As in a court case, let me summarize my arguments, and then I will put all of what we have discussed into a larger context.
There are three components to the Resurrection Story: the empty tomb, the appearance of men or angels to the women, and the encounters with Jesus. Each of these components can be explained away, in that we can come up with an alternative explanation for each one.
The tomb might have been empty because the disciples really did steal Jesus’ body, even though that would rob their Lord of the opportunity to come out of the tomb by himself. Or maybe the soldiers pulled a prank on the disciples, even though they had been charged with guarding Jesus’ tomb. That they never returned the body meant they ended up perpetuating the Christian story.
The women claimed to see one or more men or angels telling them Jesus had risen. Maybe the women were liars, and wanted to get into the next issue of Judea Today, despite having been devout followers of their Lord who had been crucified a few days earlier. If so, they probably should have got their story straight and come to a definite decision about how many men there were, and whether or not they were actually angels. Or maybe they were deluded, and all had a mass hallucination, with Magdalene having a separate one later. Or maybe they were exaggerating, and just saw a man in white sitting in the tomb mumbling something about Jesus, which they interpreted somehow to mean that Jesus had risen and the disciples would see him in Galilee.
The disciples also claimed to have encountered Jesus on the road to Emmaus, in locked rooms, and even on one occasion while fishing. Each time, they first recognized Jesus by something he said or did, and according to the gospels, he taught them many things during these encounters. The apostles would ultimately be in charge of spreading these stories, and if they were false, this would make the apostles liars and ringleaders of a remarkable conspiracy. But maybe the disciples were deluded. In which case, they were incredibly consistent mass delusions, with this same delusion telling them to preach to the nations and make disciples of them; and then a little later, the apostle Paul would encounter the same delusion with essentially the same message, while he was busy persecuting Christians.
However, I would suggest that the simplest explanation for each of the three components is as follows:
The tomb was empty, apart from the linen cloths used to wrap the body, and the stone was rolled back, because Jesus had actually risen. None of the people involved had a compelling reason to remove the body, but they all had reasons to leave it in the tomb.
Jesus’ disciples would have wanted to respect his burial place, and those who believed he would literally rise on the third day would have wanted to see it happen miraculously, rather than faking a resurrection and thus making their own faith null and void.
The religious authorities had every reason to ensure Jesus stayed in his tomb. The last thing they wanted was to give credence to the idea that he was the Christ, the Son of God. Similarly, as governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate didn’t want people believing in a king who hadn’t been appointed by Caesar, who claimed his authority came from a higher source, and who might somehow direct his followers from beyond the grave, or at least give them a pretext, to rebel against Rome.
The soldiers assigned to guard the tomb had one job. While we can’t rule out the possibility of a prank, they had no good incentive to permanently hide the body, and they risked the potential wrath of Pilate, who had the power to have them executed or disciplined in typically brutal Roman fashion. And nobody had any good reason to pay the soldiers to do this. In fact, the religious authorities would have probably paid the guards a lot of money if they could have handed over the body.
However, if an angel really did open the tomb, the guards would have felt obligated to report this to the religious authorities, who had asked for the soldiers in the first place; and since the religious leaders didn’t want people believing in Jesus, they had to come up with a cover story.
Jesus himself had no reason to fake his own resurrection. His teachings, the faith of the disciples, the persecution from the religious leaders, and the reason why he was handed over to Pilate, all point to the conclusion that Jesus really did believe he was the Christ, the Son of God.
Therefore, the simplest and most logical explanation for the empty tomb is that Jesus really did rise, as the gospels claim. The linen cloths were the only things left behind, because he had no need of them any more!
What about the women’s stories? The simplest and best explanation for them is that they really were telling the truth about their encounters. They weren’t deluded, liars or false witnesses. They did see angels who looked like men, telling them Jesus had risen. A few of the women saw two angels because they had gone right into the tomb. The others only saw one man sitting on the right of where Jesus should have been, because they were near the tomb entrance. These were less sure the man was an angel. Each gospel writer wrote up an account of the women’s testimonies, based on the sources he named in his particular gospel.
Mary Magdalene had a separate encounter with both the angels and Jesus, reported on in more detail by John, but Matthew simply includes her with the other women, because her testimony is essentially the same as theirs.
The apostles and disciples were also telling the truth about their experiences. They really did encounter the risen Christ, who appeared to them, not only to prove that he was alive, but also to teach them what it all meant. He wasn’t raised just because God felt in a generous mood that day. It was all part of a much bigger plan.
They had far more incentive to tell the truth about these matters than to lie or exaggerate. Jesus had taught them the importance of their words, and that they would be judged on the basis of what they said. Since they claimed that God had raised Jesus, they would be false witnesses not just of men but also of God, if they knew their story was untrue. This carried a heavy penalty.
They believed their shepherd was the Suffering Servant foretold in Isaiah, who “did no wrong and no deceit was in his mouth.” 1 They were his sheep, and were taught to imitate Jesus. They believed they were the remnant of Israel, of which the prophet Zephaniah wrote, they “will not commit iniquity, nor speak a lie; neither will a tongue of deceit be found in their mouths.”2
They believed Jesus was their judge, and that he would return, perhaps even within their lifetime; or if they died, they would be raised up to meet the Lord.3 It would certainly be an interesting meeting, if they had made stuff up about their Lord and Judge.
At the start of this letter, I gave you the analogy of the unfriendly post office clerk who demanded proof of your identity in order for you to collect your parcel. You show him your driver’s license, but the clerk argues it could be fake. You hand him your passport, but he argues the picture could be someone who looks like you. You give him a utility bill with your name and address on it, but he argues you could have forged it at home with a word processor and printer.
The clerk’s arguments are all perfectly valid. Maybe you did forge the utility bill, or use the passport of someone who looks just like you. But if you weren’t able to collect your parcel that day, you would be entitled to suspect that the clerk had a grudge against you, and simply didn’t want to give you your parcel.
Some skeptics claim they reject the resurrection of Jesus because of a lack of evidence, but what evidence do they expect? The event in question is purported to have happened a few thousand years ago, and the authorities had no incentive to proclaim it. In fact, quite the opposite. Only the disciples had a motive for preserving the evidence, and they did this by writing and spreading the gospels, which contain their eyewitness testimonies.
Historians might make a note of these things, but only insofar as Jesus would have an impact on history as they saw it. But his impact came primarily through the apostles and disciples who preached to the world, and in how the world responded. Caesar Nero burned or set wild beasts upon some of them. This was the kind of thing Roman historians were interested in, not in Jewish stories involving miracles and messiahs.
I suppose God could have stationed a supernatural cross or something similar permanently over Jesus’ tomb, as enduring proof that he had been raised. Maybe God could have authorized the angels in Jesus’ tomb to conduct interviews with the media. Why didn’t God provide these additional lines of evidence?
Assuming skeptics wouldn’t simply explain those elements away, I think there are at least good two reasons. First, it would have forced the people of Jesus’ day into accepting him, rather than being a genuine test upon the nation of Israel. According to the prophet Malachi, the people had asked, “Where is the God of judgment?” 4 God’s response was: “Look! I am sending my messenger, and he prepares the way before me; and suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his Temple, and the messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight. Look! He is coming, says YHWH of hosts. But who will endure the day of his coming?”5
Did the people of Israel really delight in God’s covenant, or were they hypocrites, demanding judgment and justice from God while not practicing it themselves? Their response to Jesus would be a test. It would reveal what was in their hearts.
Second, I think God values our freedom to choose. If he had made Jesus’ resurrection a certainty to the world, this would rob people of their choice not to believe. I think this freedom is important to God for the present time, at least until the sign of the Son appears in heaven, which I presume will end all doubts.
Besides, too many supernatural elements would perhaps distract us from the human aspect of the story. Jesus’ story wasn’t about angels or glowing crosses. He may have been the Word of God before, according to John; but in that moment of death, Jesus was a human being who suffered and felt pain and bled like all of us. This wasn’t just about us experiencing the divine. It was about the divine experiencing us.
Now, in a murder trial, the jury is usually asked to deliver a guilty verdict only if they are convinced, beyond reasonable doubt, that the one accused really was a murderer. We weren’t there to witness the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. But the apostles and disciples were, and despite their own initial skepticism, the evidence they were presented with took them far beyond reasonable doubt. It emboldened them to preach about Jesus literally to the world, despite hostility from their own people, from the Roman authorities, and from the nations.
For us, living a few thousand years later, if we are willing to accept that God may exist after all and that he occasionally intervenes in human affairs, then it really comes down to whether we choose to believe the testimony of the apostles and disciples or not; and I think I have made a strong case for them having told the truth, and not exaggerating, deceiving or being deluded, despite their story being quite remarkable. At the same time, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Hundreds of years before Jesus’ day, the prophet Isaiah wrote about a servant of God, whose description and nature matches up remarkably well with Jesus.6
Isaiah wrote, “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of YHWH revealed?” This suggests the report about this man would be hard to believe, meaning people would be inclined to be skeptical.
God’s servant would be “raised and be lifted up, and be highly exalted,” much like Jesus at his death and resurrection. At the same time, “just as many would be appalled at” him, and he would be “despised and rejected by men.” In other words, he would be honored by some, hated by others. This is precisely the nature of Jesus.
He would be oppressed, brought “as a lamb to the slaughter,” and given a tomb with the wicked and the rich, “although he did no wrong and no deceit was in his mouth.” Yet he would somehow “lengthen his days, and the desire of YHWH will prosper in his hand.” YHWH says of him, “my righteous servant will make the many righteous.”
The man would also bear the people’s sins somehow – “by his stripes we were healed,” “YHWH has laid on him the iniquity of us all,” “he will bear their iniquities,” he “carried the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”
These things could be said to have found their fulfillment in the person of Jesus, as reported on by the gospel writers.
Furthermore, it wasn’t just the original apostles and disciples who encountered the risen Jesus, but also Paul, who was so convinced of his encounter on the road to Damascus that he spent the rest of his life preaching about Christ throughout the Roman empire, which would lead to his imprisonment and eventual execution. Maybe he was deluded, but his course of life would also be consistent with a man who really did encounter the raised Jesus; and not just once, but several times in his life, as the book of Acts suggests.
He also wrote, in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is accepted by scholars as authentic, that upwards of five hundred people had encountered the risen Christ at one point, and the majority were still alive in his day.7 If these were mass delusions, they are the most consistent, purposeful and stubborn delusions in the history of the world.
They are also part of a remarkable chain of events, which include Jesus’ mother Mary being told by an angel that she would give birth to the “Son of the Most High,”8 John the Baptist declaring Jesus to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,9 Jesus’ ministry and miracles, which even the opponents and skeptics of his day didn’t deny, his life and death culminating in the Resurrection Story we have already discussed in detail, the bold faith and preaching of the apostles about Jesus, which according to the story was accompanied by signs and miracles, the spread of the Christian message across the Roman empire in just a few decades; and now, after a few thousand years, Jesus Christ has become one of the most well-known figures in all history.
All of this in the context of a nation that claimed to have been founded by YHWH, the God who created the heavens and the Earth, and whose prophets promised a king from Bethlehem who would give Israel up for a time, and a Suffering Servant who would suffer and die, and be either appalling or a delight to those who saw him; a man who would be despised by his own nation, but who would give himself for a covenant of the people, for a light of Gentiles, to be God’s salvation to the ends of the Earth. Indeed, the very name Jesus, or Yeshua, means “YHWH Is Salvation,” and Jesus’ name has become synonymous with saving.
The skeptic demands extraordinary evidence that Jesus was raised from the dead. The apostles and disciples were given precisely that, and they have left us the best evidence they could have passed on to us – their eyewitness testimonies as preserved in the four gospels.
In reality, they have left us with more than that. They have also left us the legacy of their preaching work, which is how the world knows the name of Jesus Christ in the first place.
But if Jesus wasn’t the Son of God, and the whole story was the work of deluded or deceptive men and women, then surely it would have faded into obscurity at some point. After all, there were many opponents who would have relished the idea of dealing the fatal blow to the Christian faith. Judaism could have dealt it several fatal blows in its early years, simply by pointing out the fictions that modern skeptics dismissively allege. But instead, and no doubt to the annoyance of those in Judaism, the story of Jesus is now tied in with their story, and is part of the most widely distributed book of all time.
The Roman empire could have wiped out the Christian message as it tortured and murdered its adherents. But less than three hundred years after Jesus died, the Christian faith was embraced, at least in part, by the Roman emperor himself. And I could continue to list the opponents, right through to modern times, when whole political systems, religions, philosophies and ideologies have attempted to eliminate, replace or supplant the Christian message, including atheism.
I would suggest that the real reason for its success is divine providence. The God of Israel, YHWH, promised to do something new and extraordinary – namely, to bring forth a servant of his who would be unique.
He would be a prophet like Moses, who was humble and meek, perhaps involving a new covenant with God, just as Moses mediated a covenant between God and Israel. He would be a son born to Israel, who do not worship humans; and yet paradoxically he would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, and Prince of Peace. He would be born in Bethlehem, but would give Israel up for a time. The nations would turn to him for guidance, his resting place would be of glory, and through him, the Earth would become full of the knowledge of God.
God’s Spirit would be upon him, and he would declare good news or “gospel” to the meek. But he would have to suffer and be humiliated, and his own nation would abhor and despise him. He would be put to death, but come back to life, and bring many to a right standing with God. He would be a covenant for the people, a light for Gentiles, and God’s salvation to the ends of the Earth.
None of these promises were written by Christians, or could have been altered by Christians. They were all written by prophets of YHWH well before Jesus came into the world, and are preserved in Jewish scriptures down to this day.
But in all history, there has literally been only one man who even qualifies to be the servant YHWH promised, and this is the person we know of as Jesus Christ. And far from merely qualifying for the role, he has fulfilled those prophecies in a way that would be utterly out of his control if he were merely a man who lived and died in Judea a long time ago.
For within a few thousand years of his birth and death, all the ends of the Earth know the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Even though he was born as a son in Israel, many agree that he was a Wonderful Counselor. Christians throughout the world accept his claim to be “I AM,” the very substance of God whose name is “I AM THAT I AM.” They believe he is the Eternal Father that Adam couldn’t be, whether literally or metaphorically, because of Adam’s sin and death. But for any father to be eternal, he has to live forever, which Adam and his offspring couldn’t do, but is what Jesus could do, having been raised from death. And Christians call him Prince of Peace, because genuinely applying his teachings brings peace into the heart, and turns even violent, angry men into lovers of peace.
Most remarkable of all, his words, and the words of his apostles, can be read by anyone who wishes, in the most successful book of all time. This is either the most remarkable coincidence in a string of remarkable events, or it is indeed the extraordinary evidence skeptics say they are looking for.
1 Isaiah 53:9. 2 Zephaniah 3:13. 3 2 Corinthians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17. 4 Malachi 2:17. 5 Malachi 3:1,2. 6 Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12. 7 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. 8 Luke 1:32. 9 John 1:29.