Evidence for the Resurrection Part 1: A Historical Proof of Jesus’ Resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone of Christian belief and practice. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, validating his claim to be the Son of God (Mark 14:61-62), then all of Christianity is pointless. As Paul states, “if Christ had not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). How can we trust someone who offers us eternal life if he cannot conquer death? It is then an issue of utmost importance to determine what really happened concerning the life and death of Jesus.
Often belief in the resurrection is determined simply by whether a person has faith or not. But this approach is insufficient for the non-Christian who needs evidence for the radical claims that Jesus made. For them it is important for us to be prepared to offer a historical case for the resurrection, which is what this five-part series seeks to do.
Establishing the Facts with the Standards of History
A historical proof of Jesus’ resurrection involves applying the standards of historical criticism to the facts surrounding Jesus to determine what most likely happened following his death. While no claim in antiquity can be proven with 100% certainty, there are five principles historians use to determine that certain claims are probable in light of the evidence:
- A claim’s historicity is strong when it is attested by multiple, independent sources.
- When the source of the claim reveals details that are embarrassing or weakening to its reputation or credibility, this is evidence that the story was not made up but is authentic.
- Primary eyewitness testimony is usually more reliable than secondhand accounts.
- Historical coherence, or whether a claim fits in with other known historical facts, is also helpful.
- Finally, early attestation is a major indication of the source’s reliability. The closer the testimony is to the event itself, the less time there is for exaggeration or legend to contaminate the account. By historical standards, biographies written within even a few generations after a person’s life are considered generally trustworthy, whereas legendary embellishment typically occurs in accounts later than this.
These common-sense principles can be used to assess the credibility of various historical claims like the resurrection.
Inferring the Best Explanation of the Facts
After establishing a body of data, the historian may consider various hypotheses and infer the one that best explains the facts. There are six tests that historians use to guide them in the assessment of a hypothesis:
- Explanatory scope – does it explain all of the facts or only a few?
- Explanatory power – how probable are the facts in light of the hypothesis?
- Plausibility – how plausible is the explanation given our background beliefs?
- Level of being contrived – does it require many new suppositions?
- Accordance with accepted beliefs – does the hypothesis conflict with any accepted beliefs?
- Comparison to rival hypotheses in fulfilling the previous five conditions.
If a historical hypothesis passes all of these tests, then it may be taken to be the best explanation. Given this criteria, an investigation can be made of the story of Jesus to find the most reasonable solution to the issue of whether or not he rose from the dead.
Building the Case
While assessing the evidence, the non-Christian must not be expected to accept the divine inspiration of Bible. For this series, then, I intend to treat the New Testament as 27 separate books written by nine different authors, as they originally were, in order to draw our data. In making a case for the resurrection, the divine inspiration or even the general trustworthiness of these books need not be presupposed.
For the sake of argument, I will use a minimal facts approach, advocated by historians Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, using only the data that is so strongly evidenced historically that they are granted by nearly every scholar who studies the subject, even the skeptical ones.
An inference to the best explanation can then be made from those facts to draw a conclusion. This way the debate over the inerrancy of the Bible becomes irrelevant, and attempting to point out random contradictions throughout the Bible in order to deny the resurrection becomes invalid.
After establishing three core facts in support of the resurrection of Jesus – the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and the origin of the disciple’s belief in the resurrection – the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead can be shown to be the most reasonable explanation of the events that transpired.
For a discussion of these facts, see Part 2.
Many of the insights of this article were gained from the following resources:
The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus – Gary Habermas and Michael Licona
Reasonable Faith – William Lane Craig
See our reviews of these books here.
What do you think about this kind of case for the resurrection? Leave any thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!