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. We list 15 of them here. Human existence is dependent on communication. The abundance of methods to communicate attests to this. Clearly, we rely on phone calls, text messages, email, and other forms of communication daily. It makes sense God would communicate through His creation. Biblical faith rests on knowing what God has allowed to be recorded for us—at the very minimum, knowing the historical truth of Jesus’s resurrection.
Remember, a belief is said to be justified when it is based on a good reason/reasons or has the right grounds or foundation. Christians and Messianic Jews think they are justified in believing Jesus rose from the dead. However, when we examine the following objections to the resurrection of Jesus, there are objections which are called knowledge defeaters. Knowledge defeaters are objections that attempt to undermine the legitimacy of a claim to knowledge on behalf of a belief based on certain grounds. In many cases skeptics try to assert there simply isn’t enough evidence to know Jesus rose from the dead. Thus, they are justified in holding onto their skepticism.
At this juncture, we need to define our terms: proof, evidence, knowledge. Proof or evidence can give us knowledge of things that are highly likely to be true. There are two types of evidence, in fact, that are important for our discussion: direct and circumstantial. Direct evidence is simply unavailable to those of us who are studying historical events in the Bible. We were not present to directly witness the events in the Bible.
Almost all historical evidence, science, as well as cold case investigations are built on indirect or what is called “circumstantial evidence.” In a court of law, both are considered viable and good. In many cases, the words “proof” or “evidence” convey the need to provide absolute certainty regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Furthermore, a large majority of science, history, and cold case investigations involve making inferences. Historians collect the data and draw conclusions that provide the best explanation that covers all the data. This is what is called “Inference to the most reasonable explanation” which never leads to absolute certainty or exhaustive knowledge. Mathematical propositions like 2+2=4 are absolutely certain by most people (except for a few philosophers maybe); such certainty is at times required for the resurrection question by skeptics. While some skeptics will say they don’t need that level of certainty for the resurrection of Jesus, many people choose to stay in a stubborn agnosticism simply because they claim they haven’t found the sufficient evidence they say they desperately need. A couple more caveats must be made: Remember, whatever someone proposes as an alternative explanation to the resurrection of Jesus, it must be able to adequately explain all the following data:
- The birth of the Jesus movement and why it continued after He was crucified: Linguistically speaking, Christianity didn’t exist in the first century. Judaism in the first century wasn’t seen as a single “way.” There were many “Judaism’s”- the Sadducees, the Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, etc. The followers of Jesus are referred to as a “sect” (Acts 24:14; 28:22); “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5). Josephus refers to the “sects” of Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees. The first followers of Jesus were a sect of Second Temple Judaism. Why did this sect carry on after their leader died such a shameful, and embarrassing death?
- The post-mortem appearances to the disciples. We have already listed the various appearances of Jesus to various people, at various times and locations. We also discussed the possible alternatives as to what they could have said other than “Jesus is risen!”
- Why Paul came to believe in the risen Messiah. Paul did not follow Jesus from the beginning. The language Paul uses in his pre-revelatory encounter with the risen Lord shows how much how antagonistic he was towards the messianic movement. In Gal. 1:13-15, Paul uses terms such as “persecute” and “destroy” to describe his efforts to put an end to the spread of the early faith. However, Paul is still considered an apostle, though “abnormally born” and “the least of the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). His first years as a follower of Jesus in Arabia remain a mystery. In many places, Paul discusses his Jewish identity. He says “I am a Jew” (Acts 22;3) “I am a Pharisee” (Acts 23;6), and “I am a prisoner for the sake of the hope of Israel” (Acts 28:20). Notice that Paul didn’t say “I was a Pharisee” or that “I was a Jew.” So perhaps it is inaccurate to say that Paul switched religions. Hence, it would be more reasonable to say that while Paul did have a radical reorientation about his theology, but he more likely received a “call” rather than a conversion to a new religion.
- The empty tomb of Jesus.
- The willingness of Paul, a Pharisee to call Jesus the Lord: Paul’s Letters (dated 47 to 65 AD) are the earliest records we have for the life of Jesus. In several of Paul’s Letters Jesus is referred to as “Lord” (1 Cor. 8:6-8). Hence, the willingness to do this place Jesus in a role attributed to God in Jewish expectation.” For a Jewish person, when the title “Lord” (Heb. Adonai) was used in place of the divine name YHWH, this was the highest designation a Jewish person could use for deity.
In some cases, people make up explanations, even though they have no evidence for what they are making up. An assertion is an act of asserting something without evidence. Evidence are facts or observations in support of an assertion. Examples of assertions could be the following: “Maybe aliens raised Jesus from the dead,” or “Maybe the disciples ate some bad mushrooms and hallucinated.” The bottom line is that even if a skeptic did receive what they consider to be “sufficient evidence” for the resurrection of Jesus, it doesn’t guarantee they will yield themselves to the Lord.
Jesus illustrates this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. In the parable, the rich man is suffering in Hades, and tells Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand. Now Lazarus had been a poor, beggar at the rich man’s gate to this palatial home, where dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores. So, the rich man wants Lazarus to return from the dead and tell his brothers about this awful place. Abraham’s response to the rich man is shocking. He says no. No errand by Lazarus will be made for you, rich man. Instead, his brothers ‘have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And the rich man retorts, saying, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ That’s not going to happen either. Abraham closes the conversation when he says, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
The teaching of Jesus is clear. Even if someone were to see a sign as miraculous as someone coming back from the dead, they could still waiver in unbelief. Jesus is not, however, denying the use of evidence in supporting belief in God. What he is saying is that evidence has its limits on people. Sometimes, evidence helps people believe. Other times, a person’s will is in a negative disposition such that the presented evidence smatters against the brick wall of a person’s mind like a rotten tomato.