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Unpacking the basics: How do we know the resurrection really happened?

Mike Licona // April 18, 2019, 4:09 pm

How do we know the resurrection really happened 1

C.S. Lewis once famously said that Jesus was either a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. Speaking at Reasonable Faith Conference 2019Mike Licona offers a compelling argument for why Jesus Christ really rose from the dead.


Jesus disciples’ claimed that he rose from the dead and appeared to them.

The evidence we have for this is overwhelming.

First, we’ve got Paul who claimed to be an eyewitness to the risen Jesus. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:10-11 that not only was he preaching the resurrection of Jesus – the other apostles were too.

We also have written traditions in the form of the 4 gospels – the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke John. All these are first-hand evidence. 

But just because the disciples claimed that Jesus really appeared to them doesn’t mean that it really happened. Even if Jesus did, perhaps it was a fluke of some sort. So if we were to draw a mind map about the resurrection, it would look something like this.


Let’s go through the possibilities.

6 POSSIBILITIES FOR THE RESURRECTION

1. The disciples lied 

Starting with the obvious: What if the disciples lied about seeing Jesus?

Before He died, Jesus declared that He had power over life and death – a claim on divinity (John 2:19-22, 5:21). If the disciples could make others believe that Jesus really did resurrect, it would certainly convince many that He must be the Son of God. 

Would you die for what you knew was a lie?

But we have to consider the context of the situation: While the disciples were busy spreading the supposedly fake accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, the persecution of Christians was at its peak. Peter, Paul and James were executed for their faith. Even if the rest of the disciples didn’t face the same fate, they faced imprisonment for spreading the Gospel (Acts 4:1-3, 5:17-18, 16:20-24).

Many of us would die for what we believe in. But would you die for what you knew was a lie?

What if Christianity was a lie?

The truth is, liars make poor martyrs. One person might be willing to die for a fake account – but all of them willing to die for a lie? It’s more plausible that they believed Jesus resurrected rather than that they were lying about it.

Of course, just because you’re willing to die for something doesn’t mean it’s the truth. There are many people with radically different worldviews who are willing to die for their beliefs. It doesn’t mean what they believe in is the truth, but it does mean that they at least believed their worldview was true.

Therefore, we can establish that not only did the disciples proclaim Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to them – they believed in it. If they actually believed it, they were not lying.

Which brings us to the next possibility.

2. The disciples hallucinated 

Another hypothesis suggests the disciples thought that Jesus appeared to them, but it was a hallucination.

A lot of studies have been done on hallucination over the last century. Hallucination is thinking something is there when it isn’t. And because the thinking goes on in the mind of an individual, it has no external reality. For example, you can’t ask someone to join you in your dreams because it only exists in your head.

Yet the Bible also records both individual appearances and group appearances of Jesus after His death across multiple occasions.

Individual appearances: Mark 16:9, John 20:18
Group appearances: Matthew 28:9, 16; Luke 24:15-16; John 20:19, 20:26, 21:4; 1 Corinthians 15:7

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At one point, Jesus even appeared to a crowd of 500 (1 Corinthians 15:3-7) – at the same time! So extremely rare, if not impossible, is a collective hallucination that there are hardly any studies done on it to date. Without any conclusive evidence, this argument can only remain as a theory.

Plus, it doesn’t explain away the empty tomb.

3. The disciples meant it figuratively

John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar posits that the disciples didn’t actually see Jesus but used His resurrection as a metaphor for His legacy. Jesus’ teachings still live on in us and therefore, He’s still “alive” with us.

It’s possible that the disciples described Jesus’ resurrection figuratively, but it’s not probable. It’s not even plausible. Here’s why: When we look at the earliest reports of Christians, they could not have been clearer in saying that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

In fact, Thomas only believed that Jesus had resurrected after he put his finger through Jesus’ wounds (John 20:25-28).

In addition, Paul, when addressing doubts on Jesus’ resurrection from the early churches, asserted that if Christ was not raised from the dead, then their faith was worthless and in vain and those who were martyred for the faith were forever lost (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

His basic argument was if Christ was not raised, then they would not be raised either. If they were not going to be raised and this life was all, then the Christian life was not worth living. In light of this, the argument put forth by Paul will make no sense whatsoever if Jesus’ resurrection was only a metaphor.

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Furthermore, when you look at the early sceptics and enemies of Christianity, the critiques actually regarded the disappearance of Jesus’ body as a real event, not a metaphor. I mean the Jewish leaders charged the disciples of stealing the body (Matthew 28:11-15)!

And when you look at how Christians responded to the claims of the sceptics, they didn’t say, “No, no, no. You got us wrong. We didn’t mean to say Jesus actually rose. We just meant it as a metaphor.” They simply stick to their guns and asserted that Christ died and resurrected.

Therefore, the metaphor hypothesis fails miserably.

4. Jesus had a twin 

If hallucinations are impossible to account for the appearance of Jesus after His death, what about a secret identical twin a la The Prestige?

Ask most identical twins if they could fool their parents, siblings or loved ones – they would probably say yes. But ask them how long they could fool people? Only as long as they are able to sit down and not do anything. As soon as they start to walk or talk, people who’ve known them for a period of time can tell the difference in posture and mannerism. 

The disciples who claimed to have seen Jesus were people who had walked with Him for at least 1-3 years. Would they not be able to tell the difference? And why was it that nobody knew about this identical twin?

Perhaps the biggest loophole in this argument is that if you were really the twin, would you show up and say “Hey, it didn’t work!” after the Romans had tortured and killed your brother? You’d probably be dead meat after that. Therefore, the twin hypothesis isn’t a compelling answer either.

Historians can entertain possibilities but they have to go with probabilities.

5. Jesus survived his death

What if Jesus secretly escaped death and appeared to His disciples later on?

To be honest, it’s hard to believe anyone could survive crucifixion. It’s an unspeakably cruel process and so painful that the word “excruciating” has its roots in crucifixion. Even the Roman soldiers who usually broke crucified captives’ legs to make sure sure they had no chance of survival didn’t bother to do so because Jesus was obviously dead.

But just in case you think this is exactly how Jesus got away, the Roman soldiers pierced His side with a spear and immediately blood and water flowed out (John 19:32-34). Medically speaking, this is only possible if the heart was pierced because the fluid had most likely gathered around it – a condition called pericardial effusion.

The most reasonable fool

History also records that Josephus, a man who lived during the Greco-Roman period, once tried to save his 3 crucified acquaintances. The Roman general Titus allowed the appeal and even ordered the best medical care to be given to those men. Despite that, only one survived the aftermath of crucifixion.

And that is the only account we have in antiquity of a person surviving crucifixion.

Historians can entertain possibilities but they have to go with probabilities. And there’s an overwhelming amount of evidence that Jesus’ death was by crucifixion. Not only do we have gospels, Paul, the book of Hebrew and several other pieces in the New Testament literature — the crucifixion is attested to by a fair number of independent ancient sources. 

Any historian must therefore conclude that Jesus was crucified, and that the cross had killed Him.

That leaves us with one final option.

6. Jesus died and rose to life

People claimed to have seen Him. They believed Jesus rose and appeared to them. Because He actually did. It’s the only option that actually works.

So is Jesus’ resurrection a conspiracy theory or the truth? In the words of Sherlock Holmes: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

THINK + TALK

  1. Do you believe Jesus Christ resurrected? Why not?
  2. What other possible hypotheses can there be to explain why the disciples claimed to have seen Jesus after His death?
  3. Does it take more faith to believe that Jesus resurrected from the dead or the conspiracy theory?
  4. Who is Jesus to you? A liar, a lunatic or the risen Lord?