Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?
(Included in an Email from Catholic Answers)

    The Bible says that if Jesus did not rise from the dead then the Christian faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:17).

    However, if Jesus did rise from the dead then we know Jesus can keep his promise to give everyone who follows him eternal life (1 John 2:25). But how can we know that Jesus really rose from the dead and that the Bible's description of this miracle wasn't just a story someone made up?

    One way is by showing that the Resurrection is the only explanation for the events surrounding Jesus' death, events that almost everyone, including skeptics, agrees are historical. Even scholars who don't think the Bible is the word of God admit it is not completely made up. For example, skeptical scholar John Dominic Crossan denies that Jesus rose from the dead, but he says, "That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be."

    Similarly, the atheist New Testament scholar Gerd Ludemann said, "It may be taken as historically certain that Peter and the disciples had experiences after Jesus' death in which Jesus appeared to them as the risen Christ." L├╝demann doesn't think Jesus actually rose from the dead but that the apostles experienced a hallucination instead. He does think, however, the apostles thought they saw the risen Jesus and this fact of history needs to be explained.

    As we examine the various theories put forward to explain these facts, you will see that only one theory explains 1) Jesus' death by Crucifixion; 2) his empty tomb; 3) the post-Crucifixion appearances to the disciples; and 4) the disciples' willingness to die for their faith: the theory that Jesus actually rose from the dead.

The Swoon Theory

    One way to explain these facts would be to posit that Jesus never really died. Maybe he just passed out on the cross and woke up in a tomb. Jesus then met up with the disciples who mistakenly thought he'd risen from the dead. But even if Jesus somehow survived the Crucifixion, the apostles would never have thought he'd miraculously risen from the dead. Upon seeing his bloody, mutilated body, they would have thought Jesus had cheated death, not beaten it, and quickly gotten him medical treatment.

    Besides, there is almost no chance Jesus could have survived being crucified. In 1986, the American Medical Association published a paper that analyzed ancient records of the Crucifixion. It came to the conclusion that it would have been nearly impossible for Jesus to survive the intense flogging that ripped his skin apart as well as the asphyxiation brought on by being crucified.

The Trash Theory

    How do we know Jesus wasn't just thrown into an anonymous grave and was forgotten until the disciples imagined they saw him alive again? We'll discuss the theory that the disciples hallucinated in a moment, but let's first consider the idea that Jesus received a dishonorable burial, and his body was abandoned in a common grave for criminals.

    Deuteronomy 21:22-23 prohibited the Jewish people from leaving a criminal hanging on a tree, so Jesus would have to have been buried immediately after he died on the cross. In fact, the only skeleton archaeologists have from a first-century crucifixion victim was found in a tomb, and not a random plot in a criminal's graveyard. Jesus' burial in a tomb is also described in all four Gospels and corroborated in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians.

    The Gospels say Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council that condemned Jesus to death, buried him. If the Gospel writers had invented the story of Jesus being buried in a tomb, they would have given their leader an honorable burial at the hands of his friends and family.

    This means we have good historical evidence that after the Crucifixion Jesus' body was placed in an identifiable tomb and simply didn't vanish in a common graveyard.

The Hallucination Theory

    Most historians agree the disciples thought they saw the risen Jesus. The story of Jesus appearing to them was not a legend that developed centuries later but was recorded by the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 15:3-7). It is almost universally recognized among historians that Paul existed, we have the letters he wrote, and Paul knew the people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus (Gal. 1:18-19). But could those experiences have just been hallucinations brought on by the terrible grief these men endured after Jesus was executed?

    First, it is individuals, not groups, who almost always experience hallucinations. Multiple biblical authors confirm that groups of Jesus' disciples claimed to see him after his death (Luke 24:36-49, 1 Cor. 15:5-6). As psychologist Gary Collins writes, "By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren't something which can be seen by a group of people."

    Second, the theory that Jesus' depressed disciples hallucinated his Resurrection doesn't explain why enemies of the Church came to believe in the Resurrection. The most famous example would be St. Paul, who was a Jewish leader who persecuted the Church until an encounter with the risen Christ moved him to join the "Jewish heresy" he had been persecuting. The best explanation for such a sudden conversion is that Jesus really did appear to Paul, just as he had appeared to his other disciples after his resurrection.

The Empty Tomb

    Soon after a close friend of mine died a few years ago I had an incredibly vivid dream that she was alive. If I had experienced her presence when I was awake, I would have checked her grave and, if it was empty, then I would know I hadn't been hallucinating. This brings us to the simplest argument against the hallucination theory: at any time, the apostles could have visited Jesus' tomb to see if there was a body in it, which would prove that the Jesus they though they saw was just a hallucination.

    We've already seen that it is historically certain Jesus was buried in a locatable tomb. The Gospels tell us that on the Sunday after the Resurrection a group of women discovered the tomb was empty. But why should we believe Jesus' tomb was empty and that the authors of the Gospels didn't make this up? There are actually three reasons, and they can be summarized in the acronym JET.

    First, the disciples preached the empty tomb in the city of Jerusalem. If the tomb were not empty, enemies of the early Church could easily have taken the body out of the tomb and proven Jesus did not rise from the dead.

    Second, the earliest enemies of the Church agreed that Jesus' tomb was empty. Matthew's Gospel says the Jewish leaders of his day (about forty to fifty years after the Crucifixion) believed Jesus' body was stolen from the tomb (Matt. 28:11-15). The second-century Christian writer St. Justin Martyr also says that the Jews of his time believed Jesus' body was stolen. Notice that these critics didn't say that the disciples merely hallucinated-they had to explain why Jesus' tomb was empty.

    Finally, the Gospels include the testimony of women discovering the tomb. In Jesus' time a woman's testimony was considered to be as reliable as that of a child or a criminal. A collection of ancient Jewish wisdom called the Talmud says, "The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women." The Jewish historian Josephus said that a woman's "levity and boldness" made her testimony unreliable. If the Gospel authors had invented the story about Jesus' tomb being found empty, they would have used trustworthy characters like Peter or John. The embarrassing detail about women discovering the empty tomb was included in the story simply because that's what really happened.

How can you believe all this stuff?

    This is the number-one question Catholics get asked-and, sometimes, we ask ourselves. Why do we believe that God exists, that he became a man and came to save us, that what looks like a wafer of bread is actually his body? Why do we believe that he inspired a holy book and founded an infallible Church to teach us the one true way to live?

    Ever since he became Catholic, Trent Horn has spent a lot of time answering these questions, trying to explain to friends, family, and total strangers the reasons for his faith
  • Some didn't believe in God, or even in the existence of truth.
  • Others said they were spiritual but didn't think you needed religion to be happy.
  • Some were Christians who thought Catholic doctrines over-complicated the pure gospel.
  • And some were fellow Catholics who had a hard time understanding everything they professed to believe on Sunday.

Read Why We're Catholic by Trent Horn

See also The Bible Blitzkrieg