Matthew 28:6 "He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying."
What happened on that first Easter morning? In this post, I aim to present the historical case for Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Many people may not realize that the resurrection of Jesus Christ occupies a place in historical investigation. Think of what follows as more of an outline than a comprehensive treatment. It is hoped that this post aids those wanting to go further in their understanding of the events surrounding Jesus' resurrection from the dead.
Some good resources to consider
Before we get underway, let me point the reader to reputable websites that specialize in the subject of Christ's resurrection from the dead. The websites feature key defenders of the Christian faith to whom I'm indebted in gathering together a working outline for presenting the case that presents the proposal: "God raised Jesus from the dead":
In addition to the above websites, some amazing recent computer-animated videos illustrate a great argument for Christ's resurrection with regards to the facts, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4qhQRMhUK1o&t=5s and the explanations of the empty tomb, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6SbJ4p6WiZE&t=50s
Great books are available that can help readers begin their journey in studying this subject. Other topics related to defending the Christian faith are also included in the following resources:
1. “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?”, a booklet by William Lane Craig
2. “On Guard”, an introductory apologetics text book by William Lane Craig
3. “Case For Easter”, by Lee Strobel
4. "The Baker Handbook of Apologetics", edited by Norm Geisler
Knowing and showing that Jesus raised from the dead.
When I say “knowing”, I mean in the words of the hymn:
“You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart”.
This first way of understanding what occurred on that first Easter is reliable and is how all people arrive at a certainty of what took place. When I say "certainty", the definition of theologian Herman Bavinck comes to mind: "certainty is a state of mind settled upon the object of one's perception." When faith or "trust" occurs, the heart and mind come to have a settled state with regards to Jesus' life, death and resurrection on their behalf.
This way of “knowing” the risen Christ is obtained with or without “showing” the event to be the case. Philosophers refer to such knowledge as "properly basic beliefs". Examples of properly basic beliefs include knowledge of the external world, other minds and memories of the past - all of which is rational to hold to without evidence. Some thinkers would include the innate knowledge of God as a properly basic belief. Such an observation ought to comfort readers, since most people in the world don’t have time nor access to the resources that one would utilize in historical research.
Whenever we engage in presenting a case like the one outlined below, it can be viewed as a "second-line of defense". The New Testament heartily supports this experiential understanding of the risen Christ for the believer. Phil. 3:10-11
“that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11 in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
The above covers "knowing God" on a personal level. So what about "showing" the resurrection of Jesus to be the case? When I say “showing”, I mean presenting the historical case that demonstrates that the premise: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the empty tomb.
How we can show that Christ’s resurrection from the dead was a historical event.
To do this, we need to:
a. First express the facts surrounding the resurrection.
b. Secondly, list the criteria used in judging which explanation of the facts best explains “what happened”.
c. Thirdly, the typical explanations of those facts (naturalistic explanations and the one supernatural proposal: “God raised Jesus from the dead”).
d. Then lastly, why the proposal: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the facts.
The Christian can readily affirm that "dead men don't rise naturally from the dead". However, in proposing that God raised Jesus from the dead, we are stating that the only way a resurrection could be brought about is by a supernatural, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God as referenced by Jesus Himself.
When skeptics refuse to allow the possibility of the miraculous, the objection raised is not historical, but rather philosophical in nature. Including a supernatural explanation (i.e. "God raised Jesus from the dead") in the survey of explanations for what happened on that first Easter morning is part of the historical investigative process.
What are the facts surrounding the resurrection event?
a. What do we mean by “fact”? An event of the past that is multiply attested in several sources and which is viewed as such by most historians living today. Gary Habermas did a landmark study, surveying over 2,000 publications by scholars of all stripes written from 1975 to present. (Gary Habermas, “Experience of the Risen Jesus: The Foundational Historical Issue in the early proclamation of the resurrection,” Dialogue 25 (2006): 292.).
Wherever there were at least 75% agreements, that counted as a “fact”. The facts we will look at today are shared among 90% (per Habermas’ reckoning).
b. What are the primary sources for Easter? When it comes to multiple attestation (i.e. multiple, independent sources), we possess several primary sources for these facts: Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20; the materials particular to Matthew /Luke and 1 Corinthians 15:1-6.
It must be noted that people must not dismiss these sources due to their being “in the Bible”. Before there was a gathering together of such sources into the bundle we call the “New Testament”, they were independently written. Although it is right for the Christian to rightly see these documents as inerrant scripture, historians approach them as reliable sources for the historical events surrounding the historical Jesus of the 1st century. For the purposes of the foregoing argument, we will approach the New Testament documents as reliable sources about Jesus (even though this author holds to Biblical inerrancy, which is another topic, for another post).
Non-believing historians regard the Gospels and 1 Corinthians 15 as reliable sources, despite whatever their personal beliefs might be toward these documents. The only people that try to pass off the Gospels and Paul’s letters are internet skeptics or people not familiar with even a general sense of how historical research is done in New Testament studies.
c. Four main facts. For the resurrection of Jesus, four facts emerge:
i. honorable burial,
ii. discovery of the empty tomb by women followers,
iii. the sudden shift to faith by the disciples
iv. Jesus’ post-mortem appearances.
What criteria are used when evaluating various explanations for the facts at hand?
a. It is one thing to list the facts, and have most everyone agree that these are the facts at hand. However, whenever it comes to how to explain “what happened”, the disagreements emerge.
b. Historian C. Behan McCullagh, in his book: “Justifying Historical Descriptions” (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), notes several criteria used by historians when investigating the best explanation for any event and its attendant facts. Just as a parent uses criteria to discern how to settle a recent set of events reported to them by their children, historians use standard criteria as well. I've listed the specific criteria in the end notes for interested readers.1
Naturalistic Explanations of Easter morning
Naturalism is that worldview which asserts that physical matter is the ultimate and fundamental basis for all reality. Hence, naturalism denies miracles, God's existence and an immaterial reality outside our universe, since the universe is, according to the late naturalist Carl Sagan: "all there is, was and ever will be."
When it comes to surveying the pool of naturalistic explanations of what happened on Easter, we can assess what are called: "full-tomb hypotheses" and "empty-tomb hypotheses". Naturalism is a philosophical view point that asserts that physical objects, physical laws or material properties are the only things that exist. For sake of space, I will briefly list the most popular naturalistic hypotheses with a sample of their weaknesses in the end notes below for interested readers. 2
Why the hypothesis: “God raised Jesus from the dead” is the best explanation of the facts.
The explanation proclaimed by the disciples: "God raised Jesus from the dead" has consistently shown itself to best explain the above facts. Naturalistic theories fall short due to not adequately accounting for why the disciples switched from skepticism to faith. Furthermore, such explanations cannot provide plausibly consistent explanations of the empty tomb that doesn't conflict with known details of 1st century Jewish and Greco-Roman life.
For the sake of space, I have included a more detailed explanation of why the resurrection explanation fulfills standards of historical investigation in the following end note for interested readers. 3
Final appeal to place your trust in the risen Jesus, so that you can “know” that He lives.
In this post I have given a sketch of how one may "show" that the proposal: "God raised Jesus from the dead" is the best explanation for answering the question: "what happened on that first Easter morning". However, just knowing "about" the resurrection is not enough to reconcile you to God. Christian salvation promises that one can personally know the risen Christ. John 17:3 reminds us:
"This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent."
As we close out this post, let me briefly make the appeal for any reader that has never trusted in Christ as Savior and Lord to do so. The scriptures below explain how one can know for certain, by faith, that Jesus raised from the dead and how He can become Savior and Lord of their life.
Ephesians 2:8-9 "For by grace are you saved through faith, this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, lest any man should boast."
Romans 10:8-10 "But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart”—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, 9 that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; 10 for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation."
You can know the risen Christ! Not just as having probably raised from the dead (that’s as far as the above argument will get you), but having certainty of Him having died on the cross and risen for you. As Hebrews 11:1 reminds us: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for and the certainty of things not seen."
1. The following derives from William L. Craig’s booklet: “Did Jesus Rise From The Dead?”
i. Explanatory scope: How much of the evidence does the explanation or hypothesis explain better than its rivals.
ii. Explanatory power: Does the given explanation make the evidence more probable as having occurred than rival explanations
iii. Plausibility. How well does the given explanation fit with other known background beliefs of that time period.
iv. Least contrived. Whichever explanation of the facts adopts the fewest new beliefs apart from independent evidence is most likely the correct explanation.
v. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. Whichever explanation can withstand the scrutiny of comparison with other well-established beliefs is the more probable explanation.
vi. The best explanation meets the first five conditions so much better than its rival explanations, that there is little chance of the other rival explanations being the better candidate for telling “what happened”.
2. We can note the following naturalistic hypotheses under two headings:
a. Full Tomb Hypotheses: Explaining the events of Easter with a body in the tomb
i. Hallucination hypothesis = the disciples hallucinated the risen Christ. Doesn’t adequately explain post-mortem appearances. People that think they have seen a dead loved-one knows that the person is dead. The disciples' post-mortem visions of Jesus resulted in their message: "He is alive"! Hallucinations are individual experiences. The Gospel accounts and 1 Corinthians 15 record episodes where the post-resurrected Christ physically appeared to multiple people.
ii. Apparent death / mystery twin = Jesus switched with a look alike. Islam, Surah 4:157. Requires contrived beliefs (maybe a twin-brother, maybe they found a look-alike, they tricked guards, and so-forth). Doesn’t explain empty tomb nor post-mortem appearances.
iii. Visionary hypothesis = not a physical Jesus, but a “vision” only. Doesn’t explain how 500 people could see Him. Also, appearances are accompanied by physical phenomena. Doesn’t cover empty tomb.
b. Empty Tomb Hypotheses: Explaining the events of Easter that include the empty tomb
i. Swoon Hypothesis = Jesus didn’t die, He fainted revived in the cool tomb. Doesn’t take seriously the brutality of crucifixion. Disconfirmed by what we know of crucifixion.
ii. Conspiracy = disciples stole the body. Jewish leaders stole body. The Christian movement wouldn’t had gotten off the ground, disciples switch to faith is not explained. Jewish leaders could had ended movements by producing a body. They claim disciples stole body.
iii. Hoax = Disciples lied. No one knowingly dies for a lie. Hoaxes fizzle out within a few years.
iv. Wrong tomb. The women followed. Joseph of Arimathea would not had been a Christian invention. The guards were situated at the tomb (Matthew 28:4). Pilate would had known where the tomb was, since he decreed for it to be sealed. These observations demonstrate, on historical grounds, that the location of the tomb was known by both followers and opponents of Jesus.
3. So why does the hypothesis: "God raised Jesus from the dead" outperform its naturalistic rivals? The following criteria are fulfilled by it in contrast to its rivals.
i. Explanatory scope: How much of the evidence does the explanation or hypothesis explain better than its rivals. It alone explains four main facts.
ii. Explanatory power: Does the given explanation make the evidence more probable as having occurred than rival explanations. It best handles the facts. Furthermore, all other naturalistic theories break down here.
iii. Plausibility. How well does the given explanation fit with other known background beliefs of that time period. Jewish beliefs of resurrection as physical. Early church’s beginnings.
iv. Least contrived. Whichever explanation of the facts adopts the fewest new beliefs apart from independent evidence is most likely the correct explanation. Only one extra belief is need: God exists.
v. Disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs. Whichever explanation can withstand the scrutiny of comparison with other well-established beliefs is the more probable explanation. Nothing precludes this. To say: “miracles are impossible” is not a historical objection, but a philosophical one.
vi. The best explanation meets the first five conditions so much better than its rival explanations, that there is little chance of the other rival explanations being the better candidate for telling “what happened”. This hypothesis best fulfills the first five criteria.