Karnu Van Heerden | 9 April 2020 | 12 min read
Easter is always characterised by a worldwide reflection on the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is essential for the Christian’s walk with God.
If one were to ask, what is the cornerstone on which the truth of Christianity rests, the answer undoubtedly is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The foundation of the Christian faith is the historical and physical Resurrection of Jesus. Paul explicitly explains this in the well-known passage of 1 Corinthians 15:12-19:
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
It is clear from this passage that the reality of this historical event is interlocked with saving faith. If there is no valid resurrection, there is no valid faith, no atonement, no salvation, no redemption, no everlasting life and ultimately no hope! There is no other way to go about it, either Jesus rose and Christianity is true, or Jesus did not rise from the dead and Christianity is false.
In the light of Easter, I want to invite you to revisit the evidence for this event that literally changed the world 2000 years ago.
An Oil Painting of the Empty Tomb of Jesus Christ
Methodology: How Can We Approach This?
So how then are we to go about investigating the event of the Resurrection of Jesus? There are different avenues of approach. For our purposes, the key tool is that of abductive reasoning. Abductive reasoning entails inferring unseen facts, events or causes in the past from clues or facts in the present.
This is an essential methodology utilized in various fields like history, palaeontology, geology, forensics etc. One analyses the current, available evidence or data and then proposes a hypothesis that best explains all the facts. There may be a myriad of differing hypotheses on the table. Therefore, this process also involves critically evaluating the various hypotheses that are proposed in search of the most reasonable one.
As an illustration, imagine you come home and find the window in your bedroom broken, the burglar bars pried open, a crowbar lying on the floor, the whole room overturned and your jewelry missing. Now, from these clues one may infer maybe a strong wind blew open the window sucking out all the valuables and trashing the room. That may not be impossible, but it is highly unlikely. Rather, the more likely explanation is that a burglar broke into your house.
So basically, the key question we are asking with regards to our exploration of Jesus’ Resurrection is, which theory best explains the facts?
In line with abductive reasoning, the argument that I would like to propose can be stated as follows:
- Premise 1: Either A, B, C or D is the best explanation.
- Premise 2: Not A, B or C.
- Conclusion: Therefore, D is the best explanation.
Facts: What Are the Clues We Are Working with?
The following facts are well-established in the public domain and are considered to be undisputed:
Fact #1: Jesus’ Crucifixion
Jesus’ death by crucifixion under Pontius Pilate is well attested to, not only by Biblical sources but also by multiple extra-biblical sources.
Fact #2: The Empty Tomb
Upon His death, Jesus was placed in a tomb of a prominent Jewish religious leader, Joseph of Arimathea. After a period of three days the tomb was found to be empty.
Fact #3: Transformed lives
Before Jesus died, his followers abandoned and even denied Him. However, shortly thereafter they underwent a radical change, proclaiming that Jesus rose from the dead. They were even willing to die for this belief. They also reflected radical change in their ethics, theology and evangelism in contrast to their previously held Jewish beliefs.
Fact #4: Early Proclamation and Appearances
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ and His appearances to the disciples after He rose from the dead, were proclaimed very early, during the lifetimes of those who were eyewitnesses to the life of Jesus. Besides the whole New Testament, which is most likely written before 100 A.D., there are certain creeds and traditions within the New Testament text that were probably composes earlier than that New Testament itself. Early traditions also include the sermons by the apostles as recorded in the book of Acts. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 is a famous example of an early creed. In fact, it is one of the earliest, composed within a maximum of three years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
Fact #5: Conversion of Skeptics
Ardent skeptics of Christianity became not only believers, but also prominent leaders in the early church. James, the brother of Jesus, who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul, the ardent persecutor of the early church became its greatest missionary.
Hypotheses: What Theory Best Explains all the Facts?
Now that we have the facts, the question is, what happened, and which theory best explains this data?
The Conspiracy Theory
The Conspiracy Theory denies that Jesus really rose from the dead. Rather, after Jesus’ death and burial, the disciples came to His tomb and stole His body. Hereafter, they began to claim He rose from the dead.
As seen in Matthew 28:11-15 this is one of the oldest theories that has been posited to explain the Resurrection. It has remained a popular Jewish objection against Christianity, since the time of the apostles.
What are some of the facts that this theory can actually account for?:
- The empty tomb. If the disciples had stolen the body, then that explains why the tomb would be empty.
- Appearances and early proclamation. After stealing the body, the disciples could have fabricated the story that Jesus had appeared to them.
What this theory cannot explain:
- Transformed lives of the disciples. Many people will die for what they think is true, but nobody will die for something that they know is a blatant lie. Besides the willingness to die for their beliefs, this theory also does not explain the radical change the disciples underwent in these very beliefs and in their manner of living.
- Conversion of the skeptics. A fabricated conspiracy may have been enough for the disciples but what about those who were enemies of the faith like James and Paul? Interestingly, both James and Paul were converted directly because of Christ’s appearance to them.
- Appearances and early proclamations. The disciples might have been able to get away with a lie, but there were post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to people outside of the circle of disciples (like James and Paul). Finally, the radical nature of new teachings in their proclamations could not be explained without the Resurrection of Jesus.
Charles Colson, draws a parallel with the 1972-1973 Watergate scandal and the experience of the disciples. The cover up for Watergate only lasted for two weeks before everyone caved in to save their own skins. However, the disciples faced open embarrassment, beatings and executions, and up to their dying breath they continued to preach that Jesus physically rose from the dead. It seems as if the Conspiracy Theory falls short of explaining the facts.
The Legend Theory
The Legend Theory denies that Jesus really rose from the dead. Rather, over time the stories of Jesus were circulated throughout many different communities and the more it circulated, the more it changed, thus resulting in legends. The initial stories of Jesus being a preacher who did miracles evolved over time to the point where He was later depicted as the coming Messiah and Creator of the Universe. The main contention is that these stories were put into written form many years after the events had happened by people who themselves were not eyewitnesses. A more extreme version of this theory claims that Jesus never existed and all accounts of His life are legendary.
Lets see what this theory can explain:
- Empty tomb. The empty tomb was a mere fabrication of legend.
- Early proclamation and appearances. The main thesis of the legend theory is that there were no early proclamations and therefore the accounts of Jesus’ appearances after He rose from the dead were made up as time went by.
What can’t this theory account for?:
- Jesus’ crucifixion. Besides the Biblical literature, the crucifixion of Jesus is even attested to in extra-biblical literature. Many skeptics of Christianity recognise the crucifixion of Jesus as an historical fact.
- Early proclamation and appearances. Besides the accounts of the Gospels (which were written before 100 A.D.), the earliest sources like the creeds and sermons fall within the lifetimes of the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life. This is a major problem for the legend theory, for at its core it rests on sources that date very late and gradually developed. But, with early sources going back to the lives of the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life, it lends credence also to the other facts like the empty tomb, transformed lives and the conversion of the skeptics.
The failure of the Legend hypothesis is well addressed by John Müller:
“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 [Jesus]… 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 gray 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.”
The Hallucination Theory
The Hallucination Theory denies that Jesus rose from the dead. Rather, after Jesus’ death his followers suffered greatly from Post Death Bereavement Syndrome (PDBS) in which they had hallucinations of their former teacher. On the basis of these experiences they believed Jesus was alive and thus proclaimed Him risen from the dead.
What are some of the facts that this theory can explain?:
- Appearances and early proclamation. The disciples had hallucinations of Jesus and on the basis of these experiences they began preaching and formulating their new faith. Hence, He never really appeared to them, but was still dead in His grave.
- Transformed lives. A psychological experience in which they saw Jesus could very well explain why the lives of the disciples were transformed.
What this theory cannot explain:
- Empty tomb. If the disciples had hallucinated, then the Jewish leaders just needed to provide Jesus’ body and the case would have been solved there and then.
- Conversion of skeptics. Both James and Paul were not followers of Jesus, but were opposed to Him from the start. They would have had no cause for having trauma induced hallucinations.
- Early proclamation and appearances. The nature of Jesus’ appearances after His resurrection provide a difficulty for this theory. The fact is that the appearances of Christ happened in various different group settings. They are multi-sensory, they happened across a large geographical area over a period of 40 days. On top of that, group hallucinations are extremely rare. To have an hallucination that includes all the varying aspects presented by Jesus’ appearances would itself be a miracle!
Although some skeptics hold to the Hallucination Theory, it doesn’t seem adequate.
The Resurrection Theory
The Resurrection Theory affirms that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead.
What this theory can explain:
- Jesus’ crucifixion. This is a well-established historical fact. Not to mention that without a crucifixion there is no need for a resurrection.
- Empty tomb. This fact is enhanced even more by its proclamation as a matter of public knowledge. If there was no empty tomb this could have easily been pointed out and Christianity would never have arisen.
- Transformed lives. The physical appearances of Jesus would adequately explain the sudden radical change in the lives of the disciples.
- Early proclamation and appearances. The nature of the appearances of Jesus after His Resurrection as recorded early in the New Testament documents fit best if Jesus had really risen from the dead.
- Conversion of skeptics. A physical appearance of the One whom they opposed and believed to be dead would be more than enough to cause a miraculous conversion of Jesus’ enemies.
There are no historical facts for which the Resurrection Theory does not give a plausible explanation.
The success of the Resurrection Theory is explained by Gary Habermas:
“The strong reason for supporting the disciples’ experiences of seeing Jesus, in conjunction with the failure of alternative theses, even by critical standards, indicates that by far the most likely scenario is that the disciples actually saw the Risen Jesus. Further, the more thoroughly the natural hypotheses fail, the more likely are the historical resurrection appearances. To state this principle more briefly as a mock mathematical equation: given a reasonable explanation, the disciples’ experiences plus the failure of alternative equals the historical resurrection appearances of Jesus. This follows because, due to the failure of alternatives, the impressive evidences that make the case for the disciples’ experiences as strong as anything in the New Testament now become impressive evidences for the resurrection appearances themselves. In brief, the disciples’ experiences are recognized for what they actually were: Jesus’ post death appearances.”
So, returning to the argument at hand:
- Premise 1: Either the Conspiracy, Legend, Hallucination or Resurrection theory is the best explanation.
- Premise 2: Not the Conspiracy, Legend or Hallucination theory.
- Conclusion: Therefore, the Resurrection theory is the best explanation.
Why Does It Matter?
Now that we have seen the evidence and the arguments where does that leave us? Why is Jesus’ Resurrection important for me? The Resurrection is not just some abstract principle but is at the very heart of the Gospel. As you are reading this think about the meaning of what Christ has done, what he has done for you. Through Jesus’ death and Resurrection, the way to a living hope has been opened for all, that includes you. The cross, the symbol of worldly power, tyranny and death became a symbol of hope and redemption when Christ defeated evil through love and forgiveness.
The apostle Peter reminds us of this as he writes in 1 Peter 1:3:
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
C.S. Lewis strikingly describes the impact on the history of the world caused by the living hope that flowed forth from this world-changing event:
“If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”
The Resurrection of Jesus has always allowed Christians to fix their eyes, full of hope, on heaven. May the overwhelming evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection also be part of our reflection this Easter and may it give you hope for eternity.
Bass, Justin W. The Bedrock of Christianity: The Unalterable Facts of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection. Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2020.
Flew, Anthony & Habermas, Gary R. & Bagget, David J. (ed). Did the Resurrection Happen? A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009.
Habermas, Gary R. and Michael Licona R. The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004.
McGrew, Tim and McGrew Lydia. “The Argument from Miracles: A Cumulative Case for the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” (In The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, edited by W. L. Craig and J. P. Moreland [Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009], 593-662). Preprint version (without Blackwell page numbers or copy editing, posted with the publisher’s permission), available at http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf, accessed April 4, 2020.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003.
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the employees and members of Ratio Christi South Africa.
 The method of abductive reasoning was first formally described by American philosopher C.S. Pearce. See “Pearce on Abduction” by Igor Douven, available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/abduction/peirce.html accessed April 2, 2020.
 Josephus, Antiquities (In Josephus In Ten Volumes: Jewish Antiquities. Trans. Louis H. Feldman. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 9. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press), section 18.64.
Tacitus, Annals (In Tacitus V: Annals Books 13–16. Trans. John Jackson, Loeb Classical Library, 322. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937), 283 (section 15.44).
 The lines of evidence for the empty tomb are the following:
- The potentially embarrassing but unanimous agreement in all four Gospels that women were the earliest witnesses.
- Jerusalem, a crowded urban center especially during Passover, being the least likely place for a resurrection proclamation, if it was to be fabricated.
- The attestation by multiple sources, the early pre-Pauline creed (1 Cor. 15:3-4) that implies an empty tomb and the early tradition in sermons of the apostles in Acts 2:29-31, 13:28-31 and 36-37.
- The report by Jewish leaders in Matthew 28:11-15 conceded it by stating that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus.
 Romans 1:2-4; 10:9-10; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; Philippians 2:6-11; Colossians 1:15-20; 1 Timothy 2:5-6; 3:16.
 Acts 1:21-22; 2:22-36; 3:13-16; 4:8-10; 5:29-32; 10:39-43; 13:28-31; 17:1-3; 17:30-31.
 See the following article: “What’s the Earliest Evidence for Christianity? (The Answer May Surprise You)” by Justin W. Bass, available at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/earliest-evidence-christianity/ accessed April 4, 2020.
 Mark 6:3-4 & John 7:5.
 Acts 15:12-21.
 Acts 9:1-30; 22:5–13; 26:14-1; Galatians 1:23.
 Prior to the Resurrection the disciples would have held the following beliefs:
- The belief that the Messiah will be a conquering king who will overthrow the Romans, and not a suffering servant, dying a criminal’s death.
- That all those who die on a tree are accursed by God (Deut. 21:22-23 & Gal. 3:13).
- The Jewish concept of resurrection held that a resurrection would only take place in the last days during God’s judgement (see Jn. 11:23-24).
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 694-696.
 Charles Colson, “An Unholy Hoax? The Authenticity of Christ,” BreakPoint Syndicated Column 020329 (29 March 2002).
 James Müller, The Theory of Myths in Its Application to the Gospel History Examined and Confuted (London: Chapman, 1844), 26.
 For a more in depth treatment of this issue, see Gary R. Habermas & Joseph W. Bergeron, “The Resurrection of Jesus: A Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter,” Irish Theological Quarterly 80(2)(2015): 157-172, available at https://garyhabermas.com/articles/irish-theological-quarterly/Habermas_ITQ-2015-Bergeron.pdf accessed April 4, 2020.
 Gary R. Habermas, “The Case for Christ’s Resurrection” (In William L. Craig, Francis J. Beckwith & J.P. Moreland eds., To Everyone an Answer: The Case for the Christian Worldview, Downers Grove: Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 195.
 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. C.S. Lewis signature classics edition (London: Collins, 2012), 134.