Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?

Posted: December 14, 2012 in Apologetics, Arguments for God's Existence

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The Christian faith rests primarily on one specific historical event: the resurrection of Jesus. If the resurrection of Jesus proves to be a true fact of history, Christianity is validated. If proved false, Christians are left with an empty, useless faith. This is why the apostle Paul said, “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.”[1]

Skeptics rightly understand that undermining the resurrection claim undermines Christianity – making unbelief a rational position. In fact, if an alternate hypothesis can adequately explain the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection claims, unbelief remains tenable. On the other hand, if alternate hypotheses fail to provide plausible explanations, Christians are justified in their belief and the unbeliever is faced with a decision – a decision with moral, religious, philosophical, and potentially eternal consequences. This paper will examine the leading hypotheses that compete with the resurrection claim, assess them using the standard method of hypothesis testing, and show their inadequacy as an explanation of the accepted historical facts. In the end, the Christian worldview will be strengthened and the skeptic left at a moral and intellectual crossroads.

HISTORICAL TESTING CRITERIA

Before one can effectively assess hypotheses for certain historical events, he must first understand hypothesis testing and historical reasoning. Anyone can make claims about the past, but how are we to judge which claim is superior to others? A method must be employed to assess any potential explanation of historical events. C. Behan McCullagh, Cambridge Ph.D. and expert in the nature of historical knowledge, sets forth criteria for determining the best hypothesis: explanatory scope, explanatory power, plausibility, less ad hoc, accordance with accepted beliefs, and superiority.[2] For the purposes of this paper, we will examine the theories in light of their explanatory scope, explanatory power, ad hocness, and superiority.

Let us first define each criterion before we assess the proposed theories. A hypothesis is said to have explanatory scope if it accounts for all the known facts surrounding an event. If a theory cannot explain one or more known historical elements, it lacks explanatory scope. Explanatory power is concerned with the probability that the hypothesis is able to explain the occurrence of the facts. To quote Michael Licona: “The hypothesis that explains the data with the least amount of effort, vagueness and ambiguity has greater explanatory power. Said another way, the historian does not want to have to push the facts in order to make them fit his theory as though he were trying to push a round peg through a square hole.”[3] If the facts must be stretched in an unnatural and improbable way to substantiate a hypothesis, then the hypothesis suffers from a lack of explanatory power.

A theory is said to be ad hoc if it contains assumptions not supported by evidence and goes beyond what is already known.[4] In an effort to prevent a theory from being falsified, one may introduce new presuppositions and unsupported modifications. Although an ad hoc theory is not necessarily false, historians view such theories with skepticism, preferring simpler explanations. Finally, and most importantly, a hypothesis must be superior to all other competing hypotheses in light of the above criteria to warrant belief. At this point, one must realize the resurrection of Jesus is the claim set forth by the earliest sources surrounding these events. Scholars agree that the primary source documents – based upon claims of eyewitnesses of the life and times of Jesus – report a resurrection. Therefore, if one is to offer a competing hypothesis, he must not only meet the assessment criteria set forth, but his hypothesis must be superior to the original claim of Jesus’ resurrection.

THE FACTS OF HISTORY

Regarding the events of Jesus’ alleged death and resurrection, there are five basic facts that nearly all historians and biblical scholars agree upon.[5] Fact one: Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried in a tomb.[6] Fact two: on the third day following his death, Jesus’ tomb was reported empty by many of his followers. Fact three: on numerous occasions, the disciples of Jesus believed they had encountered the resurrected Jesus. Fact four: Paul, a Jew and persecutor of the Christian church, claimed to have had an encounter with the risen Jesus. After this encounter, Paul was radically converted from Judaism to Christianity. Fact five: the Christian religion, a religion centered upon the belief in the resurrection and deity of Jesus, sprang into existence immediately following his alleged resurrection.

For those who would deny the resurrection of Jesus, an alternate hypothesis must be formed to account for the facts given above. Our attention will now turn to an examination of three such hypotheses: the wrong tomb hypothesis, the stolen body hypothesis, and the hallucination hypothesis.

THE WRONG TOMB HYPOTHESIS

Pat Zukeran gives an overview of the wrong tomb hypothesis (WTH), a view held by former Professor Kirsopp Lake of Harvard: “the women visited the grave early in the morning while it was dark. Due to their emotional condition and the darkness, they visited the wrong tomb. Overjoyed to see that it was empty, they rushed back to tell the disciples Jesus had risen. The disciples in turn ran into Jerusalem to proclaim the Resurrection.”[7] According to this hypothesis, the Christian movement is simply based upon a hasty mistake. So how does this theory stand up to the standard method of historical testing?

Explanatory Scope & Power

This hypothesis accounts for Jesus’ death and burial, the empty tomb, and the emergence of the Christian Church, but does not account for the numerous reported encounters with Jesus of both the disciples and Paul. In addition to its inability to account for certain keys facts, this hypothesis lacks explanatory power in accounting for the empty tomb and the emergence of the Church. The intention of the women who found the empty tomb was to anoint Jesus’ body with spices; therefore, one would assume they knew the location of the tomb. Matthew 27:61 even reports the women were present when Jesus was placed in the tomb, removing doubt as to their supposed mistake. Furthermore, Peter and John went to the tomb upon hearing the women’s report, found burial clothes, and reported speaking with an angel. To assume a giant mistake committed by all these individuals seems preposterous.

The emergence of the church also seems unlikely given this hypothesis. Christianity sprang into existence almost immediately based upon the conviction that Jesus was raised from the dead, proving his divinity. All but one of the disciples were martyred for their convictions about this event. Would they have claimed Jesus was God, he was raised from the dead, and died for this claim based upon an empty tomb alone? This seems unlikely. Additionally, the authorities of the day, eager to stamp out the Christian movement, would certainly have been able to clear up the misunderstanding by producing the corpse of Jesus. For these reasons and more, the WTH suffers from a lack of explanatory scope and power.

Ad Hocness & Superiority

Because WTH suffers from a lack of explanatory scope, new elements must be added to account for the appearances of Jesus claimed by his followers. This requires combining WTH with the notions that Jesus’ followers all had similar hallucinations of a risen Jesus. Leaving aside the problems of the hallucination theory (which will be discussed later), this need for additional presuppositions is ad hoc, further discrediting WTH. Finally, given the resurrection hypothesis’ ability to easily account for all five historical facts, WTH proves itself inferior, failing the superiority test. Therefore, since WTH fails all four historical tests, one can reasonable assume the theory false and irrational to believe.

THE STOLEN BODY HYPOTHESIS

The Stolen Body Hypothesis (SBH) posits that the body of Jesus was stolen by the disciples to maintain their claims of Jesus’ Lordship in spite of his crucifixion. In fact, the Gospel of Matthew reports the authorities spreading such a rumor upon learning of the resurrection claims.[8] According to this hypothesis, the resurrection is a grand deception, fabricated and carried out by the disciples. How does SBH fair when put to the historical test?

Explanatory Scope & Power

SBH accounts for Jesus’ death and burial, the empty tombs, the appearances to the disciples (assuming this was a lie fabricated by the disciples), and possibly the rise of the early church. Nevertheless, because the theory cannot explain the radical conversion of Paul, a fierce anti-Christian Jew, SBH lacks explanatory scope. Regarding explanatory power, the hypothesis has two flaws. First, it is unlikely the Christian movement would have exploded into existence based upon the lies of eleven men, especially considering the persecution incurred by Christians of this period. Second, and most damaging to SBH, is this: why would eleven disciples, all willingly martyred for their faith in Jesus, die for a something they knew to be a lie? If they knew the resurrection was a lie, they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by lying! This problem appears to be a fatal blow for SBH.

Ad Hocness & Superiority

SBH is ad hoc for two reasons. First, a reason must be given for the disciples to steal the body, spread lies, and die for their lies. Second, new assumptions must be introduced to explain the appearances of Jesus to Paul and his subsequent conversion. With each new invented element, the hypothesis becomes less plausible. Due to lack of explanatory scope and power, ad hoc elements, and the inferiority to the Resurrection Hypothesis, SBH fails the test of superiority, rendering it an untenable position.

THE HALLUCINATION HYPOTHESIS

The Hallucination Hypothesis (HH) is the theory advanced most often by modern skeptical scholars; therefore, more attention will be given for its refutation. HH states that all those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus were only experiencing guilt-based or bereavement-induced hallucinations. They believed these hallucinations to be the risen Jesus and told many others who then believed their testimony. Therefore, on this view, Christianity is nothing more than an illusion created in the minds of the early followers of Jesus. William Lane Craig summarizes the views of Gerd Lüdemann, a hallucination theory proponent:

Peter had a guilt complex for having denied Christ three times, so he hallucinated Jesus. This led to a chain reaction among all the other disciples, who also hallucinated. And they mistakenly came to believe in the resurrection. Paul, he says, also had a guilt complex because he struggled under the Jewish law and its demands. So he hallucinated Jesus on the Damascus Road.[9]

Does the hallucination theory comport with the known historical facts? Does it pass the standard tests of hypothesis examination?

Explanatory Scope

Our first step in examination proves difficult for the hallucination hypothesis. Although it can account for the death and burial of Jesus, the post-mortem appearances, and the start of the church, it does nothing to explain the empty tomb. At this point, many proponents (e.g. Gerd Lüdemann and Michael Goulder) of the theory will deny the empty tomb, but here they run into numerous problems.  First, according to surveys, approximately 75 percent of all scholars concede the fact of the empty tomb.[10] Therefore, to deny this fact is to deny the mainstream opinion of modern New Testament scholarship.

Second, given that Jesus was crucified and buried in Jerusalem, it would have been quite simple for the Jewish authorities to crush the Christian movement by producing the body of Jesus. We have no reports of such efforts. To the contrary, we have reports of the Jewish authorities spreading a rumor that the disciples stole the body, an admission of the empty tomb.[11] To this, Lüdemann argues that the body remained in the tomb, but the authorities knew a forty-day-old, rotting, and unrecognizable corpse would not have persuaded any enthusiastic believers; therefore, producing the body would prove fruitless.[12] But this can hardly be assumed true. We could easily imagine the impact the supposed corpse of Jesus would have on the early church. Not only would it have dissuaded many early Christians, but surely it would have been significant enough to warrant a defense from the apostles or early church fathers. Yet in all the writings of these men, we do not find any hint of such an apology.[13] Finally, the resurrection narratives record that women were the first reporters of the empty tomb of Jesus. If the story were legendary, surely the author would not have used women to validate his claims of a resurrected Jesus. The testimony of a woman was of little value during this time; therefore, it is not likely a fabrication. From this evidence it is clear that the HH lacks explanatory scope.

Explanatory Power & Ad Hocness

Michael Goulder posits that Peter had a problem with his self-image and was plagued with guilt and grief following the death of Jesus. This combination caused him to experience a hallucination of the risen Jesus. After telling the other disciples of his experience, they all began having hallucinations and “communal delusions” of the risen Jesus.[14] There are four main reasons why this theory fails the test of explanatory power and should be rejected: a faulty psychoanalysis of Peter, the individual hallucinations of every disciple, the problem of group hallucinations, and the appearances to Paul and James. To begin, Goulder attempts to provide a psychological analysis of a man from 2000 years ago based upon literature he is skeptical about. Such creative thinking is not acceptable to the historian, and is certainly no basis for a sound argument. Understanding the emotional state of any man – much less one you have never met and know little about – is a near impossible task. Additionally, one should ask the question of why Peter would assume Jesus was raised from the dead if he merely hallucinated? Many have hallucinated the deceased, but rarely, if ever, will one continue in the belief that the hallucinated person has been raised from the dead.

If, for the sake of argument, we assume that Peter did experience a hallucination, what is the likelihood of the ten other disciples hallucinating the risen Jesus? According to a study in the British Medical Journal of hallucinations in the widowed, approximately 14% of all grieving widow(er)s experienced a visual hallucination.[15] Assuming this probability, there is a one in 2.5 billion chance that all eleven disciples would have a visual hallucination. Another important point to note is that the study showed that many of the individuals had hallucinations that lasted for many years. Yet, when we look at the testimony of the disciples, we find they only report encounters with the risen Jesus for a very short period of time – an unlikely scenario if they were in fact experiencing grief-induced hallucinations. Most staggering of all is that all the disciples apparently had the same appearance of Jesus, namely a resurrected man. If all of these appearances originated in the minds of the men, surely we would have a wide variety of descriptions and conclusions about Jesus; but since the appearances were not wide in variety, they are not likely to have originated from men.

The most damaging evidence to the hallucination theory is the requirement of group hallucinations. The New Testament documents report numerous occasions of groups having experiences with what they believed was the risen Jesus. According to modern psychology, this is impossible. Clinical psychologist and Ph.D. Gary Sibcy writes:

I have surveyed the professional literature (peer-reviewed journal articles and books) written by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other relevant healthcare professionals during the past two decades and have yet to find a single documented case of a group hallucination, that is, an event for which more than one person purportedly shared in a visual or other sensory perception where there was clearly no external referent.[16]

To escape the pitfalls of group hallucinations, Goulder resorts to what he calls “communal delusions” – a phenomenon commonly associated with the sightings of UFO’s or Bigfoot.[17] A person will claim a sighting of a UFO and within days, numerous other “sightings” will be reported. A few comments must be made regarding this assertion. In each of these cases, the people who reportedly saw the UFO did not hallucinate, but rather saw something and mistook it for a UFO. Yet, in all the accounts, the appearances of Jesus are never considered to be sightings of Jesus, but rather interactions with him. If all the experiences with Jesus were mere sightings, we would expect a wide variety of reports – many of which would be extraordinary and obviously concocted. On the contrary, we find consistent reporting of Jesus appearing to the people and interacting with them such that they all believed he was raised from the dead. Given the consistency of the reports, both group hallucinations and communal delusions are very improbable.

The appearances of Jesus to Paul and James, prior skeptics and unbelievers, add more difficulty to the hallucination hypothesis and its explanatory power. Why would Paul, a devout Jew and antagonist of Christianity, suddenly have a hallucination of Jesus – a hallucination that changes his entire worldview? The same question must also be asked of James, the unbelieving brother of Jesus. Certainly these men did not suffer from bereavement-induced hallucinations that led them to believe Jesus was raised from the dead. Many stories have been conjured up to create a psychological profile that would make possible a hallucination, but these are merely ad hoc. Wild tales may be concocted, but nothing in the evidence lends credibility to this conclusion. In fact, the evidence we do have implies that Paul never suffered any sort of guilt complex, but was perfectly content with his religious lifestyle (Phil. 3:5-6).

Superiority

A quick examination of the resurrection hypothesis will demonstrate its superiority over the hallucination theory regarding explanatory scope and power. The resurrection of Jesus easily accounts for our five basic facts: Jesus’ death and burial in a tomb, reports of the empty tomb, appearances to the disciples and other followers, the appearance to Paul and his subsequent conversion, and the emergence of the Christian church. In addition to being able to account for more facts than HH, the resurrection hypothesis does so with greater ease. No stories must be invented or facts stretched to fit the data. The resurrection theory accounts for the facts completely and without effort. Dr. Craig appropriately summarizes the hallucination theory: “Its explanatory scope is too narrow, its explanatory power is too weak to account for the phenomena it does seek to explain, it is implausible in certain important respects, it contradicts a number of accepted beliefs, it is ad hoc, and it does not outstrip its rivals in meeting the above criteria.”[18] Does the hallucination theory pass standard historical hypothesis testing? Does it prove superior to the resurrection claim? We must answer with a resounding “No!” The hallucination hypothesis falters in every aspect.

WHAT ABOUT THE UNCONVINCED?

The assessments given of the alternate hypothesis show one thing: no theory can compete with the resurrection hypothesis. All attempts to proffer alternate hypotheses fail, leaving the skeptic with no rational alternative explanation of the historical facts. Christians on the other hand possess further justification for the cornerstone of their faith – their belief rests on sure and reliable historical footing. Yet, although many have assessed this evidence and converted to Christianity, others remain steadfast in their unbelief. In light of the historical evidence, why would one continue to deny the miracle of the resurrection?

C.S. Lewis rightly observes in his book, Miracles: “For if [miracles] are impossible, then no amount of historical evidence will convince us…If, on the other hand, miracles are not intrinsically improbable, then the existing evidence will be sufficient to convince us that quite a number of miracles have occurred.”[19] Those who reject the resurrection despite the historical evidence have done so based upon a presupposition, an a priori commitment to naturalism. Before the conversation begins, they have chosen to reject God.

In conclusion, we are left with a matter of the heart and will. Evidence certainly constitutes an important component to belief; but the heart, with its motives and moral attributes, is not driven by pure logic and rational. Apart from God’s grace and a willing heart, no amount of evidence will suffice. Dr. Craig summarizes the point well: “No one in the final analysis really fails to become a Christian because of lack of arguments; he fails to become a Christian because he loves darkness rather than light and wants nothing to do with God.”[20]

Jordan Tong


[1] 1 Corinthians 15:14,17. All scripture references from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.

[2] C. Behan McCullagh, Justifying Historical Descriptions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 19.

[3] Michael Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 109.

[4] Ibid., 110

[5] William Lane Craig, “Visions of Jesus: A Critical Examination of Gerd Lüdemann’s Hallucination Hypothesis,” Reasonable Faith, http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=5208 (accessed December 3, 2012).

[6] A theory not addressed in the paper is the Swoon Theory. This theory states that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but was taken down and recovered. This theory is so outlandish that almost no modern scholar recognizes it as plausible; therefore, it is not considered here.

[7] Pat Zukerman, “The Resurrection: Fact or Fiction?,” Leadership U, http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/resurrec.html (accessed December 3, 2012).

[8] Matthew 28:11-15

[9] William Lane Craig, “First Rebuttal,” in Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? ed. Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 49.

[10] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004), 70.

[11] Matthew 28:13.

[12] Gerd Lüdemann, “Closing Response,” in Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? ed. Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 153.

[13] Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, 70-71.

[14] Michael Licona, 482.

[15] W. Dewi Rees, “The Hallucinations of Widowhood,” British Medical Journal (1971): 38. The probability is decreases drastically when you consider the variety of experiences (visual, auditory, tactile, etc.) the disciples had. Additionally, the study was conducted on individuals who had been married for an extended amount of time; therefore, we could assume the bond to their spouse would be greater than the bond of the disciples and Jesus.

[16] Michael Licona, 484.

[17] Michael Goulder, “The Explanatory Power of Conversion Visions,” in Jesus’ Resurrection: Fact or Figment? ed. Paul Copan and Ronald Tacelli (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 96-97.

[18] Craig in Copan and Tacelli, ed., 199-200.

[19] C.S. Lewis, Miracles, pg. 304

[20] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 47.

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