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Was Jesus raised from the dead?
Christianity stands or falls on this
Did God miraculously raise Jesus from the dead? If the resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, then it would seem to divinely authenticate the central message of Jesus brought to the apostles. It was the message that the apostles devoted their lives to proclaiming: the gospel. For early Christians, this divine vindication was the purpose and significance of Jesus's resurrection. On the other hand,...
Paul (the apostle): “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. Moreover, we are even found to be false witnesses of God… If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:14-15, 19; cf. 1 Pet 1:3)
The truth of Christianity does not depend on whether the Bible has errors or not. Instead, it is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that stands as the litmus test for the Christian faith. The resurrection is the appropriate target for seekers interested in assessing whether at least some kind of bare Christianity is true.
The case may be stronger than you think
There are strong initial reasons to doubt a good case can be made:
- The testimonies are 2,000+ years old.
- They are biased Christian writings.
- The event in question is a miracle.
But prominent atheists with exactly these surface worries, after investigating, come out confessing:
Jeff Lowder (Philosopher, debater, co-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.”1
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.”2
As a quick sketch of one evidence: historians all feel compelled by evidence to grant that the apostles at least believed they experienced Jesus appearing to them alive from the dead. But accounting for this naturalistically seems to require an appeal to group hallucinations or worse. In a survey of over 1,400 academic sources, one specialist concluded:
“Similar to the situation at the end of the Nineteenth Century, hallucination and related subjective approaches are again the most popular among critics.”3
But the hallucination hypothesis is itself not an easy one to maintain. In fact, one atheism-promoting debater did his doctoral dissertation on explaining the data and felt that the unknown twin-brother hypothesis was more defensible than the hallucination hypothesis.4 Of course, his hypothesis is also untenable. So the data continues to be very awkward for those who reject Jesus's resurrection.
These may seem desperate, but can you look at the evidence and do better?
- The Historicity of Jesus' Resurrection online at infidels.org. Lowder is a responsible public debater promoting atheism, co-founder of infidels.org, and arguably one of the greatest living critics of Christianity.
- Antony Flew & Gary Habermas, “My Pilgrimage from Atheism to Theism" Philosophia Christi vol. 6, no. 2 (2004): 209. Flew died in 2010, but in his time was widely considered one of the greatest critics of Christianity.
• Side note: In a famous televised debate between these two specialists, one of the judges labeled the debate a draw while the four others (all philosophy professors) declared the pro case victorious. The judge declaring it a draw confessed, “I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.” Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate (Harper & Row, 1987), xiv. Habermas was initially a skeptic himself who converted upon investigating. In a nutshell,
Pinchas Lapide was a prominent Israeli historian, publishing over 35 books. He became so convinced by the historical evidence that God raised Jesus that, before dying a staunch Jew, he published a book on the evidence titled The Resurrection of Jesus: A Jewish Perspective (1977). Critics like Lapide, Lowder, and Flew often admit the evidence is strong, even if underlying philosophical objections related to God and nature prevent them from believing it or its implications. Many other critics, however, have found the evidence compelling enough even to overturn their philosophy.
• Stephen Davis (Religion & philosophy professor at Claremont): “…no one who denies that Jesus was raised from the dead or who offers reductive theories of the resurrection has yet been able to account adequately for these widely accepted facts. Though many have tried, no one who rejects belief in the resurrection of Jesus has been able to tell a convincing story of what occurred in the days following his resurrection.” [Risen Indeed (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1993), 180.]
• N.T. Wright (NT & Early Christianity professor at St. Andrews): “The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.” [The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003), 718.]
- Gary Habermas, “Hallucination Theories to Explain Jesus’ Resurrection?” Christian Research Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4, 2001
- This was Greg Cavin's dissertation, though in writing it he assumed for argument's sake that the Bible was largely reliable.
Jesus's body went missing
After Jesus was crucified and taken down from the cross, his corpse was laid to rest somewhere (tomb or not), and wherever that location happened to be, Jesus's body was shortly after regarded as missing from that location.
This page explores these 5 arguments:
- Jesus's corpse was gone from the tomb which it was placed in after Jesus was crucified, and there is no other location in which it would naturally be, meaning it was truly missing.
- Jerusalem critics never displayed the corpse, and since Jesus was buried in Jerusalem and Christians were immediately proclaiming Jesus rose in that vicinity, we would have expected the Jews to display the corpse if the body were not missing, i.e. if they were able.
- The first Christians in Jerusalem were saying, “it's gone!” and it is not as if this belief was formed randomly; it was rather a justified belief, grounded in the facts at hand.
- The original “it's gone!” report wasn't a lie, and there is no plausible hypothesis under which it was a mistake either; the report had a confidence-inspiring pedigree.
- People were saying, “He resurrected!”, which is incoherent if they thought the body of Jesus resided in its tomb. And it's not as if they would be ignorant about whether the body was actually in the tomb or not.
Jesus's body going missing is evidence that Jesus rose from the dead because there is no good alternative explanation for the fact. Specifically, no easy naturalistic explanation presents itself; all naturalistic explanations are arguably more improbable than God's miraculously choosing to raise Jesus from the dead (as long as God exists and plausiby might choose to raise Jesus).
But so what if it went missing? Plausibly…
- Jesus's body was stolen and so all that would remain is the empty tomb; no resurrection needed.
- Jesus survived and left the grave on his own (having survived crucifixion), in which case the tomb would be empty but not because of the resurrection.
- Humans transferred Jesus's body to a different grave. In this case, the body would be considered missing to most people, but no resurrection is required to explain that fact.
People/groups insisted “He visited us!”
Shortly after Jesus’s crucifixion, a variety of different persons/groups began to testify that Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead.
This page covers these 7 examples:
- E.g. “He visited us!” says Mary & women, who claim Jesus appeared to them at the empty tomb..
- E.g. “He visited us!” says Cleopas & co, specifically on the road to Emmaus.
- E.g. “He appeared to me!” says Peter, who says Jesus appeared to him individually after the women, but shortly before his full appearance to the twelve apostles.
- E.g. “He visited us!” say ‘the 12’ apostles, and Jesus purportedly did so on several occasions.
- E.g. “He visited us!” say ‘The 500’, who plausibly saw Jesus in Galilee on the mountain.
- E.g. “He visited us!” say Acts 1 competitors, i.e. those who were candidates for filling in the role of the apostle Judas, so-as to keep the apostle-count 12 in number.
- E.g. “He appeared to me!” says James, the biological brother of Jesus, who seems to have rejected Jesus during his ministry.
- E.g. “He appeared to me!” says Paul, who was a Pharisee and actively persecuted Christians before coming to believe Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
- The Jerusalem church’s Jesus-bio matched witness testimony, (Jerusalem is where the witnesses—the apostles, Mary etc.—resided), and certainly the Jerusalem church was proclaiming that Jesus appeared to the traditional witnesses.
- The gospels Jesus-bio relayed witness testimony, and the Gospels are very clear that Jesus appeared to the traditional witnesses.
This is relevant if there are no plausible alternative explanations for their experience. To the degree that their interpretation of their experience has the most power to explain their experience (over rival explanations), to a corresponding degree it is evidence for Jesus’s actually appearing to them alive from the dead, and therefore his resurrection.1
But so what? Plausibly…
- They were lying, saying Jesus visited them when they knew he had not.
- They were fooled: by Jesus who faked his death, so that they were not lying, but were sincerely mistaken in their belief that a risen Jesus appeared to them alive from the dead.
- They were fooled: by a look-a-like impostor of Jesus, who deliberately deceived people into thinking Jesus had been raised from the dead and was appearing to witnesses.
- They were fooled: by hallucination(s) of Jesus, be they grief hallucinations or some other kind.
- They were fooled: by aliens (e.g. a hologram), who for whatever reason want to deceive people and successfully did so.
And keep in mind…
- God would have Jesus appear to more than just those few traditional witnesses, and yet that is all Jesus appeared to; he would have appeared to the whole world.
- Stephen Davis: “The disciples were prepared neither psychologically nor theologically for the idea of the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, and the fact that they arrived at this idea so early and so confidently needs explanation.” [Risen Indeed(Eerdmans, 1993), 184.]
- Edward Schillebeeck: “[the disciples underwent] a process of repentance and conversion which it is no longer possible to reconstruct on a historical basis.” [Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (Crossroad Publishing Co., 1979), 387.]
Dead people always stay dead
Humans who die always naturally stay dead.
See this page to analyze 2 arguments:
- We see an unbroken trend of humans staying dead, and so we can extrapolatively infer that Jesus also stayed dead.1
- Natural mass cell revival is wildly improbable (violating entropy), and so someone returning from the dead is virtually impossible. 2
The irreversibility of death is relevant because Jesus is a human who died. So, “A consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection of Jesus as a historical event.”3
But so what? Plausibly,…
- Jesus stands out (in history, character, etc.) as a chosen representative of God's might. While God may have little reason to raise most individuals spontaneously in the middle of human history, He might nevertheless have reason to raise Jesus―to vindicate Jesus and his message. See Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne's The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford, 2003). He covers this question in depth and concludes that becoming incarnate and resurrecting is a kind of thing God might plausibly do if God existed.
- By way of response, however, the hypothesis is not that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. That, all parties agree, is absurd.
- Gerd Lüdemann, What Really Happened to Jesus (John Knox, 1995), 130.
Jesus had not died on the cross
It is false that Jesus was expected by crucifixion on a Roman cross.
This page analyzes 3 arguments, namely:
If Jesus did not die on the cross, then we can conclude he was not dead when people thought he was, and therefore Jesus could not at that time have risen from the dead; he simply had not died yet.
But no, see this page to analyze these objections:
- Jesus was first scourged, nearly to death, meaning he would not survive long anyways; the crucifixion merely accelerated Jesus's fate.
- Crucifixion, in general, is fatal, and there is no relevant difference that would make Jesus's fate different.
- The executioner judged Jesus dead, and centurions like him were professionals at discerning death.
- Jesus was speared in the side which of course guaranteed Jesus's death.
- Contemporaries never doubted it, and yet if Jesus had survived then we would have evidence of that
- The buriers judged Jesus dead and they were in a prime position to know.
But so what?
- He would have still died inside the tomb and so even if Jesus survived the cross, upon being buried in he would have died soon after.
Jesus was resuscitated by aliens
Rather than being raised by God, Jesus was in fact raised by extraterrestrials (for whatever reason). This is relevant to our bigger question because, if aliens raised Jesus, then he rose but his resurrection was natural; i.e. his resurrection was not a supernatural miracle wrought by God.
But no, see this page for 6 reasons to disagree:
- Space-traveling aliens do not exist in the Universe, so there simply are no aliens to revive Jesus back to life.
- Space-traveling aliens would not know we exist, so they could not even think to carry out such a plan.
- Aliens would have no desire to raise Jesus, so they wouldn't choose to raise Jesus even if they could.
- Aliens would not have the technology to resurrect humans, so they would be unable to raise Jesus even if they wanted to.
- Jesus attributed the resurrection to God, which is a very peculiar thing to do if aliens were behind it, but fits perfectly on the hypothesis that the Old Testament God exists and raised Jesus.
- Aliens could have done much more, if they had the capacity to raise Jesus from death, and there would be no plausible countervailing reasons to not do more, unlike in the case of theism where reasons exist for God's limited intervention and delegation of responsibilities to us.
Jesus never existed
Jesus never actually walked the earth as a real historical figure, not even the bare minimum idea of a Jewish rabbi that lead to Christianity. The entire person was an invented fiction.
This page analyzes 3 arguments, namely:
- Jesus matches prior mythic deities, and the coorespondence is not a coincidence; it is a result of Jesus in fact being a copy of those mythic deities. And insofar as they are mythical, the invented Jesus is too.
- Miracle-workers aren’t real historical figures, and yet performing miracles is one of the most defining features of the allegedly historical Jesus. Conclusion: Jesus is not a real historical figure.
- 1st-century historians are silent on Jesus, and we have good reason to think that many of them would have reported on Jesus if there were such a figure.
If Jesus did not even exist, then we can be reasonably certain that God did not raise him (as a non-existent person) from the dead!
But no, consider 5 reasons to think Jesus did exist:
- Jesus's existence is well-reported in a multitude of reliable early sources, both Christian and non-Christian.
- Specific things are known about Jesus, like the fact that Jesus was crucified (i.e. facts which have a barrage of sub-evidences supporting them).
- Early sources show no sign of doubt/debate, and yet we would expect to see rampant debate/protests, from early Jews, Christians, and Romans, if Jesus's existence was ever in doubt.
- The AD 30 Jerusalem church believed Jesus existed, and insofar as Jesus died c. AD 30, the small movement of Christians there--including the apsotles--were obviously in a position of authority on the matter; they would know whether their rabbi was a real historical figure or not.
- The AD 30 Jerusalem Jews believed Jesus existed, and they too were in a good position to know whether Jesus lived and died by crucifixion among them, or not. It is not the kind of thing they could be ignorant of.
“God did-it” is not an explanation
Theistic explanations are illegitimate; real potential explanations cannot feature God.
This page analyzes 8 arguments.
- “God-did-it” is just an appeal to ignorance-gaps, so appealing to God to explain Jesus's missing body or the alleged appearances is a God of the Gaps argument.
- “God-did-it” is just an appeal to magic, and so any alleged evidence for a miraculous resurrection is an exercise in futility.
- Explanations don't compound the mystery, and since a miracle is the most mysterious kind of explanation at all there is no hope of it being a legitimate explanation of what happened to Jesus.
- Explanations don't explain “too much”, and since appeals to God can explain anything we don't initially understand (e.g. thunder), it is impotent to help in making sense of the data around Jesus.
- Meaningful claims are verifiable (by senses), and we certainly cannot empirically verify that Jesus rose or even the relevant facts surrounding the claim.
- Meaningful claims are falsifiable/testable, and yet there is no coherent way to really test whether or not Jesus rose as we can in the sciences.
- Explanations cite effective mechanisms, and if we know anything from physics we know there are no mechanisms that can be cited for a resurrection.
- Explanations are unificationist, and none of our most unified accounts involve God.
This is relevant because if miracles are not genuine historical explanations, then no miracle can be the solution to explaining this or that data. In other words, there can be no evidence for the resurrection, and so it would seem to be an unjustifiable belief.
But no, God can theoretically feature in a real potential explanation…
- All agree: outlandish evidences for God's activity could warrant theistic conclusions, and that includes overwhelming hypothetical evidence for God's raising Jesus. So belief in a miracle could in principle be warranted.
- Theism does best explain some facts, and if it can explain some facts, then there's nothing in principle that would prevent it from explaining the data surrounding Jesus's alleged resurrection.
- Theism can be rational, and if it can be rational (i.e. if we can rationally believe in God), then we can likewise speak meaningfully about God's activity in the world and whether God miraculously intervened in the case of Jesus death.