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The Case for the Resurrection: Was the tomb empty?

In order to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, we need to confirm that: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus died. 3) Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty. 4) The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus. 5) The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed. This blog series is working through each one of these historical facts and responding to common naturalistic objections.

Jesus was buried

After Jesus was killed by crucifixion he was buried. The burial story is multiply attested in early sources and four even mention the man who buried Jesus.[1] Luke 23:50-52 tells us that “a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God; this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” It is important to note that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, and there were only seventy members in the Sanhedrin. If the disciples were making up Joseph, or claiming he did something that he didn’t do, it would be very easy to falsify their story. Someone would simply have to ask the Sanhedrin for Joseph and ask him what happened. New Testament scholar, J. D. G. Dunn said, “Joseph of Arimathea is a very plausible historical character.”[2] It is very unlikely that the writers of the Gospels made this up, so we are able to reasonably conclude that Jesus was buried in a tomb after his crucifixion.

The tomb was found empty

From what we know about everyday life, once someone dies, they stay dead. Since Jesus died by crucifixion and was buried in the tomb, we would expect that body to remain there unless it was moved. Instead, we have reports of the tomb being found empty. The synoptic Gospels each mention the tomb being found empty. The gospel of John, which is independent from the synoptics, also affirms the empty tomb.

There are four important factors to consider when discussing the empty tomb. The first is that Jesus was killed and buried in Jerusalem. It was also Jerusalem where the disciples began to preach about the empty tomb and the resurrection shortly after. If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, Christianity would have never gotten off the ground. Habermas states that, “His enemies in the Jewish leadership and Roman government would only have had to exhume the corpse and publicly display it for the hoax to be shattered.”[3] It was no secret where Jesus was buried because it was Joseph, one of the Sanhedrin, who buried Jesus. They knew right where his body was and could have easily kept Christianity from getting started by producing a body.

Well, maybe the body wasn’t produced because it was unrecognizable. Would it be worthless to produce a body which couldn’t be confirmed or denied as being Jesus? Habermas responds to this by saying,

First, in the arid climate of Jerusalem, a corpse’s hair, stature, and distinctive wounds would have been identifiable, even after fifty days. Second, regardless of the condition of his body, the enemies of Jesus would still have found benefit in producing the corpse. Even a barely recognizable corpse could have dissuaded some believers, possibly weakening and ultimately toppling the entire movement.[4]

If Jesus’ body was still in the tomb, it would have been easy to take it out and have people identify it. In fact, anything would have been better than nothing. There is no report that the enemies of Jesus ever produced a body.

Matthew tells us that even the enemies of Jesus admitted to the tomb being empty. Matt. 28:12-13 says, “And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’” This lie would have been completely unnecessary if Jesus’ body remained in the tomb. It’s like a student in school lying about his dog eating his homework. If the student has the homework in class then there is no need to lie about it. The fact that the student makes up a lie means he doesn’t have it. The same is true for Jesus’ body. “There would have been no need for an attempt to account for a missing body, if the body had still been in the tomb.”[5] This is very powerful considering it is coming from the enemies of Jesus. The question also needs to be asked, how would the soldiers know it was the disciples who stole the body if they were asleep? Either they saw the disciples and therefore weren’t sleeping, or they were sleeping and would have no idea it was the disciples. Even the lie that was created to cover up the missing tomb doesn’t make sense.

The last important factor in the empty tomb is the fact that it was discovered by women. Mark 16:1 says, “When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.” Why it is important women discovered the empty tomb? “This would be an odd invention, since in both Jewish and Roman cultures, women were lowly esteemed and their testimony was regarded as questionable, certainly not as credible as a man’s.”[6] Licona adds to this and says, “Why fabricate a report of Jesus’ resurrection that already would have been difficult for many to believe and compound that difficulty by adding women as the first witnesses?”[7] It simply doesn’t make sense for the disciples to create a story and have the women discover the empty tomb. The most reasonable explanation is that it is included because it is what really happened.

These points make a very strong case for the empty tomb. Next week I will respond to three different naturalistic explanations. Was the body stolen? Was the body moved? Did the disciples go to the wrong tomb?

[1] Matt. 27:57, Mark 15:43, Luke 23:50, John 19:38, and 1 Cor. 4.

[2] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 782.

[3] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 70.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. 71.

[6] Ibid. 72.

[7] Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus, 350-351.

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The Case for the Resurrection: Did Jesus die on the cross?

In order to make a case for the resurrection of Jesus, we need to confirm that: 1) Jesus was crucified. 2) Jesus died. 3) Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty. 4) The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus. 5) The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed.

After looking at the fact that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, we then need to make sure Jesus died by crucifixion. Michael Licona, a New Testament scholar, gives four reasons why we can know that Jesus died by crucifixion. The first reason Licona gives is that “Jesus’ death by crucifixion is multiply attested by a fair number of ancient sources, Christian and non-Christian alike.”[1] These Christian and non-Christian sources show that many people were talking about Jesus’ death and that gives it historical credibility. Second, the reports are early. “Paul mentions Jesus’ death by crucifixion no later than A.D. 55 (1 Corinthians, Galatians) and said he preached the same to those in Corinth in A.D. 51, or within twenty-one years of Jesus’ crucifixion.”[2] Early sources are great for historians because it allows for less time for the story to be changed. If the sources were written while the eyewitnesses were still alive then they become that much more reliable.

The third evidence Licona states for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is that the “Passion Narratives appear largely credible given their satisfying of the criterion of embarrassment and the plausibility of certain peripheral details.”[3] The Gospels list a few details that would be embarrassing. They mention things like the women finding the tomb first and that the men were hiding in fear. These are things people generally don’t make up and the only reason they would be included is if they are true. The last piece of evidence for Jesus’ death by crucifixion is “the very low probability of surviving crucifixion.” Licona says that, “Even if Jesus had been removed from his cross prematurely and medically assisted, his chances of survival were quite bleak. In addition, no evidence exists that Jesus was removed while alive or that he was provided any medical care whatsoever, much less Rome’s best.”[4] These four reasons leaves Licona concluding that “the historical evidence is very strong that Jesus died by crucifixion.”[5] Even the atheist New Testament scholar, Gerd Ludemann, who rejects the resurrection, agrees on this point. Ludemann wrote, “The fact of Jesus’ death as the consequence of crucifixion is indisputable.”[6]

However, there are some who are not convinced by the evidence that Jesus died by crucifixion. One group that holds to this belief is Ahmadi Muslims. They believe that Jesus survived the crucifixion, recovered from his injuries, and then traveled India where he finally died.[7] This is referred to as the swoon theory. According to Gary Habermas, a New Testament scholar and historian, “such an occurrence seems highly unlikely given the nature of scourging and crucifixion.”[8] The Roman soldiers scourged Jesus before he was put on the cross. The Journal of the American Medical Association did studies on Jesus scourging and crucifixion. Their studies conclude:

Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.[9]

With what we now know from modern science, it has become very difficult to continue belief in the swoon theory. The Roman guards didn’t even break Jesus’ legs when they got to him because they recognized that he was already dead.

One might still claim that it is possible that if the spear didn’t pierce Jesus’ heart then he could have survived. This will be addressed in depth later, but we have to recognize that the disciples were convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead. If Jesus merely survived the crucifixion it is unlikely for the disciples to believe Jesus had conquered death. “Upon seeing a swooned Jesus who was limping, bleeding, pale, and stooped over in pain, Peter would not have responded, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to have a resurrection body just like that!”[10] The sight of a limping, bleeding Jesus would have caused the disciples to panic and search for medical attention, not claim that he had risen. Based on what we know from modern medicine and history, it is very reasonable to conclude that Jesus really did die by Roman crucifixion.

[1] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 304.

[2] Ibid. 305.

[3] Ibid. 306.

[4] Ibid. 311.

[5] Ibid. 312.

[6] Gerd Ludemann, The Resurrection of Jesus (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 1994), 39.

[7] Al Islam, “Jesus: a humble prophet of God,” The Official Website of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, accessed May 16th, 2015, http://www.alislam.org/topics/jesus/

[8] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 100.

[9] William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 255.11, (21 March 1986): 1463

[10] Habermas, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, 103.

The Case for the Resurrection: Was Jesus crucified?

Introduction

In a world with many different views and religions, it can be hard to claim to have the truth. It is popular to claim that all religions are true and that they all lead to God, each one getting to God in a different way. If all religions aren’t true, how can we know which religion is true and which ones are false? A strong case can be made for the truth of Christianity if we can answer one question. Did Jesus rise from the dead? In this series, I will argue that the most reasonable explanation based on the historical evidence is that Jesus rose from the dead.

How does the resurrection of Jesus help us understand what religion is true? The Apostle Paul states, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”[1] According to this verse, the truth of Christianity lives or dies on the truth of the resurrection. If Jesus rose from the dead, then the message we preach is true and it is reasonable to be a Christian. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then we should leave Christianity and be on a search to figure out which religion, if any, is true. So, let’s take a look at five pieces of historical evidence to see if Jesus really did rise from the dead.

  1. Jesus was crucified.
  2. Jesus died by crucifixion.
  3. Jesus was buried and the tomb was found empty.
  4. The disciples began to claim that they had experienced the risen Jesus.
  5. The disciples suffered for their testimony and some of them were killed.

The Crucifixion

Looking at the historical evidence for the crucifixion of Jesus is the first important factor. If Jesus was never crucified then he didn’t rise from the dead three days later. The first places we can look to know if Jesus was crucified are the four Gospels. “That Jesus was executed by crucifixion is recorded in all four Gospels.”[2] This is important because it wasn’t only mentioned by one person. The Gospels are four independent sources stating that Jesus was killed by Roman Crucifixion.

Along with the four Gospels, we have mention of Jesus’ crucifixion by different writers in the first and second century. In A.D. 109, Tacitus, a Roman historian, wrote, “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”[3] The people at that time would have known that the extreme penalty was crucifixion. We should notice here that Tacitus is making reference to the crucifixion of Jesus as a side note. He isn’t writing this in order to prove that Jesus was crucified, but instead mentions it causally.

There is also mention of Jesus’ crucifixion by the Jewish historian, Josephus. He wrote, “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him.”[4] This is important coming from a source outside the Christian community. Josephus would have no reason to make this up. It is because of multiple attestations that John Dominic Crossan, a skeptic wrote, “I take it absolutely for granted that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Security about the fact of the crucifixion derives not only from the unlikelihood that Christians would have invented it but also from the existence of two early and independent non-Christian witnesses to it, a Jewish one from 93-94 C.E. and a Roman one from the 110s or 120s C.E.”[5] The testimony from Josephus and Tacitus, along with the Christian sources, was enough to convince Crossan that the crucifixion of Jesus was a historical fact.

This is the first step in looking at the resurrection of Jesus. We can know that the crucifixion of Jesus was a historical event. Next week we will determine if Jesus actually died by crucifixion or if he was taken off the cross before death.

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:14. ESV

[2] Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregal Publications, 2004), 49.

[3] Tacitus, The Annals, written 109 A.C.E., Book 15: http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.11.xv.html

[4] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, Book 18: http://www.loebclassics.com/view/josephus-jewish_antiquities/1930/pb_LCL433.51.xml?rskey=7CYSLX&result=5&mainRsKey=cEJsHC

[5] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (Joplin, MO: College Press, 1996), 372.

How I Taught the Resurrection to High School Students (Podcast)

You can follow the Coffeehouse Questions Podcast and have it automatically downloaded to your device by subscribing on iTunes.

 

The Case for the Resurrection: How do students respond?

I usually get a very strange look when I tell people that I teach high school theology and apologetics. I normally get something like, “You teach that to high school students?” I firmly believe that all high school students should be exposed to apologetics. In fact, why not start in Jr. high? Students can handle so much more than we often give them. Many Christian students graduating high school still don’t know why Christianity is true. When asked why they are a Christian the most common response is, “Because I grew up in a Christian family.” We shouldn’t be treating them like children anymore. They can handle theology, apologetics, and philosophy, and I think they really want it!

C. S. Lewis said it well in Mere Christianity on page 153.

“Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say ‘the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God’, and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?”

So, in my high school theology class, I decided to take a week and cover the evidence for the resurrection. We spent time looking at the naturalistic and supernatural theories, the historical evidence, and then evaluated the theories based on the evidence. After I got done with the week-long discussion I had my students write a response to how they liked this approach to the resurrection, and as you will see, it wasn’t too much for them to handle and many loved it. Here are just twelve. I could have included so many more.

“I would say its a lot better than how it’s normally explained. It isn’t just like a Sunday school answer anymore. Now it’s actually looking at history . . . I would say now I believe in it more because I actually know evidence and it’s not going off of blind faith.”

“Based on all the evidence . . . it’s hard to say the resurrection didn’t happen.”

“I think this approach to the resurrection gave me a new explanation towards the resurrection. Comparing with the explanation of ‘the Bible says so, so believe it.’ I think this explanation is more reliable, and it is easier for the non-believers to understand the resurrection through this logical explanation. Because even if I am not a Christian but I have common sense, I am able to see what is right and what is not.”

“This lecture on the resurrection really opened my eyes to why the Christian belief of Jesus rising from the grave is the true event.”

“I have never had this kind of approach about the resurrection. It was interesting and gave me more knowledge about Christianity.”

“This approach to the resurrection gives us a chance to be more open-minded and consider why other explanations don’t make sense. I think it really convinced me and it makes a lot of strong conclusions.”

“This approach presents a very sound reasoning to the resurrection using everything we learned the whole year to this conclusion. Although it took some time, I think it is worth it.”

“Very systematic and helpful for why we understand and believe the resurrection.”

“On this approach it sets up a few new paths for thought on the resurrection, as I have always been told to believe it without any reason.”

“I thought that this approach was an excellent way to prove and explain the resurrection, especially for those who don’t believe in God. I have always been a believer in the resurrection, but this approach gives me more of an understanding and evidence that the resurrection is true.”

“I think this approach on the resurrection makes it easier to understand and makes it seem more likely to have happened. It shows how the resurrection is more than just a story.”

“I have never looked at the resurrection in this way. I have only seen this as a theory that Jesus rose from the dead. I though the only objection was that the disciples stole the body; knowing that there are other objections reminds me to always have an answer for the hope and beliefs that I hold.”

When I decided to start a series on the case for the resurrection, I knew it would be important to begin with how my students responded. As you can see, these responses from both Christian and non-Christian students were very positive. If you are a teacher or pastor, I hope their responses will encourage you to take this approach with your students. Starting next week, I will begin posting a step by step look at the historical evidence in order to make a case that Jesus really did rise from the dead.

What I learned from the Cross Examined Instructor Academy Part 1: Cold Case Resurrection

I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend the Cross Examined Instructor Academy in Charlotte, NC. In attendance were some of the greatest instructors including: Frank Turek, Greg Koukl, Brett Kunkle, J. Warner Wallace, Bobby Conway, and Richard Howe. They each gave amazing presentations to the students in attendance an a variety of topics. The next few blogs will focus on important topics that I learned during their presentations.

What did I learn from J. Warner Wallace’s presentation on the Cold Case Resurrection?

As Christians we are often looking for convincing arguments to share with skeptics. The truth of Christianity hinges on the resurrection of Jesus. The importance of the resurrection makes it one of my favorite topics to discuss with skeptics. When discussing the resurrection, we need to focus on the two E’s; evidence and explanatory possibilities. The four main evidential facts that are accepted by many atheists include:

  1. Jesus was crucified and buried.
  2. The tomb was empty and no one ever produced his body.
  3. The disciples believed they saw the risen Jesus.
  4. The disciples were transformed following their alleged resurrection observations.

Now what are some of the explanatory possibilities and how do they relate to the evidence?

1.The disciples were wrong and Jesus didn’t die.

This goes against the first line of evidence that Jesus was crucified. The disciples had extended contact with the body of Jesus after his death and would have known if he was truly dead or still alive. We can also see in the historical documents that blood and water came out of Jesus when they punctured his heart and lung with the spear. Science has now discovered that the blood and water that came out of Jesus was the result of pleural effusion. This is strong evidence that Jesus really was dead and that the disciples weren’t wrong.

2.The disciples were lying.

If the disciples were lying, they would have had to keep a successful conspiracy for over 60 years. The disciples were also spread out around the known world and would not have been able to contact one another to know if the conspiracy was still intact or if one had confessed. J. Warner Wallace showed that the motive behind any lie or crime falls into three categories: financial greed, sexual lust, and the pursuit of power. The disciples didn’t fall into any of these categories, so it was unreasonable for them to create this lie and die for it.

3.The Gospel records were distorted.

Some skeptics claim that the Gospel records were distorted, and that the resurrection of Jesus is a late legend. However, this claim does not follow the evidence. When tracing the dating of the Gospel records, we can see that Mark wrote his gospel around 45-50AD and Luke followed around 50-53AD. These records are not late legends, but were written very close to the time of the resurrection.

4.They disciples were accurate

This is the only explanatory possibility that fits the evidence. Based on abductive reasoning, which seeks to find the simplest and most likely explanation, we can conclude that the disciples were really telling the truth. Jesus was resurrected from the dead.

The four lines of evidence shown above are supported by evidence and accepted by many skeptics. Our job is to look at the different explanatory possibilities and show that the resurrection of Jesus is the most reasonable.

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