When I was a kid I had a buddy we’ll call Billy. One day Billy told me he could raise a Japanese beetle from the dead. He put the beetle into a freezer in his garage, then went to play as we awaited its demise. Retrieving the beetle, Billy whipped out his magnifying glass and showered a broad beam of sunlit warmth upon its carcass. (This was very unlike his usual procedure, which was to put the tiniest possible beam of sunlight on an insect until its body began to smoke, triggering a maniacal cackle from Billy that made me wonder if I would one day see his face on an America’s Most Wanted poster.) Within a few minutes, I began to see the beetle’s legs moving. Then it was getting up and flying away as Billy screamed “He’s alive!” with a definite Dr. Frankensteinian air.
I admit, I was amazed. I had never seen anything quite like it. But a resurrection? I was skeptical. I’m sure the fact that Billy had lied to me many times and had smacked me in the head with a 2 X 4 on one occasion had nothing to do with my skepticism. I later learned that there are insects capable of surviving freezing (check out https://prairieecologist.com/2014/01/06/frozen-bugs-and-beetles/ for examples), but for the moment, I wasn’t ready to accept Billy’s explanation.
Every effect has a cause and every event an explanation. I wrote “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus” for my blog two weeks ago (March 2, 2017). Perhaps we should be just as skeptical about this claim as I was about Billy’s. But at the end of the day, an explanation will be needed, one that best accounts for all the known facts. Why? Because not all facts are equally important. The Christian gospel rests on this claim. If the gospel is true, the resurrection gives us a glimpse of the future in which all the problems of this world, including our individual lives, will be solved. If the resurrection did not happen and the gospel is therefore false, then we can safely dismiss Christianity’s claims as false.
In the case I presented for the resurrection, I used the minimal facts approach that only considers facts that are so well attested historically that just about every scholar who studies the subject (including many skeptical ones) acknowledges them. These facts are:
Fact 1: “Jesus’s disciples sincerely believed He rose from the dead and appeared to them” (Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Kregel 2004, p.61; see 1 Corinthians 15:3-11).
Fact 2: “The church persecutor Paul was suddenly changed” (ibid. 64; see 1 Corinthians 15:9-10; Acts 9).
Fact 3: “The skeptic James, brother of Jesus, was suddenly changed” (ibid. 67; compare Mark 3:21, 31, 6:3-4, John 7:5 with Acts 15:12-21, Galatians 1:19).
Fact 4: “The tomb was empty” (ibid. 69). Habermas estimates that about 75% of scholars since 1975 acknowledge the empty tomb because it is so well evidenced historically, an impressive majority, though a smaller percentage of scholars compared to the percentage of scholars who acknowledge the other four facts (ibid. 70; see 1 Corinthians 15:4).
Fact 5: “Jesus died by crucifixion” (ibid. 48; see 1 Corinthians 15:3).
Is there an explanation of what happened to Jesus that accounts for these facts better than the Christians’ explanation that Jesus rose from the dead? Let’s consider a few of those alternative explanations.
What about the idea that Jesus did not really die on the cross, but rather passed out only to revive in the tomb? This ‘swoon theory’ explains the empty tomb (Fact 4), but outright denies Fact 5, which is verified by non-Christian sources outside the Bible such as Josephus, Tacitus, Lucian, Mara Bar-Serapion, and Jewish writers in the Talmud (ibid. 50). It also fails to account for the conversions of the skeptic James and persecutor Paul. It is debatable whether it could adequately explain the disciples’ belief that Jesus rose (Fact 1), since skeptical people like Doubting Thomas would surely have pondered the difference between a haggard person who barely survived crucifixion and a healthy person whose scourge and nail wounds were healed after only three days.
What about the idea that the appearances of Jesus to the disciples were hallucinations? That is consistent with Jesus’s death and the disciples’ belief in the resurrection (Facts 5 and 1), but would not explain the empty tomb (Fact 4) or the conversions of Paul and James (Facts 2 and 3). Also, in 1 Corinthians 15:3-11, three group appearances are recorded (to the 12, to the 500+, and to all the apostles). But, as psychologist Gary Collins points out, hallucinations are experienced by individuals, not groups. When groups hallucinate at the same time, as with Navy SEALS during Hell Week, each person hallucinates something different. Hallucinations are not shared experiences (ibid. 106-7).
What about the theory that the disciples stole Jesus’s body, hid it somewhere, and then claimed he rose? This would explain the empty tomb (Fact 4) and is consistent with the death of Jesus (Fact 5), but would not give Paul or James a reason to convert (Facts 2 and 3), for they were not prone to believe the disciples. It only explains half of Fact 1, namely that the disciples claimed Jesus rose, while failing to explain their willingness to die rather than stop preaching Jesus as the risen Lord (liars make poor martyrs). It also assumes that the same group of men who fled in terror from the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-51) then gathered their courage, defeated a group of highly-trained (probably Roman) guards, and then died for their lie. This seems implausible.
Other alternative explanations suffer the same fate, unable to account for all five of these facts. The one explanation that fully accounts for all five facts is that Jesus rose from the dead. Now you might think we should just consider what happened to Jesus an unsolved mystery. There must be some explanation other than resurrection, even if we don’t know what it is. The problem is that the problems of this world will not go away. If Jesus is somehow the solution, then we all need to be a part of the solution or we may be part of the problem. Neutrality may not be possible (Jesus said as much in Matthew 12:30). It is my hope that you will come to a verdict. In my view, the facts are best explained by resurrection.
But what does the resurrection mean? That question will take another blog to answer.