It is not difficult to find sceptics who will dismiss the historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus with a casual wave of the hand. Richard Dawkins, for example, says:-
I don’t know where the story of Jesus rising from the dead comes from. The actual documentary evidence is very bad as historical evidence goes, and so, given its enormous inherent implausibility, I’d be much more inclined to suspect it. You needn’t go as far as to say ‘hoax’ – it’s just that when very, very charismatic people die, legends grow up about them in a very mysterious way.
There are all sorts of legends knocking around the world now of Elvis Presley having risen from the dead. Numerous eye-witnesses. And you don’t believe them, I presume. I don’t. I don’t want to say these people are lying – maybe some of them are, maybe they are just a bit crazy.
Elvis Presley has only been dead for about 15 years and already these legends are rife. (Interview with Nick Pollard)
If the body of Jesus was not resurrected, what are the alternatives? It is possible to imagine that
- he was nailed to the cross, but was taken down from it before he died, and recovered;
- he was ‘spiritually’, but not physically, raised;
- the disciples experienced some kind of hallucination;
- the whole story is a myth or legend that grew up in later generations;
- the body was stolen by the Jews, the Romans, or the disciples;
- the disciples went to the wrong tomb, and, finding it empty, wrongly concluded that Jesus had been raised;
- the disciples deliberately fabricated the story of the resurrection for their own profit;
- the disciples mistook someone else for Jesus.
But each of these stretches credulity more than the plain and obvious explanation – that Jesus was physically raised from the dead.
Let’s be clear that without the Resurrection, the Gospels would be meaningless and the Christian faith empty:-
The Gospels do not explain the Resurrection; the Resurrection explains the Gospels. Belief in the Resurrection is not an appendage to the Christian faith; it is the Christian faith. (John S. Whale)
J.A.T. Robinson was no orthodox Christian. And yet he found the historical evidence in the Gospels to be compelling:-
When we turn to the Gospels, their evidence on the empty tomb is in substance unanimous. There are, indeed, differences of detail which at times have been given exaggerated prominence…None of these, however, is the kind of difference that impugns the authenticity of the narrative. Indeed they are all precisely what one would look for in genuine accounts of so confused and confusing a scene…But details of description apart, the basic witness is extraordinarily unanimous. (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, art. ‘Resurrection’)
If we refuse to take the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection seriously, we repudiate, not just them, but the very possibility of historical enquiry:-
The most celebrated event in the New Testament is the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection enjoys this place of honour because it verified Christ’s victory over sin and death. (Rom 1:4) Certainly no event since the world began has been so fully proved by the concurrent testimonies of so many people. Therefore, if we entertain a view of history that excludes the resurrection of Christ, we do more than repudiate Biblical history. We repudiate the very possibility of history, for other past events have less evidence in their favour. (E.J. Carnell, The Case For Orthodox Theology, 90)
We should not confuse the Resurrection of Jesus with those, such as Lazarus, who were temporarily brought back to life:-
The resurrection of Christ is clearly distinguished, in the biblical records, from all those instances of men and women who were called back from death and the grave to a renewal of physical life, and who inevitably had to die later. The resurrection body of Christ, Paul asserted in 1Co 15, was not a “natural” body but a “spiritual” body, whatever that may mean; and elsewhere he unequivocally declared that the risen Christ would never die again, but that death no longer had “dominion over him”. (Norman Anderson, Christianity: The Witness of History, 86)
It is not credible that the disciples could have deliberately fabricated the story of the resurrection and then spend the rest of their lives risking life and limb proclaiming what they knew to be a lie:-
The disciples were men of honour, and could not have foisted a lie on the people. They spent the rest of their lives proclaiming the message of the resurrection, as cowards transformed into men of courage. They were willing to face arrest, imprisonment, beating, and horrible deaths, and not one of them ever denied the Lord and recanted of his belief that Christ had risen. (James Rosscup)
And the Resurrection does not stand merely as an historical event, but as a central pillar of Christian faith and experience:-
Jesus’ resurrection demonstrated his victory over death, (Ac 2:24 1Co 15:54-57) vindicated him as righteous, (Jn 16:10) and indicated his divine identity. (Rom 1:4) It led on to his ascension and enthronement (Ac 1:9-11 2:34 Php 2:9-11; cf. Isa 53:10-12) and his present heavenly reign. It guarantees the believer’s present forgiveness and justification (Rom 4:25 1 Cor 15:17) and is the basis of resurrection life in Christ for the believer here and now. (Jn 11:25-26 Rom 6 Eph 1:18-2:10 Col 2:9-15 3:1-4). (J.I Packer, Concise Theology)