A resurrection of evidence

Ioan Gruffudd
Ioan Gruffudd as Dr Henry Morgan

Imagine you are a forensic detective like the above character Dr. Henry Morgan from the TV crime show Forever. As a true skeptic, not just a cynic, you are interested in evidence. Sceptics do not go into an investigation closed to the possibility that a phenomenon might be real or that a claim might be true.

Thus, with an open mind consider the evidence for the central claim of the world's largest religion.

The claim of Jesus' resurrection from the dead is vital to Christianity. Plus, if Jesus did rise, then the words of Jesus have the greatest authority possible.

As theologian R. C. Sproul said: "If Christ has been raised from the dead by God, then He has the credentials and certification that no other religious leader possesses. Buddha is dead. Mohammad is dead. Moses is dead. Confucius is dead. But, according to...Christianity, Christ is alive."

Keeping this in mind, let us consider five popular theories against Jesus' resurrection and what can be uncovered from historians, medicine, logic, and eyewitness testimony.

Garden tomb in Jerusalem
Garden tomb in Jerusalem

THEORY 1: Jesus did not really die on the cross

Some propose that Jesus was revived by the cool, damp air in the tomb, but an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1986 explains why this so-called "swoon theory" is untenable: "Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicated that Jesus was dead. ... The spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung, but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured His death."

This fact can be verified by reports of non-Christian historians from around the time when Jesus lived. Three of these historians confirmed the death of Jesus: Lucian (c.120–after 180 A.D.) Josephus (c.37–c.100 A.D.) and Tacitus (c. 56–c.120 A.D.). Even those who deny the resurrection like noted sceptics James Tabor and John Dominic Crossan, co-founder of Jesus Seminar, agree that Jesus clearly lived and died.

A movie depiction of Jesus tomb
A movie depiction of Jesus' tomb

THEORY 2: Grave robbing conspiracy

If Jesus' body was stolen, how does one account for all the reported appearances of a resurrected Jesus? Something extraordinary must have happened for the followers of Jesus to cease mourning, cease hiding, and begin fearlessly proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive.

According to the eyewitness accounts, all the disciples saw Jesus on more than ten separate occasions. They wrote that He showed them His hands and feet and told them to touch Him. And He reportedly ate with them and later appeared alive to more than 500 followers on one occasion.

Legal scholar John Warwick Montgomery stated, "In 56 A.D. [the Apostle Paul wrote that over 500 people had seen the risen Jesus and that most of them were still alive (1 Corinthians 15:6ff.). It passes the bounds of credibility that the early Christians could have manufactured such a tale and then preached it among those who might easily have refuted it simply by producing the body of Jesus."


THEORY 3: Jesus' followers were hallucinating

Since hallucinations are by nature individual occurrences not group experiences, a mass hallucination is not even a remote possibility. According to psychologist Thomas J. Thorburn. "It is absolutely inconceivable that ... 500 persons, of average soundness of mind ... should experience all kinds of sensuous impressions—visual, auditory, tactual—and that all these ... experiences should rest entirely upon ... hallucination."

Furthermore, in the psychology of hallucinations, the person would need to be in a frame of mind where they so wished to see that person that their mind contrives it. Two major leaders of the early church, James and Paul, both encountered a resurrected Jesus, neither expecting, or hoping for the pleasure. The Apostle Paul in fact led the earliest persecutions of Christians, and his conversion remains inexplicable except for his own testimony that Jesus appeared to him, resurrected.

THEORY 4: The empty tomb was a hoax


English journalist Dr. Frank Morison initially thought the resurrection was either a myth or a hoax, and he began research to write a book refuting it.

If Jesus' body was anywhere to be found, his enemies would have quickly exposed the resurrection as a fraud. But what is known historically of Jesus' enemies is that they accused Jesus' disciples of stealing the body, an accusation clearly predicated on a shared belief that the tomb was empty.

Another problem with their accusation was that the Romans had assigned a 24-hour watch at the tomb with a Roman guard unit (from 4 to 12 highly trained soldiers). It would have been impossible for anyone to have slipped by the Roman guards and to have moved a two-ton stone.

Tom Anderson, former president of the California Trial Lawyers Association, summarises the strength of this argument: "With an event so well publicized, don't you think that it's reasonable that one historian, one eye witness, one antagonist would record for all time that he had seen Christ's body? ... The silence of history is deafening when it comes to the testimony against the resurrection."

It is also untenable that the disciples maintained a known lie. Former "hatchet man" of the Nixon administration, Chuck Colson, implicated in the Watergate scandal, pointed out the difficulty of several people maintaining a lie for an extended period of time.

"I know the resurrection is a fact, and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Everyone was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren't true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn't keep a lie for three weeks. You're telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible."

Who Moved the Stone

THEORY 5: The empty tomb was a legend?

Some unconvinced sceptics propose it is just a legend; that an untrue tale of seeing Jesus alive was embellished over time. But there are three major problems with the legend theory:

  1. Legends rarely develop while multiple eyewitnesses are alive to refute them. One historian of ancient Rome and Greece, A. N. Sherwin-White, argued that the resurrection news spread too soon and too quickly for it to have been a legend.
  2. Legends develop by oral tradition and do not come with contemporary historical documents that can be verified. Yet the Gospels were written within three decades of the resurrection.
  3. The legend theory does not adequately explain either the fact of the empty tomb or the historically verified conviction of the apostles that Jesus was alive.

Looking at such evidence, Morison became convinced that his preconceived bias against Jesus Christ's resurrection had been wrong. He began writing a different book—entitled Who Moved the Stone?—to detail his new conclusions.

The question is, as an open-minded sceptic weighing up the facts, are you open to doing the same?

Based on an article by JesusOnlineMinistries.org

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