The resurrection: What evidence do we need?
Today is Easter Sunday. A time when many Christians around the world celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. For some, it is just a matter of faith: they are completely confident that their Lord was raised, and no evidence is required. For others, this is considered one of the strongest arguments for the truth of Christianity. In fact, some skeptics who have attempted to disprove it came to the conclusion the evidence is too strong, and became outspoken Christian apologists.
A few days ago, I questioned the argument that I considered the weakest: that 500 believers saw the resurrected Christ at one time. It was always my intention to go back and address the entire resurrection claim, and discuss why I don’t consider it compelling.
Earlier this week, a fellow Bible software developer shared an article on the subject: a Christian refutation to another article in the Scientific American. I’m sure I could find plenty of similar Christian articles around, but that is the one that happened to come to me.
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence
The Christian article doesn’t like this phrase. And I actually agree that this phrase can be thrown out too quickly to raise the bar of evidence and ultimately dismiss anything you don’t agree with.
However, it does apply to the resurrection story, and here’s why: Resurrection isn’t just an “extremely improbable” event. It is an event that we have no reason to believe has ever happened before, and an event that we do not know of any viable mechanism to achieve. Yes, it’s easy to say “If there is a God, he can do it”. But even that isn’t true. If your definition of god is some kind of “first cause”, that god may not have either power or inclination to intervene in the universe that it started.
Compare this to the example given of a terrorist attack happening on a specific day at a specific location. Yes, it is an extremely improbable event, but it is not extraordinary. This hypothetical terrorist attack would just be one of many which have happened in the last five, ten, or twenty years.
Now if the terrorist was pronounced dead on the scene, then appeared to lead another attack in a few days, the claim that that terrorist had been resurrected would be an extraordinary claim. Similarly, if the terrorist appeared to be in control of the elements sufficiently that he could just point at a person and the ground would open up and swallow that person, that would be an extraordinary claim. I know my first reaction to these extraordinary claims would be looking for natural explanations: Maybe the terrorist didn’t die. Or maybe witnesses were deceived by someone who looked like him leading the attack. And maybe that other terrorist was using some advanced weapon we are unaware of. Or maybe witnesses just got confused.
As a thought experiment, what evidence would you want to see if you heard claims of a resurrection happening today? Because there are such claims around in Christian circles.
So what evidence might we want?
Some things it would be nice to have:
- Medical reports
- Certified eyewitness testimony
- Confirmation from secular sources (newspaper reports, maybe)
- Details of place and time
- An interview with the resurrected person
Even then we would want to be very careful to establish that the person actually died, otherwise resuscitation seems a much more likely explanation (whether or not those present believed it to be a resurrection). We would also want to know more about the person resurrected and the other witnesses. For example: Do they stand to gain anything from this claim? Do they have beliefs which make it more likely that they would guess resurrection as the cause?
It should be clear that we don’t have this level of evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. And perhaps it’s unreasonable to expect modern evidence in an ancient context. But I’m reminded of my favourite quote from the novel “Cross Examined”:
Paul: You must adjust your demands given how long ago this was. You can’t ask for photographs and diaries when the events happened close to two thousand years ago. It’s not fair.
Jim: Not fair? Suppose you come to me and ask to buy my house. I say that it’s worth three thousand dollars. You say, “I’ll give you five dollars for it.” I say, “No - that’s ridiculous. I must reject your offer.” And then you say, “But that’s not fair - five dollars is all I have.” That would be absurd. But it’s equivalent to the argument “since proving the fantastic claims of the New Testament is quite hard, you’ll have to accept whatever evidence we have.” No, I don’t! And while we’re at it, neither should you.
Many believers have asserted that Jesus’ resurrection is the only way to explain the events recorded in the Bible. Here are a few of the books I have read on the topic, all of them written by former skeptics convinced by the New Testament’s resurrection claim:
- The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus (Lee Strobel)
- The Resurrection Factor: Compelling evidence which proves the resurrection of Jesus Christ beyond reasonable doubt (Josh McDowell)
- Who moved the stone? (Frank Morison)
Usually, these arguments start by implicitly assuming that the records of the four gospels, Acts, and 1 Corinthians 15 are 100% reliable historical fact. What’s more, it is claimed that these records are actually eye-witness testimony. As a result, they would be admissable in a court of law, and any possible contradictions must be dealt with through legal arguments.
More sophisticated arguments, like Gary Habermas’ “minimal fact” argument, try to establish that there is some minimal core of facts which are attested by enough of the sources that everyone must agree they are historical fact (this is the argument cited in the Christian article I linked).
Once those facts have been established, or the reader has been hoodwinked into accepting the entire text at face value, it will be asserted that the resurrection explains all the facts presented. Then a few naturalistic explanations will be presented, and it will be demonstrated that they don’t explain all the facts. Since the resurrection is the last theory standing, we are compelled to believe that, extraordinary or not, it is historical fact.
Cue altar call.
As I discussed the other day, the argument is an example of the Sherlock Holmes method:
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.
The problem with this is that I don’t think we have sufficient evidence to eliminate all naturalistic alternatives. And if we can’t eliminate them all, I think naturalistic explanations are much more likely than a supernatural explanation. I know the Christian article I linked thought this was a bad argument, but it still seems reasonable to me. And I suspect it would be the approach of many Christians to modern-day resurrection claims or to my hypothetical extraordinary terrorist attacks.
But it’s not just that I can’t eliminate all naturalistic arguments. I think there is a good naturalistic argument to consider: We can see signs that the story of the resurrection recorded in the gospels changed and grew over time. If so, why does it need to have a historical core? So if you don’t like purely negative arguments, skip the next section.
What we don’t know
Arguments about what would be upheld in a court of law sound impressive.
Take for example Lee Strobel:
I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof!
But what those arguments gloss over is how much we don’t know. For example, we don’t know:
- Who wrote the gospels
- When they were written
- What sources they used
- What motives they had
- Who the intended audience were
- Who copied the gospels
- How accurate the copies were
Yes, some of these things have later traditions around them. And a lot of research has been done to try and answer the other questions, particularly in the area of textual criticism. (I’ll just note that textual criticism tends to be dismissed out of hand by Christians if it doesn’t affirm that the gospels are 100% history).
In particular, the idea that the gospels are based on eyewitness testimony isn’t as clear-cut as most apologists suggest. Luke claims to have consulted eyewitnesses, and the Appendix to John claims to have been written by an eyewitness. Matthew and Mark make no claim to be an eyewitness record. None of the gospels make a claim to authorship, though later traditions suggest disciples either wrote or were involved in the writing of Matthew, Mark, and John.
To practicalities: Certainly things like the visit of women to the tomb were not directly observed by the authors. Maybe one of the women told the author directly. Or maybe the story had gone through ten people and been embellished before it got to a gospel author. How would we know? In any case, from a strictly legal perspective this would be hearsay rather than eyewitness testimony.
Dating could be important here, but we don’t know the date any of these gospels were written. However, many of the dates suggested are late enough to make it less likely that the authors were eyewitnesses, and also less likely that the authors would have a large pool of eyewitnesses to interview. Maybe they relied on earlier written records. Or maybe they didn’t. Who knows?
Motive also matters: Were the authors trying to create an accurate history? Or were they trying to produce a defence of their faith? That’s why ideally we would want independent witnesses close to the time, with no motive to invent or embellish facts. Also consider that other biographies of the time included supernatural events: should we take those supernatural events to be true? Or is there something special about the Christian records?
The reason why these things really matter is because a lot of the common arguments for the resurrection follow the form “The only reason the disciples would do X is if Y happened”. And those arguments rely on the entire record from Matthew to Acts being historical.
For example, the criterion of embarrassment: the disciples would only write about embarrassing events like abandoning Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and leaving women to visit the tomb if they actually happened. But since we don’t know who wrote the gospels and what motives they had, we can’t know whether they would be embarrassed by these events. There could be a good reason we don’t know about for including those stories.
Another argument is that only the resurrection would cause people to change so quickly, and make them die for their faith. Well, the sudden change is in the story of Acts. But did it really happen that way? We don’t know, but it doesn’t quite match up with the other gospel records. And even if it did, what makes that a unique event? In more recent times, Christians have overcome disappointment at extravagant predictions and continued to follow Christ. And Christians and non-Christians alike have died for their faith. We just don’t have the documentation of what might have caused this change in the first century, and we certainly don’t have a neutral record of the events and their motivations.
But whether or not the stories are true, this I can say for sure: They didn’t become any more true by virtue of being written down. And they didn’t become any more true by being popular and being copied and lasting 2,000 years. But each of those steps have robbed us of context, and offered the potential for removing disconfirming evidence and introducing errors. We are fairly certain of a few interpolations and a few copying errors. But how would we know if there were more? We don’t know that the text we have today is exactly what was originally written, and we don’t know that the original text was a 100% historically accurate reflection of events that happened many years before.
Can we really say that the resurrection is the only explanation for this hearsay evidence? I can’t.
A story that grew over time
When I was Christian, I thought the skeptical case was just a negative case. The arguments about the reliability of the scriptural record were just skeptics trying to wiggle out of an overwhelming case by discrediting a few witnesses. They were biased against the supernatural, and they were biased against God.
What I have come to realise is that there is a positive case to be made that we see a legend which developed over time. As I argued above, we don’t know who wrote the records or when they were written. But what we can conclude is that different records were written at different times and for different audiences, and they don’t fit together well. We’re not just talking minor discrepancies here. We’re talking about completely different narratives with different directions and purposes.
I’ll get to John later, but for now just consider the Synoptics: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These are the gospels that are supposed to be similar to each other.
Mark is usually considered the first one written. And textual evidence suggests that the “long” ending, verses 9 - 20, were not in the original gospel. This means that the disciples were told to go back to Galilee to meet Jesus, but the original did not include any appearances of the resurrected Christ.
(since the long ending seems to match stories in Luke of appearances of Jesus in or near Jerusalem, it is also inconsistent with this command to go to Galilee).
Matthew also tells the disciples to go to Galilee. The women meet Jesus near the tomb, but the only other appearance of Jesus in the gospel is on a mountain in Galilee, where he gives the Great Commission. Interestingly enough, Matthew records that some doubted. Why is this? If the risen Christ was so obvious a sign, why didn’t everyone get it? And why is it a problem that I doubt due to the minimal evidence when people supposedly seeing the risen Christ also doubted?
Luke changes the angelic message to something Jesus said in Galilee. Jesus has multiple appearances in or near Jerusalem before he goes up into heaven, and Jesus commands the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. The author repeats this commandment in Acts, and demonstrates that the message started in Jerusalem and spread out from there. No sign of appearances in Galilee, or of the disciples even going near Galilee.
So, which is it to be? Did the disciples return to Galilee and start their new religion there, away from the critical observation of the authorities? Or did they stay in Jerusalem and build a movement there? Were there even any appearances of the resurrected Christ, or were those later additions as the story grew?
Those who think 1 Corinthians 15 is the earliest record of the resurrection will doubtless say that it includes appearances of Christ. And, yes, maybe it does. But, as I’ve already said, I think the claim of 500 witnesses is inconsistent with the gospel records and sounds far-fetched. Once you doubt that, how many of the other appearances in the list can you trust? We don’t even know where the list comes from. But, given Paul’s vision counts as an appearance, how do we know the other appearances listed are not also visions? Wasn’t Paul talking about a spiritual body, and about a life-giving spirit? How does that match with the idea of a physical body and physical appearances of Christ?
Finally, let’s look at John: Chapter 20 has all of Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem. It also provides a blessing for those who believe without seeing: hardly an encouragement of the search for evidence the apologists are promoting. And after this, the book appears to close.
Chapter 21 is the chapter which I call the Appendix to John: It is a completely independent appearance story, set not in Jerusalem but in Galilee. Given how independent it is, we don’t know whether it was originally written at the same time as the rest of the book. Maybe it was written later? Or maybe it came from an earlier text, back in the days of Matthew when appearances occurred in Galilee? It would be easy to add verses 1 and 24 - 25 to an earlier text to link it in to the gospel.
There are many other possible contradictions between the different gospel records: Some major, some minor. You can see a table comparing the different gospels here. Can you reconcile them? Sure you can, if you want to have disciples bouncing back and forth between Jerusalem and Galilee. But I just don’t think it’s credible to do so.
I don’t think we have enough evidence to apply the Sherlock Holmes method and demonstrate the resurrection of Christ. Even the “minimal fact” argument relies on far too many assumptions about the historicity of the text and the motives of those involved in the story (more from Bob Seidensticker here).
But this isn’t just a negative argument. Once we look at each gospel individually, we can see that they aren’t just different aspects of a unified story. There are completely different stories being told here, particularly around whether Jesus’ appearances should be expected in Galilee or Jerusalem. And as the number of appearances goes up from Mark’s zero, it suggests that the stories of the resurrected Christ were growing over time. And if they aren’t part of the original historical record, they probably didn’t happen.