8. The Historical Argument
Whether you believe in Jesus or not, you cannot deny the fact that something happened 2,000 years ago that radically changed the world. The religion of the Jews which had remained unchanged for thousands of years (as ancient to them as Jesus is to us) was augmented with an additional member of the trinity, sparking the world’s largest religion. Today, fully one third of our planet’s inhabitants subscribe to the religion ignited by this man, Jesus. Were those events the greatest hoax of all time? Imagine if David Koresh were still worshiped as God in the year 4000 A.D. Is a person capable of pulling off such a hoax? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that since these people lived long ago, they were ignorant. If a small group of people began worshipping a man as resurrected right after his crucifixion, their society would ordinarily scoff and this religion would not get off the ground. But somehow it became the most transformative event in the history of humankind.
Almost nobody denies the fact that Jesus existed. His existence and his crucifixion which is documented in the New Testament is also confirmed in sources outside the Bible such as in the writings of the first century historian, Josephus. Also, the biblical account of Jesus’ life is told in the context of other history that we know to be true such as the Roman invasion of Israel and the implementation of Herod as ruler of the Judean state within Rome.
But it is Jesus’ resurrection that is the center of the Christian religion. What evidence do we have that this event actually happened? There are several independent sources within the Bible that provide this evidence.
But first, two objections must be dealt with pertaining to biblical citation. The most common objection is that citing the Bible as evidence is a circular argument: “God exists because the Bible tells me so. The Bible is true because it was written by God.” I understand this circular fallacy and it is not at all what I am claiming here. I cite the Bible in the following argument not as divine authority, but as the most historically reliable record we possess. You can see how it would be unwise to eliminate books of the Bible as unreliable if they were originally chosen for inclusion to the Bible precisely because they were so reliable.
Another common objection to the Bible is, “How accurate can a book be that describes events that occurred 2,000 years ago?” It is true that the Bible describes ancient events that seem so distant from our modern world, but the fact is that it was written very soon after the events it describes. The sources used below were written between 20 and 60 years after Jesus’ resurrection. It would be the equivalent of writing a book in the mid 1990’s about how the Vietnam War ended, while veterans of that war were still alive and able to dispute the book. If such a book were written, it would not decrease in accuracy many years from now, since the fact would still remain that it was written soon after the event.
The three sources of evidence in the Bible are from Mark 15 and 16, I Corinthians 15, and Acts 13. Each of these books are independent of each other and yet they each clearly relate the same four facts:
1. After his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by a well known member of the Sanhedrin named Joseph of Arimathea, and this burial site was known.
2. Three days later, the tomb was found empty by female followers of Jesus.
3. On multiple occasions, a risen Jesus was seen by many people.
4. The original disciples believed Jesus rose.
According to William Lane Craig, today, most skeptics’ objections do not concern this evidence itself, but rather they object to the interpretation of the evidence.
(1)Fact one is significant because it shows that the burial process was not a secret event at all. We know who paid to have Jesus buried, and it was a well known member of society. The fact that the tomb location was known is significant because in order to know that the tomb was later empty, it is important to know which tomb was his.
(2)Fact two, that the tomb was found empty by women, is significant because in those days women were not considered reliable sources and were not even allowed to testify in court. This fulfills what is known to historians as the criterion of embarrassment: an account can more reasonably be presumed to true if the author would have no reason to invent a detail that may have detracted from the argument. Also, since the location of the tomb was known, the claim that it was empty could be verified. Why would you lie about something that could be so easily disproved? In fact, the early Jewish leadership did not deny that the tomb was empty but instead came up with alternate explanations to explain why the tomb was empty.
(3)The fact that many people are listed as having seen a risen Jesus, in a document written just 30 years after the events is significant. I Corinthians 15:5-7 says, “he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also…” According to Craig, certain of these appearances have earmarks of truth such as Jesus’ appearance to James who was the brother of Jesus. Throughout all of James’ life, he did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God but after the resurrection he came to believe and was later stoned to death for his belief according to the ancient historian, Josephus. Why would James, after disbelieving his whole life then become such a strong believer after the disgraceful and punishing death of Jesus’ crucifixion? Something happened after the burial that so radically changed James’ mind about Jesus that he was then willing to die for his belief in Jesus. Others mentioned in the list of people were still alive when this was written. It was, in a sense, “peer reviewed” in that the witnesses were still around when it was written, and if it was false in any way, they would have objected.
(4)According to the Jewish tradition, prior to Jesus’ crucifixion, his followers believed that their Messiah was coming back, but they did not believe that it would be at all like this. They thought that their Messiah was a king who would overthrow Rome and re-establish the Jewish kingdom. But at the point of Jesus’ crucifixion, their Messiah had been caught and crucified which was the most shameful and degrading punishment in the Roman world. He was seen as a heretic and there was virtually no way you could look at his life as victorious. In spite of all this, they came to believe in Jesus in a more powerful way than before as evidenced by their willingness to die for their beliefs.
What is the best explanation for these four facts? Many explanations have been proffered through the years such as: a)the “apparent death theory” which claims Jesus was not really dead when he was placed in the tomb, b)the “mass hallucination theory” which claims that when Jesus was seen by the multitudes after his resurrection, they were all hallucinating, c)the “twin theory” which claims that Jesus had a long lost twin who was actually crucified in his place allowing Jesus to live on.
When you consider the various theories within the context of the cumulative case for God’s existence, then the resurrection hypothesis seems more plausible than any of the conspiracy theories in explaining the evidence. If the arguments for God’s existence are credible, then the resurrection hypothesis is the best explanation for the evidence.