Atheists and non-believers object to the resurrection by asserting that dead people do not rise from the dead. Because dead people do not rise from the dead, then Jesus did not rise from the dead. This objection is based on a worldview that rejects the supernatural. But if one’s worldview rejects the possibility of miracles, the existence of God, and that facts of Christianity, then one must come up with an alternate explanation to account for the historical evidence of the resurrection. There is a set of “minimal facts” about the resurrection of Jesus that almost all scholars, both believers and unbelievers, agree on and that must be explained. These facts are as follows:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried.
2. Jesus’ tomb was empty, and his body was missing.
3. The disciples had actual experiences of what they thought were real appearances of a risen Jesus and they genuinely believed He had risen from the dead.
4. The lives of the disciples were completely changed by their experience of a risen Jesus to the point that they were willing to give their lives for their new-found faith.
5. The tradition of Christ’s resurrection was communicated very early.
6. Men like James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus, and Paul, the persecutor of believers, became believers because of meeting what they thought was the resurrected Jesus.
Let’s consider five explanations of the empty tomb of Jesus and how they are supported by the facts.
1. The Swoon Theory. This theory proposes that Jesus did not really die on the cross; he only passed out and was later revived. This theory is problematic for a few reasons. First, the Romans knew how to kill people. People crucified by the Romans did not survive. Second, even if Jesus could have lived through the crucifixion, there is no way he could have escaped the tomb in his weakened condition. When the Jews buried their dead, they wound them up in strips of cloth, binding their hands and feet. The difficulty of getting free of his graveclothes would have been extraordinary for any man, and much more so for Jesus who had been crucified. Of course, if He had managed to do so, in the mouth of the tomb where he was buried was an enormous stone, and beyond it was a guard of Roman soldiers. It would have been impossible for Jesus to move the stone or sneak past the guards. Third, even if Jesus had survived the crucifixion and managed to escape the tomb, His body would have been in such a horrible state that no one would have mistaken Him for being resurrected. The people who saw Jesus reported He had a glorified, resurrected body, not a body recovering from a crippling ordeal.
2. The Conspiracy Theory. In this scenario, the resurrection is a deception perpetrated by some disciples who stole Jesus body. Some objections to this theory are that, first, if it was a conspiracy, how did the disciples steal the body? It was being guarded by Roman soldiers. The guards knew their lives would be forfeited if they failed in their assignment to guard the body. Second, as mentioned above, the disciples all gave their lives for their belief in the risen Christ. People may lie for personal profit, but few people continue the lie when their lives are on the line.
3. The Hallucination Theory. This hypothesis suggests the disciples hallucinated about a resurrected Jesus. Jesus was still dead and still in the tomb; their belief in His resurrection was simply the product of their overactive imaginations. Problems to this hypothesis include, first, that there was little precedent for thinking that someone could come back from the dead. The Pharisees believed there would be a general resurrection at the end of time, but no one imagined that an individual would resurrect. Second, some of the people who witnessed the resurrected Christ were not his disciples before the resurrection. They only became disciples because of witnessing his resurrection. Third, the reports of Christ’s resurrection are not of the type that can be produced by a hallucination. Hallucinations are always individual occurrences, but Jesus was often seen by groups of people, and in one instance, over five hundred people saw Jesus at one time.
4. The Legend Theory. By this theory, the account of Jesus resurrection is a legend, a myth that grew up over a long period of time. The primary objection to this theory is simply that the written record does not bear it out. The time between the death of Jesus and the written records of his resurrection are short. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians within twenty years of Jesus’ resurrection. The witnesses to the resurrection that he mentions were still alive and available for anyone to interview. Paul’s words are written too soon to be myth. He regards the resurrection as a verifiable historical fact.
5. The Truth. Jesus really rose from the dead. The evidence rules out all natural options that explain away the resurrection, leaving only the supernatural to account for the resurrection that so convinced the first Christians. As Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes famously said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” As N.T. Wright says, “The proposal that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead possesses unrivaled power to explain the historical data at the heart of early Christianity.”
Some people dismiss the story of Jesus as nothing but a fairy tale, or a myth, but I like what C.S. Lewis said after J.R.R. Tolkien witnessed to him. He wrote, “The story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.” The implications of the historical evidence are enormous. They are that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus is the God He says He is, and that what the Bible says about God, creation, sin, judgment, eternity, and heaven and hell are true. Two more implications of the resurrection are:
That, yes, indeed, God CARES for you. And that because of this you have a choice to make.
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About the Author: Dr. Daniel King is a missionary evangelist who has traveled to over seventy nations in his quest for souls. His goal is to lead 1,000,000 people to Jesus every year through massive Gospel Festivals, distribution of literature, and leadership training. Because of his experience and research on evangelism, he is widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in mass evangelism. As an evangelist, he has a deep interest in using apologetics to convince skeptics that God is real.