however, that scholarly critics often think the guard report, found only in Matthew, was precisely invented to support empty tomb apologetics. After all, the report is found only in Matthew and is awfully convenient for refuting theft explanations. By way of response, however, there are good reasons for why Mark, Luke, and John would not have cared to mention the guards, so an argument from silence against the tomb's being guarded has little weight historically. Moreover, early Christians in general did not care much for empty tomb apologetics. It seemed lame to them, the empty tomb didn't function as evidence in the gospels, and in general missing body evidence just was not used in the first century. That is to say, Matthew likely had little to no motivation to invent the empty tomb, much less a complex apologetical defense of the evidence involving guards and a gratuitous bribed theft story.
Since the guards are a focal point of the movie, let me further elaborate on why I think these critics are wrong. If report of the guards were apologetic fiction, it is clearly more likely that Matthew would have naturally placed them there at the right time, not just on Saturday, but from the beginning on crucifixion Friday as well. Only concern for historical accuracy plausibly explains the gap. Additionally, one can discern in Matthew's account layers of argumentation. E.L. Allen is right: “[It ostensibly] bears the mark of a fairly protracted controversy.” [“The Lost Kerygma,” New Testament Studies 3 (1957), 351.]
William Lane Craig elaborates:
“That the story is not a Matthean creation out of whole cloth is evident by the many non-Matthean linguistic traits in the narrative.… In response to the Christian proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection, the Jewish reaction was simply to assert that the disciples had stolen the body. The idea of a guard could only have been a Christian, not a Jewish development. At the next stage there is no need for Christians to invent the bribing of the guard; it was sufficient to claim that the tomb was guarded. The bribe arises only in response to the second stage of the polemic, the Jewish allegation that the guard fell asleep. This part of the story could only have been a Jewish development, since it serves no purpose in the Christian polemic. At the final stage, the time of Matthew’s writing, the Christian answer that the guards were bribed is given.” 8
Don't make the mistake of thinking we need guards to discredit theft, however. There are even more significant problems for the theft hypothesis, regardless of whether you accept the guards as historical. Notably, the risk/requirements for stealing Jesus's corpse were too demotivating, no one would strip off its clothes, thieves wouldn't stupidly add risk (in the way this body's disappearance did), the stunt would need days of preparation, and the linens were removed non-manually (i.e. not by thieves).
Risen fabricates evidence: One evidence for the resurrection you will not find historians talk about, however, is one that Clavicus ends up putting a lot of weight on. There were ropes around the sealing stone (in the movie), and rather than looking cut off, they visually appeared frayed as if they had "exploded" off (Clavicus's words). Relatedly, Clavicus noted the severe displacement of the stone from the tomb entrance--apparently blown away several yards. This too has no basis in history. Clavicus's final major evidence was the eventual testimony of one of the guards, seeing not an angel, but Jesus himself in all his glory. This is not in any of the gospels. At the end of the day then, I think Risen is just about apologetically useless.
Risen is counterproductive: In fact, it is perhaps counterproductive to the very evidence the movie loosely calls attention to. In response to the evidence that Jerusalem opponents of Christianity never simply displayed the unresurrected body of Jesus, some critics respond that perhaps the body had decomposed beyond recognition, making such a display useless. This seems an initially worthwhile objection that is highlighted in the movie and motivates an additional sense of urgency for Clavicus. However, no historical answer was provided! Now viewers must ask if Jesus's body being undisplayed is good evidence of it being missing... does corpse decomposition explain why Jesus's body wasn't ever used to falsify Christianity? It doesn't. The corpse was entirely identifiable by its location, and it was identifiable by its several unique lacerations, stature, etc. (especially taking into account that it was chilly/cool and arid at the time and place).
I conclude then, that I don't think that this is a good way to present the case for Jesus's resurrection--it's not. It's not even a good way for someone to hear the Gospel. That is to say, there's little use in recommending it to unbelieving friends. I think this movie is best for persons who are already Christian, who want to see a captivating depiction of a loving Jesus with his friends, and maybe get a realistic feel for what life in this time and place was like.