The Case for the Resurrection
The invisible dragon.
Astronomer Carl Sagan once told the story of a man who said there was a dragon in his garage. When his friend asked to see the dragon the garage owner said that wouldn’t be possible: it was an invisible dragon.
The friend thought that was fine — with the proper protective gear he could touch the dragon or at least hear or smell it. Unfortunately, said the garage owner, that wouldn’t work either. The dragon was not only invisible but also intangible, had no smell, and made no sounds.
If you’re thinking at this point it wouldn’t make much difference whether the dragon was there or not, you’re on the right track. Sagan used the story to make a point about belief systems that are unfalsifiable.
One way to make a belief system impossible to prove false is to make it completely irrelevant. You can’t prove that the invisible dragon isn’t there, but that’s because it makes absolutely no difference to the world whether it’s there or not.
If the presence of the dragon was supposed to change something then you’d be able to check if the dragon existed by seeing if that something had actually changed. If the garage was the same as it always was, you could safely conclude that there was no dragon — you’d have falsified its presence.
Christianity does not suffer from invisible dragon syndrome.
To be a Christian is to believe a very definite event with definite consequences — that Jesus rose bodily from the dead, which changes everything.
If he did rise that’s not a fact you can be indifferent to: for someone to come back from the dead is such a tremendously significant event it requires you to reassess the way you see the world. In particular it lends immense credence to the claims Jesus made about himself — which is why most people who believe in the Resurrection are also Christian.
The flipside to the Church’s definite claim on the Resurrection is that it makes the whole of Christianity easier to falsify — Catholics believe in a bodily Resurrection with real consequences, not a metaphorical or merely spiritual resurrection that would be impossible to disprove but wouldn’t make much of a difference even if it had happened.
So a potential ‘downside’ to a tangible, bodily Resurrection is that it is theoretically easier (or at least possible) to prove false, and if it is proven false then the whole belief system of Christianity collapses.
This is not a bad thing.
Christ’s Resurrection is falsifiable because it matters: if it’s true, it lends significant credence to the rest of Christianity; if it’s false, so is Christianity as a whole.
St Paul puts it neatly in the first letter to the Corinthians: “[I]f Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.”
So everything about Christianity hangs upon the question: did Jesus rise from the dead?
The history of Jesus’ existence.
The historical evidence for Jesus’ existence is extremely good. You’ll occasionally get someone trying to raise a bit of controversy by claiming that Jesus didn’t exist at all, but it’s not a position that’s taken seriously by historians.
Leading agnostic scholar of the New Testament, Bart Ehrman, wrote, “The view that Jesus existed is held by virtually every expert on the planet” (Did Jesus Exist?).
The history of the Resurrection.
When it comes to the history of the Resurrection things are naturally trickier. Sometimes you get lucky and find a clear physical record of an event, such as discarded weapons buried where a battle was said to have happened; but for events in the ancient world, this kind of physical record is rare.
So what way can we approach the historical case for the Resurrection? We take things we know to have happened and try figure out what sequence of events best explains those things that are known.
When we’re looking for the best explanation, we’re not looking to prove our case beyond doubt; we’re more like detectives, examining the evidence we have and trying to figure out what story best accounts for it.
What events are we trying to explain? Primarily the emergence of a Christian community, the beliefs of that community, and the behaviour of its leaders.
The early Christians.
As early as 50 years after Jesus’ birth St Paul wrote letters to Christians who shared some rather odd beliefs: that their founder though executed by the Romans had risen bodily from the dead, that his Resurrection was the beginning of a new order to creation, and that as part of that new order their own bodies would be resurrected at Jesus’ second coming.
Another thing we know about the early Christians is almost redundant to mention — they persisted. Unlike every other Messianic movement of the first century they did not disappear after the execution of the individual they claimed to be the Messiah. The early leaders of Christianity travelled and suffered intensely in spreading their message and many of them were killed in the process.
These are all phenomena with tremendous historical significance. From a purely historical perspective the rise of Christianity is one of the most significant developments in human history. (For more on the way in which Christianity reshaped the world read the agnostic historian Tom Holland’s recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind or try David Bentley Hart’s The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.)
Of course screeds have been written on every detail of the lives of the early Christians, but let’s focus on one: the behaviour of the early leaders of the Christian community, Jesus’ disciples. What did these men believe so deeply they were willing to face death and persecution?
It seems that there are three options. The first is that the disciples lied about Jesus rising from the dead but people do not generally make great personal sacrifices for a hoax from which they gain nothing. Why would they allow themselves to be killed rather than renounce something they knew to be false?
Whether or not what they believed was true is another question, but it certainly seems that they themselves believed it was. That is, they weren’t consciously lying.
It’s for this reason among others that Bart Ehrman said:
[T]here are two historical realities that simply cannot be denied. The followers of Jesus did claim that Jesus came back to life. If they had not claimed that, we would not have Christianity. So they did claim it. Moreover, they did claim that they knew he rose precisely because some of them saw him alive again afterward.
Yet Ehrman does not personally believe Jesus rose from the dead, which brings us to two final possibilities: either the people who claimed to see Jesus after his death were mistaken (what Ehrman thinks) or the fact that Jesus rose is true.
That the witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection were mistaken is not as unlikely as the hypothesis about them lying, but it is still highly unlikely.
Think about the nature of the testimonies to Jesus’ Resurrection — it wasn’t just one or two people who happened to have similar visions.
The number of different people who claimed to see Jesus and the extensive contact they claimed to have with him makes it hard to see how this could be any ordinary mistake. People are not mistaken about the resurrection of a dead man in the way they might be mistaken about where they left their keys, nor do they tend to make the exact same mistake so collectively and on such a wide scale.
According to the ordinary standards we use to explain human behaviour, a coordinated mistake like this is just highly unlikely. Looking at the events, the final possibility — that Jesus really rose — starts to appear the most straightforward.
But of course there’s a reason the straightforward alternative is so disputed: in some worldviews physical resurrections simply do not happen. If you believe these worldviews, the alternatives may be unlikely but the Resurrection is effectively impossible.
Chief among these worldviews is one called scientific naturalism or materialism. According to materialism the physical world, defined as ‘those things which can be described and measured by the natural sciences’, is all that exists. For materialists the best explanation of the world as a whole involves no supernatural entities, no miracles, and certainly no resurrections from the dead.
Bart Ehrman summed up the worldview well in a debate with Christian apologist William Lane Craig:
[W]hat is the probability that a human being can walk on a pond of water unless it’s frozen? The probability is virtually zero because in fact humans can’t do that. And if you think humans can do that, then give me one instance where I can see. None of us can do it. No one on the face of this planet can do it. Billions of people who have lived cannot do it. And so is the historian going to conclude that probably Joe Smith, the pastor of this church probably did it? I don’t think so. Historians aren’t going to conclude that because the miracle simply is a violation of the way nature typically works.
The strongest reason to disbelieve.
Ehrman is an intellectually honest scholar and he makes this key point clear. The strongest reason to disbelieve Jesus’ Resurrection, the thing that stops it being the obviously best explanation for the rise of Christianity and the behaviour of the disciples who knew him, is not anything about the facts of the case — it’s the fact that if it were true it would disprove materialism.
Now there’s nothing stupid about thinking like this. If you have a picture of the world which you think explains most things very well, it might be rational to stick to it even if certain events don’t obviously fit.
The question then becomes ‘is materialism the best theory of the world’? I happen to think that it isn’t at all and that there are reasons which have nothing specifically to do with Christianity that make it a very poor theory — from the question of the origin of the universe, to the nature of consciousness, to the many well-attested reports of supernatural-seeming events throughout human history that persist into the modern day.
One way or another, the question of Jesus’ Resurrection can’t be neatly separated from the question of whether materialism is true or false, nor can it be resolved just by looking at the historical record. There is something else at play: your entire view of the world. If you believe materialism is true, the Resurrection is almost impossible — if you don’t believe in strict materialism, the picture looks very different.
The trouble is that many of us in the modern age have a materialist bias — we assume materialism to be true without actually assessing the arguments for or against it. We think that to doubt science’s ability to describe every aspect of reality is somehow to doubt science itself.
But there’s no necessary link between the two doubts: thinking that history cannot describe everything about reality does not make you a history denier. The claim that the empirical sciences are all you need to understand reality is a philosophical claim, not a scientific one: there is no experiment you could do to verify it. One can be a perfectly good scientist without being a materialist: ask Francis Collins, John Polkinghorne, or Adam Frank.
If we were to set aside our bias for materialism and look at the events after Jesus’ death with a kind of agnosticism about our worldview, we could easily see the Resurrection of Jesus as the most straightforward, simplest, and best explanation of the events that occurred.
Like a detective.
Of course adopting worldview agnosticism can feel like an artificial exercise. When making fundamental decisions about the way we live our lives (and following Jesus is no easy one) it’s difficult to leave our strongly influenced biases at the door without having a wider understanding.
It’s for this reason that an examination of the historical record by itself does not demand that any reasonable person believe in the Resurrection. The question of whether Jesus rose from the dead is too tied up with other questions about our entire worldview: is there a God? Can supernatural events even happen?
Questions like these and the question of the Resurrection can’t really be answered separately because the answer you give to one influences what you think about the others.
If you don’t believe in God, you probably won’t believe in the Resurrection, and vice versa.
What you have to do is examine all the interrelated questions and then, at a certain point, make a leap. Like a detective concluding that this theory best explains the case, you must decide which worldview best explains reality and, on the back of that, decide whether the Resurrection of Jesus actually happened.
The historical record of the events following Jesus’ death won’t take that leap for you. But an honest examination of that record, free of materialist bias, does lend substantial support to one particular worldview: that of Christianity, according to which Christ is truly risen.
(For more on the historicity of the Resurrection you can check out N.T. Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God. For a shorter introduction his lecture ‘Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?’ is available on Youtube.)