I suppose I have an almost invincible disinclination to believe the whole resurrection story . . . because it seems to me so wildly inconsistent with everything else that happens in the universe.Antony Flew1
On January 3, 2003, at California Polytechnic University, two prominent philosophers held a public dialog centered on the question, “Did the resurrection of Jesus really happen?”
One of the thinkers was a former skeptic who had written his doctoral dissertation on the subject. The other was brilliant British philosopher and at-the-time atheist Dr. Antony Flew.2 The two scholars had been friends for more than twenty-five years, and the discussion was open and transparent.
During the debate, Flew confessed his “disinclination” to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ could be a plausible, historical event. In some sense, Flew was stating the obvious: the idea of a man who had been dead for three days coming back to life doesn’t fit anything we know about reality.
Our experience with death is that it’s final. We know no exceptions to that rule. Our science does not have a place for the reversal of death in a body that has been dead for more than forty-eight hours.
In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, isn’t it more likely that we are dealing with a fictional story concocted two thousand years ago? Why should we give it any credibility at all?
For that matter, how can anyone embrace the idea that a resurrection really happened? Has any thoughtful person been able to do that without completely surrendering their reason?
To do so would require the event to be placed in a category of its own. What grounds have intelligent people found to warrant a belief in the resurrection of Jesus?
The Importance of the Question
When we consider the implications of the claim that Christians have made, we understand that a good bit is at stake. Christians asserted that a one-of-a-kind event had happened: Jesus of Nazareth—who had been crucified by Roman soldiers—was alive again three days later and appeared to many of his followers.
If this claim is true, then a genuinely unique thing has happened, possibly setting apart Jesus from all other religious teachers and leaders in a very distinctive way. If the assertion is false and the resurrection did not happen, the Christian message is emptied of its meaning.
The earliest Christian writer, the apostle Paul, recognized this and wrote the following in about 56 CE—only approximately twenty-five years after Jesus’ death:
If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied . . . If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.3
The validity of the entire Christian faith truly rests on this issue: Did the resurrection of Jesus actually happen?
But whether you’re a Christian or not, this historical question is worth a thoughtful assessment.
Putting the Puzzle Together
Obviously the resurrection of Jesus is not a “fact” in the sense that we have photographic accounts or video recordings of the event itself, but it is surrounded by a group of historical facts. These facts are like pieces of an historical puzzle that one must assemble when contemplating the resurrection.
The first piece is this: Jesus of Nazareth died outside Jerusalem by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor in Judea, in about 30 CE. He was buried in Jerusalem. These facts are seldom challenged by historians.
Furthermore, an unbroken Christian presence in Jerusalem since the death of Jesus virtually assures the identity of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the site of Jesus’ tomb.4 That is not a piece of knowledge that Christians would have been likely to forget or would have failed to pass on from one generation to another.5
Here’s another piece to the puzzle: On the third day after Jesus’ crucifixion, his tomb was reported to be empty. Though this proves nothing if taken alone, it must be considered with the evidence.
Had the body been in the tomb, it would have been relatively easy for the religious authorities who opposed the early Christian movement to silence believers by producing Jesus’ body. If the tomb were not empty, surely someone would have known. The first proclamations of Jesus’ resurrection began only a short walk from the place he had been buried; the tomb could have been checked relatively easily.
An early explanation given for the empty tomb was that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body so they could claim he had been raised from the dead. You can find this theory even in early Christian literature.6
The issue some have found with this explanation is that the earliest followers of Jesus lived radically changed lives based on their belief in his resurrection; some even suffered martyrdom on account of their faith. This does not seem to be behavior consistent with people who were knowingly perpetuating a fraud.
Interestingly, the fact that such a theory was propagated in the first place serves mainly as an indicator that the tomb was indeed empty.
Then there are the reports from many of the early followers of Jesus that they had actually seen him and spent time with him after the discovery of the empty tomb. According to Christian writings produced only twenty-five years or so after the death of Jesus, claims were made that Jesus had appeared to several individuals and to groups of people ranging from ten to five hundred at a time.7
Perhaps these claims could be dismissed as false, but one would be left trying to understand why a large number of people would willingly die rather than simply admit to the fraud.8
The origin of the Christian movement itself is yet another piece of the puzzle that should be considered. The Christian church traces its history back to Jerusalem in the days just following Jesus’ crucifixion. The stories that relate this origin describe those early Christians as committed to a belief that God had raised Jesus from the dead, a belief that was at the core of the movement’s beginning.
The real question is this: How do all these puzzle pieces fit together?
A Divine Explanation?
Resorting to divine intervention should never be our first choice in explaining an event.
However, in this case, natural explanations of these facts have not been able to fit the puzzle pieces together in a way consistent with what we know of human behavior. This has led some thoughtful and intelligent people to conclude that the only way to adequately account for each aspect of the story is to accept that the resurrection of Jesus really did happen.
Consider the puzzle pieces yourself. How do you best put them together?
- Gary R. Habermas, Did the Resurrection Happen? A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Antony Flew (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2009), 45.
- A year later, Flew announced he had come to believe in the existence of God, though not in a Christian sense. See Antony Flew and Roy Abraham Varghese, There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: HarperOne, 2008).
- The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, 1 Corinthians 15:14–19, 32.
- “Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” Sacred Destinations, last updated February 21, 2010, http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-church-of-holy-sepulchre.
- Although the church was built over the site several centuries later, the authenticity of the location remains a reasonable assumption.
- The Holy Bible, Matthew 28:11–15.
- Ibid., 1 Corinthians 15:1–8.
- Alternatively, some have suggested that these “appearances” of Jesus were merely hallucinations of his followers as a result of their grief or shock following Jesus’ death. However, the fact that groups of people claimed to have shared the same experience removes some of the explanatory power of that psychological approach.
- Photo Credit: Volodymyr Goinyk / Shutterstock.com.