Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? Don't misunderstand me: I'm not asking a religious faith question; I'm asking a historical question. Did Jesus actually rise from the dead in real space and time in this physical flesh-and-bones world we live in? I (along with many historical scholars much wiser than me) believe he did - and we can prove it too.
In the study of history (a discipline called "historiography"), there are often a lot of gaps in what we know actually happened. In order to fill in those gaps, historians often use a process called "inference to the best explaination". This process allows us to determine what historical "gap-fillers" best explain what we're certain of.
We use the similar process in modern court cases when no one actually saw the crime take place. For example, when we see Bobby's dead body with stab wounds from a knife owned by Sam we can infer that the event "Sam killed Bobby" is the most reasonable explaination of what we know for sure. Other explainations (like "Bobby borrowed Sam's knife, threw it up in the air, tripped, and it fell into his back") are less likely to be true and thus not the best explaination of the facts at hand.
How do historians determine what explaintion is the best one? While every historian approaches history a little differently, there are five common tests (1) many will use to evaluate possible theories. They are:
Explanatory scope: accounts for a wider range of facts or data.
Explanatory power: accounts for the facts or data in a more compelling way.
Less ad hoc: requiresthe least additions of unnecessary or ad hoc assumptions or entities.
Plausibility: consistent with what is already known or accepted about the relevant context.
Illumination: provides a deeper understanding of the phenomena in question.
The argument I'm presenting today is that the best explaination for what we know for sure happened is that Jesus actually ressurected from the dead. Let's begin. What are the facts we know for sure? There are four of them. These four facts are so well evidenced that in a recent survey of historians from 1975 to the present, virtually none have ventured to deny them (2). Those survayed included the full range of historical scholars from Christians, to Jews, to Atheists, to Agnostics, to Muslims. It would not be an exageration to say that these facts are bedrock history. They are:
A Jewish Rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth was killed by crucifixion in the first century by Roman executioners.
Jesus’ followers had real experiences after Jesus’ death that they believed were appearances of Jesus, risen from the dead.
Jesus’ followers’ lives were transformed as a result of this belief – even to the point of being willing to die for their belief in his resurrection.
James & Paul – both enemies of Jesus’ message – came to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and became Christians as a result. Both claimed the reason was that Jesus spoke to them after his death.
Based on these four well-established historical facts , we will be using the process of inference to the best explaination to determine what happened to Jesus: whether or not he actually resurrected from the dead. Today, I will be presenting you with seven alternative theories and why I believe only the theory "Jesus actually rose from the dead" accurately fits the data. Let's begin.
POSSIBILITY 1: Conspiracy The first possibility is a conspiracy. The idea is that the witnesses of the resurrection all lied about what they claimed to see. This seems reasonable at first. After all, people lie all the time. Not only that, but people die all the time for false beliefs. The terrorists who crashed into the world trade center on September 11, 2001, died for their mistaken belief that God would reward them for their terrorism.
But there are some significant problems with this theory. Firstly, people never choose to die for beliefs they know are false. It’s not like the terrorists on 9/11 believed their extremist views were wrong and somehow decided to kill themselves for those views anyway. Second, if someone is going to lie about something, they always have a motive for their lie (i.e., to get money, power, pleasure, influence, etc.).
These witnesses spread the message of Jesus’ resurrection with no motive to lie. That may seem hard to believe, but stop and think about it. Would they gain power from it? No, because all the influential people had already rejected Jesus’ message and killed him for it. Would they gain money from it? No, because the religious and political culture of the day persecuted and killed people for claims like this. As a result, the witnesses knew many of them would lose their homes and life savings for spreading this lie. Would they gain pleasure from this lie? No, because Jesus’ teaching on marriage and sexuality forbids illicit sexual behavior and other practices that might entice someone to leave Judaism. Would they at least gain the spiritual satisfaction they were guiding people to eternal life? No, because they would all know it was one great big lie!
To believe in the conspiracy explanation, you would have to believe: (1) that they all lied without any motive to lie (and plenty of motive not to lie) and (2) that while proclaiming the message and given plenty of opportunities to recant, they instead allowed themselves and their families to be horrendously tortured and brutally executed, all the while being fully aware it was just one big conspiracy. Do you honestly find that at all compelling? For this reason, almost every scholar affirms that these witnesses genuinely believed that Jesus rose from the dead.
POSSIBILITY 2: Apparent Death What if Jesus didn’t really die and only appeared to die? This theory immediately fails because it goes against one of our four established historical facts. Coming out of the first century, there are over a dozen sources from Christian, Roman, and Jewish perspectives that recorded the death of Jesus at the hands of Roman executioners and no sources that even hint at the possibility of a mistaken death, either through means of a substituted look-alike or through an unlikely survival of the cross10.
A substituted look-alike doesn’t work for the simple reason that the Romans who crucified him were no fools. They would have recognized an imposer, as would the Jewish authorities who arrested him, as would the followers of Jesus present for his crucifixion. If either of the first two of these groups believed Jesus had not really died, they would have said so, and it would have been used as an excellent response to the rapidly expanding Christian message. If the followers of Jesus believed he hadn’t died, you would then run into the same problems as the conspiracy explanation.
But what if Jesus passed out on the cross and was buried alive when everyone else thought he was dead? The problem with this theory is that Jesus would have to miraculously survive something no one in all of recorded history has ever lived through: a full Roman crucifixion. Additionally, after surviving, he would somehow have to muster the strength to crawl out of his tomb, crawl through a populated city unnoticed, pay for and receive medical aid, allow time for his wounds to fully heal, and then appear to his disciples with the expressed intention of convincing them of his resurrection – all within a few days. This belief is so absurd that no reliable modern New Testament scholar takes it seriously. Jesus died - this we can be certain of, far beyond any reasonable doubt. Therefore, we can safely dismiss the Apparent Death theory as false.
POSSIBILITY 3: Hallucinations What about hallucinations? Maybe all the witnesses just imagined seeing Jesus after he died? The problem with this theory is it’s just not in keeping with the findings of science. Any credible scientist in this field will tell you that hallucinations just don’t happen to that extent. When people hallucinate, you don’t have dozens of people claiming to sit down and have multiple conversations with someone, in multiple different circumstances, and in a way indistinguishable from reality.
Yes, there have been very rare instances of “group hallucinations”, but even in those rare cases, you don’t have multiple people interacting with the hallucination, eating meals, taking turns talking, and remembering what the other people hallucinating said in their own hallucinations.
In addition to this, add to that the fact the multiple people who would have had no reason to hallucinate believed Jesus personally appeared to them, including Paul (who, as an enemy of the Christian message, had everything to lose and nothing to gain by lying) and James (who was in similar circumstances). The sheer number and diversity of claims about the post-death appearances of Jesus completely rule out the idea of hallucinations.
POSSIBILITY 4: Identical Twin Perhaps the person the witnesses saw was actually Jesus’ unknown identical twin bother, impersonating his recently crucified sibling. Besides the fact that this theory just looks desperate, there are numerous problems with this explanation.
First, there is no historical indication that Jesus had an identical twin brother at all, much less one that was unknown to Jesus’ family and disciples. While that doesn’t make this theory impossible, such a glaring absence from the historical record doesn’t fair well for it. Highly improbable claims made without evidence are on shaky ground.
Second, in order to postulate this theory, one would have to argue that Jesus was not truly Mary’s child but had been switched at birth. After all, wouldn’t Marry have known if she gave birth to twins? Yet, who would have both the motive and opportunity to actually carry out such an act? Keep in mind, this supposed baby-swap would have happened decades before Jesus’ death, and so at the time, no one would have known that he would one day be crucified (and thus, there would be no motive for such a swap).
Third, this theory requires conflicting characteristics of this supposed impostor twin brother. On the one hand, it would require him to be intelligent enough to covertly steal Jesus’ body while being foolish enough to impersonate a man who had just been executed by one of the most brutal governments on earth. Likewise, the imposer would have to be unethical enough to deceive so many and yet somehow also ethical enough to take up Jesus’ cause.
Fourth and finally, it does not account for the supernatural characteristics of the post-mortem appearances described by the witnesses. The witnesses reported that the risen Jesus appeared and disappeared suddenly (once within a locked room) and even levitated into the clouds. This is not something an impostor could fake.
For these reasons and more, Greg Cavin – the only contemporary scholar who recently held this theory – has since given up this explanation.
POSSIBILITY 5: Mistaken Tomb Is it possible the body of Jesus wasn’t placed in the tomb his followers thought it was? Or perhaps it was placed there and then later moved? While interesting, this theory fails to account for three of the four bedrock historical facts and so doesn’t posses any significant explanatory scope. Even granting its truthfulness does not explain the witness’ reports of his post-mortem appearances.
POSSIBILITY 6: Alien Intervention While this theory is not advocated by any historical scholar, it’s occasionally brought up by internet skeptics or persons such as myself just looking to be exhaustive with the possibilities. The theory is that after Jesus’ death, extraterrestrial entities “beamed” Jesus’ body out of the tomb and manifested themselves to the witnesses as one big practical joke on humanity. This theory fails on two fronts.
First, this theory attributes extremely advanced technological abilities to unknown entitites based on nothing more than… that’s what’s needed for the theory. Just because aliens had transporters in movies doesn’t mean they would if they existed in real life.
Second. this theory goes against what we know about the universe’s ability to support life on other planets. Astrophysicist Hugh Ross notes:
"The conditions necessary for life are so finely tuned that they are unlikely to occur anywhere else. The probability of even one of the numerous parameters necessary for life being just right by accident is incredibly small, let alone all of them together. … [T]he precise values of the physical constants, the location of Earth in the Milky Way, and the size and position of the moon are just a few examples of the many factors that must be just right for life to exist on a planet. The odds of finding all of these conditions present in one place by chance are infinitesimal. This is not to say that life cannot exist elsewhere in the universe, but rather that the conditions necessary for life are so finely tuned that they are unlikely to occur anywhere else." (3)
As disappointing as this assessment may be for those of us who grew up on Star Trek and Star Wars, the chances of life existing anywhere else in the universe is low, to say the least. Obviously, this makes this theory just as unlikely. There’s a reason appealing to aliens as an explanation for historical events isn’t taken seriously by scholars (or most in the general public, for that matter).
POSSIBILITY 7: Textual Corruption What about textual corruption? Maybe the claims of Jesus got exaggerated little by little over time until they became legends. What started out as Jesus being “a good teacher” became “He spoke by the power of God”, which became “He had the spirit of God”, which became “He was God”, which became “He was God and He rose from the dead”. Maybe something like that happened?
There are so many problems with this view. Firstly, the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in the Bible were all written within seventy years of Jesus’ death. The earliest full gospel account was written no more than fifty years after Jesus’ death (with a much more likely date of thirty-five years before that), and the earliest account in the book of 1 Corinthians is dated to within five years of Jesus’ death11. To put that into perspective, World War II ended 77 years ago. Even for something that long ago, there are still people alive today that lived through it and could easily correct made-up stories about it. Therefore, there was not enough time between the events and when they were written down for corruption to occur.
But what about the other end of corruption? What if they were corrupted by copyists over the thousands of years it took the stories to get to us? The problem with that view is that we have access to copies so old that they could easily be second-generation copies! Not tenth generation; not twentieth generation; not hundredth generation - second generation. They’re called the Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus. In my recent work on the historical reliability of the New Testament, I wrote:
“In 1897, two archaeologists, Grenfell and Hunt, uncovered the remnants of a 4th or 5th century library full of intact papyri from the 1st or 2nd century! Because of the high cost of making handwritten copies, early written documents were very often kept in use until they were literally falling apart! Thus – the long lifespan. … Consider the implications of this discovery: while it is true that the copies we have today aren’t the originals, if the originals did in fact last 300 years, that would mean the ones we have today could have actually been direct copies of the originals. Not fiftieth generation. Not tenth. Second generation. While this is not certain (nor particularly likely), this discovery calls into serious question the assumption (and even explicit statements) that what we have today are copies of copies of copies of copies of copies of copies, etc. In more likelihood, either the originals or second generation copies of the originals would have still been in circulation when these two Codices were first written” (4).
The Codex Sinaiticus was written around AD 325 and the Codex Vaticanus is slightly older. Add to that literally thousands of manuscript fragments from all kinds of places, times, and traditions, and New Testament scholars can determine the New Testament’s original wording with over 99.5% precision (5), with no uncertainty about the events in question. The fact of the matter is, there is no room for corruption over time. Add to this the fact that no credible scholars deny the four minimal historical facts presented at the beginning of this argument (many even while rejecting the general reliability of the Bible), and we have every reason to believe that the textual corruption theory fails.
POSSIBILITY 8: Jesus Actually Resurrected This only leaves one explanation: that the witnesses were actually telling the truth – that they genuinely did see and interact with Jesus after he died and from this concluded the undeniable truth: that Jesus actually rose from the dead. When you consider that Jesus is reported to have predicted his own death and resurrection, the case for Jesus’s supernatural identification grows even stronger. After all, why would God authenticate Jesus’ claims by fulfilling his prediction of his own resurrection unless He endorsed what Jesus had to say?
McCullagh, Behan. "Justifying Historical Descriptions." The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 74, no. 7, 1977, pp. 425-39.
Habermas, Gary. “Minimal Facts on the Resurrection That Even Skeptics Accept.” Southern Evangelical Seminary, 2018, https://ses.edu/minimal-facts-on-the-resurrection-that-even-skeptics-accept/. See also: Habermas, Gary. Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005).
Ross, Hugh. Designed to the Core. NavPress, 2018.
Blake, Trent. Can We Trust the New Testament? BaselineChristianity.com, 2022.
Geisler, Norman, and Ronald Brooks. When Skeptics Ask, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2013. Also see: Craig, William Lane. “Doctrine of Revelation: The Inspiration of Scripture” ReasonableFaith.org, 2015.