Gary Habermas has a great approach to the resurrection. Rather than trying to fight the battle on all fronts, he just focuses on three basic facts that are accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars and that cannot be explained apart from the resurrection. These three facts are the empty tomb, the reports of post-mortem appearances, and the sincere faith of the disciples.
We’re going to infer the resurrection from the three facts as the best explanation of the evidence. For that reason there isn’t the normal premise, premise, conclusion format that you might see in other sorts of arguments. Instead we’ll just substantiate the facts, and then assert that the resurrection is the best explanation on offer based on a few simple criteria.
The case relies on the Bible somewhat, but not as an inspired or inerrant document. All that we need to believe as it relates to the Bible is what everyone (even atheist scholars) agrees to, that the Bible is a collection of documents that have survived from the first century. Bruce Metzger, a New Testament Scholar and Princeton professor, as well as John A T Robinson, a former lecturer at Cambridge agree that the New Testament that we have is more than 99% accurate to what the original authors wrote.1 Setting aside for now whether you believe the New Testament authors, the fact is that we do have their testimony.
Fact One: The Empty Tomb. In the interest of keeping this brief, we’ll just look at a couple of things. First, the women followers. If the tomb wasn’t empty, then the story of the tomb being found empty was fabricated. If they are going to fabricate a story like this, then they would use credible witnesses. In ancient Israel women were not considered reliable, so this implies that the story wasn’t made up. Also the burial story is strange if it didn’t really happen. Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very council that condemned Jesus. This wouldn’t be fabricated since none of the early Christians would have made up a story that cast a positive light on the Sanhedrin, but then why didn’t Joseph just produce the body? Joseph would have had a motive to exonerate himself by showing Jesus was still in the grave.
Fact Two: The reports of post-mortem appearances. It is undeniable that people reported seeing Jesus. It is recorded multiple times from multiple different sources in the New Testament Documents (Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, 1 Corinthians, etc). The authors themselves claim to have seen Jesus, and we have their written record.
Fact Three: The sincere faith of the disciples. This is also undeniable. The disciples suffered persecution and died rather than recanting their faith. You might say they were sincerely wrong, but you can’t say that they weren’t sincere.
These facts individually won’t prove the resurrection, but when we look at them together we see that they make the best light of the facts. Most scholars will agree to the following criteria for evaluating historical evidence.2
- Explanatory scope: Does the explanation explain all of the facts?
- Explanatory power: How well does the explanation explain the facts?
- Plausibility: Does the explanation contradict things we know?
- Ad Hoc: Does the explanation require us to adopt unsubstantiated beliefs?
When we examine the alternatives by these criteria, we see that nothing comes close to the resurrection. Think of the alternative explanations below:
Conspiracy Hypothesis: The Disciples Stole the Body.
- Explanatory Power: This doesn’t explain the sincerity of the disciples faith. If they lied about it, why would they die for the lie?
- Plausibility: Conspiracy theories tend to fall apart. Why should we believe that these fishermen were able to pull this off?
Hallucination Hypothesis: The Disciples Hallucinated Appearances of Jesus.
- Explanatory Power: This might explain the appearances and the sincerity of the disciples, but what about the empty tomb? If the appearances were just a hallucination, then the tomb would have still had Jesus body in it. It also does a poor job of explaining the appearances. Hallucinations are private affairs, how does this explain the appearances to groups?
- Ad Hoc: We’re being asked to believe that the disciples were mentally unstable, but there is no evidence of that. Remember that we have their writings and the writings of their disciples. There just isn’t any reason to believe that the disciples were mentally unhinged.
We could go on with other examples, but you get the point. If you apply the grid of Explanatory Scope, Explanatory Power, Plausibility, and Ad Hoc you find that nothing fits the evidence the way that the resurrection does. For that reason, the resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence and the rational thing to do is to believe it.
1 Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology In One Volume. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2011.
2 Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010.