GOD AND IMMORTALITY: those were the two conditions we saw to be necessary if man is to have a meaningful existence. I have argued that God exists, and now we have come at length to the second consideration, immortality. Against the dark background of modern man’s despair, the Christian proclamation of the resurrection is a bright light of hope. The earliest Christians saw Jesus’ resurrection as both the vindication of his personal claims and as the harbinger of our own resurrection to eternal life. If Jesus rose from the dead, then his claims are vindicated and our Christian hope is sure; if Jesus did not rise, our faith is futile and we fall back into despair. How credible, then, is the NT witness to the resurrection of Jesus?
The historical apologetic for the resurrection played a central role in the case of the Christian apologists during the Deist controversy. A review of their arguments and of the reasons for the decline of this form of apologetics will be useful in preparing the way for a modern assessment of the resurrection. Too often Christians today employ an apologetic for the resurrection that was suitable for use against eighteenth-century opponents but is today ineffective in dealing with the objections raised by modern biblical criticism.
The Case For the Resurrection in the Traditional Apologetic
The traditional apologetic may be summarized in three steps.
The Gospels Are Authentic
The point of this step in the argument was to defend the apostolic authorship of the gospels. The reasoning was that if the gospels were actually written by the disciples, then quite simply they were either true accounts or they were lies. Since the Deists granted the apostolic authorship of the gospels, they were reduced to defending the implausible position that the gospels were an issue of deliberate falsehoods. In order to demonstrate the authenticity of the gospels, Jacob Vernet (whom we met in chapter 4) appeals to both internal and external evidence.
Under internal evidence, Vernet notes that the style of writing in the gospels is simple and alive, what we would expect from their traditionally accepted authors. Moreover, since Luke was written before Acts, and since Acts was written prior to the death of Paul, Luke must have an early date, which speaks for its authenticity. The gospels also show an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem prior to its destruction in A. D. 70. Jesus’ prophecies of that event must have been written prior to Jerusalem’s fall, for otherwise the church would have separated out the apocalyptic element in the prophecies, which makes them appear to concern the end of the world. Since the end of the world did not come about when Jerusalem was destroyed, so-called prophecies of its destruction that were really written after the city was destroyed would not have made that event appear so closely connected with the end of the world. Hence, the gospels must have been written prior to A.D. 70. Further, the gospels are full of proper names, dates, cultural details, historical events, and customs and opinions of that time. The stories of Jesus’ human weaknesses and of the disciples’ faults also bespeak the gospels’ accuracy. Furthermore, it would have been impossible for forgers to put together so consistent a narrative as that which we find in the gospels. The gospels do not try to suppress apparent discrepancies, which indicates their originality. There is no attempt at harmonization between the gospels, such as we might expect from forgers. Finally, the style of each particular gospel is appropriate to what we know of the personalities of the traditional authors.
Gottfried Less adds to Vernet’s case the further point that the gospels do not contain anachronisms; the authors appear to have been first-century Jews who were witnesses of the events. William Paley adds a final consideration: the Hebraic and Syriac idioms that mark the gospels are appropriate to the traditional authors. He concludes that there is no more reason to doubt that the gospels come from the traditional authors than there is to doubt that the works of Philo or Josephus are authentic, except that the gospels contain supernatural events.
Turning next to the external evidence for the gospels’ authenticity, Vernet argues that the disciples must have left some writings, engaged as they were in giving lessons to and counseling believers who were geographically distant. And what could these writings be if not the gospels and epistles themselves? Similarly, Paley reasons that eventually the apostles would have needed to publish accurate narratives of Jesus’ history, so that any spurious attempts would be discredited and the genuine gospels preserved. Moreover, Vernet continues, there were many eyewitnesses who were still alive when the books were written who could testify whether they came from their purported authors or not. Most importantly, the extra-biblical testimony unanimously attributes the gospels to their traditional authors.
No finer presentation of this point can be found than Paley’s extensive eleven-point argument. First, the gospels and Acts are cited by a series of authors, beginning with those contemporary with the apostles and continuing in regular and close succession. This is the strongest form of historical testimony, regularly employed to establish authorship of secular works; and when this test is applied to the gospels, their authenticity is unquestionably established. Paley traces this chain of testimony from the Epistle of Barnabas, the Epistle of Clement, and the Shepherd of Hermas all the way up to Eusebius in A.D. 315. Less presents similar evidence, and concludes that there is better testimony for the authenticity of the NT books than for any classical work of antiquity.
Second, the Scriptures were quoted as authoritative and as one-of-a-kind. As proof Paley cites Theophilus, the writer against Artemon, Hippolitus, Origen, and many others.
Third, the Scriptures were collected very early into a distinct volume. Ignatius refers to collections known as the Gospel and the Apostles, what we today call the gospels and the epistles. According to Eusebius, about sixty years after the appearance of the gospels Quadratus distributed them to converts during his travels. Irenaeus and Melito refer to the collection of writings we call the NT.
Fourth, these writings were given titles of respect. Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, Irenaeus, and others refer to them as Scriptures, divine writings, and so forth.
Fifth, these writings were publicly read and expounded. Citations from Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and Cyprian go to prove the point.
Sixth, copies, commentaries, and harmonies were written on these books. Noteworthy in this connection is Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmony of the four gospels, from about A.D. 170. With the single exception of Clement’s commentary on the Revelation of Peter, Paley emphasizes, no commentary was ever written during the first 300 years after Christ on any book outside the NT
Seventh, the Scriptures were accepted by all heretical groups as well as by orthodox Christians. Examples include the Valentinians, the Carpocratians, and many others.
Eighth, the gospels, Acts, thirteen letters of Paul, 1 John, and 1 Peter were received without doubt as authentic even by those who doubted the authenticity of other books now in the canon. Caius about A.D. 200 reckoned up about thirteen of Paul’s letters, but insisted that Hebrews was not written by Paul. About twenty years later Origen cites Hebrews to prove a particular point, but noting that some might dispute the authority of Hebrews, he states that his point may be proved from the undisputed books of Scripture and quotes Matthew and Acts. Though he expresses doubt about some books, Origen reports that the four gospels alone were received without dispute by the whole Church of God under heaven.
Ninth, the early opponents of Christianity regarded the gospels as containing the accounts upon which the religion was founded. Celsus admitted that the gospels were written by the disciples. Porphyry attacked Christianity as found in the gospels. The Emperor Julian followed the same procedure.
Tenth, catalogues of authentic Scriptures were published, which always contained the gospels and Acts. Paley supports the point with quotations from Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, and others.
Eleventh, the so-called apocryphal books of the NT were never so treated. It is a simple fact, asserts Paley, that with a single exception, no apocryphal gospel is ever even quoted by any known author during the first three hundred years after Christ. In fact, there is no evidence that any inauthentic gospel whatever existed in the first century, in which all four gospels and Acts were written. The apocryphal gospels were never quoted, were not read in Christian assemblies, were not collected into a volume, were not listed in the catalogues, were not noticed by Christianity’s adversaries, were not appealed to by heretics, and were not the subject of commentaries or collations, but were nearly universally rejected by Christian writers of succeeding ages.
Therefore, Paley concludes, the external evidence strongly confirms the authenticity of the gospels. Even if it should be the case that the names of the authors traditionally ascribed to the gospels are mistaken, it still could not be denied that the gospels do contain the story that the original apostles proclaimed and for which they labored and suffered.
Taken together, then, the internal and external evidence adduced by the Christian apologists served to establish the first step of their case, that the gospels are authentic.
The Text of the Gospels Is Pure
The second step often taken by the Christian thinkers was to argue that the text of the gospels is pure. This step was important to ensure that the gospels we have today are the same gospels as originally written.
Vernet, in support of the textual purity of the gospels, points out that because of the need for instruction and personal devotion, these writings must have been copied many times, which increases the chances of preserving the original text. In fact, no other ancient work is available in so many copies and languages, and yet all these various versions agree in content. The text has also remained unmarred by heretical additions. The abundance of manuscripts over a wide geographical distribution demonstrates that the text has been transmitted with only trifling discrepancies. The differences that do exist are quite minor and are the result of unintentional mistakes. The text of the NT is every bit as good as the text of the classical works of antiquity.
To these considerations, Less adds that the quotations of the NT books in the early church Fathers all coincide. Moreover, the gospels could not have been corrupted without a great outcry on the part of orthodox Christians. Against the idea that there could have been a deliberate falsifying of the text, Abbe Houtteville argues that no one could have corrupted all the manuscripts. Moreover, there is no precise time when the falsification could have occurred, since, as we have seen, the NT books are cited by the Church Fathers in regular and close succession. The text could not have been falsified before all external testimony, since then the apostles were still alive and could repudiate any such tampering with the gospels. In conclusion, Vernet charges that to repudiate the textual purity of the gospels would be to reverse all the rules of criticism and to reject all the works of antiquity, since the text of those works is less certain than that of the gospels.
The Gospels Are Reliable
Having demonstrated that the gospels are authentic and that the text of the gospels is pure, the Christian thinkers were now in a position to argue that the gospels are historically reliable. Their argument basically boiled down to a dilemma: if the gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracles and resurrection are false, then the apostles were either deceivers or deceived. Since both of these alternatives are implausible, it follows that the gospel accounts must be true.
Apostles Neither Deceivers Nor Deceived
Let’s turn first to the arguments presented against the second horn of the dilemma: that the apostles were deceived. This alternative embraces any hypothesis holding that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that the disciples sincerely believed he had.
Humphrey Ditton in his Discourse Concerning the Resurrection of Jesus Christ (1712) argues that the apostles could not have been mistaken about the resurrection. In the first place, the witnesses to the appearances were well qualified. There were a great many witnesses, and they had personal knowledge of the facts over an extended period of forty days. It is unreasonable, therefore, to ascribe their experience to imagination or dreaming. Moreover, the disciples were not religious enthusiasts, as is evident from their cool and balanced behavior even in extreme situations. Thomas Sherlock responds to the charge that the evidence for the resurrection consists of the testimony of silly women by pointing out that they, too, had eyes and ears to report accurately what they experienced; and far from being gullible, they were actually disbelieving. He observes also that the women were never in fact used as witnesses to the resurrection in the apostolic preaching. Finally, he adds, the testimony of the men is none the worse off for having the testimony of the women as well. (This exchange obviously took place before the days of feminist consciousness!)
Paley answers the allegation that the resurrection appearances were the result of “religious enthusiasm’ (that is, were hallucinations) by arguing that the theory fails on several counts. First, not just one person but many saw Christ appear. Second, they saw him not individually but together. Third, they saw him appear not just once, but several times. Fourth, they not only saw him, but touched him, conversed with him, and ate with him. Fifth and decisively, the religious enthusiasm hypothesis fails to explain the non-production of the body. It would have been impossible for Jesus’ disciples to have believed in their master’s resurrection if his corpse still lay in the tomb. But it is equally incredible to suppose that the disciples could have stolen the body and perpetrated a hoax. Furthermore, it would have been impossible for Christianity to come into being in Jerusalem if Jesus’ body were still in the grave. The Jewish authorities would certainly have produced it as the shortest and completest answer to the whole affair. But all they could do was claim that the disciples had stolen the body. Thus, the hypothesis of religious enthusiasm, in failing to explain the absence of Jesus’ corpse, ultimately collapses back into the hypothesis of conspiracy and deceit, which, Paley remarks, has pretty much been given up in view of the evident sincerity of the apostles, as well as their character and the dangers they underwent in proclaiming the truth of Jesus’ resurrection.
With Paley’s last remark we return to the first horn of the dilemma: that the disciples were deceivers. This alternative encompasses any hypothesis holding that the disciples knew that the miracles and resurrection of Jesus did not take place, but that they nevertheless claimed that they did.
One of the most popular arguments against this theory is the obvious sincerity of the disciples as attested by their suffering and death. No more eloquent statement of the argument can be found than Paley’s: he seeks to show that the original witnesses of the miraculous events of the gospels passed their lives in labors, dangers, and sufferings, voluntarily undertaken in attestation to and as a consequence of the accounts which they delivered.
Paley argues first from the general nature of the case. We know that the Christian religion exists. Either it was founded by Jesus and the apostles or by others, the first being silent The second alternative is quite incredible. If the disciples had not zealously followed up what Jesus had started, Christianity would have died at its birth. If this is so, then a life of missionary sacrifice must have been necessary for those first apostles. Such a lie is not without its own enjoyments, but they are only such as spring from sincerity. With a consciousness at bottom of hollowness and falsehood, the fatigue and strain would have become unbearable.
There was probably difficulty and danger involved in the propagation of a new religion. With regard to the Jews, the notion of Jesus’ being the Messiah was contrary to Jewish hopes and expectations; Christianity lowered the esteem of Jewish law; and the disciples would have had to reproach the Jewish leaders as guilty of an execution that could only be represented as an unjust and cruel murder. As to the Romans, they could have understood the kingdom of God only in terms of an earthly kingdom-thus, a rival. And concerning the heathen, Christianity admitted no other god or worship. Although the philosophers allowed and even enjoined worship of state deities, Christianity could countenance no such accommodation. Thus, even in the absence of a general program of persecution, there were probably random outbursts of violence against Christians. The heathen religions were old and established and not easily overthrown. Those religions were generally regarded by the common people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful. From none of these sides could the Christians expect protection. Finally, the nature of the case requires that these early apostles must have experienced a great change in their lives, now involved as they were in preaching, prayer, religious meetings, and so forth.
What the nature of the case would seem to require is in fact confirmed by history. Writing seventy years after Jesus’ death, Tacitus narrates Nero’s persecution about thirty years after Christ, how the Christians were clothed in the skins of wild beasts and thrown to dogs, how others were smeared with pitch and used as human torches to illuminate the night while Nero rode about in the dress of a charioteer, viewing the spectacle. The testimonies of Suetonius and Juvenal confirm the fact that within thirty-one years after Jesus’ death, Christians were dying for their faith. From the writings of Pliny the Younger, Martial, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, it is clear that believers were voluntarily submitting to torture and death rather than renounce their religion. This suffering is abundantly attested in Christian writings as well. Christ had been killed for what he said; the apostles could expect the same treatment. Jesus’ predictions in the gospels of sufferings for his followers were either real predictions come true or were put into his mouth because persecution had in fact come about. In Acts, the sufferings of Christians are soberly reported without extravagance. The epistles abound with references to persecutions and exhortations to steadfastness. In the early writings of Clement, Hermas, Polycarp, and Ignatius, we find the sufferings of the early believers historically confirmed.
It is equally clear that it was for a miraculous story that these Christians were suffering. After all, the only thing that could convince these early Christians that Jesus was the Messiah was that they thought there was something supernatural about him. The gospels are a miraculous story, and we have no other story handed down to us than that contained in the gospels. Josephus’s much disputed testimony can only confirm, not contradict, the gospel accounts. The letters of Barnabas and Clement refer to Jesus’ miracles and resurrection. Polycarp mentions the resurrection of Christ, and Irenaeus relates that he had heard Polycarp tell of Jesus’ miracles. Ignatius speaks of the resurrection. Quadratus reports that persons were stilI living who had been healed by Jesus. Justin Martyr mentions the miracles of Christ. No relic of a non-miraculous story exists. That the originaI story should be lost and replaced by another goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmissions.
These facts show that the story in the gospels was in substance the same story that Christians had at the beginning. That means, for example, that the resurrection of Jesus was always a part of this story. Were we to stop here, remarks Paley, we have a circumstance unparalleled in history: that in the reign of Tiberius Caesar a certain number of persons set about establishing a new religion, in the propagation of which they voluntarily submitted to great dangers, sufferings, and labors, all for a miraculous story which they proclaimed wherever they went, and that the resurrection of a dead man, whom they had accompanied during his lifetime, was an integral part of this story.
Since it has been already abundantly proved that the accounts of the gospels do stem from their apostolic authors, Paley concludes, then the story must be true. For the apostles could not be deceivers. He asks:
Would men in such circumstances pretend to have seen what they never saw; assert facts which they had not knowledge of, go about lying to teach virtue; and, though not only convinced of Christ’s being an imposter, but having seen the success of his imposture in his crucifixion, yet persist in carrying on; and so persist, as to bring upon themselves, for nothing, and with full knowledge of the consequence, enmity and hatred, danger and death?1
The question is merely rhetorical, for the absurdity of the hypothesis of deceit is all too clear.
A second popular argument against the disciples’ being deceivers was that their character precludes their being liars. Humphrey Ditton observes that the apostles were simple, common men, not cunning deceivers. They were men of unquestioned moral integrity and their proclamation of the resurrection was solemn and devout. They had absolutely nothing to gain in worldly terms in preaching this doctrine. Moreover, they had been raised in a religion that was vastly different from the one they preached. Especially foreign to them was the idea of the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. This militates against their concocting this idea. The Jewish laws against deceit and false testimony were very severe, which fact would act as a deterrent to fraud. Finally, they were evidently sincere in what they proclaimed. In light of their character so described, asks Ditton bluntly, why not believe the testimony of these men?
A third argument pressed by the apologists was that the notion of a conspiracy is ridiculous. Vernet thinks it inconceivable that one of the disciples should suggest to the others that they say Jesus was risen when both he and they knew the precise opposite to be true. How could he possibly rally his bewildered colleagues into so detestable a project? And are we then to believe that these men would stand before judges declaring the truth of this product of their imaginations? Houtteville asserts that a conspiracy to fake the resurrection would have had to have been of such unmanageable proportions that the disciples could never have carried it off Ditton points out that had there been a conspiracy, it would certainly have been unearthed by the disciples’ adversaries, who had both the interest and the power to expose any fraud. Common experience shows that such intrigues are inevitably exposed even in cases where the chances of discovery are much less than in the case of the resurrection.
Yet a fourth argument, urged by Less, was that the gospels were written in such temporal and geographical proximity to the events they record that it would have been almost impossible to fabricate events. Anyone who cared to could have checked out the accuracy of what they reported. The fact that the disciples were able to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem in the face of their enemies a few weeks after the crucifixion shows that what they proclaimed was true, for they could never have proclaimed the resurrection under such circumstances had it not occurred.
Fifth, the theft of the body from the tomb by the disciples would have been impossible. Ditton argues that the story of the guard at the tomb is plausible, since the Jews had the ability and motivation to guard the tomb. But in this case, the disciples could not have stolen the body on account of the armed guard. The allegation that the guards had fallen asleep is ridiculous, because in that case they could not have known that it was the disciples who had taken the corpse. Besides, adds Houtteville, no one could have broken into the tomb without waking the guard.
Sixth, even the enemies of Christianity acknowledged Jesus’ resurrection. The Jews did not publicly deny the disciples’ charge that the authorities had bribed the guard to keep silent. Had the charge been false, they would have openly denounced it. Thus, the enemies of Christianity themselves bore witness to the resurrection.
Seventh and finally, the dramatic change in the disciples shows that they were absolutely convinced Jesus had risen from the dead. They went from the depths of despair and doubt to a joyful certainty of such height that they preached the resurrection openly and boldly and suffered bravely for it.
Thus, the hypothesis of deceit is just as implausible as the hypothesis that the apostles had been deceived. But since neither of these alternatives is reasonable, the conclusion can only be that they were telling the truth and that Jesus rose from the dead.
The Origin of Christianity Proves the Resurrection
In addition to this fundamental dilemma, the Christian apologists also refurbished the old argument from the origin of the church. Suppose, Vernet suggests, that no resurrection or miracles occurred: how then could a dozen men, poor, coarse, and apprehensive, turn the world upside down? If Jesus did not rise from the dead, declares Ditton, then either we must believe that a small, unlearned band of deceivers overcame the powers of the world and preached an incredible doctrine over the face of the whole earth, which in turn received this fiction as the sacred truth of God, or else, if they were not deceivers, but enthusiasts, we must believe that these extremists, carried along by the impetus of extravagant fancy, managed to spread a falsity that not only common folk, but statesmen and philosophers as well, embraced as the sober truth. Because such a scenario is simply unbelievable, the message of the apostles, which gave birth to Christianity, must be true.
The Decline of Historical Apologetics
Paley’s View of the Evidences (1794) constituted the high-water mark of the historical apologetic for the resurrection. During the nineteenth century this approach dramatically receded. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a significant and influential thinker defending the Christian faith on the basis of the evidence for the resurrection. It seems to me that there were two factors that served to undermine the traditional apologetic.
Advance of Biblical Criticism
The first of those was the advance of biblical criticism. In England the Deist controversy subsided, in France it was cut short by the Revolution, but in Germany it was taken up into a higher plane. There is a direct link between Deism and the advance in biblical criticism that began in Germany in the late eighteenth century.
The flood of Deist thought and literature that poured into eighteenth-century Germany from England and France wrought a crisis in German orthodox theology. That theology had been characterized by an extremely rigid doctrine of biblical inspiration and infallibility and by a devotional pietism. The critique of the Deists undermined the faith of many in the inerrancy of Scripture, but their piety would not allow them to join themselves to the Deist camp and reject Christianity. This group of scholars, generally called Rationalists, therefore sought to resolve the crisis by forging a new way between orthodoxy and Deism; namely, they loosed the religious meaning of a text from the historicity of the events described therein. The historical events were only the form, the husk, in which some spiritual, trans-historical truth was embodied. What was of importance was the substance, the kernel, not the mere external trappings. In this way, the Rationalists could accept the Deist critique of miracles but at the same time retain the spiritual truth expressed in these stories, With regard to the resurrection we have seen that many Rationalists adopted some form of the apparent death theory to explain away the resurrection; but for most it still retained its spiritual significance and truth.
The Rationalists thus sought a middle ground between the Deists and the supernaturalists. The Deists and supernaturalists agreed that if the events of the gospels did not in fact occur, then Christianity was false. But the Rationalists, while holding with the Deists that the events never occurred, nevertheless held with the supernaturalists that Christianity was true. Let’s take a look at two of the principal figures in this radical new direction.
Herrmann Samuel Reimarus, a professor of oriental languages at Hamburg, struggled privately with gnawing doubts about the truth of the biblical revelation. From 1730-1768 he wrote them down, and his writing evolved into an enormous 4,000-page critique of the Bible. He was troubled by the many contradictions he found in the Bible and could not accept the stories of the Flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, and the resurrection of Jesus. He denied miracles and came to accept a Deistic natural religion. Nevertheless, he never published his opinions but only showed his manuscript to a few close friends and two of his children. After his death, Reimarus’s daughter gave the manuscript to Gottfried Lessing, who became librarian in Wolfenbtuttel. In 1774 Lessing began to publish excerpts from the manuscript, passing them off as anonymous fragments found in the library’s archives. In 1777 he published Reimarus’s attack on the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection, which set German orthodoxy in an uproar.
According to Reimarus, Jesus claimed to have been only an earthly Messiah, and having tried to establish his reign and failed, he was executed. But the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse and spread the story of Jesus’ resurrection, touting him as a spiritual Messiah so that they could continue the easy life of preaching that they had enjoyed with Jesus while he was alive. Reimarus realized that to maintain this position he must refute the evidence for the historicity of the resurrection. In his mind, this consisted of the witness of the guard at the tomb, the witness of the apostles, and the fulfillment of OT prophecies. Against the testimony of the guard, Reimarus employed the arguments of the English Deists. He argued that the story is improbable in itself and is full of contradictions. He held it to be an invention of Matthew that the other evangelists rejected. In order to undermine the testimony of the apostles, Reimarus capitalized on the inconsistencies and contradictions in the resurrection narratives. If these were not enough, there is the overriding problem of the privacy of Jesus’ appearances. The apostles’ testimony is suspect because they are the only ones who supposedly saw Christ. Finally, Reimarus made short shrift of the proof from prophecy. The interpretations of the OT passages in question are so strained as to be unconvincing. Besides, the whole procedure begs the question anyway, since it assumes Jesus was in fact raised from the dead and the prophecies thus apply to him! In conclusion, Reimarus summarized his case:
(1) the guard story is very doubtful and unconfirmed, and it is very probable the disciples came by night, stole the corpse, and said afterward Jesus had arisen; (2) the disciples’ testimony is both inconsistent and contradictory; and (3) the prophecies appealed to are irrelevant, falsely interpreted, and question-begging.2
Thus, Christianity is quite simply a fraud.
Among the many who undertook to refute Reimarus was Johann Salomo Semler, a conservative Rationalist. In his earlier Abhandlung won fieier Untersuchung des Canon (1771) Semler had broken the ground for the new Rationalist approach to the Scriptures. Semler had been the assistant at the University of Halle to S. J. Baumgarten, who chronicled the course of Deism in his Nachichten von einer Hallischen Bibliothek (1748-51), reviewing almost every English Deist and apologetic work. Semler actually assisted Baumgarten in the reading and translation of Deist literature, and thus became open to Deist influences.
At the same time, Semler had a background in Pietism and had no desire to undermine Christianity. Therefore, he made a distinction between the timeless, spiritual truths in Scripture and the merely local truths. It was his conviction that only the spiritual truths may properly be called the Word of God. He thus introduced into theology the decisive distinction between the Scriptures and the Word of God. Since only the spiritual truths are the Word of God, it is no longer possible to regard the Scriptures as a whole as divinely inspired. Rather, the Word of God is clothed in fallible, human forms, which have only local importance. These fallible forms represent God’s and Jesus’ accommodation to human weakness. Included among these accommodations is the miraculous element in Scripture. No Christian can be obligated to believe that such events literally happened, for they are not part of the Word of God. Thus, we are free to examine the historical narratives as we would any other ordinary narrative, since inspiration concerns only the timeless truths they embody. Should the narrative be shown to be unhistorical, that is of little consequence, for that cannot have any effect on the Word of God. The proof that certain events are unhistorical is irrelevant to divine truths.
Given his views of Scripture, it seems somewhat surprising to find Sernler writing a refutation of Reimarus in his Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungenannten (1779). Reimarus’s bitter attack seems to have forced him back to the orthodox end of the spectrum. But in the way he defends the resurrection, we can see the beginning of the end for the historical apologetic for the resurrection. He emphatically subordinates the resurrection to the teachings of Jesus and removes from it any apologetic significance. According to Semler, Christianity consists of the spiritual doctrines taught by Christ. Reimarus mistakenly thinks that in refuting the three purported grounds for belief in the resurrection, he has thereby struck down the essential truths of Christianity. But this is far from true, asserts Semler. In the first place, one may be a Christian without believing in the resurrection of Jesus. In the second place, the true ground for belief in the resurrection is the self-evident truth of Christ’s teachings. For Semler, belief in Christ’s teaching entails belief in Christ’s resurrection: “The resurrection of Jesus hangs together with Jesus’ life and goal; whoever has experienced his teachings will also believe that God has raised him from the dead.”3 The proof of the resurrection is not the three points mentioned by Reimarus; the proof is the spiritual teachings of Christ. In specific response to Reimarus’s refutation of the three purported grounds, Semler grants all three to Reimarus-but for Semler they are simply irrelevant and present no problem once one has abandoned the doctrine of verbal inspiration.
Thus, Semler undercut the traditional apologetic in various ways: while affirming the truth of the resurrection, he nonetheless admitted that belief in the resurrection was not essential to being a Christian; he provided no historical reason to accept the reliability of the gospel accounts with regard to this event; he denied that the resurrection has any power to confirm Christ’s teaching; and he instead subordinated the resurrection to the teachings of Christ, the self-evident Word of God, making the latter the proof of the former.
By loosing the Word of God from the Scriptures and making its truth self-attesting, Semler enabled Rational theology to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity while denying their historical basis. During the time between Semler and Strauss, the natural explanation school predominated. The old conspiracy theory of Reimarus was rejected as an explanation for the resurrection of Jesus, and instead the apparent death theory enjoyed popularity among Rationalists. Even F.D.E. Schleiermacher, known as the father of modern theology, accepted this explanation. But the roof really caved in on the traditional apologetic with the advent of David Friedrich Strauss and his hermeneutic of mythological explanation.
Strauss’s Leben Jesu (1835) marks a watershed in the history of biblical criticism, to which modern form and redaction criticism may be traced. The year 1835 marks a turning point in the history of the Christian faith.
Strauss’s approach to the gospels, and to the resurrection in particular, may be seen as an attempt to forge a third way between the horns of the dilemma posed by the traditional apologetic, which says that if the miracles and resurrection of Jesus are not historical facts, then the apostles were either deceivers or deceived, neither of which is plausible. Reimarus had chosen to defend the first horn, arguing that the disciples had hoaxed the resurrection. Paulus had chosen to defend the second horn, arguing that the disciples had been mistaken about Jesus’ return from the dead. What Strauss saw clearly was that neither of these alternatives was plausible, and so he sought a third alternative in the mythological explanation. According to this view, the miraculous events of the gospels never happened, and the gospel accounts of them are the result of a long process of legend and religious imagination:
In the view of the church, Jesus was miraculously revived; according to the deistic view of Reimarus, his corpse was stolen by the disciples; in the rationalistic view, he only appeared to be dead and revived; according to our view the imagination of his followers aroused in their deepest spirit, presented their Master revived, for they could not possibly think of him as dead. What for a long time was valid as an external fact, first miraculous, then deceptive, finally simply natural, is hereby reduced completely to the state of mind and made into an inner event.4
Strauss thus denied that there was any external fact to be explained. The gospel accounts of the resurrection were unreliable legends colored by myth. Hence, the dilemma of “deceivers or deceived” did not arise. The fact that the resurrection was unhistorical did not rob it of its religious significance (here we see the change wrought by Semler), for a spiritual truth may be revealed within the husk of a delusion.
Strauss believed that the chief problem in applying the mythical interpretation to the NT is that the first century was no longer an age of myths. But although it was a time of writing, if there was a long period of oral transmission during which no written record existed, then marvelous elements could begin to creep in and grow into historical myths. Strauss recognized as well that adherence to this theory necessitated denying the contemporary authorship of the gospels and the influence of eyewitnesses. Hence, Strauss regarded it as “the sole object” of his book to examine the internal evidence in order to test the probability of the authors’ being eyewitnesses or competently informed writers.5
Strauss gave short shrift to the external testimony to the gospels: he believed Mark to be compiled from Matthew and Luke and hence not based on Peter’s preaching; the Matthew mentioned by Papias is not our Matthew; Acts so contradicts Paul that its author could not be his companion; the earliest reference to John is in A.D. 172, and the gospel’s authenticity was disputed by the Alogoi. Nor could living eyewitnesses prevent the accrual of legend: first, the legends could have originated in areas where Jesus was not well known; second, the apostles could not be everywhere at once to correct or suppress unhistorical stories; and third, eyewitnesses themselves would be tempted to fill up the gaps in their own knowledge with stories. Strauss argued that the Jews lagged behind the Romans and Greeks in their historical consciousness; even Josephus’s work is filled with marvelous tales. Myths about the Messiah had already arisen between the exile and Christ’s day. All that was wanting was the application of these myths with some modification to Jesus by the Christian community.
With regard to the resurrection accounts, Strauss used arguments similar to Reimarus’s to demonstrate their unreliability. For example, if the body was embalmed and wrapped, why do the women return for this purpose? Was the body placed in the tomb because it was Joseph’s or because it was near? The story of the guard is improbable, and the inconsistencies in the empty tomb narrative are irreconcilable. As for the appearances, why should Jesus command the disciples to go to Galilee when he was going to appear to them in Jerusalem? And why did he command them to stay in Jerusalem when he was going to Galilee? For such reasons, no credence can be given to the gospel stories of the empty tomb or resurrection appearances.
Despite this, Strauss admitted that Paul’s challenge in 1 Corinthians 15 concerning living witnesses to an appearance of Jesus before 500 brethren makes it certain that people were alive at that time who believed they had seen the risen Christ. How is that to be explained? Certainly not by supernatural intervention, for that is unenlightened. “Hence, the cultivated intellect of the present day has very decidedly stated the following dilemma: either Jesus was not really dead, or he did not really rise again.”6 But that Jesus did not die on the cross is the defunct theory of Rationalism; therefore, Jesus did not rise. The correct explanation of the appearances is to be found in the appearance to Paul. His experience makes clear that the appearances were not external to the mind. What happened is that the disciples, convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, began to search the Scriptures after his death. There they found the dying and glorified Messiah of Isaiah 53. So Jesus must be alive! Soon they would see him, especially the women. Having hallucinated appearances of Christ, they would naturally infer that his grave was empty, and by the time they returned from Galilee to Jerusalem, which was certainly not as soon as Pentecost, there was no closed tomb to refute them. In this way belief in Jesus’ resurrection originated, and eventually the legendary gospel accounts arose.
Strauss’s work completely altered the tone and course of German theology. Gone forever was the central dilemma of the eighteenth-century apologetic for the resurrection. Now the evangelists were neither deceivers nor deceived, but stood at the end of a long process in which the original events were completely reshaped through mythological and legendary influences. The dissolution of the apologists’ dilemma did not itself entail that the supernaturalist view was false. But for Strauss the supernaturalist view was not only disproved by the inconsistencies and contradictions noted by Reimarus, but was apriori ruled out of court because of the presupposition of the impossibility of miracles. Any event that stood outside the inviolable chain of finite causes was by definition mythological. Therefore, the resurrection could not possibly be a miraculous and historical event.
This is the challenge that Strauss has left to Christian apologetics. The position of Bultmann in this century with regard to the resurrection is virtually the same as Strauss’s. It is no longer effective to argue for the resurrection today simply by refining theories as to who stole the body or that Jesus did not really die. They are no longer the issue. The issue is whether the gospel narratives are historically credible accounts or unhistorical legends.
The Tide of Subjectivism
The other reason, it seems to me, for the decline in historical apologetics during the nineteenth century is the tide of subjectivism that swept away an objective approach to matters of religious belief. We do not have space to develop this here, but let me say in passing that during the nineteenth century there came a backlash to the Age of Reason, and Romanticism swept Europe. This was spurred on in England by the Great Awakening, which emphasized the subjective, personal experience of faith. In France, the very emotive, subjective side of thinkers such as Rousseau emerged as a widespread reaction to the prior age of the philosophes, which ended in Revolution and the Reign of Terror. In Germany the effect of the philosophy of Kant and surging German Romanticism combined to color religious faith with a strong subjectivism. The net result of this tide of subjectivism was that apologetics moved from objective evidences for faith to emphasizing the moral grounds for faith or the beauties of faith itself. This subjective turn also enabled one to live with the destruction that was increasingly being wrought on the biblical narrative by the hammers of biblical criticism.
The case for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus seems to me to rest upon the evidence for three great, independently established facts: the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith. If these three facts can be established and no plausible natural explanation can account for them, then one is justified in inferring Jesus’ resurrection as the most plausible explanation of the data. Accordingly, let us examine the evidence for each of these facts.
The Empty Tomb
Here we wish to look first at the fact of the empty tomb and then at attempts to explain the empty tomb.
The Fact of the Empty Tomb
Here I’ll summarize briefly eight lines of evidence supporting the fact that Jesus’ tomb was found empty.
1. The Historical Reliability of the Story of Jesus’ Burial Supports the Empty Tomb
Now you might ask, how does the fact of Jesus’ burial prove that his tomb was found empty? The answer is this: if the burial story is true, then both Jew and Christian alike would have known where the tomb was. But in that case, the tomb must have been empty, when the disciples began to preach that Jesus was risen. Why? First, the disciples could not have believed in Jesus’ resurrection if his corpse still lay in the tomb. It would have been wholly un-Jewish, not to say foolish, to believe that a man was raised from the dead when his body was still in the grave. Second, even if the disciples had preached this, no one else would have believed them. So long as the people of Jerusalem thought that Jesus’ body was in the tomb, they would never have believed such foolishness as that he had been raised from the dead. And third, even if they had, the Jewish authorities would have exposed the whole affair simply by pointing to Jesus’ tomb or perhaps even exhuming the body as decisive proof that Jesus had not been raised. Thus, you see, if the story of Jesus’ burial is true, then the story of the empty tomb must be true as well.
And, unfortunately for those who deny the empty tomb, nearly all NT scholars agree that Jesus’ burial is one of the best-established facts about Jesus. Now space does not permit me to go into all the details of the evidence for the burial. But let me just mention a couple points: First, Jesus was probably buried by Joseph of Arimathea. According to the gospels, Joseph of Arimathea laid Jesus’ body in the tomb. Joseph is described as a rich man, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a sort of Jewish Supreme Court made up of seventy men, which presided in Jerusalem. Its members were the leading men of Judaism. It seems very unlikely that Christian tradition would invent a story of Jesus’ honorable burial by his enemies, or even that it could invent Joseph of Arimathea, give him a name, place him on the Sanhedrin, and say he was responsible for Jesus’ burial if this were not true. The members of the Sanhedrin were too well-known to allow either fictitious persons to be placed on it or false stories to be spread about one of its actual members’ being responsible for Jesus’ burial. Therefore, it seems very likely that Joseph was the actual, historical person who buried Jesus in the tomb.
Second, Paul’s testimony provides early evidence of Jesus’ burial. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 Paul quotes an old Christian tradition that he had received from the earliest disciples. Paul probably received this tradition no later than his visit to Jerusalem in A.D. 36 (Gal 1:18), if not earlier in Damascus. It thus goes back to within the first five years after Jesus’ death. The tradition is a summary of the early Christian preaching and may have been used in Christian instruction. Its form would have made it suitable for memorization. Here is what it says:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve.
Now notice that the second line of this tradition refers to Jesus’ burial. When one matches the events of this Christian tradition with the events described in the gospels and in the apostles’ preaching in Acts, it is clear that the second line of the tradition is a summary of the story of Jesus’ burial in the tomb. Thus, we have here very early evidence for Jesus’ burial, evidence that is so early it cannot be explained away as legend. For these and many other reasons, the vast majority of scholars accept the historical reliability of Jesus’ burial. But if we accept this, then, as I have explained, it is very difficult to deny the historicity of the empty tomb.
2. Paul’s Testimony Implies the Fact of the Empty Tomb
Although Paul does not explicitly mention the empty tomb, two phrases in the old Christian tradition that he cites in 1 Corinthians 15 seem to imply it. First, the expression “He was buried,” followed by the expression “He was raised” implies the empty tomb. The idea that a man could be buried and then be raised from the dead and yet his body still remain in the grave is a peculiarly modern notion. For the Jews there would have been no question but that the tomb of Jesus would have been empty. As E.E. Ellis remarks, “It is very unlikely that the earliest Palestinian Christians could conceive of any distinction between resurrection and physical, ‘grave-emptying’ resurrection. To them an anastasis (resurrection) without an empty grave would have been about as meaningful as a square circle.”7 Therefore, when Paul says that Jesus was buried and then was raised, he automatically assumes that an empty tomb was left behind.
Second, the expression “on the third day” implies the empty tomb. Since no one actually saw Jesus rise from the dead, why did the early disciples proclaim that he had been raised “on the third day”? The most likely answer is that it was on the third day that the women discovered the tomb of Jesus empty; and so naturally, the resurrection itself came to be dated on that day. In this case, the expression “on the third day” is a time-indicator pointing to the discovery of the empty tomb.
These two expressions in the early Christian tradition quoted by Paul thus indicate that the early Christian fellowship out of which the tradition sprang adhered to the fact of Jesus’ empty tomb. Hence, such belief cannot be written off as a late legendary development.
3. The Empty Tomb Story Is Part of Markian Source Material and Is Therefore Very Old
In writing the story of Jesus’ passion, Mark apparently employed a source of information that is accordingly very early. This pre-Markan passion source in all probability included the empty tomb story. The burial story and empty tomb story form one smooth, continuous narrative. They are linked by grammatical and linguistic ties. It seems unlikely that the early Christians would have circulated a story of Jesus’ passion ending in his burial. The passion story is incomplete without victory at the end. Hence, the pre-Markan source probably included and may have ended with the discovery of the empty tomb.
But that means that the empty tomb story is very old. The German commentator on Mark Rudolf Pesch, argues that since Paul’s traditions concerning the Last Supper (1 Cor 11) presuppose the Markan account, that implies that the Markan source goes right back to the early years of the Jerusalem fellowship. Pesch also draws attention to the fact that the pre-Markan passion source never refers to the high priest by name. It is as if I were to refer to something “the President” had done, and I and my listeners both knew whom I was referring to, namely, the man currently in power. Pesch believes that this is the case as well in the pre-Markan passion source. Since Caiaphas held office from A.D. 18-37, this means that at the latest Mark’s source dates from within seven years of Jesus’ crucifixion. This is incredibly early and makes the hypothesis of legend with regard to the empty tomb an idle theory.
4. The Phrase “The First Day of the Week” Is Very Ancient
This goes to confirm the previous point. According to the Markan account, the empty tomb was discovered by the women “on the first day of the week.” We’ve already learned from the Christian tradition quoted by Paul that the earliest Christians proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus “on the third day.” As E.L. Bode explains, if the empty tomb story were a late legend, it would almost certainly have been formulated in terms of the accepted and widespread third day motif. The fact that Mark uses “on the first day of the week” confirms that his tradition is very old, even antedating the third day reckoning. This fact is confirmed by the linguistic character of the phrase in question. For although “the first day of the week” is very awkward in the Greek, when translated back into Aramaic it is perfectly smooth and normal. This suggests that the empty tomb tradition reaches all the way back to the original language spoken by the first disciples themselves. Once again, this makes the legend hypothesis extremely unlikely.
5. The Story Is Simple and Lacks Legendary Development
The Markan account is straightforward and shows no signs of legendary embellishment. To appreciate this fact, all you have to do is compare Mark’s account of the empty tomb with the account found in the so-called Gospel of Peter, a forgery from around A. D. 125. In this account, the tomb is not only surrounded by Roman guards but also by all the Jewish Pharisees and elders, as well as a great multitude from all the surrounding countryside who have come to watch the resurrection. Suddenly, in the night there rings out a loud voice in heaven, and two men descend from heaven to the tomb. The stone over the door rolls back by itself, and they go into the tomb. Then three men come out of the tomb, two of them holding up the third man. The heads of the two men reach up into the clouds, but the head of the third man reaches up beyond the clouds. Then a cross comes out of the tomb, and a voice from heaven asks, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” And the cross answers, “Yes.” In another forgery called the Ascension of Isaiah, Jesus comes out of the tomb sitting on the shoulders of the angels Michael and Gabriel! This is how legends look they are colored by theological and other developments. By contrast, the gospel account is simple and seems to be pretty much a straightforward report of what happened.
6. The Tomb Was Probably Discovered Empty by Women
In order to see why this is so, we need to understand two things about the place of women in Jewish society. First, women were not qualified to serve as legal witnesses. The testimony of a woman was regarded as so worthless that they could not even testify in a court of law. If a man committed a crime and was observed in the very act by some women, he could not be convicted on the basis of their testimony, since their testimony was regarded as so worthless that it could not even be admitted into court.
Second, women occupied a low rung on the Jewish social ladder. Compared to men, women were second-class citizens. Consider these Jewish texts: “Sooner let the words of the Law be burnt than delivered to women!” and again: “Happy is he whose children are male, but unhappy is he whose children are female!”
Now, given their low social status and inability to serve as witnesses, it is quite amazing that it is women who are the discoverers and principal witnesses of the empty tomb. If the empty tomb story were a legend, then it is most likely that the male disciples would have been made the first to discover the empty tomb. The fact that despised women, whose testimony was deemed worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb. Hence, the gospels are most likely giving an accurate account of this matter.
7. The Disciples Could Not Have Preached the Resurrection in Jerusalem Had the Tomb Not Been Empty
One of the most amazing facts about the early Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection was that it originated in the very city where Jesus was crucified. The Christian faith did not come into existence in some distant city far from eyewitnesses who knew of Jesus’ death and burial. No, it came into being in the very city where Jesus had been publicly crucified, under the very eyes of its enemies. If the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection were false, all the Jewish authorities would have had to do to nip the Christian heresy in the bud would have been to point to his tomb or exhume the corpse of Jesus and parade it through the streets of the city for all to see. Had the tomb not been empty, then it would have been impossible for the disciples to proclaim the resurrection in Jerusalem as they did.
8. The Earliest Jewish Propaganda Against the Christians Presupposes the Empty Tomb
in Matt 28: 11-15 we have the earliest Christian attempt to refute the Jewish propaganda against the Christian proclamation of the resurrection:
While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
Now, our interest is not so much in the evangelist’s story of the guard at the tomb as in his incidental remark at the end, “This story had been spread among the Jews to this day.” This remark reveals that the author was concerned to refute a widespread Jewish explanation of the resurrection. Now what were the Jews saying in response to the disciples’ proclamation that Jesus was risen? That these men are full of new wine? That Jesus’ body still lay in the tomb in the hillside? No. They were saying, “The disciples stole away his body.” Think about that. “The disciples stole away his body.” The Jewish propaganda did not deny the empty tomb, but instead entangled itself in a hopeless series of absurdities trying to explain it away. In other words, the Jewish propaganda that the disciples stole the body presupposes that the body was missing. Thus, the Jewish propaganda itself shows that the tomb was empty. This is historical evidence of the highest quality, since it comes not from the Christians but from the very enemies of the early Christian faith.
Taken together these eight considerations constitute a powerful case that Jesus’ tomb was indeed found empty on the first day of the week by a group of his women followers. As a historical fact, this seems to be well-established. According to D. H. Van Daalen, “It is extremely difficult to object to the empty tomb on historical grounds; those who deny it do so on the basis of theological or philosophical assumptions.”8 But those assumptions cannot alter the facts themselves. NT scholars seem to be increasingly aware of this. According to Jacob Kremer, a NT critic who has specialized in the study of the resurrection: “By far most exegetes hold firmly to the reliability of the biblical statements about the empty tomb,” and he furnishes a list of twenty-eight scholars to which his own name may be added: Blank, Blinzler, Bode, von Campenhausen, Delorme, Dhanis, Grundmann, Hengel, Lehmann, Leon-Dufour, Lichtenstein, Manek, Martini, Mussner, Nauck, Rengstorff, Ruckstuhl, Schenke, Schmitt, Schubert, Schwank, Schweizer, Seidensticker, Strobel, Stuhlmacher, Trilling, Vogtle, and Wilckens.9 I can think of at least sixteen more that he failed to mention: Benoit, Brown, Clark, Dunn, Ellis, Gundry, Hooke, Jeremias, Klappert, Ladd, Lane, Marshall, Motile, Perry, Robinson, and Schnackenburg. Perhaps most amazing of all is that even two Jewish scholars, Lapide and Vermes, have declared themselves convinced on the basis of the evidence that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
Explaining The Empty Tomb
Now if this is the case, that leads us to our second main point: explaining the empty tomb. Down through history, those who denied the resurrection of Jesus have been obligated to come up with a convincing alternative explanation. In fact, they have come up with only about three:
According to this explanation, the disciples stole the body of Jesus, thus faking the resurrection. This was, as we say, the first counter-explanation for the empty tomb, and it was revived by the Deists during the eighteenth century. Today, however, this explanation has been completely given up by modern scholarship. At least three considerations undergird this consensus:
1. It is morally implausible. Whatever the disciples were, they were not charlatans and hoaxers. They were genuinely devout people who tried to pursue the righteousness that Jesus had taught them. But this theory forces us to regard them as cheap frauds.
2. It is psychologically implausible. It does not take seriously the catastrophe that the crucifixion was for the disciples. After that event they were broken, doubtful, and fearful men-not bold perpetrators of some cleverly hatched and daringly executed conspiracy.
3. It cannot account for the disciples’ evident sincerity. The sudden change in their lives and their subsequent suffering for what they proclaimed show clearly that these men were not hypocritical hoaxers, but sincerely believed what they preached.
I can’t emphasize enough that no modern scholar would defend such a theory today. The only place you read about such things is in the popular, sensationalist press or in former propaganda from behind the Iron Curtain.
Apparent Death Theory
A second theory was the apparent death explanation. Critics around the beginning of the nineteenth century such as Heinrich Paulus or Friedrich Schleiermacher defended the view that Jesus was not completely dead when he was taken down from the cross. He revived in the tomb and escaped to convince his disciples he had risen from the dead. Once again, today this theory has been almost completely given up. Again, one can mention three factors supporting this consensus:
1. It is physically implausible. First, what the theory suggests is virtually physically impossible. The extent of Jesus’ tortures was such that he could never have survived the crucifixion and entombment.
2. It is religiously implausible. Even if Jesus had survived, his appearing to the disciples half-dead and desperately in need of medical attention would not have evoked their worship of him as Lord. The conviction of the earliest disciples was that Jesus rose gloriously and triumphantly from the grave, not as one who had managed to barely escape death.
3. It is biographically implausible. The theory says that Jesus tricked the disciples into believing in his resurrection. But this is a tawdry caricature of all that we know of the real Jesus, whose life and teachings belie such an interpretation of his character.
Wrong Tomb Theory
First proposed by Kirsopp Lake in 1907, this theory holds that the belief in Jesus’ empty tomb was based on a simple mistake. According to Lake, the women lost their way that Sunday morning and happened upon a caretaker at an unoccupied tomb in the garden. He said something like, “You’re looking for Jesus of Nazareth. He is not here.” The women, however, were so unnerved that they fled. After the disciples had experienced visions of Jesus alive, the women’s story developed into the account of their discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb. Unlike the previous two theories considered, Lake’s theory generated virtually no following, but was dead almost upon arrival:
1. The theory treats the evidence selectively and arbitrarily. For example, Lake regards the women’s visit to the tomb with the intention of anointing the body as historical, but must discount their noting, precisely because of that intention, where the body was laid (Mark 15:47; 16:1). But why accept the one but not the other? Or again, Lake regards the angel’s words ascribed to the caretaker above as authentic, but passes over the words, “He is risen!” But all of the angel’s message is the language of Christian proclamation if any of it is. Similarly, there are no grounds for taking Mark’s “young man” to be a human rather than angelic figure, the Greek word used here being often used of angels and the man’s white robe being typical for the Jewish portrait of angels. Moreover, the women’s fear and astonishment is a characteristic Markan motif which presupposes the angelic confrontation, so that one cannot regard the women’s reaction as traditional and historical while historically excising the angel as a legendary accretion. Lake is trying to have his cake and eat it, too.
2. Most decisively, however, any later check of the tomb would have revealed the women’s error. After their initial fright, wouldn’t the women have attempted to retrace their steps by the light of day? Certainly the disciples themselves would have wanted to verify the empty tomb. The state of the actual tomb could not have remained a matter of complete indifference to a movement in the same locale based on belief in the resurrection of the dead man interred there. And in any case, since the burial site was known to Jew and Christian alike, the Jewish opponents of the Christians would have been only too happy to point out the women’s error. Hence, the wrong tomb theory is quite implausible.
Again, I want to emphasize that scarcely any modern historian or biblical critic would hold to these theories. They are almost completely passe. You may say to yourselves at this point, “Well, then, what explanation of the empty tomb do modern critics offer who deny the resurrection?” The fact is that they are self-confessedly without any explanation to offer. There simply is no plausible natural explanation available today to account for how Jesus’ tomb became empty. If we deny the resurrection of Jesus, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.
We have seen that multiple lines of historical evidence indicate that Jesus’ tomb was found empty on Sunday morning by a group of his women followers. Furthermore, no convincing natural explanation is available to account for this fact. This alone might cause us to believe that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation. But there is even more evidence to come.
The Resurrection Appearances
In 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul writes:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
This is a truly remarkable claim. We have here the testimony of a man personally acquainted with the first disciples, and he reports that they actually saw Jesus alive from the dead. More than that, he says that he himself also saw an appearance of Jesus alive after his death. What are we to make of this claim? Did Jesus really appear to people alive after his death?
To answer this question, let’s again consider two major points: first, the fact of the resurrection appearances of Jesus; and second, explaining the resurrection appearances.
The Fact of the Resurrection Appearances
Let’s consider together the first point: the fact of the appearances of Jesus. Once again, space will not allow me to examine in detail all the evidences for Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. But I’d like to examine three main lines of evidence.
1. Paul’s Testimony Proves the Disciples Saw Appearances of Jesus
We saw that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul gives a list of witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Let’s look briefly at each appearance to see whether it is plausible that such events actually took place.
a. Appearance to Peter. We have no story in the gospels telling of Jesus’ appearance to Peter. But the appearance is mentioned here in the old Christian tradition, and it is vouched for by the apostle Paul himself As we know from Galatians 1:18, Paul spent about two weeks with Peter in Jerusalem three years after his Damascus Road experience. So Paul would know personally whether Peter claimed to have had such an experience or not. In addition to this, the appearance to Peter is mentioned in another old Christian tradition found in Luke 24:34: “The Lord has really risen, and has appeared to Simon!” So although we have no detailed story of this appearance, it is quite well attested. As a result, even the most skeptical NT critics agree that Peter saw something that he called an appearance of Jesus alive from the dead.
b. Appearance to the Twelve. This is the best-attested resurrection appearance of Jesus. We have independent stories of this appearance in Luke 24:36-42 and John 20:19-20. Undoubtedly, the most notable feature of this appearance is the physical demonstrations of Jesus’ showing his wounds and eating before the disciples. The purpose of the physical demonstrations is to show two things: first, that Jesus was raised physically; and second, that he was the same Jesus who had been crucified. Thus, they served to demonstrate both corporeality and continuity of the resurrection body. There can be little doubt that such an appearance occurred, for it is attested in the old Christian tradition, vouched for by Paul, who had personal contact with the Twelve, and is described by both Luke and John.
c. Appearance to 500 brethren. The third appearance comes as somewhat of a shock “then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time!” This is surprising, since we have no mention whatsoever of this appearance elsewhere in the NT. This would make one rather skeptical about this appearance, but it comes from old information that Paul had received, and Paul himself apparently had personal contact with these people, since he knew that some had died. This is seen in Paul’s parenthetical comment, “most of whom remain until now, but some have fallen asleep.” Why does Paul add this remark? The great NT scholar of Cambridge University, C.H. Dodd, replies, “There can hardly be any purpose in mentioning the fact that the most of the 500 are still alive, unless Paul is saying, in effect, ‘The witnesses are there to be questioned.'”10 Notice: Paul couId never have said this if the event had not occurred. He could not have challenged people to ask the witnesses if the event had never taken place and there were no witnesses. But evidently there were witnesses to this event, and Paul knew that some of them had died in the meantime. Therefore, the event must have taken place.
I think that this appearance is not related in the gospels because it probably took place in Galilee. As one puts together the various appearances in the gospels, it seems that they occurred first in Jerusalem, then in Galilee, and then in Jerusalem again. The appearance to the 500 would have to be out of doors, perhaps on a hillside outside a Galilean village. Since the gospels focus their attention on the appearances in Jerusalem, we do not have any story of this appearance to the 500, because it probably occurred in Galilee.
d. Appearance to James. The next appearance is one of the most amazing of all: he appeared to James, Jesus’ younger brother. What makes this amazing is that apparently neither James nor any of Jesus’ younger brothers believed in Jesus during his lifetime. (See Mark 3:21, 31-35; John 7:1-10.) They didn’t believe he was the Messiah, or a prophet, or even anybody special. But after the resurrection, all of a sudden Jesus’ brothers pop up in the Christian fellowship in the upper room in Jerusalem (Acts 1:14). There is no further mention of them until Acts 12:17. This is the story of Peter’s deliverance from prison by the angel. What are Peter’s first words? “Report this to James.” In Galatians 1:19 Paul tells of his two-week visit to Jerusalem about three years after his Damascus Road experience. He says that besides Peter, he saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. Paul at least implies that James was now being reckoned as an apostle. When Paul visited Jerusalem again fourteen years later, he says there were three “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem: Peter, John, and James (Gal. 2:9). Finally, in Acts 21:18 James is the sole head of the Jerusalem church and of the council of elders. We hear no more about James in the NT; but from Josephus, the Jewish historian, we learn that James was stoned to death illegally by the Sanhedrin sometime after A.D. 60 for his faith in Christ.11 Not only James but also Jesus’ other brothers became believers and were active in Christian preaching, as we see from 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
Now, how is this to be explained? On the one hand, it seems certain that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him during his lifetime. On the other hand, it is equally certain that they became ardent Christians, active in the church. Many of us have brothers. What would it take to make you believe that your brother is the Lord, so that you would die for this belief, as James did? Can there be any doubt that the reason for this remarkable transformation is to be found in the fact that “then he appeared to James”? Even the skeptical NT critic Hans Grass admits that the conversion of James is one of the surest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.12
e. Appearance to “all the apostles.” This appearance was probably to a limited circle somewhat wider than the Twelve. For such a group, see Acts 1:21-22. Once again, the facticity of this appearance is guaranteed by Paul’s personal contact with the apostles themselves.
f. Appearance to Saul of Tarsus. The final appearance is just as amazing as the appearance to James: “last of all,” says Paul, “he appeared to me also,” The story of Jesus appearance to Saul of Tarsus (or Paul) just outside Damascus is related in Acts 9:1-9 and is later told again twice. That this event actually occurred is established beyond doubt by Paul’s references to it in his own letters.
This event changed Saul’s whole life. He was a rabbi, a Pharisee, a respected Jewish leader. He hated the Christian heresy and did everything in his power to stamp it out. He was even responsible for the execution of Christian believers. Then suddenly he gave up everything. He left his position as a respected Jewish leader and became a Christian missionary: he entered a life of poverty, labor, and suffering. He was whipped, beaten, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked three times, in constant danger, deprivation, and anxiety. Finally, he made the ultimate sacrifice and was martyred for his faith at Rome. And it was all because on that day outside Damascus, he saw “Jesus our Lord” (1 Cor 9:1).
From this evidence what should we conclude? We can call these appearances hallucinations if we want to, but we cannot deny that they occurred. The late NT critic of the University of Chicago, Norman Perrin, states, “The more we study the tradition with regard to the appearances, the firmer the rock begins to appear upon which they are based.”13 Paul’s testimony makes certain that on separate occasions different groups and individuals had experiences of seeing Jesus alive from the dead. This conclusion is virtually indisputable.
2. The Gospel Accounts of the Resurrection Appearances Are Historically Reliable
Like the reports of Jesus’ exorcisms and miracles, the appearance traditions occupy so wide and important a place in the NT testimony to Jesus that the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in all probability belongs, like the exorcisms and miracles, to history. The question then concerns the historical credibility of the narratives of those appearances. Are they fundamentally accurate accounts or have they become so corrupted by legendary accretions and embellishments that they are no longer historically informative? Although it may be impossible to prove the historic al reliability of any specific resurrection account, there are nonetheless good reasons to regard the gospels and, by implication, the resurrection appearance stories which occupy so central a position in them as fundamentally historically reliable accounts: (1) the relatively short interval of time between Jesus’ crucifixion and the composition of the gospel narratives precludes those narratives’ being wholesale legendary accumulations; (2) legends drawn from folk literature or even contemporary “urban legends” seldom concern historical events and personages to the same degree (if at all) as do the gospels; (3) the earliest Christians would have passed on the Jesus traditions with the care and respect for that tradition which was typical of Jewish transmission of traditions, which renders analogies drawn from folk literature or “urban legends” irrelevant; (4) various factors-such as the presence of eyewitnesses and apostolic control of the Jesus tradition-would act as a restraint upon embellishment and legendary accretion; and (5) the demonstrated reliability of the Synoptic evangelists (particularly Luke in Acts) where external verification is possible supports their historical credibility. Space does not permit me to go into all these reasons, so let me comment on only the first: there was insufficient time for legend to accumulate significantly. Perhaps the greatest difficulty for those who say that the resurrection accounts are legendary is that the time period between the events and the writing of the gospels was too short to allow legend to substantially accrue. Julius Muller’s critique has never been answered:
Most decidedly must a considerable interval of time be required for such a complete transformation of a whole history by popular tradition, when the series of legends are formed in the same territory where the heroes actually lived and wrought. Here one cannot imagine how such a series of legends could arise in an historical age, obtain universal respect, and supplant the historical recollection of the true character and connection of their heroes’ lives in the minds of the community, if eyewitnesses were still at hand, who could be questioned respecting the truth of the recorded marvels. Hence, legendary fiction, as it likes not the clear present time, but prefers the mysterious gloom of grey antiquity, is wont to seek a remoteness of age, along with that of space, and to remove its boldest and most rare and wonderful creations into a very remote and unknown land.14
Muller’s critique is still valid today and is confirmed by A.N. Sherwin-White, a historian of Greek and Roman times.15 Professor Sherwin-White is not a theologian; he is a professional historian of times prior to and contemporaneous with Jesus. According to Sherwin-White, the sources for Roman and Greek history are usually biased and removed one or two generations or even centuries from the events they record. Yet, he says, historians reconstruct with confidence the course of Roman and Greek history. When Sherwin-White turns to the gospels, he states that for the gospels to be legends, the rate of legendary accumulation would have to be “unbelievable.” More generations would be needed. The writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legend accumulates, and the tests show that even two generations is too short a time span to allow legendary tendencies to wipe out the hard core of historical facts. Julius Muller challenged scholars of the mid-nineteenth century to show anywhere in history where within thirty years a great series of legends had accumulated around a historical individual and had become firmly fixed in general belief Muller’s challenge has never been met.
Because there was not sufficient time for legend to accumulate, the gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances must be substantially accurate historically. That brings us to our third point:
3. The Resurrection Appearances Were Physical, Bodily Appearances
In support of this point, I want to examine two supporting sub-points.
a. Paul implies that the appearances were physical. He does this in two ways. First, he conceives of the resurrection body as physical. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 Paul describes the differences between the present, earthly body and the future, resurrection body, which will be like Christ’s. He draws four essential contrasts between the earthly body and the resurrection body:
The early body is: But the resurrection body is:
Now only the last contrast would make us think that Paul did not believe in a physical resurrection body. But what does he mean by the words translated here as “physical/spiritual”? The word translated “physical” literally means “soulish.” Now obviously, Paul does not mean that our present body is made out of soul. Rather, by this word he means “dominated by or pertaining to human nature.” Similarly, when he says the resurrection body will be “spiritual,” he does not mean “made out of spirit.” Rather, he means “dominated by or oriented toward the Spirit.” It is the same sense of the word “spiritual” as when we say someone is a spiritual person. In fact, look at the way Paul uses exactly those same words in 1 Corinthians 2:14-15:
The natural man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things but is himself to be judged by no one.
Natural man does not mean “physical man,” but “man oriented toward human nature.” And spiritual man does not mean “intangible, invisible man” but “man oriented toward the Spirit.” The contrast is the same in 1 Corinthians 15. The present, earthly body will be freed from its slavery to sinful human nature and become instead fully empowered and directed by God’s Spirit. Thus, Paul’s doctrine of the resurrection body implies a physical resurrection.
Second, Paul, and indeed all the NT, makes a conceptual (if not linguistic) distinction between an appearance of Jesus and a vision of Jesus. The appearances of Jesus soon ceased, but visions continued in the early church. Now the question is: what is the difference between an appearance and a vision? The answer of the NT would seem to be clear: a vision, though caused by God, was purely in the mind, while an appearance took place “out there” in the real world. The difference between a vision and a hallucination would be that the latter is not induced by God, but is the result of natural or human causes, whereas a vision is caused by God. But a vision, as opposed to a genuine appearance, is in the mind, despite its veridicality. It is instructive to compare here Stephen’s vision of Jesus in Acts 7 with the resurrection appearances. What Stephen saw was a vision, for no one else present experienced anything at all. By contrast the resurrection appearances took place in the world “out there” and could be experienced by anybody. Paul could rightly regard his experience on the Damascus Road an appearance, even though it took place after the ascension, because it involved real manifestations in the world, which Paul’s companions also experienced. Thus, the conceptual distinction between a vision and an appearance of Jesus also implies that the resurrection appearances were physical.
b. The gospel accounts show the appearances were physical and bodily. Again, I want to make two points. First, every resurrection appearance related in the gospels is a physical, bodily appearance. The unanimous testimony of the gospels in this regard is quite impressive. If none of the appearances were originally bodily appearances, then it is very strange that we have a completely unanimous testimony in the gospels that all of them were physical, with no trace of the supposed original, non-physical appearances. Second, the gospel accounts have been shown to be fundamentally historically reliable. As we have seen, there was insufficient time for legend to accumulate significantly. If all the appearances were originally non-physical visions, then one is at a complete loss to explain the rise of the gospel accounts. Since there was insufficient time for legend to accumulate, the gospel accounts must be basically reliable; and therefore, the appearances were physical and bodily. Thus, on the basis of these three lines of evidence, we can conclude that the fact of Jesus’ physical, bodily resurrection appearances is firmly established historically. But how do we explain these appearances? That leads me to my second major point:
Explaining the Resurrection Appearances
If one denies that Jesus actually rose from the dead, then he must try to explain away the resurrection appearances psychologically. It has been asserted that the appearances were merely hallucinations on the part of the disciples. But the hallucination theory faces formidable difficulties.
First, the theory cannot account for the physicality of the appearances. We have already seen that the gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are fundamentally reliable and that the appearances were physical, bodily appearances. Therefore, the hallucination theory is ruled out of court from the beginning.
Second, the theory cannot plausibly account for the number and various circumstances of the appearances. Jesus did not appear to just one person but to many persons. He did not appear just one time but many times. He did not appear in just one place and circumstance, but in many places under varying circumstances. He did not appear just to individuals but to groups. And he did not appear just to believers but to unbelievers (James, Saul). Hallucinations cannot plausibly account for these facts.
Third, the theory cannot account for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Hallucinations would not have led to the conclusion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. I’m going to develop this point below, but in passing, let me explain that since a hallucination is just a projection of the mind, it cannot contain anything that is not already in the mind. But the resurrection of Jesus was radically foreign to the disciples’ minds in at least two respects, as we shall see.
Finally, the theory fails to explain the full scope of the evidence. The hallucination theory only seeks to explain the appearances, but it says nothing about the empty tomb. To explain the empty tomb one would have to conjoin another theory to the hallucination theory. But the resurrection of Jesus is a simpler explanation with greater explanatory power, since it accounts for all the facts, and therefore is to be preferred. Thus, for these four reasons, the hallucination theory fails to plausibly explain the resurrection appearances.
From the preceding we come to the conclusion that it is well-established that in multiple and varied circumstances, different individuals and groups saw Jesus physically and bodily alive from the dead. Furthermore, there is no way to explain this away psychologically. So once again, if we reject the resurrection of Jesus as the only reasonable explanation of the resurrection appearances, we are left with an inexplicable mystery.
The Origin of the Christian Faith
The third fact from which the resurrection of Jesus may be inferred is the very origin of the Christian faith.
The Fact of the Origin of the Christian Faith
Even the most skeptical NT scholars admit that the earliest disciples at least believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. In fact, they pinned nearly everything on it. To take just one example: the belief that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews had no conception of a dying, much less a rising, Messiah. The idea that the Messiah would be killed was utterly foreign to them. We find this attitude expressed in John 12:34 “The multitude therefore answered him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain forever; and how can You say “The Son of man must be lifted up?” Who is this Son of Man?'”
Here Jesus predicts his crucifixion, and the people are utterly mystified. The Messiah would reign forever-so how could he be “lifted up”? It is difficult to overemphasize what a disaster the crucifixion was, therefore, for the disciples’ faith. Jesus’ death on the cross spelled the humiliating end for any hopes they had entertained that he was the Messiah.
But the belief in the resurrection of Jesus reversed the catastrophe of the crucifixion. Because God had raised Jesus from the dead, he was seen to be Messiah after all. Thus, Peter proclaims in Acts 2:23,36: “This Man… God raised… again… let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ-this Jesus whom you crucified.” It was on the basis of belief in the resurrection that the disciples could believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Thus, without this belief in the resurrection, early Christianity could not have come into being. The origin of Christianity hinges on the belief of the early disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead. But the question is: How does one explain the origin of that belief? As R.H. Fuller says, even the most skeptical critic must posit some mysterious X to get the movement going.16 But what was that X?
Explaining the Origin of the Disciples’ Belief in Jesus’ Resurrection
If one denies that the resurrection itself was that X, then one must explain the disciples’ belief in the resurrection as the result of either Christian influences, pagan influences, or Jewish influences. That is to say, one must hold that the disciples came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection either because of the influence of early Christianity, the influence of pagan religions, or the influence of Jewish beliefs.
Not From Christian Influences
Now clearly their belief in Jesus’ resurrection cannot be explained as a result of Christian influences, simply because there was no Christianity yet. Since the belief in the resurrection was itself the foundation for Christianity, it cannot be explained as the later product of Christianity.
Not From Pagan Influences
But neither can it be explained as the result of pagan influences on the disciples. Back around the turn of the century in the hey-day of the History of Religions school, scholars in comparative religion collected parallels to Jesus’ resurrection in other religious movements, and some thought to explain Christian belief as the result of the influence of such myths. The movement soon collapsed, however, principally due to two factors: First, the parallels are dubious. The myths of dying and rising gods in pagan religions are merely seasonal symbols for the processes of nature and have no relation to historical individuals. As Grass points out, it would be “completely unthinkable” that the original disciples could have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth was risen from the dead on the basis of pagan myths about dying and rising seasonal gods.17 Secondly, there is in any case scarcely any trace at all of such pagan cults of dying and rising gods in first-century Palestine.18 The causal connection is simply not there.
Not From Jewish Influences
The question then is: would the disciples have come up with the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead because of Jewish influences? Again, the answer would seem to be, no. To understand this, we need to look at what the Jewish conception of the resurrection was. The belief in the resurrection of the dead is explicitly mentioned three times in the OT: Isaiah 26:19, Ezekiel 37, and Daniel 12:2. During the intertestamental period, the belief in the resurrection of the dead became a widespread hope. In Jesus’ day this belief was held to by the party of the Pharisees, although it was denied by the party of the Sadducees. So the belief in resurrection was itself nothing new but rather was a prominent Jewish belief.
But the Jewish conception of the resurrection differed in two fundamental respects from the resurrection of Jesus. First, in Jewish thought the resurrection always occurred after the end of the world. The renowned NT scholar Joachim Jeremias explains:
Ancient Judaism did not know of an anticipated resurrection as an event of history. Nowhere does one find in the literature anything comparable to the resurrection of Jesus. Certainly resurrections of the dead were known, but these always concerned resuscitations, the return to the earthly life. In no place in the late Judaic literature does it concern a resurrection to doxa [glory] as an event of history.19
For a Jew the resurrection always occurred after the end of history. He had no conception of a resurrection within history. We find this typical Jewish frame of mind in the gospels themselves. Look at John 11:23-24, for example. Here Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead. He tells Martha, “Your brother shall rise again.” What is her response? “Martha said to Him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.'” She had no inkling of a resurrection within history; she thought Jesus was talking about the resurrection at the end of the world. I think that it’s for this same reason that the disciples had so much trouble understanding Jesus’ predictions of his own resurrection. They thought he was talking about the resurrection at the end of the world. Look at Mark 9:9-11, for example:
And as they were coming down from the mountain, He gave them orders not to relate to anyone what they had seen, until the Son of Man should rise from the dead. And they seized upon that statement, discussing with one another what rising from the dead might mean. And they began questioning Him, saying, “Why is it that the scribes say that first Elijah must come?”
Here Jesus predicts his resurrection, and what do the disciples ask? “Why is it that the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” In the OT, it was predicted that the prophet Elijah would come again before the great and terrible Day of the Lord, the judgment day when the dead would be raised. The disciples could not understand the idea of a resurrection occurring within history prior to the end of the world. Hence, Jesus’ predictions only confused them. Thus, given the Jewish conception of the resurrection, the disciples after Jesus’ crucifixion would not have come up with the idea that he had been raised. They would have only looked forward to the resurrection at the last day and, in keeping with Jewish custom, perhaps preserved his tomb as a shrine where his bones could rest until the resurrection.
Second, in Jewish thought, the resurrection was always the resurrection of all the righteous or all the people. They had no conception of the resurrection of an isolated individual. Ulrich Wilckens, another prominent NT critic, explains:
For nowhere do the Jewish texts speak of the resurrection of an individual which already occurs before the resurrection of the righteous in the end time and is differentiated and separate from it; nowhere does the participation of the righteous in the salvation at the end time depend on their belonging to the Messiah, who was raised in advance as “First of those raised by God” (1 Cor. 15:20).20
So once again we find that the resurrection of Jesus differed fundamentally from Jewish belief The disciples had no idea of the resurrection of an isolated individual. Therefore, after Jesus’ crucifixion, all they could do was wait with longing for the general resurrection of the dead to see their Master again.
For these two reasons, then, we cannot explain the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection as a result of Jewish influences. Left to themselves, the disciples would never have come to believe that Jesus’ resurrection had already occurred. C.F.D. Moule of Cambridge University concludes:
If the coming into existence of the Nazarenes, a phenomenon undeniably attested by the New Testament, rips a great hole in history, a hole the size and shape of the Resurrection, what does the secular historian purpose to stop it up with?… the birth and rapid rise of the Christian Church… remain an unsolved enigma for any historian who refuses to take seriously the only explanation offered by the Church itself.21
Translation Versus Resurrection
But let’s push the argument one notch further. Suppose the disciples were not simply “left to themselves” after the crucifixion. Suppose that somehow Jesus’ tomb was found empty and the shock of finding the empty tomb caused the disciples to see hallucinations of Jesus. The question is: Would they then have concluded that he had been raised from the dead!
Now you are probably thinking: “But those theories have already been refuted and shown to be false.” That’s true. But let’s be generous and suppose for the sake of argument that this is what happened. Would the disciples have concluded that Jesus had been raised from the dead?
The answer would seem to be, no. This brings us back to a point I mentioned earlier. Hallucinations, as projections of the mind, can contain nothing new. Therefore, given the current Jewish beliefs about life after death, the disciples would have projected hallucinations of Jesus in heaven or in Abraham’s bosom, where the souls of the righteous dead were believed to abide until the resurrection. And such visions would not have caused belief in Jesus’ resurrection.
At the most, it would have only led the disciples to say Jesus had been translated, not raised. You see, the Jews had another belief besides resurrection, called translation. In the OT, figures such as Enoch and Elijah did not die but were translated directly into heaven. In an extra-canonical Jewish writing called The Testament of Job, the story is told of the translation of two children killed in the collapse of a house. The children are killed when the house collapses, but when the rescuers clear away the rubble their bodies are not to be found. Meanwhile, the mother sees a vision of the two children glorified in heaven, where they have been translated by God. It needs to be emphasized that for the Jew a translation is not the same as a resurrection. They are distinct categories. Translation is the bodily assumption of someone out of this world into heaven. Resurrection is the raising up of a dead man in the space-time universe.
Thus, given Jewish beliefs concerning translation and resurrection, the disciples would not have preached that Jesus had been raised from the dead. At the very most, the empty tomb and hallucinations of Jesus would have only caused them to believe in the translation of Jesus, for this fit in with their Jewish frame of thought. But they would not have come up with the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead, for this contradicted the Jewish belief in at least two fundamental respects.
The origin of Christianity owes itself to the belief of the earliest disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead. That belief cannot be accounted for in terms of either Christian, pagan, or Jewish influences. Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that the tomb was somehow emptied and the disciples saw hallucinations-which we have seen to be false anyway-the origin of the belief in Jesus’ resurrection still cannot be explained. Such events would only have led the disciples to say that Jesus had been translated, not resurrected. The origin of the Christian faith is therefore inexplicable unless Jesus really rose from the dead.
Now we are ready to summarize all three of our discussions: First, we saw that numerous lines of historical evidence prove that the tomb of Jesus was found empty by a group of his women followers. Furthermore, no natural explanation has been offered that can plausibly account for this fact. Second, we saw that several lines of historical evidence established that on numerous occasions and in different places Jesus appeared physically and bodily alive from the dead to various witnesses. Again, no natural explanation in terms of hallucinations can plausibly account for these appearances. And finally, we saw that the very origin of the Christian faith depends on belief in the resurrection. Moreover, this belief cannot be accounted for as the result of any natural influences.
As one reflects on this evidence, it is striking how successfully the historical facts undergirding the inference to the resurrection of Jesus pass the received tests of authenticity. Evans has recently argued that the same criteria used to establish the authenticity of the sayings of Jesus can also be used to establish the putatively miraculous deeds of Jesus.22 What is intriguing is that a glance at our case on behalf of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection reveals that much of the evidence I have marshaled is based on an implicit application of precisely the same criteria employed by Evans. For example:
1. Multiple Attestation. The resurrection appearances enjoy multiple attestation from Pauline and gospel traditions, and the latter themselves multiply attest to appearances, in some cases the same ones. Moreover, the Johannine account of the empty tomb seems to be independent of that in the Synoptics. And, of course, the fact that the first disciples came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection is attested throughout the NT.
2. Dissimilarity. The argument based on the origin of the Christian faith is a clear example of the application of this criterion, for the argument consists in showing that the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection cannot be explained as the result of either antecedent Jewish influences, because of its dissimilarity, nor as a retrojection of Christian theology.
3. Embarrassment. The force of the argument based on the discovery of the empty tomb by women derives in large part from this criterion, for their role in the story was useless, not to say counterproductive, for the early church and would have been much better served by men.
4. Context and Expectation. Again, the argument concerning the origin of the Christian way appeals to the absence of any expectation in Judaism of a dying, much less rising, Messiah in order to show that the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection cannot plausibly be explained as the outgrowth of Jewish beliefs and expectations.
5. Effect. According to this criterion, an adequate cause must be posited for some established effect. The conversion of James and Paul, the earliest Jewish polemic concerning the disciples’ alleged theft of the body, and the disciples’ transformation after the crucifixion all constitute effects which point to the resurrection appearances, the empty tomb, and the disciples’ coming to believe that Jesus was risen as their sufficient causes.
6. Principles of Embellishment. It was on the basis of this criterion that I argued that the Markan account of the empty tomb, in contrast to the apologetically and theologically embellished account in the Gospel of Peter, was not a late legend.
7. Coherence. The very fact that we have three great, independently established facts pointing to the resurrection of Jesus-namely, the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith-is a powerful argument from coherence for the historicity of the resurrection. Moreover, these facts cohere interestingly with each other; for example, the coherence between Jesus’ physical resurrection appearances, Paul’s teaching on the nature of the resurrection body, and the empty tomb.
Thus, the complex of facts which we have examined in support of the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection passes the same tests for authenticity that serve to establish the authentic core of Jesus’ sayings and therefore deserves to be accorded no less degree of credibility than the genuineness of those utterances of Jesus.
But does the resurrection of Jesus adequately explain this body of evidence? Is it any better an explanation than the implausible naturalistic explanations proffered in the past? In order to answer these questions, let’s recall McCullagh’s seven criteria for the testing of a historical hypothesis and apply them to the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.
1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data. Dialectical theologians like Barth often spoke of the resurrection as a supra-historical event; but even though the cause of the resurrection is beyond history, that event nonetheless has a historical margin in the empty tomb and resurrection appearances. As J.A.T Robinson nicely put it, there was not simply nothing to show for it; rather there was nothing to show for it (that is, an empty tomb)!23 Moreover, there is the Christian faith itself to show for it. The present, observable data is chiefly in the form of historical texts which form the basis of the historian’s reconstruction of the events of Easter.
2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses. The resurrection hypothesis, we have seen, exceeds counter-explanations like hallucinations or the wrong tomb theory precisely by explaining all three of the great facts at issue, whereas these rival hypotheses only explain one or two.
3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses. This is perhaps the greatest strength of the resurrection hypothesis. The conspiracy theory or the apparent death theory just do not convincingly account for the empty tomb, resurrection appearances, or origin of the Christian faith: on these theories the data (for example, the transformation in the disciples, the historical credibility of the narratives) become very improbable. By contrast, on the hypothesis of the resurrection it seems extremely probable that the observable data with respect to the empty tomb, the appearances, and the disciples’ coming to believe in Jesus’ resurrection should be just as it is.
4. The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses. We have already seen that once one abandons the philosophical prejudice against the miraculous, the resurrection is no more implausible than its rivals, nor are they more plausible than the resurrection.
5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses. It will be recalled that while McCullagh thought that the resurrection hypothesis possesses great explanatory scope and power, he nevertheless felt that it was ad hoc, which he defines in terms of the number of new suppositions made by a hypothesis about the past which are not already implied by existing knowledge. So defined, however, it is difficult to see why the resurrection hypothesis is extraordinarily ad hoc. It seems to require only one new supposition: that God exists. Surely the rival hypotheses require many new suppositions. For example, the conspiracy theory requires us to suppose that the moral character of the disciples was defective, which is certainly not implied by already existing knowledge; the apparent death theory requires the supposition that the centurion’s lance thrust into Jesus’ side was just a superficial poke or is an unhistorical detail in the narrative, which again goes beyond existing knowledge; the hallucination theory requires us to suppose some sort of emotional preparation of the disciples which predisposed them to project visions of Jesus alive, which is not implied by our knowledge. Such examples could be multiplied. It should be noted, too, that scientific hypotheses regularly include the supposition of the existence of new entities, such as quarks, strings, gravitons, black holes, and the like, without those theories being characterized as ad hoc. Moreover, for the person who is already a theist, the resurrection hypothesis does not even introduce the new supposition of God’s existence, since that is already implied by his existing knowledge. So the resurrection hypothesis cannot be said to be ad hoc simply in virtue of the number of new suppositions it introduces.
If our hypothesis is ad hoc, then, it must be for some other reasons. Philosophers of science have found it notoriously difficult to explain what it is exactly that makes a hypothesis ad hoc. There seems to be an ill-defined air of artificiality or contrivedness about a hypothesis deemed to be ad hoc, which can be sensed, if not explained, by those who are seasoned practitioners of the relevant science. Now I think that the sense of discomfiture which many, even theists, feel about appealing to God as part of an explanatory hypothesis for some phenomenon in the world is that so doing has this air of being contrived. It just seems too easy when confronted with some unexplained phenomenon to throw up one’s hands and say, “God did it!” The universal disapprobation of the so-called “God of the gaps” and the impulse towards methodological naturalism in science and history spring from the sense of illegitimacy attending such appeals to God. Is the hypothesis that “God raised Jesus from the dead” ad hoc in this sense?
I think not. One of the most important contributions of the traditional defenders of miracles was their drawing attention to the religio-historical context in which a purported miracle occurs. A supernatural explanation of the facts of the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith is not ad hoc because those events took place, as we have seen, in the context of and as the climax to Jesus’ own unparalleled life, ministry, and personal claims, in which a supernatural hypothesis readily fits. It is also precisely because of this historical context that the resurrection hypothesis does not seem ad hoc when compared to miraculous explanations of other sorts: for example, that a “psychological miracle” occurred, causing normal men and women to become conspirators and liars who would be willingly martyred for their subterfuge; or that a “biological miracle” occurred, which prevented Jesus’ expiring on the cross (despite the spear-thrust through his chest, and so forth) or his dying of exposure in the tomb. It is these miraculous hypotheses which strike us as artificial and contrived, not the resurrection hypothesis, which makes abundantly good sense in the context of Jesus’ ministry and radical personal claims. Thus, it seems to me that the resurrection hypothesis cannot be characterized as excessively ad hoc.
6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses. I can’t think of any accepted beliefs which disconfirm the resurrection hypothesis-unless one thinks of, say, “Dead men do not rise” as disconfirmatory. But then we are just back to the problem of miracles again. I’ve argued that this inductive generalization does nothing to disconfirm the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. By contrast, rival theories are disconfirmed by accepted beliefs about, for example, the instability of conspiracies, the likelihood of death as a result of crucifixion, the psychological characteristics of hallucinatory experiences, and so forth, as we have seen.
7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)-(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis exceeding it in meeting these conditions. There is certainly little chance of any of the rival hypotheses suggested to date ever exceeding the resurrection hypothesis in fulfilling the above conditions. The stupefaction of contemporary scholarship when confronted with the facts of the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith suggests that no better rival is anywhere on the horizon. Once one gives up the prejudice against miracles, it’s hard to deny that the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation of the facts.
In conclusion, therefore, three great, independently established facts-the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith-all point to the same marvelous conclusion: that God raised Jesus from the dead. Given that miracles are possible, this conclusion cannot be debarred to anyone seeking for the meaning to existence who sees therein the hope of eternal life.
Given the religio-historical context in which this event occurred, the significance of Jesus’ resurrection is clear: it is the divine vindication of Jesus’ radical personal claims. As Wolfhart Pannenberg explains,
The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning, not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead, but because it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God. If this man was raised from the dead, then that plainly means that the God whom he had supposedly blasphemed has committed himself to him…. The resurrection can only be understood as the divine vindication of the man whom the Jews had rejected as a blasphemer.24
The material I’ve presented on the resurrection can be nicely summarized into an evangelistic message that can be used effectively on university campuses. It can even be used in personal evangelism, if you can arrange with the person with whom you’re sharing to set up a time when you can lay out the evidence. It’s more effective to thus lay out the case as a whole rather than present and discuss it piecemeal, for the impact of the cumulative case is greater.
For example, I was once discussing the gospel with a student who seemed open but was hesitant. I challenged him to consider the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, and he told me, “If you can prove that Jesus rose from the dead, I’ll become a Christian.” So I made an appointment to see him the next week to lay out my case. When I met with him again, I submitted the evidence to him for an uninterrupted twenty minutes and then asked him what he thought. He was virtually speechless. I asked, “Are you now ready to become a Christian?” “Well, I don’t know,” he said indecisively. So I said that he should think about it some more and that I would come back again the following week to see what he had decided. By the third week, he was ready, and together in his dorm room we prayed to invite Christ into his life. It was one of the most thrilling experiences I have had in seeing God use apologetics to draw someone to himself!
Let me encourage you to work up a talk or a case of your own that you can use in evangelistic meetings or contacts. And then always be prepared to give this defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.
1William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity, 2 Vols., 5th ed. (London: R. Faulder, 1796; rep. ed.: Westmead, England: Gregg, 1970), 1:327-8.
2Hermann Samuel Reimarus, Fragments, trans. R.S. Fraser, ed. C.H. Talbert, Lives of Jesus Series (London: SCM, 1971), p. 104.
3Johann Salomo Semler, Beantwortung der Fragmente eines Ungennanten insbesondere vom Zwek Jesu and seiner J?nger, 2d ed. (Halle: Verlag des Erziehungsinstitut, 1780), p. 266.
4David Friedrich Strauss, “Herrmann Samuel Reimarus and His ‘Apology'”, in Fragments, pp. 280-1.
5David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. G. Eliot, ed. With an Intro. P.C. Hodgson, Lives of Jesus Series (London: SCM, 1973), p. 70.
6Ibid., p. 736.
7E. Earle Ellis, ed., The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible (London: Nelson, 1966), p. 273.
8D.H. Van Daalen, The Real Resurrection (London: Collins, 1972), p. 41.
9Jacob Kremer, Die Osterevangelien–Geschichten um Geschichte (Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1977), pp. 49-50.
10C.H. Dodd, “The Appearances of the Risen Christ: A study in the form criticism of the Gospels,” in More New Testament Studies (Manchester: University of Manchester, 1968), p. 128.
11Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 20.200.
12Hans Grass, Ostergeschehen und Osterberichte, 4th ed. (G?ttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1974), p. 80.
13Norman Perrin, The Resurrection According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), p. 80.
14Julius M?ller, The Theory of Myths, in Its Application to the Gospel History Examined and Confuted (London: John Chapman, 1844), p. 26.
15A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), pp. 188-91.
16R.H. Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (London: SPCK, 1972), p. 2.
17Grass, Ostergechehen, p. 133.
18Gerhard Kittel, “Die Auferstehung Jesu,” Deutsche Theology 4 (1937): 159. Not until the time of Hadrian in the second century is there evidence of an Adonis Cult at Bethlehem.
19Joachim Jeremais, “Die ?lteste Schicht der Osteruberlieferung,” in Resurrexit, ed. Edouard Dhanis (Rome: Editrice Libreria Vaticana, 1974), p. 194.
20Ulrich Wilckens, Auferstehung, Themen der Theologie 4 (Stuttgart: Kreuz Verlag, 1970), p. 131.
21C.F.D. Moule, The Phenomenon of the New Testament, Studies in Biblical Theology 2/1 (London: SCM, 1967), pp. 3,13.
22Craig A. Evans, “Life-of-Jesus Research and the Eclipse of Mythology,” Theological Studies 54 (1993): 21-33.
23John A.T. Robinson, The Human Face of God (London: SCM Press, 1973), p. 136.
24Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Jesu Geschichte und unsere Geschichte,” in Glaube und Wirklichkeit (M?nchen: Chr. Kaiser, 1975), pp. 92-4.
Excerpted from Reasonable Faith, copyright 1994, by William Lane Craig. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of GoodNews Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois. www.crosswaybooks