There are several approaches to defending the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. Skeptics have offered a wide range of natural explanations throughout history to explain away the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In this post, I will go ahead and several of them and try to give a response. In some cases I will leave some additional reading.
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Andreas Kostenberger co-authored this statement about historical investigations (published through B&H which has SBC ties). Kostenberger, along with Bock and Chatraw, write:
“With regard to the past, one cannot empirically prove a historical event in the same way in which one proves a mathematical equation or verifies that someone is six feet tall or has blue eyes, though historical evidence can point strongly in one direction. Historical truths are tested by assessing hypotheses in view of the evidence and then accepting the hypothesis that best explains the evidence.”-Köstenberger, Andreas J.; Bock, Darrell L.; Chatraw, Josh. Truth in a Culture of Doubt: Engaging Skeptical Challenges to the Bible (pp. 166-167). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Let’s assess some of the hypotheses that best explains the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus:
#1: Legends Hypothesis: This hypothesis states that the New Testament accounts of the disciples who gave testimonies of the postmortem appearances are all legends that were invented much later.
Response: This can’t be supported by the evidence. From about AD 48 until his death, Paul wrote at least 13 of the New Testament’s books. Given that historians look to those who are contemporaries of the events, Paul is an important resource for what historians can know about Jesus of Nazareth. Furthermore, the earliest documents we have for the life of Jesus are Paul’s letters. To see common objections to Paul, see here.
Paul was a very competent rabbi who was trained at the rabbinic academy called the House of Hillel by ‘Gamaliel,’ a key rabbinic leader and member of the Sanhedrin. Of his 13 books, critical scholars even accept six of them as being authentic in that we can be certain of the author and date of these writings. Of course, there are other scholars such as Luke Timothy Johnson and Raymond Brown that think more than six of them are authored by Paul. But of the 13 books, the six are Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians and 1 Thessalonians. And it is fairly well known that Bart Ehrman has written a book called Forged: Writing in the Name of God—Why The Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are.
In this book, he discusses the other Pauline books that are in question to authorship. I will provide a response to this here by Mike Licona. I think Mike shows there can be a plausible case for the traditional authorship of the disputed New Testament letters that are attributed to Paul.
30 A.D.—–33A.D.—-40 A.D.—-50 A.D.—-55 A.D.—60 A.D.—65 A.D—70 A.D.
(CREED OF 1 Cor. 15:3-8 received before 55 A.D.)
Also, the creed that Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-8 has been dated very shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus. Even the skeptical scholar Gerd Lüdemann says about the creed, “I do insist that the discovery of pre-Pauline confessional foundations is one of the great achievements in New Testament scholarship.” (1)
Even if the four Gospels were written some 30-70 years later, we still can posit that there was an entire oral history before the Gospels reached their written form. We can say confidently that there was simply not enough time for exaggeration or a legend to develop.
#2: The Naturalistic Objection
The one area that always creeps up into apologetics is the issue of naturalism which says that nature is the “whole show.” In other words, there are really two general kinds of explanations for events: intentional accounts (which demonstrate signs of value, design, and purpose) and non-intentional accounts (which lack values, design, and purpose). Naturalists generally only punt to one kind of explanation- non-intentional accounts. In other words, please don’t ever say there is any agency or interference into the natural world by an outside cause that is non-natural.
I have had the opportunity to lay out the arguments for the resurrection for various people. Most people seem to take two different approaches. One approach is what it called the a priori approach while the other is called the a posteriori approach. Deductive reasoning is called a priori (prior to looking at the facts) and inductive reasoning is called a posteriori (after seeing the evidence). It is evident that this objection to the miracles of Jesus is mostly philosophical in nature. Many skeptics attempt to claim that it was during the Enlightenment period that any so called miracle claim was cast into the domain of superstition and pre-modernism. After all, modern people can’t believe such silliness. Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification.
If one has decided that many of the events in the New Testament are not possible (because of an a priori commitment to naturalism), it will impact how they interpret the evidence (after examining it). Some scholars may say they are open to taking an a posteriori approach to the resurrection, when it comes time to actually examine the evidence. However, in many cases, they set the bar so high that no amount of evidence will ever convince them. So in many cases, if one is just utterly convinced that the natural world is all there is than I suggest looking to see if which worldview does a better job of explaining reality. For further reading, see:
John DePoe on Ex-Hume-ing Miracles
A Bayesian Analysis of the Cumulative Effects of Independent Eyewitness Testimony for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ
Is Naturalism a Simpler Explanation Than Theism? by Paul Copan
God—The Best Explanation: Paul Copan
Miracles: Do Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence?
#3: We Can’t Use the Historical Method to Determine Whether A Resurrection Took Place!
This objection is problematic. Bart Ehrman says:
Since historians can only establish what probably happened in the past, and the chances of a miracle happening, by definition, are infinitesimally remote, historians can never demonstrate that a miracle probably happened.(Ehrman 2008:243–244)
I doubt that Biblical scholars and historians would want to propose that the history can’t be used as a tool to detect a miracle such as the resurrection of Jesus. After all, it is certain aspects of the historical method that makes it possible to attempt to demonstrate that the resurrection of Jesus didn’t happened. So in other words, you can’t use the historical method to show the resurrection of Jesus did happen. However, we are free to use it to show for certain the resurrection didn’t happen. Hence, it is falsifiable.This seems a bit inconsistent.
#4: False Testimonies Hypothesis
There is no reason to distrust the conviction of those that testified to having seen the risen Jesus. As James Warner Wallace points out in his latest book people lie or have an ulterior motive for three reasons:
1.Financial Gain: In this case, we don’t see any evidence for this. The NT shows the disciples/apostles being chased from location to location, leaving their home and families and abandoning their property and what they owned.
2. Sexual or Relational Desire: The NT does not say much about their “love lives.” There are Scriptures that speak to sexual purity and chastity.
3. Pursuit of Power:
While Christianity became a state sponsored religion in the 4th century and the Popes became powerful both politically and religiously, there is no evidence (pre 70 AD), for the early disciples pursuing power as they proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus. Just look at Paul’s testimony here:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” – 2 Cor. 11: 23-27
For more reading, see:
Are the Gospels a Reliable Eyewitness Account of the Life of Jesus?
Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
Why We Should Expect Witnesses to Disagree
Who wrote the Gospels? Dr. Timothy McGrew
The Hearsay Objection: How Can the Gospels Be Eyewitness Accounts If They Include Things the Writers Didn’t See?
Why Should We Trust the Gospels When Eyewitness Testimony Is So Unreliable?
Richard Bauckham Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony
Are the Gospels Based on Eyewitness Testimony? The Test of Personal Names
Can A Witness Be Trusted If He Can’t Be Cross-Examined?
#5: The Resurrection Story Was Invented From Other Dying and Rising God Stories!
Response: Sadly, the internet is full of allegations that the historical records of the life of Jesus are examples of religious plagiarism. The same old dying and rising god theme myth just gets rehashed over and over. What is even more problematic is the people who hold to this view automatically assume the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus is false. Then they punt to the myths/mystery religions to explain the problems in the New Testament. Here are some resources:
The Zeitgeist Movie & Other Myth Claims about Jesus: Gregory Koukl
Was Jesus Christ just a CopyCat Savior Myth? Glen Miller
A Challenge for the Jesus Mythers and the Religious Plagarism Charge
#6: The Intramental/Hallucination Hypothesis Objection
This hypothesis is still remains one of the most popular options among skeptics. This hypothesis states that the experiences of the disciples were intramental phenomena such as hallucinations; the disciples and followers of Jesus were so emotionally involved with Jesus’ messianic expectation that their minds projected hallucinations of the risen Lord.
Response: First, the hallucination theory fails to meet the criteria for a group hallucination. Glen Miller lists the criteria here and why it fails.
Or, see N.T. Wright’s 3 part series on this topic:
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
Mike Licona: Were the Resurrection Appearances of Jesus Hallucinations?
#7: The Resurrection Appearances Were Subjective Visions
Last year, Bart Ehrman released another book on Christology.
In the book he devotes two chapters to the resurrection. As usual, his hypothesis is 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. -Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: Harper One, 2014), 183-184.
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. I go over this objection in detail here:
#8: The Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis
Cognitive Dissonance is all the rage these days. In other words, more and more skeptics are trying to postulate that the birth of the Jesus movement is the result of cognitive dissonance. As N.T Wright says:
“One theory which would go against this conclusion [that the rise of Christianity is best explained by Jesus’ bodily resurrection] was very popular a few years ago but is now widely discredited. Some sociologists suggested that the disciples had been suffering from ‘cognitive dissonance’, the phenomenon whereby people who believe something strongly go on saying it all the more shrilly when faced with contrary evidence. Failing to take the negative signs on board, they go deeper and deeper into denial, and can only sustain their position by shouting louder and trying to persuade others to join them. Whatever the likely occurrence of this in other circumstances, there is simply no chance of it being the right explanation for the rise of the early church. Nobody was expecting anyone, least of all a Messiah, to rise from the dead. A crucified Messiah was a failed Messiah. When Simeon ben Koshiba was killed by the Romans in AD 135, nobody went around afterwards saying he really was the Messiah after all, however much they had wanted to believe that he had been. God’s kingdom was something that had to happen in real life, not in some fantasy-land.
Nor was it the case, as some writers are fond of saying, that the idea of ‘resurrection’ was found in religions all over the ancient Near East. Dying and rising ‘gods’, yes; corn-kings, fertility deities, and the like. But – even supposing Jesus’ very Jewish followers knew any traditions like that – nobody in those religions ever supposed it actually happened to individual humans. No. The best explanation by far for the rise of Christianity is that Jesus really did reappear, not as a battered, bleeding survivor, not as a ghost (the stories are very clear about that), but as a living, bodily human being”-From Tom Wright’s ‘Simply Christian’, p.96-97
I provide a response to this here called The Resurrection of Jesus and the Cognitive Dissonance Hypothesis
#9: The Analogical Objection
An analogy is a relation of similarity between two or more things, so that an inference (reasoning from premise to conclusion) is drawn on the basis of that similarity. For example, if the resurrection of Jesus is known to have certain characteristics, and if another supernatural claim in another religion is known to have at least some of those same characteristics, the inference is drawn that the other supernatural claim also has those other characteristics. If the cases are not similar enough to warrant the inference, then it is a false analogy.
After all, if we are to accept that Jesus appeared to the disciples, what about the testimonies of people who say that Mary appeared to them at Fatima or Medjugorie? Also, what about UFO sightings? More examples could be given. It seems that we have eyewitness testimony in these events. Also, most of the people in these situations are sincere. They think they saw something and can trust their physical senses.
Response: When it comes to evaluating any religious claim, we must ask three questions: (1) What is the claim?; (2) What is the evidence for it?; (3) What is the religious and historical context for the claim? Former atheist Anthony Flew said the resurrection of Jesus was the best attested miracle claim that he had seen (see There Is A God? How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind(New York: Harper Collins, 2007). So if we look at these three questions, the Messianic claim is that Jesus was bodily resurrected. On a variety of occasions, he appeared to several people confirming He was raised from the dead. A follower of Jesus makes the claim based on the evidence that is seen in the historical records in the New Testament.
The historical setting of the claim is seen in the Second Temple Judaism Period. The entire ministry of Jesus allows for the proper context. The death had been considered an embarrassment and a curse. The resurrection coheres with Jesus’ entire early ministry. For example, many parables, which are universally acknowledged by critical scholars to be authentic to the historical Jesus, show that Jesus believed himself to be able to forgive sins against God. Also, for the Jewish people, the Torah was supposed to transform Jewish life and separate the Jewish people from the rest of the world. The mission of Jesus was not to overthrow Torah but to fulfill it (Matt. 5:17-19). Jesus never granted Torah as a mediator between humanity and God. Rather, Jesus understood his own person, not Torah, to be the means of eternal life (Mark 10:17-31). So in summary:
1. A miracle is an act of God that confirms a messenger from God.
2. Jesus offered a cumulative case that confirms He is the incarnation of the God of Israel—His fulfillment of prophecy, His sinless life, His messianic actions/messianic miracles, His speaking authority, and His miraculous resurrection.
3. Therefore, Jesus offered several lines of evidence that confirm that He is the incarnation of the God of Israel
These are just a few things that demonstrate that provide the context of Jesus’ ministry. The point is that not all miracle claims are equal in evidential support. This is just one example as to why it is incumbent upon us to think critically and try to answer the three questions that I just mentioned.
#10: The Genre of the Gospels Are Historical Fiction!
If someone makes the claim that the Gospels or other parts of the New Testament are myth (meaning half-truth, folklore, fantasy, or a fictionized account of history, etc), one thing that can aid in clearing up the confusion about this issue is genre studies. Most of the modern world’s standard of accuracy is defined by an age where tape recorders, video cameras are prevalent. To see our post on this topic, click here.
#11: The Faulty Sources Objection
This objection says that the New Testament documents are not trustworthy. Despite all the objections to the sources, even Bart Ehrman says we can know the following:
1. Jesus died by crucifixion: Ehrman says: “One of the most certain facts of history is that Jesus was crucified on orders of the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate” (see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 261-262).
2. Very shortly after Jesus’ death, the disciples had experiences that led them to believe and proclaim that Jesus had been resurrected and had appeared to them: Ehrman says: “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).” ( see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 282).
3. Within a few years after Jesus death, Paul converted after a personal experience that he interpreted as a post resurrection appearance of Jesus to him: Ehrman says: “There is no doubt that [Paul] believed that he saw Jesus’ real but glorified body raised from the dead.” (see see see The New Testament: An Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, pgs, 301).
For more answers to the objections to the NT, see here:
12. The Need for Present Day Analogies for the Resurrection
Alister McGrath says: “A third line of criticism of the historicity of the resurrection is due to the German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, who argued that, as dead men don’t rise, Jesus couldn’t have risen. The basic principle underlying this objection goes back to David Hume, and concerns the need for present-day analogues for historical events. Before accepting that an event took place in the past, we need to be persuaded that it still takes place in the present. Troeltsch asserted that since we have no contemporary experience of the resurrection of a dead human being, we have reason for supposing that no dead man has ever been raised.”
McGrath responds by saying:
“Of course, as Christianity has insisted that the resurrection of Jesus was a unique historical event, the absence of present-day analogues is only to be expected. If people were raised from the dead on a regular basis, there would be no difficulty in accepting that Jesus Christ had been thus raised. But it would not stand out. It would not be different. It would not say anything, either about the identity of Jesus himself, or about the God who chose to raise him in this way. The resurrection was taken so seriously because it was realized that it was totally out of the ordinary, unique in the proper sense of the word.”
13. “But What About Miracle Claims in Other Religions?”
I am often asked about miracle claims in other religions. It just so happens that David Clark’s chapter called Miracles In The WorldReligions is available to read online. It is taken from In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God’s Action in History, edited by R. Douglas Geivett, Gary R. Habermas. Please read and enjoy!
14. “The Burial Story was Invented”
I have always found the burial aspect of the resurrection story to be quite fascinating. William Lane Craig has been quick to defend the Joseph of Arimathea account of the story. However, some skeptics have tried to postulate that the burial story has problems. For example, given the fact that Jesus came from a poor family, he would of most likely been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. In other words, some skeptics posit a relocation hypothesis. But the Gospels say otherwise. A couple of years, I got to see archaeologist Jodi Magness lecture on this topic. She has done many digs in Israel and is a specialist on the tomb issue. She is a non-religious Jew. She says the following:
“Jesus came from a modest family that presumably could not afford a rock- cut tomb. Had Joseph not offered to accommodate Jesus’ body his tomb (according to the Gospel accounts) Jesus likely would have been disposed in the manner of the lower classes: in a pit grave or trench grave dug into the ground. When the Gospels tell us that Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his tomb, it is because Jesus’ family did not own a rock- cut tomb and there was no time to prepare a grave- that is there was no time to dig a grave, not hew a rock cut tomb(!)—before the Sabbath. It is not surprising that Joseph, who is described as a wealthy and perhaps even a member of the Sanhedrin, had a rock-cut family tomb. The Gospel accounts seem to describe Joseph placing Jesus’ body in one of the loculi in his family’s tomb. (Jodi Magness, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus, pg 170)
Interestingly enough, Magness goes on to say:
“There is no need to assume that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea offering Jesus a place in this family tomb are legendary or apologetic. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s burial appear to be largely consistent with the archeological evidence” ( Magness, pg 171)
So here are the issues:
- Obviously the Gospels are silent about Jesus being buried in a pit grave or trench grave. At best , this is something the skeptic can throw out there as a possibility. But there is no direct evidence for a possible relocation of the burial account. Also, how would anyone get beyond the guards at the tomb?
- In my view, even if skeptics want to postulate that his body was buried in a pit grave or trench grave, it is a worthless apologetic on their part. Why do I say this? Whether Jesus was buried in a pit grave/trench grave, or the Gospels are correct about the burial story (Jesus was not buried in a pit/trench grave), skeptics will still have to provide an account for the resurrection appearances and the entire story. Either way skeptics will end up punting to some sort of group hallucination or cognitive dissonance/conspiracy theory. I provide some resources to these objections on our resource page
15. “Paul never met Jesus and he can’t possibly be a reliable source for the resurrection of Jesus.”
I have responded to this here: “BUT PAUL NEVER MET JESUS”AND OTHER BAD ARGUMENTS ABOUT PAUL ON THE INTERNET
There are certainly more objections than the ones mentioned here. See our resource page here.
1. Gerd Lüdemann, The Resurrection of Jesus Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2004), 37.