The Historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection

The importance of the resurrection if Jesus cannot be understated. 1 Corinthians 15 gives three reasons why the resurrection of Jesus is so important. First, if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, then the preaching of Christianity is in vain (v14). All the resources dedicated to the proclamation of the gospel and those who have dedicated their lives have done it for nothing.  Second, if Jesus has not been raised, the faith of Christians is in vain (vv. 14-17). Christians are believing a lie, and believing in Jesus at all does you no good. Third, if Jesus hasn’t been raised from the dead, then Christians are still in sin (v 17). This would imply that Jesus was conquered by sin rather than sin being conquered by Jesus and there is no escaping it.

On the other hand, if Christianity is true, it vindicates the Christian faith at its core, which says that Jesus is God who came to earth as a man to die for the sins of the world, was raised from the dead, and now offers salvation to anyone who will believe.  Also, it shows that the hope of Christianity is real and tangible – something worth living for and dedicating one’s life to. Likewise, it also cuts to the chase concerning Jesus and avoids issues such as age of the earth, the status of evolution, and issues concerning the Big-Bang and other religious options (i.e. Why Not Buddha or Mohamed?).  One can be wrong about a lot of things, but at the very least one cannot be wrong about Jesus.

One approach to show that Jesus rose from the dead that has been gaining momentum in recent years is called the “basic facts” or “minimal facts” approach to Jesus’ resurrection. This approach looks a few well evidenced facts through the lens of the historical method to ascertain what the best explanation to explain the facts. To ascertain the best explanation one looks for several things in the explanation.

  1. Greater Explanatory Scope – it can imply the greatest number of observations
  2. Greater Explanatory Power – It is the most probable explanation of the observations
  3. More Plausible – It must be implied by a greater number of already accepted truths
  4. Less Ad Hoc – it must explain the observations without any new suppositions

These four criterion are applied to these basic facts:

  • First, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.
  • Second, the tomb was empty on the Sunday morning after he was buried.
  • Third, the disciples and followers genuinely believed they saw a resurrected Jesus.
  • Fourth, the disciples saw resurrection as central to the Christian message.

There are a number of competing explanations about the resurrection of Jesus:

  • The disciples went to the wrong tomb.  This solution is ad hoc in that makes an additional supposition. It also supposes that the multiple followers went to the wrong tomb on multiple occasions, making it highly improbable. Likewise, it cannot explain the post-resurrection appearances.
  • Jesus never really died. (a.k.a the “swoon” hypothesis)  This supposes that Jesus wasn’t really dead after being brutally crucified by the Romans. This is not probable nor is it plausible in that it does not conform to the known fact that Romans insured that those who were crucified died by stabbing them or breaking their legs to insure that they would die by suffocation.
  • The followers of Jesus all experienced mass hysteria or mass hallucinations. For this to be possible, all the followers would have to have suffered from hysteria on multiple places and on multiple occasions over several weeks, making this highly improbable, highly implausible, and requires additional suppositions.  The mass hysteria could be put to rest by showing the dead body of Jesus. In other words, this does not explain the empty tomb and thereby needs additional suppositions making it even more ad-hoc.
  • The disciples stole the body and then lied about it. This is an ad-hoc hypothesis that requires the acceptance of two highly new dubious suppositions amounting to little more than a conspiracy theory, much like the Roswell alien crash in New Mexico in that says the government destroyed the evidence and lied about it.
  • The disciples exaggerated about Jesus resurrection (i.e. Jesus is a legend).  The facts about Jesus that we have were pinned within 25-30 years of his death because Paul’s letters were written around 55-65 A.D. By comparison, the earliest accounts of Alexander the Great date 300 years after he lived. Also it is very likely that the eye witnesses were still alive such as Mary (from which Luke probably got the birth narratives) James, John, Peter (a.k.a. Cephas) when the facts were recorded. Galatians 1&2 speak of Paul’s interactions with the Apostles. Likewise, some of the source material was written by aforementioned the eyewitnesses themselves. There was simply not enough time for these facts to become legend such that this explanation is highly improbable.
  • Jesus never existed.  This is even more improbable than the former scenario of Jesus being legend for the same reasons.
  • The Romans crucified the wrong Jesus (The Islamic explanation). This is another ad-hoc hypothesis, and would require the multiple disciples looking upon the cross to have mistaken his identity, making this highly improbable. Likewise, it does not explain the empty tomb.
  • Jesus indeed rose from the dead. Some see this option as implausible because of the notion that people do not rise from the dead, and indeed this is the case. But this explanation has the greatest explanatory scope and explanatory power for the given facts, nor does it require one to have any new suppositions making it the least ad hoc. For this reason it is the best explanation of the facts about Jesus.

If the best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead, then perhaps all that Christianity says about the condition of man, his need for a savior, and Jesus fulfilling that need by dying on the cross and rising from the dead is indeed the true and only way to God. Christians who do believe can rest assured that they believe the truth and can also use the facts of Jesus resurrection as a powerful tool to convince the skeptics that Jesus died for them as well.

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