Here is what historians do agree on. Today, the vast majority of New Testament scholars—including secular/critical scholars—agree to four facts of history:
- Jesus of Nazareth died on a Roman cross and laid in a tomb.
- The tomb was empty Sunday morning.
- Numerous individuals (including skeptics like James and hostiles like Saul of Tarsus) experienced what they took to be the resurrected Jesus.
- Belief in the resurrection transformed their lives and launched a movement that altered history.
What historians don’t agree on is what best explains these four facts, but there aren’t many options. Consider the handful of improbable scenarios meant to explain away those conclusions.
Some skeptics suggest Jesus never really died. Rather, He fainted on the cross, was taken for dead, was entombed alive, then revived in the coolness of the cave.
This would mean Jesus suffered all the physical abuse described in the historical accounts—being beaten, scourged, pinned to a cross with nails in hands and feet, exposed naked all afternoon in the April air, and speared through his chest—was declared dead by a battle-seasoned Roman centurion, embalmed with 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes, laid out on a cold stone slab, and sealed in the grave. Then, a couple of days later, Jesus felt a lot better, got up, rolled away the rock, eluded the Roman guard, and convinced his doubtful disciples He was the resurrected Lord of life.
Any skeptic who falls for that story is not skeptical enough.
Maybe the women went to the wrong tomb. That’s possible in principle, but it would have been an easy mistake to rectify. Since both the Jewish leaders and the Romans knew where Jesus was buried, and both groups wanted Him to stay dead, don’t you think someone would have quickly pointed to the correct tomb and ended the confusion? The story would have never gotten off the ground.
Instead of producing the corpse, though, the leaders manufactured a lie: The disciples stole the body. This was the earliest attempt to explain away the empty tomb, but it’s wildly implausible. The disciples who were hiding out of fear would have had to regroup, brave an armed Roman guard, quietly roll away the massive stone, and spirit off the body of Christ without waking the soldiers who were, amazingly, sleeping on duty. Not likely. And what would motivate the theft?
Worse, it would mean the disciples themselves knew Jesus had not, in fact, risen from the dead. Why would these men face so much suffering for a lie they manufactured? Common sense dictates that no one would contrive a tale that gains him nothing but misery. The basic rule regarding lying is this: Invent a lie that benefits you, not one that gets you beaten, whipped, scourged, stoned, drawn and quartered, or crucified upside down. Again, a skeptic who believes this is far too gullible.
Maybe the appearances were hallucinations. Really? A group hallucination? How exactly does that happen? Hallucinations are first-person private mental states, like dreams. How do you produce exactly the same detailed dream in the minds of a dozen people at exactly the same time, multiple times, especially in the minds of those who are complete doubters like Thomas, James, and Saul? By the way, do you know the difference between a dream and reality? I do. I suppose the disciples did, too.
No, hallucinations won’t do, either.
What would transform a group of shivering, shaking, terrified men who had abandoned Jesus—one even denying he knew Him—scattering, hiding from the authorities, door locked, lights out? What could account for their metamorphosis into vibrant witnesses for Jesus standing in the face of powers who threatened to scourge, imprison, and execute them for proclaiming a risen Christ?
What would change Saul of Tarsus, a man so dedicated to his religion he rounded up men and women to be bullied, beaten, and killed for following Jesus? What would cause such a man to turn on a dime and take his place with those he persecuted, eventually sacrificing his own life for the very Gospel he previously despised? What best explains that?
Only one answer will do, in Peter’s words, “This Jesus, God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses.”
And if risen, then Jesus is the son of God because He was declared to be so “with power by the resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4). And if risen, we have been forgiven because “He who was delivered over for our transgressions…was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). And if risen, we now have no condemnation because Jesus “who was raised, who is at the right hand of God…intercedes for [us]” (Rom. 8:34).
Two miracles. The first miracle a trade that ends the battle with God, bringing mercy, forgiveness, and atonement. The second miracle a defeat of death that secures eternity of glory for those who put their trust in Christ.