When we look at the truth (or lack thereof) of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, we want to take what is known as the “minimalist” approach. That is, we want to look at only the facts that are verified and not include facts that are not easily verified but added to bolster such claims. In order to do that, I am only going to include and discuss certain facts that have been widely agreed upon by NT historians, including Christian, Agnostic and Atheist scholars in NT history. This shows that these facts are not stacked simply in favor of the Christian view.
I’ll list the facts, then we can discuss each:
- Jesus of Nazareth lived and was crucified on a cross by Pontius Pilate
- Jesus was buried in a tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea
- Jesus tomb was found empty on the third day by several female followers
- People reported seeing/hearing Jesus alive, after his death
- The followers of Jesus who were disappointed at his death, would then preach that he was alive shortly thereafter in Jerusalem.
Lets look at these one by one.
Easily, one of the best attested to facts in antiquity (meaning, the historical event with the most historical support) is the fact of Jesus’ life and death. These facts are written about both in the Gospel accounts and in other historical (non Jewish/Christian sources). They have been recorded by Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, and others. These facts have so much support that they are not discounted by anyone except fringe conspiracy theorists. No one who is taken seriously in historical studies denies that Jesus lived and was crucified by Pilate.
Secondly, another fact that is not discounted is that Jesus was buried (which is what you normally do with dead people). However, he was not randomly buried, but buried by a well known member of the Sanhedrin named Joseph from a placed called Arimathea. This fact is important, due to the notoriety of Joseph who was well known, and whose family burial tombs would also be well known.
Thirdly, the tomb was found empty on the third day. What is very remarkable is that it was not Jesus’ male followers who made the discovery, but his female followers. This is remarkable because females were generally not considered to be reliable witnesses (rabbinical writings at the time prohibit women from giving official testimony in legal matters, as they were considered unreliable). Why is this remarkable? If the followers of Jesus were inventing this story to give their movement credibility, they would have invented a story where men found Jesus’ tomb empty, not women. To do the opposite would make no sense, if the story was invented.
Forth, there were a large number of people who claimed to see Jesus alive after his death. These were individuals or small groups, and some in groups as large as 500 (1 Corinthians 15). There were numerous and varied reliable eyewitness testimony in which individuals claimed that they saw Jesus resurrected.
Fifth, when Jesus died, those who followed him were distraught. It can be shown that they in no way expected their Messiah to die at the hands of the Romans. To do so would mean that he had failed and was not the Messiah they expected. So at Jesus’ death, they each retreated in defeat. HOWEVER, within weeks of the death of Jesus, they would be standing in the streets of Jerusalem, proclaiming that he indeed had risen and lives. This is probably the most remarkable fact.
So, do these individual facts prove a resurrection? Each actually does not by itself. For instance, perhaps Jesus body was stolen by his disciples. Perhaps he was buried in another tomb by mistake. Maybe the crowds hallucinated and only through they saw Jesus. These are the rebuttals to the above mentioned facts. However, do any of the rebuttals answer all the facts? Hardly
If they put Jesus in the wrong tomb, that does not account for the appearances (which also goes for the stolen body theory). There has never been any evidence given of any mass hallucination in which everyone reported the same thing at the same time. This is simply not the case. Likewise, if Jesus had not been raised, the preaching of the Apostles could easily have been disproven by simply proving Jesus’ corpse. This however, did not happen.
So there are the raw facts. How do we interpret them? We could first simply deny the resurrection of Jesus and then work backwards into the facts. That means we would have to take each of the 5 raw facts and show how each was true, apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Now mind you, you would end up with a series of explanations that would depend on each other to account for the entire picture (the mathematical odds would be staggering). The final product would be a scenario so unlikely, that you would dismiss it for any other situation on earth, every time. That’s unfair and dishonest
Enter William of Occam . There is much to know about this long deceased fellow, but he has contributed something to both science and logic that is longstanding. Occam is credited with the principle of simplicity. In other words, the most simple explanation is always preferred (it is actually a bit more wordy than that, but you get the point). In other words, if you have an explanation that covers the most facts the best, it is the right answer.
Now apply Occam to the resurrection of Jesus. What accounts for his death, burial, empty tomb, appearances and the boldness of the Apostles (and accounts for each fact completely)? It is simple, Jesus rose from the dead.
You do not have to be a Christian to believe this, you only need to be rational and intellectually honest because the evidence shows it true. However, since Jesus did rise from the dead, we know He told the truth and is the only means of forgiveness and eternal life.
In light of that, what will you do?