Arguing the resurrection

Rock tombThe resurrection of Jesus is obviously one of the central teachings of christianity, and is also under attack from sceptics. Disciples need to know why they believe it in the first place, how to defend their belief, and even perhaps how to use the resurrection as a challenge to non-believers.

Attacks on the resurrection

Sceptics argue that the resurrection couldn’t have occurred, or that there is insufficient evidence that it occurred:

  • it is scientifically impossible, or so unlikely that any other explanation of the facts must be better;
  • the Bible accounts are inconsistent, and they were not written by eyewitnesses;
  • the Bible stories are biased, and we have no other confirmation of the stories;
  • the resurrection stories are legends (perhaps based on pagan myths of dying and rising gods) which developed later; some even say Jesus never existed.

Evidence for the resurrection

As usual in these historical questions, I think the best place to start is the conclusions of secular historians, the majority of whom conclude that:

  • Jesus was a real person who was executed and buried near Jerusalem about 30 CE.
  • His tomb was later empty.
  • His followers had experiences of seeing Jesus that convinced them he was alive.
  • This belief, which can be traced back to the very early days of christianity, was a major factor in the subsequent growth of the christian church.

Arguments for the resurrection

  • The tomb must have been empty or the disciples couldn’t have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem.
  • Hallucinations cannot account for the appearances of Jesus to many people at once, and that he did physical things like eat fish.
  • The gospels confirm each other, and are sufficiently consistent of the important facts to make them useful historical documents.
  • There is no trace of pagan mythology affecting first century Jewish or christian thought.
  • It is hard to believe the disciples would have suffered persecution and even martyrdom for something they knew to be a lie.

Can the gospel accounts be reconciled?

Oxford scholar, the late John Wenham, has attempted to reconcile the disparate gospel accounts. Based on plausible assumptions about the identification of some of the un-named (or ambiguously identified) characters in the story and of the writers of the gospels, Wenham has woven a narrative that explains all the Easter events and the appearances of Jesus in a logical way. Key to his explanation is his view that each gospel writer reported those appearances and conversations where he or his sources were present – hence the diversity of accounts.
His account may or may not be historical fact, but it is a fascinating reconstruction, and shows that the gospels are not necessarily inconsistent. It’s an old book – Easter Enigma by John Wenham – but can be bought online and is highly recommended.

Believing the resurrection

Based on the historical ‘facts’, a person who believes in God clearly has no necessary reason to disbelieve in miracles, and thus sufficient reason to believe Jesus was raised from death. Wenham’s harmonisation strengthens this belief.

Arguing the resurrection.

William Lane Craig commonly uses the ‘minimal facts approach’ to argue in public debates that the resurrection shows that God probably exists. He explains how every alternative hypothesis is implausible (a matter many historians agree on) and that the explanation that the resurrection of Jesus really was a work of God is in fact the only hypothesis that explains all the facts. He very often wins these points.
However many other christians are content to simply argue that once they believe in God, the resurrection is a reasonable belief. They are reinforced in this conclusion by Jeffery Lowder, founder of the Secular Web site for the Internet Infidels, who investigated the arguments for and against, and concluded:

“On the basis of the available evidence (and the arguments I’ve seen), I conclude that a rational person may accept or reject the resurrection.”

Read more

Read about the historical facts and the arguments for and against in more detail in The resurrection.

Read the whole series

This post is part of a series on Training disciples to stand. Check out all the topics here.

Photo: malpansj2008 on Picasa)

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  1. Are our pastors telling us the truth?
    Are Christian pastors honest with their congregations regarding the evidence for the Resurrection? Is there really a “mountain of evidence” for the Resurrection as our pastors claim or is the belief in the Resurrection based on nothing more than assumptions, second century hearsay, superstitions, and giant leaps of faith?
    You MUST read this Christian pastor’s defense of the Resurrection and a review by one of his former parishioners, a man who lost his faith and is now a nonbeliever primarily due to the lack of good evidence for the Resurrection:
    -A Review of LCMS Pastor John Bombaro’s Defense of the Resurrection-
    (copy and paste this article title in your browser to find and read this fascinating review of the evidence for the Resurrection)

  2. Dear Uncle
    After reading Tom Wright I have come to more faith after seeing Christianity in a whole new light.
    I have a queistion thought based on the two ages and the general resurrection:
    The age before 70 A.D.
    The age after 70 A.D.
    And the resurrection on the very last day (in the far future).
    My question comes from this, Luke 20, 35:
    “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage”
    I can understand the bit about “worthy of the resurrection” … but if the new age is the age after 70 A. D., how is it that you have to be found “worthy” of taking part in that? His disciples was worthy, right, even though they died in the old age. And not everyone in the new age would be found worthy of the resurrection.
    I can understand the New Living Translation, saying:
    “But in the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”
    Notice the difference?
    But even in Wright’s own translation, it says:
    “But those who are counted worthy of a place in the age to come, and of the resurrection of the dead, don’t marry”
    It sounds like the age to come and the resurrection are one, and that you have to be found worthy of the new age.

  3. Hi Thomas, thanks for visiting and for your question. I’m glad you’ve found Tom Wright helpful, he is certainly a thoughtful and well-read scholar.
    I don’t know what he says about the age to come, so I can only answer from my own limited understanding. My understanding is that the Jews saw time as being divided into two – the present age, which is evil because people disobey God, and the age to come, when the Messiah has come, set up God’s kingdom, and put everything right. They expected the Messiah, therefore, to be a powerful and probably warlike leader.
    But when Jesus came, he claimed to be a different type of Messiah, one who would establish God’s kingdom by peaceful means, by serving. His kingdom was not a worldly one established by force, but would come gradually (like a seed growing secretly, as in one of his parables) in people’s hearts and minds and lives as they/we voluntarily submitted to him. Thus it is a two stage kingdom, not one-stage as the Jews expected. The kingdom and the age to come are with us now, ever since Jesus came, but its fulness won’t come until the future when Jesus returns.
    So I don’t think 70 CE is a turning point in that process, just the final stage of the end of the old age – the end of the old began with Jesus’ birth, and finished with the destruction of the temple and the end forever of Old Testament worship.
    We live in the age to come, the age of the Messiah, now, but are all nothing but dust (we have no immortality in us). But by God’s grace, after we die, we can be resurrected into the age to come in its fulness. We understand that our worthiness doesn’t come from our own unaided efforts, but by God’s grace. So it is the afterlife, the age to come, that I think Jesus is referring to in Luke 20:35.
    Does that all make sense? And does it answer your question?

  4. Dear Uncle
    Let me see if I have understood correctly.
    The old age ended 70 A.D. with the temple destruction.
    The new age began 70 A.D. with the temple destruction.
    “The last days” was the period 30-70 A.D.
    Now we live in the new age, or from the then-perspective of Jesus’ followers: In the age to come.
    I too think that Jesus must be refering to the time after the resurrection, when he says:
    “But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage”
    But don’t we then have 3 ages: 1) Before 70 A.D. 2) Between 70 A.D. and the resurrection. 3) After the resurrection.
    But why include “the age to come”. Why not just say: “Those who are considered worthy of taking part in the resurrection from the dead”? You don’t need to be considered worthy of taking part in the age after 70 A. D. do you?
    The wordings just doesn’t make sense intuitively to me if “the age to come” is the age after 70 A.D.
    In New Living Translatio it says:
    “But in the age to come, those worthy of being raised from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage.”
    Doesn’t that make a lot more sense?

  5. Hi Thomas, I wouldn’t want anyone to think my ideas are “thinking correctly”, they are just the best I can think of to make sense of the New Testament, and I hope they help.
    I think it is wise not to seek to much precision, but to look for the larger picture and try to understand how people saw things back then.
    To me, one of the fundamentals is that the Jews saw things more simply than we do now. The saw the present age and the age to come, with the coming of the Messiah bringing about the change. But we believe there will be two comings of the Messiah, one back then, one yet to come. So we will understand what Jesus said to the Jews differently to how it would have been understood then.
    So I’m inclined to think that the time up until the coming of Jesus was the “old age”, from the time of Jesus until he returns is all the last days, and after he returns will be the age to come. The time from when Jesus began his ministry to Pentecost was a transition period.
    We will be resurrected into the age to come (or heaven if you like) and then we won’t be married, though we will in some senses be physical, because we will have resurrected bodies.
    That’s how I see it. I hope that makes sense and helps.

  6. Hi Thomas, thanks for this further information. I have to say that I am not highly interested in theology (as that term is often understood), and even less interested in eschatology. I have competed a theological degree, but I think a lot of theology is unnecessarily trying to define things that don’t need defining. It is often said that theology is just thinking about God (which obviously I approve of!) and if we don’t do it explicitly we’ll end up doing it implicitly, and badly.
    But all this assumes that we can know these things – that revelation is clear and we have the mental and spiritual capacity to understand God and his actions in the world. I question both of those assumptions. I think history shows that scripture isn’t nearly as clear as we’d like to think, or at any rate, that we don’t understand it as clearly as we’d like to think. I think God is more tolerant of variation in doctrine than we think (God didn’t reveal himself through systematic theology, and Jesus seemed much more interested in behaviour). And I think the important things are to hold to the very essential doctrines and then get on with improving our own character and doing God’s work in the world. And when we do think about God, I think schemes and systematised knowledge are foolish outcomes – I would rather just describe things I think God wants us to know without giving names and structures to it.
    So I am probably not the best person to discuss eschatology with. I looked up the website that your graphic comes from and I find that I have long held to a semi-preterist view of Jesus’ prophecies (e.g. in Matthew 24) even though I wasn’t familiar with the term, and I don’t agree with how that website develops the idea. I think it is clear that many, probably most (but not all) of those prophecies were fulfilled in the immediate future, but I think to say they all were fulfilled or to construct a theological position from this is foolish. Does anyone think they really understand God’s plan and Jesus’ generally cryptic explanations of it? Do we really think God is bound by such understandings and systematising?
    So I disagree with that diagram, and I think NT Wright would too. I’m not aware of any timeline he has developed, but these two articles (by Wright and by someone who is sympathetic to his ideasgive some outline of his views.
    I hope that is useful reflection. Please feel free to continue the discussion, despite my negativity. I am interested in ideas, and in learning from others even when I don’t fully agree. Best wishes.

  7. Dear Uncle
    I very much agree with you.
    In fact: I started being drawn to The New Testament because of The Sermon on The Mount – because of the self-giving love expressed in this sermon. And the self-giving love has always been my anchor to christianity. It has been the foundation I have sought to understand everything else upon. (And every other religion upon – and I have found christianity to be sublime).
    So why did I become interested in theology and eschatology?
    1) The New Perspective on Paul. Now I could read Paul’s letter the way I have always read them. I was confirmed that Paul also want us to do what is good, right and loving, and that faith could be understood as faithFULNESS. Being faithful. I could never accept the pure Luther-perspective.
    2) Wright’s theogogy gave me a paradigm that could upheld my foundation (of seeing and “analysing” thing’s worth on how much they expressed self-giving love) and what I found was central: The self-giving love. BECAUSE: By being loving we are expressing God’s wisdom and building for the kingdom (that’s how I see Wright). How natural compared to buddhism!, where it’s more about self-developing per se and an escape-route away for The Earth. I was in fact glad about buddhism. But Wright’s way to explain the Christian paradigm just made so much more sense, and made my view of life and love an organic whole.
    3) Resurrection. I never gave it a thought. But now I see how the debates seem to favor the christian part. They almost always seem to have the upper hand, I think. That came as a real surprise!
    4) Olivet discourse. I thought that maybe Jesus had to be wrong!! But not when I read about preterism and Wright (who is not a total preterist, I have came to understand). What a relief!
    And your website is just so wonderful. You are expressing yourself so crystal clear that it’s a joy to read! Thank you!!
    I’m not so clear. I’m from Denmark. English is not my first language.
    I will look at your links! Thanks

  8. Hi Thomas, thanks for your kind words. It wasn’t obvious to me that English wasn’t your first language, so I am interested to find you are Danish.
    I am very interested in your comment that “I started being drawn to The New Testament because of The Sermon on The Mount – because of the self-giving love expressed in this sermon.” I would love to hear more about that. If you like, please feel free to email me to discuss that way – there is a link from this site.
    I can see how your interest in Paul, NT Wright, the resurrection and the Olivet discourse led to an interest in theology and eschatology. I think they are all important and good things. It’s just that I think we can pretend to know more than we really do about them all.
    I’d also be interested to hear more of what you think about resurrection.
    Thanks again for reading, commenting and complimenting. You have been very encouraging.

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