Have you ever had your beliefs mocked? If you’ve been a Christian for more than a day or two, I’m guessing you have.
Today I’d like to talk to you about “Defending the Faith.” 1 Peter 3:15 says, “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.”
In the story from Luke 20, Jesus has his beliefs mocked and needs to defend himself. He is confronted by the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection. To demonstrate to Jesus and to others how absurd the idea of the resurrection was, they came up with a “gotcha” question.
“There was a woman who’d been married 7 times. Tell us, Jesus, if the dead are raised, whose wife would she be if they were all together?” I’m going to just breeze over the over patriarchal nature of their story, because we’ve got somewhere else to go today.
Jesus mounts a defense for the resurrection first by appealing to the Torah, just as the Sadducees did. These days, if someone calls us to defend our faith, it’s usually a religious skeptic. With a skeptic, arguing from the authority of Scripture is rarely going to be a useful tactic.
Are there still ways to defend our faith? Yes, and this is what the field of Christian apologetics is all about. Apologetics comes from the greek word “Apologia” which is the word used in 1 Peter 3:15, translated “give a defense.”
I want to springboard today from this particular scripture to sketch out of a modern defense, not of the resurrection generally, but of the resurrection of Jesus in particular. If Jesus was raised from the dead, it changes everything. I want you to know that belief in the resurrection of Jesus isn’t a blind leap of faith, but a small step, based on good evidence.
This is a huge topic with tons more to say that I have time for today. I’m really condensing two hour-long lectures into 20 minutes. So if you hear something and you think “I don’t know about that…,” or “but you haven’t given evidence that God exists,” I urge you to dig in more. I recommend the book On Guard by Christian apologist William Lane Craig. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, is also a helpful starting point.
What I’d like to do is to present three historical pieces of evidence. The remarkable thing about these pieces of evidence is that they are generally agreed upon by credentialed New Testament scholars and first century historians of all theological persuasions, from conservative to skeptic. After that, I’ll outline some hypotheses/theories that try to make sense of these.
- The first piece of evidence is the Empty Tomb: on the Sunday following Jesus’ crucifixion, his tomb was found empty, likely by women.
- The second piece of evidence is that there were some form of appearances of Jesus to his followers after his death. (Obviously the nature of those appearances will be disputed by skeptics.)
- The third piece of evidence is fact of the origin of the Christian faith itself.
In the words of William Lane Craig, “if no plausible, natural explanation can account for [these] as well as the resurrection hypothesis, then we’re justified in inferring Jesus’ resurrection as the best explanation of the facts.”
So let’s talk about the evidence.
The Empty Tomb
The claim is that Jesus’ tomb was discovered empty by a group of his women followers on the Sunday following his crucifixion.
The historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial
The first piece of evidence for the Empty Tomb is in fact the historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial. Now, why does that support the empty tomb? It means that both Jews and Christians knew the location of Jesus’ tomb. When people started claiming Jesus was raised from the dead, the Jewish leaders would have pointed to Jesus’ tomb, or may even exhumed the body, to show that he hadn’t.
As Craig says, “critics who deny the empty tomb feel compelled to argue against the burial. Unfortunately for them, Jesus’ burial in the tomb is one of the best-established facts about Jesus.”
The Empty Tomb is reported in multiple very early sources.
Our second piece of evidence for the empty tomb is that it itself is reported in multiple very early sources. Mark’s Gospel, for its part, is believed to be based in eyewitness testimony. Its description of Jesus’ resurrection is very restrained in the way that it describes the empty tomb, which you can see when you compare it to the later apocryphal Gospel of Peter. In that apocryphal Gospel, Jesus makes a triumphant exit from the tomb as a gigantic figure, supported by giant angels, followed by a talking cross. All of this is witnessed by everyone from a Roman guard to the Jewish leaders and a crowd of spectators. That’s what a legend sounds like. Mark’s account is restrained.
Additionally, the Gospels report that the empty tomb was discovered by women. At the time, women were not regarded as credible witnesses. The Jewish historian Josephus said “Let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex” (Antiquities IV.8.15). (That’s is not the bible, but it speaks to the nature of the patriarchal society). Women were considered second class citizens. The daily prayer of every Jewish man included the blessing, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has not created me a Gentile, a slave, or a woman” (Berachos 60b).
Because of this reality, it’s amazing that the tomb was discovered by women. If the story of the empty tomb were a legend, why not have men discover it, since their testimony would be more credible? Again in Craig’s words, “The fact that women, whose testimony was deemed worthless, were the chief witnesses to the fact of the empty tomb can only be plausibly explained if, like it or not, they actually were the discoverers of the empty tomb, and the gospels faithfully record what for [early Christians] was a very embarrassing fact.”
The earliest Jewish response to the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection presupposes the empty tomb.
In Matthew 28, it says,
…some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. … they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ … So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
For our purposes the most interesting thing here is the statement “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” The Christians were providing a rationale for why it was that they were being accused of stealing Jesus’ body. The Jewish authorities weren’t saying that the disciples were crazy or that his body was still in the tomb. No, they were saying that the disciples stole Jesus’ body. This presupposes that the tomb was empty.
All of this is to say that the Empty tomb is a fact well established by history.
The “Post-mortem” Appearances of Jesus.
The second historical point we want to talk about is “Post-mortem” (or after death) Appearances of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 15, a letter undisputedly by a man that knew the first disciples, Paul says the following:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James…
Several facts about this list of appearances guarantee that some type of appearances of Jesus occurred. Take for example, the appearance to more than five hundred at the same time.
Appearance to the 500
Paul apparently knew some of these people, since he says “most of whom are still alive, though some have died.” The only reason that Paul would mention that most were still alive is to say, in effect, “there are witnesses available for questioning.” Paul could have never gotten away with saying this event occured if it didn’t. Evidently some type of appearance happened to the 500.
Appearance to James
Secondly, consider the appearance to James, Jesus’ brother. James didn’t believe in Jesus during his early ministry, and yet James goes on to be a leader in the Jerusalem church. We learn from the Jewish historian Josephus that James was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin sometime after 60 AD (Antiquities 20.200). So, many among us have brothers. What would it take for you to believe that your brother is the Lord, so that you would die for this belief, as James did? James must have experienced an appearance of Jesus. “Even the skeptical New Testament critic Hans Grass admits that the conversion of James is one of the surest proofs of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
The Origin of the Christian Faith
Finally, very briefly, let’s consider the Origin of the Christian Faith. What caused the Christian faith to come into being?
Craig says that “Even skeptical New Testament scholars recognize that the Christian faith owes its origin to the belief of the earliest disciples that God had raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.” As biblical scholar and historian N. T. Wright points out, a crucified Messiah was not the Messiah. If your Messiah died, you either went home or you got yourself a new Messiah. Early Christians must have earnestly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead.
In summary of the evidence, we shared three points: the Empty Tomb, the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus, and the Origin of the Christian faith depending on the early disciples believing that Jesus was raised from the dead. These points are in fact the majority view of New Testament critics.
Explaining the Evidence
Many hypotheses have been offered to try to make sense of the evidence I’ve laid out.
The Conspiracy Hypothesis
The first is the conspiracy hypothesis, which says, simply, that the disciples stole the body and then lied about his appearances. There are tons of problems with this: If the disciples stole Jesus’ body, why fabricate a story about women finding the tomb empty? Also, critics have universally recognized that you can’t reasonably deny that the earliest disciples at least sincerely believed that Jesus was risen from the dead. Many of them were tortured and executed for their faith. Who would go through that for a hoax? It just doesn’t make sense.
Chuck Colson, of the watergate scandal, says “Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world-and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.” (Chuck Colson)
Because of this and other problems, modern scholars have completely given up on this explanation. It has no modern defenders.
Apparent Death Hypothesis
The second idea is the “Apparent Death Hypothesis,” which says Jesus wasn’t completely dead when he came down from the cross. He woke up in the tomb and escaped to convince his disciples that he had risen from the dead. This is another idea that modern scholars have given up on as well.
It makes sense of the Empty Tomb, but what about the postmortem appearances? Imagine a half-dead man, desperately in need of medical attention, showing up at the disciples’ door. It hardly would have convinced the disciples that Jesus was the risen Lord and conqueror of death. They would have simply said, “Oh, you’re still alive!”
The Apparent Death Hypothesis is also completely implausible, because the Romans knew how to kill people. They were very exacting and skilled in it.
(I’m skipping the Displaced Body Hypothesis because it’s not very interesting and I don’t have time to talk about it).
Finally, the only theory that really has any modern defenders at all is the “Hallucination Hypothesis,” which says that the resurrection appearances were merely hallucinations on the part of the disciples. This hypothesis can’t explain the empty tomb, though, and so it requires denying the historical reality of the burial of Jesus.
The hallucination hypothesis also doesn’t even do a very good job explaining the appearances of Jesus. Jesus doesn’t just appear one time, but many times. And he doesn’t just appear to one person, but to groups of people at the same time. Mass hallucinations are not a thing. That isn’t how hallucinations work.
The Resurrection Hypothesis
And so we’re left with the The Resurrection Hypothesis, that Jesus was in fact raised from the dead, hence the empty tomb. That he appeared to his disciples and because of this they came to believe that he was raised from the dead. In light of Jesus’ unparalleled life and claims about himself, this hypothesis seems very plausible. The only requirement for this view is that one embraces the reality of God’s existence. If God exists and is the creator of the world, then a resurrection is child’s play.
I know this has probably felt like drinking from a fire hose, but I hope it’s helpful to somebody. The world of Christian Apologetics is vast and I’ve just scratched the surface on a scholarly defense of the Resurrection.
Let me be clear: I don’t think you have to know this stuff to be a Christian. Apologetics isn’t how we know God. We know God by a relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. But it’s good to know that pursuing that relationship isn’t irrational, but a step of faith, based on good evidence.
So may you be ready to make your defense. May you pursue truth. And may you remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead. Amen.