The 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- The gospels confirm each other, and are sufficiently consistent of the important facts to make them useful historical documents.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 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.
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