If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain; your faith also is vain. -Paul the Apostle (1 Cor 15)
Because Christ our God is true man, he died a full and genuine human death upon the Cross. But because he is not only true man but true God, because he is life itself and the source of life, this death was not and could not be the final conclusion. -Kallistos Ware
The death of a beloved friend or family member is normally followed by grief and sorrow and this emotional reaction is an appropriate response to the loss that is experienced. During the time following the death, people are especially aware of their mortality and ask questions such as: Is Grandpa in heaven ? Is he with Jesus? What is he doing? When will I see him again? etc. Millard Erickson, a prominent author and theologian has noticed, “These questions are not the product of idle speculation or curiosity; they are of crucial importance to the individual posing them.”3 They are crucially important because they relate primarily to the belief in an afterlife. The question “Is there life after death?” is one of the most important questions that can be asked because its answer has tremendous psychological and practical significance for the living. For Christians, the eternal life with Christ should be assumed as it is a fundamental teaching. However, many Christians lack in theological and spiritual training and when confronted with the reality of death, they may lose sight of truth and fall into despair. Therefore, a thoughtful response to the question of the resurrection will bring comfort to those who mourn, confidence to those who are uncertain, and conviction to those who doubt.
Many skeptics argue that the question “Is there life after death?” has no real answer, or at most it is unknowable. However, the probability is significantly high that this question does have an affirmative answer. It is, therefore, the purpose of this post to answer the question by showing that the preponderance of historical evidence supports the reality of the resurrection of the dead. A prime example in showing this is the resurrection of Jesus Christ and it is this truth that will be argued for as an historical fact.
The Possibility of Miracles
John Warwick Montgomery, the late dean and professor of Jurisprudence at the Simon Greenleaf School of Law and holder of eight earned degrees including M. A. degrees from UC Berkley and the University of Essex, and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and Strasbourg, argues that “since Einstein no modern has had the right to rule out the possibility of events because of prior knowledge of natural law.”4 Some have done this attempting to refute the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet, no one has successfully disproved this miracle on historical grounds. In fact, many have come to believe in it. There are still some who continue to deny the resurrection based on an a priori rejection of the possibility of miracles. According to Dr. Gary Habermas, professor of Theology and Philosophy at Liberty University, “No event can be rejected a priori unless one assumes an omniscient viewpoint. Since this is impossible, the facts must be considered.”5 This is purely logical reasoning. Though many have claimed that miracles can only be investigated in the realm of faith, this view of miracles errantly “ignores their possibly objective theistic and historical nature.”6 Furthermore, miracle claims “must be checked out before a philosophical or historical judgment is made.”7 Based on the presupposition that miracles are not impossible, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus can be analyzed and weighed historically in order test its veracity.
Historical Evidence for the Resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead is the foundation of the Christian faith. Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, author of The Mystery of Death, argues that, “no event in the history of the world is so well witnessed to and in a manner that is so precise and so powerful, so unassailable and so incontestable, as is the resurrection.”8 If the resurrection had not happened, then the Christian Church would not have come to exist. Though archeological, prophetic, and philosophical evidences also point to the reality of the resurrection, here we will look at historical evidences, which refute some common arguments made against it.
Argument 1: A Corrupt New Testament
One argument often raised by critics of the resurrection is that the primary source materials are tainted with errors and are not reliable for historical investigation. This argument, however, is not based in fact. Actually, about 99.5 percent of the NT has no textual discrepancies and no major issues in doubt. According to Benjamin Warfield, who held four doctorates and was a distinguished professor of Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, “If we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must…declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied- a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words…. The New Testament [is] unrivaled among ancient writings in the purity of its text as actually transmitted and kept in use.”9 Through the science and art of textual criticism (the analysis of external and internal evidences) there can be reasonable assurance of the accuracy of the New Testament documents. Moreover, there are several non-biblical sources that attest to its historicity, such as the Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Roman governor of Bythinia, Pliny the Younger. These and other sources “corroborate that many people believed Jesus performed healings and was Messiah, that he was crucified, and that despite this shameful death, his followers, who believed he was still alive, worshipped him as God.”10 Therefore, besides the fact that the New Testament manuscript evidence is unmatched, the mere existence of the text confirms the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus. For had not the resurrection taken place, the church would not have begun and the biblical documents would not have been written.
Argument 2: The Swoon Theory
There are many theories which attempt to explain the resurrection of Jesus Christ in strictly naturalistic terms. One such theory is the swoon theory. This theory basically says that Jesus never actually died on the cross. When posed the question: “Is there any possible way that Jesus could have survived the crucifixion?” Appealing to history, medicine, archeology, and Roman military rules, Alexander Metherell, M.D. (University of Miami) and Ph. D (University of Bristol in England) answers emphatically, “Absolutely not…It is impossible. It’s a fanciful theory without any possible basis in fact.”11 The torture that Jesus endured prior to his death no doubt caused hypovolemic shock from the substantial blood loss. Moreover, Metherell says, “He [Jesus] couldn’t possibly have faked his death, because you can’t fake the inability to breathe for long. Besides, the spear thrust into his heart would have settled the issue once and for all. And the Roman [soldiers] weren’t about to risk their own death by allowing him to walk away alive.”12 Let’s say for the sake of argument that Jesus somehow did survive the crucifixion, escaped from his linen wrappings, rolled the huge rock away from the mouth of his tomb, and got past the Roman soldiers who were standing guard.13 Would he have then been ready to find his disciples? Metherell raises several issues, which show the improbability of this scenario: “How could he walk around after nails had been driven through his feet? How could he have appeared on the road to Emmaus just a short time later, strolling for long distances? How could he have used his arms after they were stretched and pulled from their joints?”14 Also, he had wounds on his body from being beaten, and a spear wound through his heart. Though each of these questions provides a convincing argument against the swoon theory, the most important refutation of the theory states that Jesus, “in that kind of pathetic condition would never have inspired his disciples to go out and proclaim that he is the Lord of life who had triumphed over the grave… [Moreover,] It is preposterous to think that if he had appeared to them in that awful state, his followers would have been prompted to start a worldwide movement based on the hope that someday they too would have a resurrection body like his.”15
Argument 3: The Conspiracy Theory
Another theory that has been raised attempting to deny the miraculous resurrection of Jesus is the conspiracy theory. This theory comes in several different forms but basically says that the disciples of Jesus conspired together to start a new religion based on his teachings. These men, out of some unknown motivation, claimed to see Jesus alive after his crucifixion, and went about telling the story of the empty tomb. According to the theory, this myth is in all reality a hoax. Some scholars have accepted the conspiracy theory, primarily because of an a priori rejection of miracles. However, there are several convincing arguments which have been articulated rejecting it. Dr. J. P. Moreland, professor of philosophy at Biola University and doctoral graduate of the University of Southern California, lists several arguments against this theory: 1. The disciples had nothing to gain by lying and starting a new religion. They faced hardship, ridicule, hostility, and martyr’s deaths. They could have never sustained such unwavering motivation if they knew what they were preaching was a lie. 2. The disciples were dedicated Jewish theists who would not have risked eternal torment for a few years of prestige as a leader of a new religion. 3. Their presentation of Jesus was not in keeping with the current conceptions of what the Messiah would be like and would have had much difficulty convincing others of its truth. 4. If bad motivation was involved in the fabrication, one is hard pressed to explain the continued unity of the early leaders. Those who lie for personal gain do not stick together very long, especially when hardship decreases the benefits.16 These are just a few of the many arguments, which have been raised against the conspiracy theory. They are critical enough to show that belief in the resurrection is not a blind faith. The tomb of Jesus was empty. And, as Moreland wisely states, “Intellectual integrity requires one to admit that naturalistic explanations are simply inadequate. The most reasonable explanation of the empty tomb is the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.”17
Though other theories have been invented in attempts to disprove the resurrection of Jesus, none has been successful in doing so. The theories may give some naturalistic explanation for a piece of the Christian testimony, yet not one naturalistic theory explains the events as completely as the eyewitness testimonies of the apostles themselves. Lee Strobel in reflecting on the thoughts of J. P. Moreland asserts, “The disciples knew that the resurrection had taken place, and they went to their deaths proclaiming it was true. Nobody knowingly and willingly dies for a lie…Apart from the resurrection, there is no good reason why skeptics like Paul and James would have been converted and died for their faith.”18
If the resurrection is true then God has acted in history. Obviously, this is the most significant event of all human history. Though space does not allow for an exposition of the significance of the resurrection. One thing can be concluded: There is life after death. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead gives validity to his teaching that someday all people, from all time will be resurrected to be judged by the One who judges with perfect justice. In the words of Geivett and Habermas, “It is not just a provocative rumor that God has acted in history, but a fact worthy of our intellectual conviction. The miracles of Christianity are not an embarrassment to the Christian worldview. Rather, they are the testimony to the compassion of God for human beings benighted by sin and circumstance.”19 This awesome truth should compel all to consider the significance of the resurrection for their own life. For the Christian, the truth of the resurrection, communicated effectively and compassionately, is a hope, which not only can comfort and console those who mourn, but can comfort and console anyone who recognizes his/her mortality. Therefore, when asked if there is life beyond the grave, the Christian can and should answer confidently in the affirmative- following the instruction of the Apostle Peter when he said, “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”20
The Bible. New American Standard Version.
Erickson, Millard. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998.
Geivett, R. Douglas & Gary R. Habermas. Ed. In Defense of Miracles. Downers Grove,
Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1997.
Habermas, Gary. The Historical Jesus. Joplin, Missouri: College Press Publishing
Montgomery, John Warwick. History and Christianity. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House
Moreland, J. P. Scaling the Secular City. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1987.
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998.
Vassiliadis, Nikolaos P. The Mystery of Death. Athens, Greece: Orthodox Brotherhood
of Theologians, 1993.
Ware, Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press,
Warfield, Benjamin B. Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament. London:
Hodder & Stoughton, 1907.