What is the Best Explanation for the Resurrection Appearances?


When it comes to the Christian faith, there is no doctrine more important than the resurrection of Jesus. Biblical faith is not simply centered in ethical and religious teachings. Instead, it is founded on the person and work of Jesus. If Jesus was not raised from the dead, we as His followers are still dead in our sins (1 Cor. 15:7). Explanations try to show how something happened. That is, what is the cause for something that has happened. As I have noted elsewhere, the resurrection story started very, very, earlyAlso, there is an excellent post on the empty tomb issue over at Wintery Knight’s blog.

Anyway, let’s take a look at what explains the resurrection appearances. First, let’s observe the list of appearances:

  • Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, shortly after his resurrection (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18)
    • Jesus appears to the women returning from the empty tomb (Matthew 28:8-10)
    • Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Mark 16:12,13; Luke 24:13-35)
    • Jesus appears to Peter ( Luke 24:34, 1 Corinthians 15:5)
    • Jesus appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-23).
    • Jesus again appears to his disciples, in Jerusalem. At this time Thomas is present (John 20:24-29).
    • Jesus appears to his disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 28:16; John 21:1,2)
    • Jesus is seen by 500 believers at one time (1 Corinthians 15:6)
    • Jesus appears to James ( 1 Corinthians 15:7)
    • Jesus appears to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (Matthew 28:16-20).
    • He appeared to his disciples (Luke 24:50-53).
    • He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:3-6; 1 Corinthians 15:8).

I will go ahead and offer some comments from various scholars and what they say about the appearances and the experiences of the disciples:

E.P. Sanders:

That Jesus’ followers (and later Paul) had resurrection experiences is, in my judgment, a fact. What the reality was that gave rise to the experiences I do not know. “I do not regard deliberate fraud as a worthwhile explanation. Many of the people in these lists were to spend the rest of their lives proclaiming that they had seen the risen Lord, and several of them would die for their cause. Moreover, a calculated deception should have produced great unanimity. Instead, there seem to have been competitors: ‘I saw him first!’ ‘No! I did.’ Paul’s tradition that 500 people saw Jesus at the same time has led some people to suggest that Jesus’ followers suffered mass hysteria. But mass hysteria does not explain the other traditions.” “Finally we know that after his death his followers experienced what they described as the ‘resurrection’: the appearance of a living but transformed person who had actually died. They believed this, they lived it, and they died for it.”[1]

Bart Ehrman:

It is a historical fact that some of Jesus’ followers came to believe that he had been raised from the dead soon after his execution. We know some of these believers by name; one of them, the apostle Paul, claims quite plainly to have seen Jesus alive after his death. Thus, for the historian, Christianity begins after the death of Jesus, not with the resurrection itself, but with the belief in the resurrection.[2]

Ehrman also says:

We can say with complete certainty that some of his disciples at some later time insisted that . . . he soon appeared to them, convincing them that he had been raised from the dead.[3]

 Ehrman also goes onto say:  

 Historians, of course, have no difficulty whatsoever speaking about the belief in Jesus’ resurrection, since this is a matter of public record.[4]

Why, then, did some of the disciples claim to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion? I don’t doubt at all that some disciples claimed this. We don’t have any of their written testimony, but Paul, writing about twenty-five years later, indicates that this is what they claimed, and I don’t think he is making it up. And he knew are least a couple of them, whom he met just three years after the event (Galatians 1:18-19).[5]

Reginald Fuller:

The disciples thought that they had witnessed Jesus’ appearances, which, however they are explained, “is a fact upon which both believer and unbeliever may agree.[6]

Fuller goes onto say:

Even the most skeptical historian” must do one more thing: “postulate some other event” that is not the disciples’ faith, but the reason for their faith, in order to account for their experiences.  Of course, both natural and supernatural options have been proposed. [7]

What did the disciples see? Let’s now look at some of the comments by how some scholars account for the appearances:

Marcus Borg

The historical ground of Easter is very simple: the followers of Jesus, both then and now, continued to experience Jesus as a living reality after his death. In the early Christian community, these experiences included visions or apparitions of Jesus. [8]

Rudolph Bultmann

The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter is in any sense in historical event additional to the event of the Cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since is was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history. All that historical criticism can establish is that the first disciples came to believe the resurrection.[9]

John Dominic Crossan

When the evangelists spoke about the resurrection of Jesus, they told stories about apparitions or visions. People have visions…. there is nothing impossible about that. But were these post-resurrection stories accounts of historical visions or apparitions? What sort of narratives were they? Were they histories or parables? [10]

Gerd Lüdemann

At the heart of the Christian religion lies a vision described in Greek by Paul as ōphthē—-“he was seen.” And Paul himself, who claims to have witnessed an appearance asserted repeatedly “I have seen the Lord.” So Paul is the main source of the thesis that a vision is the origin of the belief in resurrection….When we talk about visions, we must include something that we experience every night when we dream. That’s our subconscious was of dealing with reality. A vision of that sort was at the heart of the Christian religion; and that vision, reinforced by enthusiasm, was contagious and led to many more visions, until we have an appearance to more than five hundred people. [11]

So having read these comments, keep in mind that several early followers of Jesus certainly did experience supernatural visions such as Stephen (Acts 7:55–56), Peter (see Acts 10), see Paul (Acts 16:8; 18;9). Remember, a subjective vision is a specific type of dream or hallucination in that it has a religious subject. Nevertheless, it is still simply “a product of our minds and has no cause or reality outside of our mind.”(12)

Last year, Ehrman  released another book on Christology.

In the book  he devotes two chapters to the resurrection. He tends to lean on the Lüdemann hypothesis that the disciples had visionary experiences. In it he says:

It is undisputable that some of the followers of Jesus came to think that he had been raised from the dead, and that something had to have happened to make them think so. Our earliest records are consistent on this point, and I think they provide us with the historically reliable information in one key aspect: the disciples’ belief in the resurrection was based on visionary experiences. I should stress it was visions, and nothing else, that led to the first disciples to believe in the resurrection. (13)

So here Ehrman sides with the visionary language that Crossan, Borg and Lüdemann use. The good news is that Ehrman goes onto to define what he means by ‘visions’ of Jesus. He describes visions as something that are either ‘veridical’ or  ‘nonveridical.’  Veridical visions means people tend to see things that are really there while nonveridical visions the opposite-what a person sees is not based any kind of external reality.  It is the latter that leads to what is called the hallucination hypothesis. In other words, skeptics assert that nonveridical visions can be attributed to some sort of psychological explanation. Ehrman then punts to his agnosticism again and says he doesn’t care if the appearances can be attributed to either veridical” or nonveridical visionary experiences or anything else. This is rather confusing in that Ehrman first says it is visions that can explain the resurrection appearances. Given Ehrman and others like Lüdemann punt to the vision hypothesis, Bryan goes on to say the following about the quotes from Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan.

One may grant that such visions as Lüdemann describes were common in antiquity and are so still—I  will confess to having had two such experiences myself. Yet however common such visions may have been or are (and in sense, the commoner they were or are, the stronger this objection becomes) neither in antiquity nor in the present are they normally regarded as evidence of resurrection. On the contrary they are taken to be at worst hallucinations, and at best (as I take them to be) genuine communications of the comfort about the departed from beyond the grave. But in neither case are they considered to be declarations that the departed one has risen from the dead. That, however, is what the texts claim about Jesus. That is what Peter and Paul actually do say. Why do they do that? Lüdemann’s hypothesis leaves that question unanswered. Hence, it does not explain what Ludemann himself says needs to be explained. [14]

Bryan goes on to say the following about the quotes from Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan:

If the experience of the first Christians was the kind of experience that Bultmann, Borg, and Crossan suggest—visionary and internal, simply the conversion of their hearts to God’s truth and the real meaning of Jesus life and death—then why on earth did they not say so? The language to describe such experiences was clearly available, so why did the first Christians not use it? Why did they choose instead to use the language of resurrection, words such as egeiro and anistemi, words which, we have noted, were normally used in quite different connections and whose use here was therefore inviting misunderstanding of experiences that would, in fact, have been perfectly acceptable to many in the ancient world who found resurrection ridiculous?”  Why did the first Christians bring “resurrection” into their proclamation at all (other than future open)—unless they genuinely believed that something had happened that could be only be spoken of in this way? [15]

Building on what Bryan says, Peter Walker says:

“Resurrection” (anastasia) in Greek was a word which has already developed a  clear meaning. It referred to a physical raising back to life within this world of those whom God chose –“the resurrection of the just” “on the last day” (cf. Matthew 22:28; John 11:24). So when the disciples claimed Resurrection for Jesus, they were claiming that God  had done for one man what they were expecting him to do for all his faithful people at the end of time (what Paul refers to as the “hope” of Israel [Acts 23;26:6]. If they had meant merely that Jesus was a good fellow who did not deserve  to die and whose effect on people would surely continue beyond his  death, they would have used some other word. They would not have dared to use this word, which meant one thing and only one thing—God’s act of raising from physical death. That is what they meant. And that is what they would have been heard  to mean.[16]

Furthermore, the use of the word “ōphthē” (the Greek word for appeared) shows the Gospel writers did believe that Jesus appeared physically. “There you will see ( ōphthē) him” (Matt. 28:7); “The Lord has risen and has appeared (ōphthē) to Simon” (Luke 24:24). When they used “ōphthē” here, it means that He appeared physically to them. So when Paul gives his list of appearances in 1 Cor. 15:3-8, the issue becomes whether the appearance to him is the same as it was to the disciples. Bryan says:

There is no indication that he wants  to regard the last item in that series as essentially different from the others. Second, he uses the word “ ōphthē” of the appearances to himself as he uses of the appearances to the others. He regards it as the same kind.  He saw the risen Lord as they did.  There is no doubt the post resurrection body of Jesus (after the ascension) had to be somewhat different than the body the disciples saw. [17]

So in other words, Paul employs the same Greek verb as the tradition, (“he was seen”), to describe his personal experience of the risen Christ.  Hence, Paul’s experience was the same in character as that of the preceding disciples. To see more, see our post called“What Did Paul See?”

Let’s return to Bryan’s comment: “Why did the first Christians bring “resurrection” into their proclamation at all (other than future open)—unless they genuinely believed that something had happened that could be only be spoken of in this way?”

Were there other options on the table other than “resurrection”? Let’s look at some of them:


We just saw some like Borg and Crossan postulate the possibility of apparitions or visions. Apparitions is a word used for visual, paranormal related manifestations of deceased loved ones. People in the ancient world as well were familiar with apparitions. Therefore, the witnesses to the resurrection could of described the appearances of Jesus as apparitions. Most of this is discussed in Dale C. Allision’s Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters. As far as apparitions Allison says, “I am sure that the disciples saw Jesus after his death. [18] But he concludes that the apparitions of the dead do not explain completely these appearances.[19} He goes onto say: “Typical encounters with the recently deceased do not issue in claims about an empty tomb, nor do they lead to the founding of a new religion. And they certainly do not typically eat and drink, and they are not seen by crowds of up to five hundred people.” [20]

Ironically, Crosssan says in his book with Jonathan Reed that resurrection is not the same thing as apparitions. They say:

Resurrection is not the same thing as apparition. The question is not whether apparitions or visions occur or how they are to be explained. The ancient world assumed their possibility; for example the slain Hector appears to Anchises at the end of the Trojan War and the start of Virgil’s Aenied. The modern world does too; for example, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders-IV judges them not as mental disorders but as common characteristics of uncomplicated grief. That might be especially so, then and now, after the sudden, tragic , or terrible death or disappearance of a beloved person. Even if, therefore, no Christian texts had mentioned apparitions or visions of Jesus after his crucifixion, we could have safely postulated their occurrence. But, and this is not the point, apparition is not the same as resurrection or anything like enough to invoke its presence. (21)


Translation is seen in Elijah and Enoch –they did not die, but were simply  translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:11; Genesis 5:24).  Jews were no doubt familiar with the translation stories. Also, within the extra-canonical Jewish writing called Testament of Job 40, an account of translation was given as a category to describe recently deceased people as well as to the living. Translation is defined as the bodily assumption of someone out of this world into heaven. But the witnesses to the resurrection didn’t utilize the translation category. Once again, Cross and Reed agree that Resurrection isn’t the same thing as exaltation. They say:

Resurrection is not the same as exaltation. Within Jewish tradition, certainly very holy persons were taken up to God rather than being consigned to an earthly tomb, for example, Enoch from among the Patriarchs or Elijah form among the prophets. The Greco Roman equivalent was apotheosis; for example, Augustan coins showed Julius Caesar’s spirit ascending like an upward shooting star to take its place among the heavenly divinities. Those were uniquely individual cases and had no relationship to the fate of others. If one wanted to say that about Jesus, the proper terms were exaltation, ascension, apotheosis, not resurrection. Put  another way, with regard to Jesus, you could not have resurrection without exaltation, but you could have  exaltation without resurrection. Jesus could be at the right hand of God without ever mentioning resurrection. (22)

Furthermore, given the importance of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, most, if not all Jewish people are familiar with the Macabeean literature. There is the well known Jewish martyrdom tradition which tells the story of the Macabeean martyrs. These Jewish martyrs died more than a century and a half before the birth of Jesus because of their refusal to eat pork, choosing to be martyred rather than transgress a prohibition of the Torah. These martyrs were killed in 167 B.C.E by the Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Because of their willingness to be martyred, they looked forward to the promise of being exalted in the resurrection. For example, in two passages, there is a response to the one responsible for their martyrdom, Antiochus. It says in 2 Maccabees 7:9, “One of the brothers says to Antiochus, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.” Also, it says in 2 Maccabees 7:14, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life.” Do these texts lay the groundwork for the belief in a dying martyr who is exalted in the resurrection? These Jewish martyrs in 2 Macc. 7 believed they would be raised on the last day when God came. Even Martha says to Jesus that she knew Lazarus would be raised on the last day (John 11: 24). However, the resurrection of Jesus occurs within history itself, well ahead of ahead of the end of time when all Israel would experience a general resurrection. As Paul said, “Christ is the first fruits of those who sleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was unique.

Immortality of the Soul

Paul nor the other witnesses refer to the resurrection of Jesus as immortality of the soul. And if Paul and others were trying to attract non Jews to the Jesus movement, it would have been pointless to push a material resurrection on them.  As Ben Witherington says:

It is sometimes claimed that the stress on the physicality of the resurrection of Jesus is pure apologetics. I have always been mystified by this claim. If the gospels were written in the last third of the first century, when the church not only had a viable Gentile mission but also was already well on the way to being a largely Gentile community, why would a community trying to attract Gentiles make up a resurrection story, much less emphasize the material resurrection of Jesus? This notion was not a regular part of the pagan lexicon of the afterlife at all, as even a cursory study of the relevant passages in the Greek and Latin classics shows. Indeed, as Acts 17 suggests, pagans were more likely than not to ridicule such an idea. I can understand the apologetic theory if, and only if, the Gospels were directed largely to Pharisaic Jews or their sympathizers. I know of no scholar, however, who has argued such a case.[23]


I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence . . . Is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another. . . . In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged.”–Atheist Richard Carrier―The Spiritual Body of Christ in Empty Tomb, pg. 184.

To posit the hallucination hypothesis, this puts us back to something like the apparition category.  It is true that hallucinations among healthy people do sometimes occur in situations of bereavement when a loved one dies. But these hallucinations don’t lead to the belief that the person has been resurrected nor that the deceased person is alive and embodied. (24) Therefore, when bereavement hallucinations are not simply recognized as hallucinations, they may naturally be interpreted as brief visitations of the spirit of the deceased from “beyond the grave.” [25] So this leads us back to the apparition category that we previous discussed. People in the ancient world knew the difference between apparitions and resurrection.

As N.T Wright says:

Everybody knew about ghosts, spirits, visions, hallucinations and so on. Most people in the ancient world believed in some such things. They were quite clear that that wasn’t what they meant by resurrection. While Herod reportedly thought Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the dead, he didn’t think he was a ghost. Resurrection meant bodies. We cannot emphasize strongly enough this too strongly, not least because much modern writing continues, most misleadingly, to use the word resurrection as a virtual synonym for life after death in the popular sense.  (26)

Wright goes onto answer the objection that in the ancient world people had visions of someone they love who had died and this was what happened to the disciples. According to Wright, they might say, “It’s his angel” or “It’s his spirit” or “his ghost.” They wouldn’t say, “He’s been raised from the dead.” (27). 

Note: For further reading, see The Resurrection of Jesus: a Clinical Review of Psychiatric Hypotheses for the Biblical Story of Easter, Joseph W. Bergeron, M.D. and Gary R. Habermas, Ph.D


Also, remember that resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation. As Crossan and Reed say:

It did not mean that an almost revived Jesus had been revived once taken down from the cross. Individuals could survive an interrupted crucifixion, as Josephus mentions in his Life. He begged Titus for three acquaintances already on crosses after the destruction of Jerusalem , in 70 C.E. and, although, “two of them died in the physicians hands, the third survived.” (421). So also could criminals hung by strangulation be taken down from London’s eighteenth century Tyburn Tree and resuscitated (“resurrected” as they put it). But the Christian traditions’ on “after three days” or “on the third day” is its way of emphasizing that Jesus was really and truly dead. Only a visit to the tomb after such an initial period could certify the person was actually dead. That is why in John 11:17 notes that ‘when Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.” He was, in other words, certainly and securely dead. (28)

 Back to Resurrection

It seems that no matter how hard scholars or skeptics punt to subjective visions, apparitions, or hallucinations, the real question at hand is why the early Jesus movement stuck with the resurrection category.  Perhaps  reason they stuck  with the resurrection category is because that is exactly what happened  to Jesus!  (John 11:25). As Crossan and Reed say,

To say Jesus had been raised from the dead was to assert that the general resurrection had begun. Only for such an assertion was “resurrection’ or “raised from the dead” the proper terminology. The general resurrection was, it were, the grand finale of apocalypse, the final moment when a god of justice publicly and visibly justified the world, turned it from a  place of evil and violence to one of goodness and peace. To announce the resurrection of Jesus was to claim such an event had already started. (29)

One final thought: The lesson here is to try to attempt to understand the context of the resurrection claim. If we actually attempt to do this, false analogies like Big Foot, Elvis, and UFO sightings will begin to look incredibly silly!


(1) E.P. Sanders , The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993),  279-280.

(2) Bart Ehrman,  The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, (Third  Edition New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 276.

(3)Bart Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium(New York: Oxford University, 1999), 230

(4) Ibid, 231.

(5) Ehrman,  The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 282.

(6) Reginald  Fuller, The Foundations of New Testament Christology(New York: Scribner’s, 1965), 142.

(7)Reginald Fuller, The Formation of the Resurrection Narratives (New York: Macmillan, 1980),

(8) Ibid, 2, 169, 181.

(9) Rudolph Bultmann, “The New Testament and Mythology,” in Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, ed. Hans Werner Bartsch, trans. Reginald H. Fuller (London: S.P.C.K, 1953-62), 38, 42.

(10) John Dominic Crossan, A Long Way from Tipperary: A Memoir (San Francisco: HarperSanFransisco, 2000), 164-165.

(11) Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology. Translated by John Bowden. London: SCM, 1994 (1994), 97, 100.

(12) Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2004), 111–112.

(13) Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014),  183-184.

(14) Christopher Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford University Press, USA, 2011), 163-164.

[15] Ibid, 169-170.

[16] P.W. Walker, The Weekend That Changed the World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 63.

[17] Bryan, The Resurrection of the Messiah, 53.

[18) Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus: The Earliest Christian Tradition and Its Interpreters (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 283-284.

[19] Ibid.

(20 Ibid.

(21) J.D. Crossan & Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, A Division of HarperCollins Publishers, 2001), 259-260.

(22) Ibid.

(23) Ben Witherington III. New Testament History, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2001).165.

(24) M. Rota, Taking Pascal’s Wager: Faith, Evidence and the Abundant Life (Downers Grove, ILL: InterVarsity Press, 2016), 160.

(25) Ibid.

(26)  N. T. Wright,  (New York: HarperOne, 2008), Kindle Location, 741.

(27) Ibid

(28) Crossan and Reed, 260-261.

(29) Ibid.


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