Tag Archives: The Resurrection

Is the uniqueness of Christianity evidence of the truth of the resurrection?

On Sunday I gave as one piece of evidence for the resurrection the following claim:

The disciples’ belief in the resurrection could not have arisen so suddenly out of any “natural” developments in religion. It was in contradiction to the Messianic hopes of Palestinian Judaism and in contradiction to pagan cosmology. (And, therefore, not a conglomeration of Judaism and paganism.) The best explanation for the disciples’ belief, then, is the resurrection. This truth, along with its sudden acceptance among otherwise orthodox Jews, the post-resurrection appearances, and the evidence of the empty tomb, gives strong historical evidence to Jesus’ resurrection.

A friend of mine asked me how I would respond to the skeptic who asked about the similar claims of other religions. Here’s my attempt to do so:

The argument against this apologetic could be phrased in this way:

Apologist: Christianity appeared suddenly with a distinctive view of the world and some explanation of that worldview is required. The best explanation is that Jesus rose from the dead.

Skeptic: Other distinctive religions have arisen suddenly, doesn’t the same argument work for them?

Which religions? 

First, I would want to ask the skeptic which religions they are referring to. If they mean Judaism, then Christians would affirm the supernatural nature of Judaism’s origin, since Judaism forms the basis for Christianity. If they are referring to Buddhism or Hinduism then I would instruct them to do more study on those religions since Hinduism had a very slow and varied development over many centuries and Buddhism was originally an offshoot from Hinduism, without a sudden start. The list of religions that fir the skeptic’s claim is probably smaller than he assumes.

The closest similarities to Christianity in terms of distinctiveness and sudden acceptance are Islam, which arose suddenly during the 600’s and Mormonism in the 1800s.

A more precise argument

But at this point we should clarify the apologist’s argument more closely. He is not saying: Because Christianity is distinctive it is true. For, a belief’s distinctiveness has no bearing on its truth. Otherwise, the most bizarre beliefs would be seen as most likely to be true. The apologist is also not saying: Christianity is true because its distinctiveness arose suddenly. If they were, this would appear to apply to Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism of the major religions, but even so, it’s not the argument.

To say that a belief is true or false based on the origin of that belief is, in most instances, a case of the “genetic fallacy.” If a pluralist were to say to a Christian “you are a Christian because your parents are Christians, therefore your beliefs are not true” a Christian could respond, “you are a pluralist because you were raised in a culture where pluralism is the predominant worldview, therefore your beliefs are invalid.” Neither the pluralist nor/or the Christian is making a real argument for the truth or error of the other person’s beliefs.

Instead, the apologist’s argument is more subtle. He argues, instead, that if a belief arose suddenly then we need a historically plausible explanation for that new belief. If a friend of mine came up to me believing that aliens were about to invade the planet then I would want an explanation for this person’s new belief. Perhaps he had a deep-seated paranoia that finally bubbled to the surface. Perhaps he was on drugs and hallucinating. Perhaps he had an encounter with an alien! Regardless, this new belief would require some sort of explanation.

Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism

Here’s where we can bring Christianity back in. The earliest followers of Jesus burst onto the scene with the belief that a man Jesus of Nazareth, who had claimed to be the Messiah and had been crucified by the Roman authorities, had risen from the dead and should be worshiped and given reverence. We would want an explanation for that belief. And here Christians have a strong case that the best explanation for that belief is the historical resurrection of Jesus.[1]

Can a Muslim make the same case for the origin of Islam? Islam originated with Muhammad and the apparent revelations he received from an angel, teachings that are documented in the Koran. Like Christianity, historians would seek an explanation for Muhammad’s beliefs. Muslims argue that his beliefs came from actual encounters with an angel. Others would seek some other explanation.

There are at least two important distinctions between Christianity’s and Islam’s origins: First, it was a mass of early Christians who believed in the resurrection, not only the disciples, but hundreds who saw the resurrected Jesus. Second, there was corroborating evidence for the resurrection – the empty tomb. Whereas Muhammad’s visions were private, the disciples’ beliefs were public and falsifiable.

What about Mormonism? Like Islam, Mormonism originated from an apparent revelation, though in this case it was by means of physical objects: supposed golden plates discovered and translated – with the help of an angel – by Joseph Smith. Here, once again, the historian requires an explanation for the beliefs of Smith and other early Mormons, though again the case differs from the origin of Christianity. First, I would argue that Mormonism’s distinctives in relation to Christianity are not as distinctive as Christianity’s from its surrounding culture. The most significant distinction between Christianity and Mormonism is its rejection of Jesus’ divinity, which is really a very old and frequent heresy. Second, though, we have the supposed golden plates themselves. There were indeed a select group of people (intentionally limited) that testified to either seeing it in a vision or to even touching the physical objects themselves, but their future testimony is not uniform. Some changed their stories about the plates. This either points to a more subjective/visionary experience, or deliberate falsification. Of course, I am no expert on Mormonism, and will have to refer the reader to some other resource to explore the details, should they be interested.

And so, I think the apologists argument stands as a (relatively) unique argument for the truth of the resurrection. It is possible that other religions could make similar claims, and each would need to be evaluated on its own. And so, I wouldn’t hang my hat entirely on this single argument. It does fit nicely as one of many pieces of evidence which point to the truth of Christianity.

[1] I’m not going to make the case here, but instead refer the reader to several books including Tim Keller’s The Reason for God, Craig’s On Guard: Defending your Faith with Reason and Precision, and Dodson and Watson’s Raised?: Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection. I also gave a brief outline of alternative views in this post: Alternative theories to the resurrection.

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Evaluating alternative theories to the Resurrection

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.

Book Recommendation: 

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

The Resurrection: Does it matter?

A Christian friend once asked me, “Does it really matter if Jesus was raised from the dead?” Can we still have the Christian faith without the resurrection?

Let’s see what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. There was apparently a group of teachers in Corinth who were teaching against a final resurrection. But, says Paul, “if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised” (1 Cor 12:13). But if Christ has not been raised then “our preaching is useless and so is your faith” (1 Cor 12:14).

If Christ was not raised:

  • The apostles were “false witnesses of God” (1 Cor 12:15) since they made the resurrection the foundation of their faith. And if they are false witnesses about the resurrection then we cannot trust any of their testimony.
  • “Your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 12:17). Jesus took the penalty for our sins on the cross, but it was His resurrection that proved Christ’s divinity. And His divinity is necessary for his sacrifice to be sufficient to cover the sins of the entire world. If he was not divine, his sacrifice could not cover the sins of the world, nor my sins, nor yours.
  • “Those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost” (1 Cor 15:18). Without the resurrection we don’t have a foundation for hope after death. Those who die are lost forever.
  • “We are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). Christians are called to daily take up their cross and follow Jesus. The Christian life is one of sacrifice, which Paul knew first hand: “I face death every day… If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus with no more than human hopes, what have I gained” (1 Cor 15:31,32). Indeed, if Christ has not been raised then we should be hedonists: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Or, to put in another way: YOLO.

But, since Christ has been raised:

  • Not only has Christ been raised, but his bodily resurrection is available to those who put their faith in him. Why? Because He is “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (1 Cor 15:20)
  • The reign of death which came through Adam has been overcome by the resurrection, ushered in by Christ. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Christians are not merely children of Adam and inheritors of sin and death, but children of God, living now with his resurrection life (1 Cor 15:22).
  • Christ has defeated every enemy. In his death he disarms Satan by paying for our sins. In his resurrection he proves his power over death itself (1 Cor 15:23-26).
  • Our mortal, perishable, dishonorable, and weak bodies will be clothed with immortality, glory, and power (1 Cor 15:42-44).
  • Our “labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:59). What we do on this earth matters because it matters for eternity.

Must it be a bodily resurrection? Can’t we have the same sort of hopes with a mere spiritual resurrection? No. The Christian hope is not only a hope of being rescued from a fallen world (though it is), but of the redemption of the physical world, including the redemption of our physical bodies. Our final hope is not that our spirits will go to heaven to live with God, but that God will dwell with us on a new earth. We don’t have this final hope, though, if we don’t have the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.