Christ’s Resurrection: Hoax or History?

Christian history, faith, life, and hope are wrapped around the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. Deny this, and you have no Christianity.

Many scholars, including some liberal theologians, do not accept the resurrection of Jesus as a historical fact, even though the New Testament considers it crucial to the Christian faith. Why? Is there sufficient evidence for us to believe in a risen Jesus?

The importance of Resurrection

The New Testament considers the resurrection of Jesus as foundational to the Christian gospel and faith. Without that there can be no Christianity. Jesus staked His entire claim as God's Son and the Savior of the world on the basis of His approaching Resurrection. He said to His enemies, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19, KJV). Peter, empowered by the Pentecost, preached concerning "this Jesus" whom "God hath raised up" (Acts 2:22, 24, KJV), and in one day 3,000 people believed in the risen Christ. In the first extant letter ever written to a Christian church, the apostle Paul argued that the Christian hope for the future is directly linked to the resurrection of Jesus (see 1 Thessalonians 4:14). Paul also argued that the Christian faith is neutralized and destroyed if Christ's resurrection did not take place: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins" (1 Corinthians 15:17, NIV). Indeed to Paul, Jesus "was declared with power to be the Son of God" because of His resurrection (see Romans 1:4, NIV). As Michael Ramsey summed it up: "No resurrection; no Christianity."1

J. I. Packer further emphasizes the strategic importance of the resurrection of Christ to Christian faith and theology:

"The Easter event, so they [Christians] affirm, demonstrated Jesus' deity; validated His teaching; attested the completion of His work of atonement for sin; confirms His present cosmic dominion and His coming reappearance as Judge; assures us that His personal pardon, presence, and power in people's lives today is fact; and guarantees each believer's own reembodiment by Resurrection in the world to come."2

Antony Flew, an atheistic philosopher and author of The Presumption of Atheism, who rejects the Resurrection as a historical event, admits that Christianity either stands or falls on this event. He accepts the New Testament definition of resurrection as the "rising from the dead" in a physical way, and says that to be an authentic believer one must adhere to the bodily resurrection. He states that a "distinguishing characteristic of the true Christian" is the acceptance "that the Resurrection did literally happen." Surprisingly, he also contends that if the Resurrection were true it would prove that all other world religious and philosophical systems are "ruinously wrong."3 No wonder the Bible presents Christ as the sole way to salvation (see John 14:6; Acts 4:12).

The Resurrection and the skeptic

In spite of such clear biblical evidence on the resurrection of Christ and the early Christians' acceptance of it, why do we have so much skepticism on this account, particularly among the "intellectual" community? First, such intellectuals reflect a presuppositional bias against the miraculous and are convinced that the Resurrection could never have any historical credibility. Second, they assert that the Gospels are not historically accurate and that the five different accounts of the resurrection (Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15) contain mythical legends with "contradictions of the most glaring kind."4

This rejection of the Resurrection and the Gospel narratives was greatly influenced by the Enlightenment of the 18th century and the theory of naturalistic evolution of the 19th century. These movements provided the intellectual climate for a critical investigation of the Gospels, resulting in the "quest for the historical Jesus." Rationalism and liberal scholarship voted for what they claimed as the authentic and moralistic Jesus of history, as opposed to the miraculous resurrected Christ of the Gospels.

This "quest" began with Reimarus in Hamburg, Germany, in 1789 and continued with successive scholars who explained away the miracles as natural occurrences, fabrications, misconceptions, or mythical interpretations of what really happened. This was in line with what the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) had attempted earlier. Hume believed that for something to be true it must conform to the uniformity of natural law. If this is so, the laws of nature invalidate the miraculous. Such rejection of the Old and New Testament miracles dominated more than a century of biblical research and climaxed in Rudolf Bultmann, one of the most brilliant theological minds of this century. Bultmann viewed the Bible's fundamental worldview as mythology. He set out to "demythologize" the Bible by extracting or reinterpreting the miraculous/mythical elements in order to discover their relevant existential moral value. So Bultmann concluded that "a historical fact which involves a resurrection is utterly inconceivable."5

But such a "scientific" historical-critical method assumes that history is a closed continuum in which human reasoning and observation are the measure of all historical reality. It excludes the possibility of the miraculous and the supernatural. It also prevents skeptical individuals from being objective in their analysis of the New Testament documents and the evidence for the reliability of the Scriptures.

The reliability of the New Testament

Two of the primary reasons given for considering the Gospels unreliable are (1) that the text has been altered, corrupted, and tampered with by Christian scribes or (2) that legendary and miraculous elements were incorporated into the story of Jesus by the disciples and the early church. This resulted in a combination of legitimate eyewitness historical facts interspersed with "spiritual" fiction.

But facts prove otherwise. Paul's letters (Galatians and 1 Thessalonians) predate the finished forms of the Gospel accounts and contain clear statements that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead. Paul wrote these letters within 16 to 21 years after the Resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15, which contains an early Christian creed affirming the Resurrection, was written around A.D. 55, only 25 years removed from the death of Christ. William F. Albright, this century's most revered archaeologist, states that "every book of the New Testament was written by a baptized Jew before the forties and eighties of the first century A.D. (very probably sometime between A.D. 50 and 75 [sic])."6 Even a critical scholar like John A. T. Robinson says "that all the Gospels were written in their final form before A.D. 70" and the fall of Jerusalem.7

This confirmation of the early Gospel dating knocks out the worn-out accusation that the source of the miracle-claims of Jesus and His resurrection were mythological legends developed during the lengthy interval between the lifetime of Christ and the time the Gospels were written. Similarly, we can also dismiss the charge that the disciples created a fictional supernatural Jesus. To think of the disciples in such a role is a psychological absurdity in the light of what happened at the Pentecost and after: an illiterate, inhibited, frightened band of disciples were transformed into bold defenders and proclaimers of the risen Jesus as eyewitnesses. They confronted a world with that message and created a community of believers that no opposition could silence. Donald Guthrie is right in saying, "The rise of faith demands a supernatural activity as much as the Resurrection itself, especially since it arose in the most adverse conditions."8

Any suspected legendary exaggeration written or preached by the apostles or other contemporary believers would have been immediately checked by hostile Roman and Jewish authorities who were alive when Christ was on earth. It would have been possible for them to refute publicly any false notion that He had risen from the dead. The fact that there were an impressive number of eye-witnesses guarantees the Gospels' reliability.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was considered the saviour and preserver of Western Civilization during World War II. If someone now suggested that he performed miraculous feats in defending England through some supernatural power, there would be a public outcry. Eyewitnesses could confirm that Churchill was simply an ordinary man, though a competent leader and strategist. The length of time since World War II is longer than the gap between Christ's death and resurrection and the written records about Him.

The procedure for assessing the reliability of the New Testament is the same as for any other ancient writing where the original has not survived. This test is technically known as the "bibliographic test." It calculates the critical time interval between the original writing of the document and the number of the oldest copies that have survived.

It has been estimated that there are at least 5,000 ancient handwritten copies of the Gospels in Greek.9 Tyndale House in Cambridge, England, is a center specializing in biblical research. They verify that there are hundreds upon hundreds of copies made before A.D. 1000. Today there are more than 22,000 copies of New Testament manuscripts in existence.10 These statistics for the New Testament are staggering when you compare what is available of other contemporary ancient writings. Tacitus' Roman History, which is considered to be a primary historical source for that era, can only confirm 20 surviving copies. Thucydides History and Caesar's Gallic War can claim only 8 and 10 copies, respectively.

The dates of the surviving New Testament manuscripts are very close to the original writings. Two existing copies of the New Testament are dated 350, which is less than three hundred years after the original. Incomplete copies of the New Testament that contain the Gospels are dated before A.D. 250. This compares very favorably with the 1300, 900, and 700 years for the secular historians cited above. The most impressive discovery is the John Rylands manuscript in the British Museum, a fragment of John's Gospel dated 130 A.D. John A. T. Robinson remarks: "To return to the textual transmission of the New Testament, the wealth of manuscripts, and above all the narrow interval of time between the writing and the earliest extant copies, make it by far the best attested text of any ancient writing in the world."11

The evidences for the Resurrection

There are two significant strands of evidence for Jesus' resurrection. The first is the "empty tomb;" the second is the post-Resurrection experiences of the disciples in which they claim they saw the risen Lord.

The empty tomb. All four Gospels and 1 Corinthians agree that three days after Christ was crucified, His tomb was empty. The disciples insisted that the explanation for the empty tomb was that He was raised bodily from the dead. As lawyer Sir Norman Anderson comments: "It was the solid fact of the empty tomb and their totally unexpected encounters with the risen Lord Himself that brought them--although not always at once--from despair to triumphant joy."12

Critics have offered theories about the empty tomb. These theories were progressively developed during the popular "quest for the historical Jesus." One such attempt is the "Wrong Tomb Theory" originated by Kirsopp Lake. He states that in the semi-darkness of the early morning hours the women mistakenly went to the wrong tomb. They were directed by a young man who they thought was an angel to another tomb: "See the place where the Lord lay." The women and subsequently the disciples went to the wrong tomb and finding it empty, mistakenly proclaimed that Christ was risen.

But there's one thing wrong with this theory. The Jewish and Roman authorities, knowing the location of Joseph's tomb, could easily have proved that Christ's body was still there and would have immediately quelled the false claims of His disciples that He had been raised from the dead. Anderson's argument against this theory is persuasive: "So why did they not obliterate this dangerous movement by denying the very basis of the apostolic preaching, or even by displaying the decomposing body of the One whose resurrection was so confidently proclaimed?"13

Another argument against the empty tomb is the "Swoon Theory," which holds that Jesus was taken down from the cross in a coma-like condition but was not actually dead. The dampness of the tomb instead of killing Him revived Him. We are asked to believe that He unwound the grave clothes weighing nearly 100 pounds, removed the two-ton boulder at the mouth of the grave, tiptoed past the sleeping guard, escaped to His disciples and convinced them that He had risen from the dead.

A variation of this theory is the Passover plot, popularized in the 1960s by Hugh Schonfield with the best-selling book by the same name. Jesus carefully plotted His "resurrection" with Joseph of Arimathea by taking a powerful drug on the cross, which sent Him into a death-like trance. He was immediately removed by Joseph from the cross in this induced swoon state and His body was placed in the tomb. This imaginary theory does not answer the question how the Roman soldiers, who were experts with the grim task of crucifixion, would have been fooled into thinking a person was dead. The revived Jesus would also have had to die later, and His body disposed of without anyone knowing about it.

The appearances of the risen Jesus. The second significant evidence for the Resurrection are the post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus to His disciples and other believers. This most adequately explains what happened to His body: It was raised from the dead by the power of God. Even the more radical skeptical historians and theologians believe that historical investigation substantiates the record that the disciples were convinced that they had seen the risen Lord. This was the common testimony of the apostles from what the eyewitnesses had recounted. As C. H. Dodd writes: "Something had happened to these men, which they could describe only by saying that they had 'seen the Lord.' This is not an appeal to any generalized 'Christian experience.' It refers to a particular series of occurrences, unique in character, unrepeatable, and confined to a limited period."14

Nevertheless, these same critical scholars are not prepared to admit that Jesus actually rose from the grave. They rather give alternative explanations for the subjective and collective "Easter" experiences of the disciples. For example, Bishop James A. Pike, who embraced spiritism shortly before his son's death and claimed to have communicated with the dead, wrote of his experiences in The Other Side: An Account of My Experiences With Psychic Phenomena. In this book he claims that the disciples did have encounters and visitations that transformed their lives. He interprets such experiences as a substitute for the bodily Resurrection. According to Pike's "spirit Resurrection theory," Jesus' body did not rise, but His spirit escaped His body and He appeared to His disciples in spirit form or as a ghost. Spiritualists and many liberal theologians and laymen hold such a position.

However, this spiritualistic theory does not agree with the explicit statement of Jesus to His disciples. When Jesus appeared to the disciples in an upper room and they were startled thinking they were seeing a ghost, Jesus calmed their fears by saying, "'It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have'" (Luke 24:36-39, NIV). This theory also does not give any explanation for the missing body in the empty tomb, nor does it recognize that the Greek word for resurrection specifically refers to a body being raised and never to the departure of a spirit from a dead person's corpse.

A naturalistic psychological theory that is often used to explain away the Resurrection encounters of the disciples is the "Hallucination Theory." Hallucinations are almost exclusively confined to certain psychological types and are highly individualistic. It is impossible that 500 people hallucinated collectively in one place (see 1 Corinthians 15:6) and that on other occasions other individuals (see Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:36-38; John 20:26-29; Matthew 28:16-20) could have had precisely the same fantasy. These experiences are indicative of objective facts rather than subjective impressions. The psychological preconditions for these men to hallucinate are also lacking. Nor was Paul a candidate for hallucination about the risen Christ on the Damascus Road with his mind set to persecute Christians. Furthermore, the abrupt termination of the Resurrection appearances to all the disciples suggests that they were not hallucinatory.

The Christian's certainty

When we consider the evidence as a whole, the only possible explanation for the fact of the empty tomb, the disciples' witness of the post-Resurrection appearances of Christ, the transformation of these apostles, the subsequent conversion of thousands on the day of Pentecost, and the spread of the gospel throughout the world can be the Resurrection. As Wolfhart Pannenberg puts it: "The Easter appearances are not to be explained from the Easter faith of the disciples; rather, conversely, the Easter faith of the disciples is to be explained from the appearances."15

We as Christians not only have the certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, but we have the hope that because He lives, we too shall experience the resurrection from the dead. Our eternal life depends on the fact that He died and rose again. Our faith rests not on a hoax, but on a historical certainty.

Joe Jerus has been a campus chaplain for 25 years. He currently ministers on the campus of California State University, Fullerton, and other colleges in Southern California.

Notes and References

  1. In John Young, The Case Against Christ (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986), p. 160.
  2. In Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew, Did Jesus Rise From the Dead? (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), p. 143.
  3. Ibid., p. 3.
  4. John Wenham, The Easter Enigma (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), p. 9.
  5. Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth (London: SPCK, 1953), p. 39.
  6. William F. Albright, "Toward a More Conservative View," Christianity Today (January 18, 1963), p. 3.
  7. In R. T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986), p. 101.
  8. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 183.
  9. Bruce Metzger, The Text of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 36.
  10. Josh McDowell and Bill Wilson, He Walked Among Us (San Bernardino, Calif.: Here's Life Publishers, 1988), p. 113.
  11. In Young, p. 89.
  12. Sir Norman Anderson, Jesus Christ, the Witness of History (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1985), p. 117.
  13. Ibid., p. 129.
  14. C. H. Dodd, The Founder of Christianity (London: Collins, 1971), p. 168.
  15. Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man (London, SCM, 1968), p. 96.