Here we review the historical data, and form an argument out of it, to show that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. We've been building this case for a few episodes now, going through all the historical data, and showing what sorts of pieces of information are reliable about Jesus' life. Once we compile all that data, what's the best explanation?
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Hello, and welcome once again to the Ultimate Questions podcast.
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For the past few episodes we’ve been going into the historical facts regarding Jesus’ resurrection for the purpose of building up a real argument. We’ve gone through the facts of the matter that historians largely recognize as reliable, and now for this episode we’re going to piece it all together. Personally, I find this line of reasoning to be incredibly convincing, to the point I would say it would actually be irrational for someone to disbelieve in the resurrection of Jesus, once they’re made aware of these points. Now that said, this doesn’t mean the argument is such a slam dunk that people will convert on the spot. It’s not a guarantee that, once you share this with someone, they’ll immediately become a Christian. After all, there are all sorts of things holding people back from accepting Christ. That said, I think this argument is incredibly persuasive, and at the very least it will give people cause to start taking these matters seriously. I’ve personally given this argument to different non-Christians, and I’ve had people admit that Christianity is far more reasonable than they thought possible. When I ask them how they respond to this, at times they seem genuinely concerned, where they’re starting to actually consider that Christianity might actually be true.
Now, in this argument we will be referring to Scripture, which I know a secular person doesn’t respect. You can check out episodes two through nine of this podcast to get more information on why the Bible is actually giving us trustworthy historical information. However, I want to clearly say that this argument I’m giving does not rely on the authority of the Bible, and it’s because I know non-Christians don’t respect the Bible. All we’re doing with the Bible, for our purposes in this argument, is using it like we would use any other ancient piece of historical writing. We’re not granting that it is the authoritative Word of God, or that it’s infallible or inerrant. I do personally believe these things, but for this argument we’re leaving that all behind, and using the same starting point as a non-Christian, so that we’re not using circular reasoning by assuming our conclusions before we start. We’re only using a few of the books of the Bible purely as pieces of writing from the first century. I should also mention that we’re not relying on details that only Christians believe. A great deal of the historical facts we’re using are granted by nearly all non-Christian historians.
To start, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is crucial. In 1 Corinthians 15:14 it says that if the resurrection is false, then our faith in Jesus is worthless, and we are the most wretched people on earth. However, if the resurrection is true, then Christianity is true, and that ends up being monumentally important for your own wellbeing. Now, normally, most people would think that, if there’s anything in Christianity that requires blind irrational faith, it would be the resurrection of Jesus. However, we actually have very good reason to believe it, and the resurrection of Jesus is actually the strongest reason we have for believing in the truth of Christianity.
For this argument that we’ll be looking at, we’re going to be using what’s called “abductive reasoning”. This is a mode of logical thinking to try and arrive at a conclusion, in our case, that Jesus Christ actually rose from the dead. Abductive reasoning is when you take a bunch of evidence, gather it all together, and ask the question, “what’s the best explanation of all this data?” Note, we are not providing an absolute 100% proof, where it’s impossible for the conclusion to be false. I should also say, that demanding that sort of proof is itself irrational, and we never require that kind of proof for anything, even in the hard sciences, with math and logic being the only fields with real certainty. Abductive reasoning is the kind of logical thinking that all humans use on a daily basis to determine the truth or falsity of claims. So, with this understanding, let’s start into the argument.
To begin arguing for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we first need to compile the evidence. We’ve done this over a bunch of episodes now, but I’ll briefly refresh your memory as to the facts that we’ve been able to show are very historically reliable for our purposes in this argument.
Firstly, Jesus was crucified. We know this is true for many reasons. We have different biblical authors that mention it including Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, James, Paul, and Peter. As I’ve mentioned before, these biblical sources don’t count as one source, because they were each individual authors giving their own points, so they each count as independent sources of this piece of information. We also have accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion from the non-Christian writers of Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian of Samosata, Mara bar Serapion, and the Talmud. Therefore, we have a plethora of independent source material all confirming the crucifixion. By normal historical standards, even just having two pieces of independent testimony makes the account worthwhile, and here we have much more than that. Additionally, the crucifixion of Christianity’s messiah would have been far too embarrassing of a point for Christians to simply invent, which adds to the credibility that Jesus actually was crucified. The evidence for Jesus’ crucifixion is so overwhelmingly proven that this is just taken for granted by historians as one of the most solid historical facts we know of the ancient world. If you want more details on this, you can check out episode 25 of this podcast.
Secondly, the followers of Jesus, at the very least claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus, and they began spreading the word of His resurrection throughout the world. Now, we are not assuming the truth of the resurrection, only that it’s recognized that the early Christians very strongly believed they had seen the resurrected Jesus, and spread that belief everywhere they went, which ended up converting vast numbers of people, with the eventual conversion even of Rome itself. As for the evidence of this, all the Gospels show the followers of Jesus claimed to have seen Him resurrected, and we’re even willing to be persecuted and even die for their belief in the resurrection. Also, Paul knew the disciples quite well, and wrote about these things. Paul’s writing of 1 Corinthians 15, as we’ve went through many times now, is an early Christian creed, showing the belief in the resurrected Jesus goes right back to the time of the crucifixion, showing it’s always been a core aspect of the faith, and was definitely not fabricated at a later time due to a developing mythology. We also have Clement, who knew the apostle Pater, who tells us the disciples strongly believed the resurrection. There’s also Polycarp, who was also close with the disciples, and was taught by John, who also mentions the resurrection numerous times. All of this shows us that the resurrection was foundational to the faith, and the early Christians very strongly believed Jesus had risen from the dead, and they spread that belief wherever they went, and were even willing to die for it. This was likely the primary reason for the mass amounts of conversions we notice during that time, because it would have been a very powerful testimony for so many people to spread out into the world sharing their personal accounts of seeing the resurrected Jesus. If you want more information on this piece of data, episode 25 contains the crucifixion details, but then goes into this point as well.
Next up is the fact that Paul was first a member of the religious party who was persecuting Christians, he had a dramatic experience of some kind, ended up converting to the very faith he was persecuting, and then ended up being persecuted himself, even to the point of being killed for his new faith. Paul himself wrote about his own experiences, telling us these things. We also have the writings of Luke, who was a friend of Paul’s, who tells us Paul’s story in three different places. Luke first wrote Paul’s testimony himself, and then he quotes Paul on two different occasions where Paul told his testimony in public. We also have 1 Clement, which was likely written in the end of the first century, which gives us the account that Paul persecuted the Church, helped kill Christians, later converted, wrote a lot for the Church, was persecuted a lot, and ended up dying for the faith. We also see Tertullian and Polycarp writing about Paul being killed for his faith. There’s also Eusebius who mentions the writings of Caius and Dionysius of Corinth, who both wrote about Paul’s death for preaching the Gospel. Paul had a complete and total change in his philosophy, worldview, religion, politics, job, and lifestyle. This dramatic conversion of Paul’s needs some kind of explanation, and thankfully, Paul himself tells us of this experience he had. He said that he had a supernatural encounter with the resurrected Christ, which caused him to become a follower of Jesus. What other explanation could there possibly be? Paul had nothing to gain, and everything to lose. Even if the skeptic doesn’t want to admit the supernatural, they have to give some sort of account that makes sense of the historical facts we’ve laid out here, that Paul severely persecuted Christians, and then had some kind of experience that drastically changed him into a passionate Christian that was willing to suffer and die for preaching that Jesus had been raised. If you want more about Paul’s conversion, you can listen to episode 26 of this podcast to get more details.
Our fourth historical point for our argument is the conversion of James, the brother of Jesus. There are three points of history that are important to us in regards to James. Firstly, he originally thought his brother Jesus was insane. Secondly, he converted, literally believing his own brother to be the Son of God who died for his sins, even became an important part of the Christian leadership. And thirdly, he was so passionate about his faith that he was willing to be persecuted, and even stoned to death for it. For evidence regarding the first point, that James thought Jesus was nuts, we don’t have too much information, but we do have a couple of stories given in Scripture. It makes sense there wouldn’t be too much information on it, because it would have been an embarrassing thing to keep bringing up. Frankly, I don’t think this point should be too difficult to believe, after all, who in the world would have an easy time accepting that their own sibling is God incarnate dying for the sins of humanity? It’s quite easy to believe that James would have thought Jesus was out of His mind. In regards to James’ conversion, we don’t have any explicit mention of it, but we do read from Paul that James met Jesus after He was resurrected, which obviously would have been quite convincing for James to start believing. As for the prominence James had within Christian leadership, we read a couple of mentions of it in Acts, then we also have Eusebius quoting from Hegesippus and Clement of Alexandria about how strong James was in his faith. In regards to James being persecuted, we have an account in Josephus’ writing where it says James was brought to the Sanhedrin, which resulted in him being stoned to death. Again, it would take something absolutely monumental to start believing your own sibling is the resurrected Son of God who died for your sins. James went from thinking his brother was insane, to being such a passionate believer that he devoted his whole life to it, and even ended up dying for his faith. Something needs to explain this dramatic conversion, and we are told the reason is that James met Jesus after His resurrection, which would perfectly explain how James could start believing. If you want more on James’ conversion, then check out episode 27 for more info.
Our last piece of data for our argument for the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the fact that Jesus was buried, and then later His tomb was found empty. The reason we need to defend the first point, that Jesus was in fact buried, is because in Rome it was uncommon for executed criminals to be buried, because denying burial was actually part of their punishment. To begin, the claims of the burial and empty tomb go back very early, so it would have been quite easy to contradict it, if it weren’t true. There were also numerous independent authors for these facts, between four and six actually, when normally even only two would be enough to show something is historically reliable. Next, Jesus wasn’t technically a criminal, so he could have been legally buried. Also, Jews actually did have a history of burying crucifixion victims, because the Old Testament laws said they had to. We read about this in Josephus, where he says they have a practice of burying crucifixion victims. Additionally, there were exceptions to this non-burial rule when it was a holiday, which it was, and when someone would specifically ask the governor for the body to bury it, which is exactly what we find Joseph of Arimathea doing. We also know that the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection claims were all very public, and in Jerusalem, which was a very populated area. If the burial of Jesus or the empty tomb were false, it would have been incredibly easy to disprove, considering how many witnesses there were. Also, Joseph of Arimathea was the one who asked to bury Jesus, which is important, because he was a prominent religious figure. If Joseph wasn’t actually a Christian, or if he didn’t ask for the body of Jesus, or if he didn’t bury Jesus in his own tomb, then this would have been immediately and easily contradicted by the many witnesses involved. The pure scandal of Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin, burying Jesus, would have made it impossible for the Gospel authors to get away with writing it, if it were false. It’s also important to note that the Jewish and Christian concept of resurrection implied a physical and bodily resurrection, which means that, any time anyone ever mentioned the resurrection of Jesus, they were implying His body was no longer in the tomb. Probably the biggest point in regards to the burial and empty tomb is that, if it weren’t true, the enemies of Christianity would have contradicted it, and we don’t find a single case of anyone ever doing that. It would have been incredibly easy to shut down. If Jesus wasn’t buried, the enemies would have stated that fact. Or, if Jesus’ tomb wasn’t empty, even just a short walk could have proved it, because they could have easily gone to the tomb themselves, and shown everyone the body still in the tomb. We have different biblical accounts and Justin Martyr confirming that the religious officials who killed Jesus recognized Jesus’ tomb was in fact empty. We also have the anti-Christian writers Celsus and Porphyry writing many arguments against Christianity, but they never denied the burial or empty tomb, because they knew they couldn’t. There was far too much evidence that Jesus had been buried, and His tomb was found empty. In fact, in their writings, they even seem to confirm these details, and some others, in what they wrote. When the enemies of a movement admit points, that works as extra confirmation for those points, and that’s exactly what we see in the burial and empty tomb of Jesus. If you want to learn more about all of this part of the data, you can listen to episodes 28 and 29 for more information.
Before we summarize, there are a few additional points that are worth considering. We have many accounts of Jesus speaking, and Old Testament prophecy, where it does seem as though Jesus predicted His own death and resurrection. Also, the day of worship changed from Saturday to Sunday, specifically because of the resurrection. Lastly, it was claimed that over 500 people were witnesses to the resurrected Christ, and many of them were even still alive at the time of the writings, so if it weren’t true, it would have been contradicted.
Now the majority of the facts we just went over are granted by basically every historian in the field. The only real outlier is the empty tomb, which about 70% of those in the field agree with. You can see why these facts are so strongly held, given the reasoning for each of them. By historical standards, there’s an absolute wealth of evidence for these points, and no historical accounts ever contradicting those points. So, with these facts in mind, we then apply abductive reasoning. What is the best explanation of these facts? Now I know my bias is obviously towards Christianity, but I really do think the best explanation, all things being equal, is that Jesus actually did rise from the dead! That explains why we have so many accounts of so many people all seeing the resurrected Jesus. It makes sense why we see such dramatic and life changing conversion in the faith’s greatest enemy and even Jesus’ own brother. It explains why there was no body found in the tomb. It also explains the massive explosion of conversion to Christianity throughout the world, and even the eventual conversion of Rome. If Jesus really did rise, and the witnesses went out with intense passion telling everyone they could meet about what they had personally witnessed, and all these people gladly laying down their lives for their faith in Christ, we would actually expect there to be a massive movement towards faith in Jesus. A lot of the data we went over is actually kind of confusing if Jesus did not rise from the dead. The tomb being empty makes very little sense, after all, the body has to be somewhere, so where did it go? It’s a puzzle why Paul would leave his entire life behind to join those he had been persecuting. It’s mind boggling to think James could be convinced his own brother was actually divine. And also, why were so many people willing to die for the idea that they witnessed the resurrected Christ? If it were only a strong faith in something they didn’t see, I could imagine that, because there are plenty of people that merely believe things, but if they were eyewitnesses of the events, they would know whether they saw it or not. The fact that we had so many being martyred for what they witnessed is incredibly bizarre, if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. The only explanation that actually accounts for all the data is that Jesus actually rose. The real reason people don’t just agree with that, is because they either don’t believe in the supernatural, or they just simply don’t want to be a Christian. We’ll go over this in future episodes, as well as other counters to the argument.
After evaluating the evidence, it actually becomes difficult to give a good argument against the resurrection. Years ago, the Christian scholar Gary Habermas, who I’ve mentioned a few times before, debated the famous atheist scholar Antony Flew, on this topic of the resurrection of Jesus, and Habermas presented this argument we’ve gone over. Charles Hartshorne was in attendance, who is one of the most prominent philosophers of religion of our day. Hartshorne said this about the outcome of the debate, “I can neither explain away the evidences to which Habermas appeals, nor can I simply agree with Flew’s or Hume’s positions. … My metaphysical bias is against resurrections.” In other words, Hartshorne recognized he couldn’t disagree with the actual facts of the matter. He also couldn’t agree with any of the alternative explanations, because they don’t explain the facts, or they commit fallacies. He simply had to admit that he doesn’t believe in miracles. His bias stopped him from following the facts where they led. It’s become something of a cliché among skeptics to say we ought to follow the evidence where it leads. In this case, I would actually argue that it’s irrational to disbelieve the resurrection, because that’s where the evidence leads. Yes, it is a supernatural and miraculous claim, but that doesn’t delegitimize it from being considered. We’ll actually dive more into that idea of being against miracles in the next episode of the podcast, since that’s probably the largest reason why people don’t merely accept the obvious truth of Jesus’ resurrection.
I should also mention that the actual resurrection of Jesus makes sense in a subjective way. Yes, we have objective evidences and can show it happened objectively, but what about the personal aspect? Recently Jordan Peterson has been struggling with these ideas, and whether he ought to have faith in Christ. He said one of the biggest things holding him back from simply accepting Christ is the fact that so many Christians seem so unchanged by it. Basically, if Jesus really rose from the dead, those who have faith in Christ should be dramatically transformed. He doesn’t see this transformation, so he has difficult believing in the resurrection. However, I would argue the exact opposite situation is true of human history. The Early Church was so incredibly passionate about their faith in Christ that they were devoting every moment of their lives to spreading the Gospel. They were persecuted severely, but it didn’t even seem the phase them, because they were so devoted to Christ. At times they even offered themselves up to the authorities willingly, knowing it would result in their execution, because they had no fear of death. As we saw in episode 23 of this podcast, the Roman authorities were actually bewildered by the fact that Christians seemed to have no fear of death, because of the resurrection of Jesus. It did have an incredibly powerful life transforming element to it. Do we still see this sort of passion today? Absolutely we do! It’s just not found in those people we know, because, usually, Christians in the western world take their faith for granted. They don’t really appreciate the reality of it, because the faith has essentially been watered down in many places. However, if you go to other countries, you can see this dramatic life changing aspect of Christianity still happening in massive numbers. For example, China is exploding with Christian passion right now to such an extent that the government has had to start fighting against Christianity. Even here in the west, I have personally known many people that spread the Gospel with everything they have, passionately serving Christ their whole lives, devoting themselves to the cause. I have personally seen this life transforming aspect of Christianity in many people, so there actually is this amazing subjective truth to Christianity as well. We see Christianity is true by observing the evidence, but we can also see that it’s true because of the lives that have been changed by it. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the best news humanity ever received, it can quite literally change your life, and we have quite powerful reasons to believe it is true.
All that said, there are still many arguments that skeptics have against the resurrection, and they are definitely worth looking at. As I’ve said before, to deny the facts would be to say that you know better than the entirety of academic professionals in this field who spend their lives studying this matter, so the skeptic cannot disagree with the facts of the matter. The skeptic also cannot merely say, “I disagree with your conclusion”. It’s fine to disagree, but there needs to be a reason to disagree. Really, the only way to counter this argument is to present alternative hypotheses that explain the pieces of data we’ve gone over. This is how non-Christian historians approach this topic, because they aren’t Christians, so they obviously don’t believe Jesus actually rose from the dead. However, they do agree with the historical facts about the matter, so they need to come up with some way of explaining all these facts that doesn’t involve Christianity being true. This is how this argument continues: we’ve looked at the method, and we’ve looked at the facts, so the next step is to look at the counter arguments and alternative explanations. This is what we’re going to dive into in future episodes, starting in the next episode of the podcast, where we’ll dive into the arguments against miracles.
But before we wrap up, if you’re interested in talking to someone about these things, or just have spiritual questions in general, or even just want to have someone to talk to about life, Power to Change has a great mentoring program available for free online. There are hundreds of people plugged into this mentoring program, from all over the world. If you’d like to get in touch with someone to try it out, I have a page on my website to fill out a form for someone to contact you. The address of this form is jontopping.com/mentoring, and remember that Jon is spelt without an “H”. Hopefully that can be encouraging and helpful for you, and I hope that you’ll join me next time, for the arguments against miracles, on the Ultimate Questions podcast.