Evidence for the Resurrection Part 3: Why Believe the Resurrection Hypothesis?

In Part 2 we saw that there are three established facts concerning the resurrection of Jesus that any adequate historical hypothesis must account for – the discovery of his empty tomb, his post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in his resurrection. However, throughout history various naturalistic hypotheses have been proposed to explain these facts. Why believe the resurrection hypothesis over the naturalistic alternatives?

Why Believe the Resurrection HypothesisAssessing the Resurrection Hypothesis

In Part 1 we outlined six tests historians use to scrutinize hypotheses. The hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead passes all these tests:

  • It has great explanatory scope – it explains all of the facts. It explains why the tomb was empty, why the disciples saw appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and why they would come to so strongly believe that he had risen from the dead.
  • It has great explanatory power – each of the facts are very probable granted the truth of the resurrection hypothesis. If Jesus did rise from the dead, then of course his tomb would be empty. Given the religious context of the situation, there would likely be multiple appearances of him to his disciples. The coming into being of the Christian faith is also probable given its founder being raised from the dead.
  • It is plausible – such an explanation fits the surrounding historical context. Jesus was constantly making radical claims of his divinity, and claimed that he would be raised from the dead. His resurrection serves as a divine vindication of those claims.
  • It is not ad hoc or later contrived – the only additional hypothesis required is that God exists, and for many that would not need to be additional.
  • It is in accordance with accepted beliefs – the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead in no way conflicts with the accepted belief that people do not rise naturally from the dead. Christians accept both beliefs.
  • As we will see below, it far outstrips rival hypotheses in meeting the previous five conditions.

Assessing the Naturalistic Alternatives

Throughout history, various competing hypotheses such as the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, and others, have been offered. However, these naturalistic hypotheses fail to meet the above conditions where the resurrection hypothesis succeeds:

  • The conspiracy hypothesis states that the disciples stole the body of Jesus from its tomb and lied about his appearances to create the Christian faith.
    – This hypothesis has weak explanatory power: the empty tomb narrative is unlikely to have featured women if it were made up, and the simplicity of this narrative and the accounts of post-mortem appearances make fabrication unlikely. Moreover, it is extraordinarily implausible that the disciples lied about their belief in the resurrection in the face of great persecution and hardship.
  • The apparent death hypothesis states that Jesus was not completely dead when he was put in the tomb, but then recovered there and convinced his disciples that he rose from the dead.
    Evidence for the Resurrection– This hypothesis also fails in terms of explanatory power: How likely is it that a half-dead Jesus would be able to roll away the heavy stone covering his tomb, limp over to his disciples, and convince them that he had defeated death as the risen Lord? They would instead conclude that Jesus was still alive but in desperate need of medical attention. This scenario is also implausible in light of what we know from the medical science of crucifixion, and the fact that the Romans were very good at ensuring that their victims were dead.
  • The hallucination hypothesis states that the disciples hallucinated that Jesus appeared to them as risen Lord, while in reality he remained dead.
    – This hypothesis has narrow explanatory scope, only attempting to explain the post-mortem appearances, while doing nothing to explain the empty tomb. It also fails to explain the origin of the disciples belief in the resurrection, because without an empty tomb, and in a Jewish context, they would likely conclude upon seeing Jesus that they were seeing a heavenly vision of him in the afterlife. Finally, this hypothesis even has weak explanatory power in reference to the post-mortem appearances. For given what we know today from the psychology of hallucinatory experiences, it is incredibly unlikely that the same hallucination would be had by numerous individuals and groups of people over a period of forty days.

For reasons such as these, alternative naturalistic hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary historical scholarship. There simply is no plausible naturalistic account that explains the facts as well as the resurrection hypothesis. Many skeptics, therefore, offer no historical explanation of the facts but simply deny that the resurrection could have happened on the grounds that miracles are impossible. This objection will be considered in Part 4.

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.

How do you think the resurrection hypothesis compares with the naturalistic alternatives? Leave your thoughts and questions in the comments below!

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4 Commentsto Evidence for the Resurrection Part 3: Why Believe the Resurrection Hypothesis?

  1. Kevin says:

    This was a very interesting and informative article.

    It was refreshing to see you talk about more than one side. Too often do I see a a site explaining the pros of their point of view. Your article brings up some very good points and I am curious to see where the conversations head.

    Thanks for the information.


    • Kiefer says:

      I’m glad you found it helpful, Kevin! Of course it is easy to make a view seem plausible when one only considers it and no others. But when alternative views about the resurrection are critiqued and compared, we are in a much better position to see which is superior.

  2. Debby says:

    I really like what you’re doing here, Kiefer. This article gave us a lot of food for thought. As far as the conspiracy hypothesis goes, I have heard that there is historical documentation regarding Jesus being seen by others after the resurrection as well as by the disciples. It seems to me, the more the world tries to prove the Bible wrong, they seem to end up proving that it is true! Do you agree?

    • Kiefer says:

      You are correct, Debby, to point out that the historical evidence indicates that some people other than Jesus’ closest disciples experienced appearances of him alive after his death. I briefly outline some of this evidence in Part 2 of this series, What Happened After Jesus’ Death.

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