Evidence for the Resurrection

Even in Jesus’ time, some of those who faced the Lord, Liar, or Lunatic question decided that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic. So staggering were Jesus’ claims about his role in God’s salvific plan that they were sometimes hard to accept even for those that knew him and witnessed his ministry. This is ultimately why he was put to death. How, then, are we to decide who Jesus really was?

The Christian position is that this question was settled at the Resurrection. Whatever we might have thought about Jesus before he was raised from the dead, when God raised Jesus from the dead he put an end to all speculation. The Resurrection was God’s endorsement of Jesus’ teachings, a vindication of Jesus’ claims that got him crucified, a declaration that he was and is Lord. Whatever evidence there is for Jesus’ resurrection, then, is evidence for the truth of the claims that he made about himself.

The basic sequence of events surrounding Jesus’ death at the birth of the church, Christian apologists remind us, is uncontroversial. Theologians and historians are generally agreed on the kinds of claims that Jesus’ made, and that it was because of these claims that he was crucified. It is also generally accepted, the apologists continue, that following his crucifixion Jesus’ followers, who now included some who had not followed him previously, claimed to have seen him, risen from the dead. These followers preferred to die rather than to retract this claim, and it is on this testimony that the church was founded. This much is taken to be uncontroversial: the crucifixion, the claims to have seen the risen Jesus, and the willingness to face persecution for making this claim. The question is what we make of it.

The Swoon Theory

One attempt to explain this data, sometimes called the "swoon theory", denies Jesus’ death. On this theory, Jesus didn’t really die at all. Yes, he was crucified—that much is undeniable—but he survived the crucifixion. When he was laid in the tomb he was unconscious, but alive. He then resuscitated, escaped from the tomb, and appeared to the disciples, who mistakenly thought he had been resurrected. This theory thus neatly explains the resurrection appearances without having, implausibly, to deny the crucifixion.

Apologists dismiss the swoon theory for a number of reasons.

First, people didn’t survive crucifixion. Crucifixion was a brutal form of execution, one well-practiced by the Romans. The Romans knew what they were doing; Jesus could not have made it through the crucifixion alive.

Second, even if he had made it through the crucifixion alive, Jesus would not have been in a fit state to escape from the tomb. The tomb in which he was laid, according to the Bible, was enclosed by a large boulder, and guarded by Roman soldiers. Even if he had survived crucifixion, Jesus would have been too weak to move the boulder, and wouldn’t have got past the guards.

Third, even if Jesus had survived the crucifixion and escaped from the tomb, there’s no way that he would have been mistaken for resurrected. The rigours of crucifixion would have left him in an appalling state, yet Jesus appearance before his disciples was such that they thought he was in a glorified, resurrection body. The swoon theory, apologists conclude, therefore cannot seriously be maintained.

The Hallucination Theory

A second attempt to explain the historical data, the "hallucination theory", denies that Jesus appeared to his disciples. Jesus’ disciples would have been emotionally fraught having seen their leader executed; what more natural than that they should imagine that they had seen him come back from the dead?

Again, apologists argue that this explanation of the resurrection appearances doesn’t quite fit the historical data.

First, the claim that Jesus had returned from the dead wasn’t natural at all. Some of the Jews of the time believed that there would be a general resurrection, a resurrection of everyone, at the end of time, but none of them expected an individual to be resurrected in the present.

Second, some of those to whom Jesus appeared certainly weren’t expecting him to come back from the dead because some of those to whom Jesus appeared weren’t even disciples of his. Some were converted to Christianity by their experiences of the risen Jesus; those experiences cannot have been produced by their faith, because they didn’t have any faith until they saw him.

Third, and most conclusively, they add, the appearances of Jesus that were claimed just aren’t of the kind that can result from hallucinations. Hallucinations are individual affairs, but the appearances of Jesus were before groups of people. Group hallucinations do not happen, there must have been something else going on than this. Again, then, it is concluded, the naturalistic theory doesn’t do justice to the historical data.

The Conspiracy Theory

A third attempt to explain the historical data surrounding Jesus death and the birth of the church is the "conspiracy theory". According to this theory, there were no appearances of the risen Jesus at all, whether hallucinatory or not; the disciples made it all up. This theory explains away the resurrection appearances as a fiction, and so again neatly solves the historical problem.

The conspiracy theory, apologists argue, is more a desperate attempt to explain away the evidence than a genuine attempt to explain it. Still, though, they take the time to criticise it.

First, the disciples’ claim would have been easily disproved at the time had it been false. All that would have needed to be done to silence them would have been to produce Jesus’ body. This, though, was not done.

Second, it is again difficult to account for the testimony of those who had not followed Jesus prior to the resurrection on this theory. Why would those who rejected Jesus when he was alive buy into Christianity when he was dead?

Third, the disciples commitment to the cause counts strongly against the idea that their claims were made up. Jesus’ followers faced great persecution for their claims about Jesus, yet, after his death, not one of them retracted those claims. Before Jesus’ death this was not the case; famously, Peter denied Jesus three times. Something transformed the early Christians into fervent witnesses to the resurrection. What could have done that other than a genuine resurrection?

The Appeal to Common Sense

The historical evidence surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion and the birth of the church, then, is perplexing. None of the naturalistic explanations of that evidence, it is argued, does justice to it; we are pushed towards a supernatural explanation, to the conclusion that Jesus really was raised from the dead and so really is Lord.

At this point, it can be tempting to say that any naturalistic explanation, no matter how far-fetched, is better than this supernatural explanation. Sure, the odds of someone surviving crucifixion are tiny, but isn’t that explanation more likely to be true than the Christian alternative? Sure, it is almost impossible that the disciples simultaneously hallucinated a risen Jesus, but isn’t it more likely than that they saw the real thing?

If we rule out the possibility of miracles from the beginning, then of course the answer to these questions will be "Yes". If we assume from the outset that miracles cannot happen, that God does not exist, that Christianity is false, then of course any other explanation of the historical evidence will be preferable to that offered by Christianity.

To make these assumptions, though, is simple prejudice. There is a genuine historical puzzle here, and each of us must look for an explanation that we find genuinely satisfying. For my part, none of the naturalistic explanations satisfies me. I find it much more plausible to set aside my prejudice against miracles, and think that God raised Jesus from the dead, than to believe any of the alternatives outlined here.