In On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision and Reasonable Faith William Lane Craig presents the historical case for the resurrection. He outlines three pieces of evidence which historians need to wrestle with: The empty tomb, the post-resurrection appearances, and the disciples’ beliefs.
After building the case for this evidence, Craig refutes several alternative theories presented for explaining the evidence. Here’s his discussion in a nutshell:
Conspiracy Hypothesis: This theory states that the disciples stole the body and lied about the appearances. There are numerous problems with this hypothesis.
1. There would be no reason for the disciples to say that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. In that culture, this would have made their story considerably less credible because of the role that women played in society. Jewish men would simply not invent that story.
2. Why didn’t the disciples do more to strengthen their case like including descriptions of fulfilled prophecy, descriptions of the resurrection itself, or the guard story (included only in Matthew) in all four gospel accounts? In other words, if they went through the trouble of a conspiracy, they could have done a more convincing job.
3. And, most importantly, why would the disciples go through all the trouble of the work of the conspiracy for a story that they knew would get them killed? When other “Messiahs” died, their followers scattered. What made this one unique?
Apparent Death Hypothesis: This theory states that Jesus didn’t die on the cross but that he was buried alive. He then revived and exited the tomb, possibly with the help of the disciples. Again, problems arise:
1. If the disciples helped, then this hypothesis suffers the same problems as the conspiracy hypothesis.
2. If the disciples weren’t “in on it” then this flies in the face of everything we know about Roman crucifixion. The guards could be counted on to ensure the prisoner’s death. Especially given the beatings that Jesus endured prior to the actual crucifixion, there is simply no way he could have survived, let alone revived to the degree that his disciples would have concluded that he rose from the dead.
3. This theory also doesn’t explain why Jesus did not continue on with his disciples. If it is because he died, then it doesn’t explain the disciples’ beliefs or experience.
Displaced Body Hypothesis: This theory is that either Jesus’ body was moved with the disciples’ knowledge or they went to the wrong tomb. In either version, the disciples saw the empty tomb and concluded that Jesus rose from the dead.
1. This theory doesn’t provide any explanation for the post-resurrection appearances.
2. This theory doesn’t explain the disciples’ belief, since it’s extremely unlikely that they would have concluded that he rose from the dead. The idea of a resurrected Messiah was still outside of their understanding of what the Messiah would be like. They would certainly simply have tracked down the actual tomb.
3. If the disciples hadn’t tracked down the tomb, their opponents certainly would have to refute the disciples’ story.
4. Tombs were well noted so this theory is disconfirmed by what we know about Jewish cultural practices.
Hallucination Hypothesis: This theory is that, overcome by grief, the disciples had hallucinations of Jesus after his death and concluded that Jesus rose from the dead.
1. This theory doesn’t provide any explanation for the empty tomb. The disciples or their opponents would have produced a body to show that the disciples were merely seeing things.
2. In a Jewish context, a vision of a deceased person wouldn’t tell the person seeing the vision that the person was alive, but dead. There were others who experienced such visions and they confirmed that the person was dead and in heaven, not that they were raised from the dead.
3. The bodily nature of the appearances makes such hallucinations extremely unlikely. Jesus didn’t appear as a ghost but interacted bodily with those who saw him.
4. The sheer number of people who witnessed Jesus – including the 500 described in 1 Corinthians 15, many of whom were still alive to be interviewed, basically disproves this hypothesis.
If you take the philosophical position that miracles cannot happen than you may be forced into one of these implausible theories. But, even if you only accept the possibility of miracles, then an actual historical resurrection is the best fit for all the historical evidence available to us.
Almost all the books that I’ve read in defense of the resurrection cite N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God.