Updated: Aug 19, 2020
Did Jesus rise from the dead? This question, perhaps more than any other, has radical philosophical, theological, historical, and especially existential implications for us. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then He is no different from any other tragic historical figure; even worse, His claims have then been revealed to be fraudulent, if not deranged, and His followers "of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:19). Paul reflects on this notion when he writes in 1 Corinthians 15:14 (NASB) that "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain." He understood the implications that follow from a still-dead Messiah.
If, however, Jesus did rise from the dead, then this is the most important news in the history of the world, for it shows that death has decisively and finally been defeated. As one of my favorite Christian apologists, Cliffe Knechtle, often says, "If you predicted your own resurrection and then did it, you better believe that I'm going to listen to what you have to say." This seems immanently reasonable. No person on planet earth has done anything like this, except perhaps Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus really rose from the dead, then the jig is up. Give up your other worldviews, philosophies, and religions. This man, the God of the universe in human flesh, has done the impossible. Wouldn't you want to be in on that?
Of course, many in our age are skeptical of the resurrection. The world's most famous atheists-Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris, among others-have gained much popularity in Western culture from spewing derision on the claim of Jesus' resurrection. Of course, their derision is no reason to give up the resurrection, but it does raise a valuable question: is the resurrection of Jesus plausible? Is there any reason to think that it actually happened?
In this post, I will discuss a unique argument for God's existence from the resurrection of Jesus. As far as I am aware, this argument originates with William Lane Craig, whose ministry's videos have formed the framework of this series. This theistic argument seeks to show that God exists from the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection, essentially arguing that Jesus' resurrection entails that God exists. If successful, this argument would lead us not merely to a Creator and Designer of the universe, but the God of Scripture revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. This is hugely important for us, since the resurrection has eternal implications for the lives of all people everywhere.
This will be a longer post, since I need to explain a few concepts before we discuss the evidence for the resurrection. This post will be split into five main parts:
The Logic of the Argument
Thinking About Scripture Historically
Without further ado, let's begin!
The Logic of the Argument
First, we need to discuss the logic of this argument, since it is quite distinct from the arguments that we've discussed already in this series. In my post, "A Crash Course in Logic," I distinguished between deductive and inductive logic. In a deductive argument, the conclusion follows from the premises via a certain rule of logical inference, such as modus ponens or modus tollens, which we've discussed before on this blog. All of the arguments that I've discussed thus far have been deductive. On the other hand, inductive arguments include premises that provide support for a conclusion, but the conclusion doesn't follow necessarily from the premises. Because of this, premises in an inductive argument provide weaker support for the conclusion than premises in a deductive argument, but this does not mean that inductive arguments are somehow inferior. In fact, inductive reasoning is often used more frequently than deductive reasoning, since the rules are more strict in deductive reasoning.
There are general forms of inductive reasoning that are accepted among philosophers. The one relevant to this argument is inference to the best explanation. This form of inductive reasoning gathers multiple observations and seeks to discover the explanation that is adequate for all of these observations. Because of this, the explanation in question must be shown to be the best explanation, among multiple alternative possible explanations.
Let me give an example. Imagine that archaeologists are excavating a site and come across carvings in the wall of a cave. These carvings seem to have a particular pattern; in fact, they seem to resemble different animals, such as an elephant, tiger, and the like. Let's say that there are two alternative explanations for these carvings. Either they were formed by an ancient indigenous people to the region, or they were formed by erosion. How could we decide between these two explanations for this phenomenon?
One way to decide between the two is to consider the plausibility of each alternative in light of what we already know, or our background knowledge. Let's say that these archaeologists are aware of an ancient indigenous nomadic people who roamed this land roughly 15,000 years ago. They have actually been using various sites where they are thought to have been to trace this people's migratory patterns, which is what initially led this team of archaeologists to this cave, since the cave seems to be along the route that this people would have taken to follow large game for hunting. In fact, the suggested route along which this people traveled seems to have followed these animals matches the evidence that mammoths moved along the same route. Furthermore, similar carvings can be found in other caves along this route, and all of these carvings include the same animals, such as elephants and the like. Finally, let's assume that this cave is already known to have markings due to erosion but that those markings look nothing like these carvings. All of this evidence, given in the archaeologists' background knowledge, strongly supports the explanation that this indigenous people had lived in this cave for a time and made these carvings in the cave wall. This is a typical example of inference to the best explanation from a scientific field.
In the same way, the argument from the resurrection of Jesus will include several key observations, called "the facts," which must be explained. The proposed explanation will be the resurrection, which, as the argument goes, is the best explanation and entails that God exists.
Thinking About Scripture Historically
Second, I often find that both Christians and non-Christians misunderstand (a) what the Bible is and (b) how we are supposed to read it. I remember struggling with this conceptually at a young age, as I listened to teachers at church and read the Bible for myself. The Bible seemed to me like a collection of stories meant to teach certain lessons. For anyone who grew up in a normal evangelical church, this is, I imagine, the typical experience of a child being taught "Bible stories" like Noah's Flood, the Exodus, the story of David and Goliath, and the gospels. This innocent and well-intended way of teaching the Bible to children has, I think, some pretty bad consequences, albeit unintentionally. It raises children to view the Bible as not so different from Cat in the Hat or Hansel and Gretel. It is a story meant to teach a valuable lesson and nothing more. Really, I can't tell you how many times I heard non-Christians, many of whom grew up in the church, refer to the Bible as fiction! The claims of the Bible may not be true, but the Bible is not literally fiction; it does not present itself like The Lord of the Rings.
So, what is the Bible? To put it simply, the Bible is a collection of historical documents of various genres, which tell us about the God who created the universe in His revelation of Himself and His love to humanity. That is a short definition in my own words. The important thing here is to highlight three realities. First, the Bible is not one book. It is a collection of 66 books bound between two covers. Those 66 books have all kinds of different genres and writing styles and bridge roughly 2,000 years of history, from the second millennium B.C. to the end of the first century A.D. Because of this, reading the entire Bible as if it was written by the same person over the same time period is grossly mistaken, and you are guaranteed to misunderstand it. Second, though the Bible is not one book, it is one narrative. That is, the Bible tells one story from beginning to end, the story of the Creator God and His love for humanity. Thus, there is a unifying narrative to all of Scripture. Third, while the Bible has multiple authors (about 40), it is also inspired by God. This means that we have to understand the individual author's intent in writing the book as well as God's intent in the inspiration of the book with respect to the whole narrative of Scripture. This balance, between the intent of the author in his cultural and historical context and God as ultimate Author of Scripture, will guide how we read and interpret Scripture.
Given this, how are we to read the Bible? For the Christian, the Bible is to be read from the perspective of the individual author (e.g., Moses, Isaiah, Matthew, John, Paul, etc.) in his own historical and cultural context and according to the genre (e.g., historical biography, apocalyptic literature, poetry, etc.) in which the book is written. This is a much more involved and complex process than what we're typically taught as children. The Bible is not a collection of stories that teach us lessons. It has stories, and some stories teach a valuable lesson, but this is not fundamentally what Scripture is. This is not only how Christians should read the text, but it is how non-Christians should read it as well. This process is fundamentally irreligious and no different from reading any other historical text. The Christian, however, must also read the Bible as the inspired Word of God. As Paul writes in 1 Timothy 3:16-17 (NASB):
"All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work."
In this, we come to know God and how to serve Him and others through Scripture. This is unique to the Bible and cannot be done with any other book.
Why is this important? It is important because the argument from the resurrection is based on the first way of reading Scripture, which is necessary just as much as the second for understanding what it means. The argument, however, does not assume or rely on the claim that the Bible is inspired by God. Because of this, non-Christians should have no qualms with how the New Testament is being read with respect to this argument.
So, fundamentally, what are the texts in question? The argument from the resurrection broadly uses the New Testament texts, in particular the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as well as Acts (an historical record of the spread of the early church) and various epistles, which are the letters written from the apostles (the first messengers of the gospel to the Roman world) to the various churches scattered around Jerusalem and the Roman Empire. The gospels are historical biographies of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. The Acts is an historical narrative about the growth of the early church within the first 40 or so years after Jesus' death. The epistles are letters and, as such, seek to address issues concerning the earliest Christian churches. All of these documents were written in the first century after Jesus' death, so they are early in that sense. I'm flying through a lot of this information for the sake of space, so I will leave sources below for further study.
These are the main sources for our investigation into the claim of Jesus' resurrection. We should read them as they were intended to be read, as historical documents pertaining to the life of Jesus and the early church.
For this section, I will merely compile the material in the video as a helpful resource for further study. There are three major facts pertaining to Jesus' life and death, which need to be explained.
The Discovery of Jesus' Empty Tomb
First, this is supported by six independent and early sources:
1 Corinthians 15:3-5
The independence of the sources from one another is important for establishing that an historical event actually occurred because it makes it more likely that the event actually occurred. For instance, when a crime takes place, the first responders at the crime scene will separate eyewitnesses so that their testimony to investigators will be independent of one another. That way, when two eyewitnesses report the same detail, investigators can be more confident that the detail is reliable. Early sources are also important because it makes it less likely for embellishment to have obscured the truth of the testimony. When compared to other accounts of historical events, the accounts found in the New Testament are extremely early, which contributes to their reliability.
Second, the fact that women are reported to have discovered the empty tomb contributes to the historical veracity of the empty tomb, since the patriarchal Jewish culture was prejudicial against the testimony of women. Embellished accounts almost surely would have reported that men had discovered the empty tomb.
Third, the Jews claimed that Jesus' body had been stolen (Matthew 28:1-15), which ironically confirms the fact of the empty tomb!
The Appearances of Jesus Alive After His Death
One of the earliest epistles, 1 Corinthians, includes a list of witnesses to Jesus resurrection appearances (1 Corinthians 15:3-8). Many, though not all, of these appearances are independently confirmed in all four gospels. These independent accounts strongly lend credibility to the postmortem appearances of Jesus.
The Disciples' Belief That Jesus Rose From the Dead
The fact that Jesus' Jewish followers would come to believe that God had raised one man, let alone the Messiah, from the dead in a glorified state is puzzling because this is a thoroughly non-Jewish belief. Thus, this change in the disciples needs to be explained. This change is not merely intellectual either, but it led the apostles to voluntarily accept martyrdom without denying the teachings of Jesus or the fact of the resurrection. Though their willingness to die alone is not evidence for the resurrection, it illustrates the radical change that had taken place in the apostles and suggests that something big had taken place.
How do we explain these facts? In the video, four naturalistic explanations are taken up and rebutted in support of the explanation that God had raised Jesus from the dead. I will not go into detail here, since the video does a good job of explaining these. I will simply list the alternative explanations:
The Conspiracy Theory
The Apparent Death Theory
The Displaced Body Theory
The Hallucination Theory
In light of the failure of each of these naturalistic theories (and the relative strength of the resurrection hypothesis), the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation.
Of course, I presented this as an argument for God's existence. The argument claims that, since the resurrection is the best explanation for the evidence before us, then the resurrection clearly entails that God exists. I won't go into too much detail examining this claim, that the existence of God is entailed by the resurrection hypothesis, but at face value, it seems to be right.
At this point, however, I must emphasize that no Christian is obligated to agree wholesale with any argument for God's existence. Of course, one would need a reason to reject it (either attack its logical validity or one of its premises), but there is nothing wrong or sinful about doing this. In fact, we should be careful to critically think about and even criticize our own arguments, since this will hopefully strengthen the Christian position over time. I have to be honest here that I take issue with this claim, that the resurrection entails that God exists and that, because of this, the resurrection can be used to show that God exists.
Let me explain. This will be a bit technical, so try to hang in there. As I've heard this argument presented and defended many times, and as I've presented it as well, it seems to me that a distinction needs to be made as far as what's entailed by the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. It is quite obvious to me that if one begins from the position that God exists (i.e., if one is a theist), then the resurrection seems like a very strong argument for a particular concept of God, namely, the God of Christian theism. This would seem to be the God about whom Jesus taught and who would have raised Jesus from the dead. But, if one begins from the position that God does not exist (i.e., if one is an atheist), then I'm not sure that the resurrection hypothesis can overcome the inherent improbability of the resurrection hypothesis.
Remember that, when we discussed the example above from archaeology, I explained that one's background knowledge can help one to compare one alternative explanation with another to determine which is more probable. Of course, this is not the only relevant factor in determining these probabilities. One must also consider the probability of the evidence, given that the explanation is not true. In other words, what is the probability that we'd still see the evidence in front of us, if the explanation in question is not true? This is given to us in probability calculus. When we apply this to our example from archaeology, we would also have to consider the probability that the carvings in question would be there, given that the explanation of the indigenous peoples made them is false. That probability works to offset any initial improbability given to us on the basis of background evidence alone.
In the case of the resurrection hypothesis, it would seem quite natural to say one's background beliefs concerning the existence of God affects what one thinks of the initial probability of the resurrection hypothesis. In other words, if one is an atheist, then one is predisposed to thinking that the resurrection hypothesis is improbable. Indeed, the resurrection hypothesis just is the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. But, if one considers the weight of the evidence in question (i.e., the probability that the evidence would still be there if the resurrection hypothesis were false), then that evidence could be so compelling as to overcome any initial improbability on the basis of background evidence alone. It is obvious that the proposition, "God raised Jesus from the dead," entails that God exists. I'm just not sure that the initial improbability, given the background evidence, is surmountable if the background evidence includes the belief that God does not exist.
Nonetheless, I do grant that the resurrection hypothesis, if true, entails that a certain concept of God is the right one, namely, the God of Christian theism. If one is already predisposed positively toward belief in God (say, an agnostic) or is already a theist, then the resurrection hypothesis would seem to be a very good reason to accept the Christian concept of God, rather than the Muslim concept, say. For the atheist, I might try to show that belief in God is, at least, reasonable, before presenting the argument from the resurrection. Many atheists will find the idea of the resurrection so absurd as to be closed off to that suggestion anyway, in spite of the strength of the evidence for it.
This is not to say that the argument isn't good or cogent. I think that the evidence for the resurrection is very strong, and I am consistently struck again and again by its strength when I revisit the argument. I am merely skeptical of its usefulness in every situation because of this issue of background knowledge.
Otherwise, I belief that this argument has several key strengths. First, in my experience, the argument for the resurrection can inadvertently be very helpful for Christians and non-Christians by dispelling their misunderstandings of what the Bible is and how we are to read it. Once you realize that the Bible is a collection of ancient books, written by different authors in different cultural and historical contexts, but all telling God's unified story of His love and revelation of Himself to mankind, this will make Scripture come alive for you. Reading and studying it will become so much more interesting and fulfilling, as you dive into the depths of what Scripture has to offer. Second, the argument has a way of powerfully increasing the confidence of Christians in this central claim of the Christian faith. The mockery of others has a way of shaming us from standing firm on the foundation of the resurrection. But we should not be embarrassed about the truth. This argument can help to make confident ambassadors for Christ out of us.
Third, the argument, I think, can also correct serious misunderstandings that both Christians and non-Christians have about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Religious claims are still claims, and those claims need to be examined critically. So many in our day think of religious beliefs like they do broccoli; some like it, and others don't. But religious claims should be taken seriously as claims and subjected to scrutiny. I say this with the confidence that once the claims of the Christian worldview are subjected to scrutiny, the Christian worldview will be shown to be reasonable and true. The Christian worldview is also unique in its falsifiability, since its central claim is historical. Since it is falsifiable, however, it is also verifiable. And, as this argument shows, the evidence leans in its direction.
That's it for this post! I have barely scratched the surface of this argument, in terms of the evidence in support of it as well as the alternative explanations on offer. I will provide resources below for further study, and I encourage you to look into those. With this post, we are finally done with the arguments for God's existence! Next week, we will discuss arguments against God's existence, with a special focus on the problem of evil and suffering. Stay tuned for that!
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I will leave these resources here for further study, depending on how deeply you want to get into this argument:
Craig, William Lane. "Evidence for Jesus." Reasonable Faith. Reasonable Faith, 11 August 2020. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-evidence-for-jesus/.
------------------. "The Resurrection." Reasonable Faith. Reasonable Faith, 11 August 2020. https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/.
------------------. On Guard: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010. See esp. chap. 8, "Who Was Jesus?" and chap. 9, "Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?"
------------------. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Third Ed. Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. See esp. chap. 7, "The Self-Understanding of Jesus" and chap. 8, "The Resurrection of Jesus."