The Resurrection of Jesus: A History of Interpretation

The resurrection of Jesus has traditionally been a central claim of Christianity. The New Testament documents report that his disciples found his tomb empty, that he appeared to them on numerous occasions, and that his resurrection was a major theme of their message. Paul writes that the resurrected Jesus appeared to him, and that Jesus’ resurrection is an essential doctrine. "If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain."1

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But some people do not accept this claim. Even some who call themselves Christians do not believe that Jesus was resurrected in any physical way – they may believe, for example, that Jesus’ body continued to decompose and he lived in the sense that his disciples continued his work. These denials or reinterpretations are based on the practically universal observation that dead people stay dead. Billions of deaths have shown that death is the end of life, and the odds of a resurrection are therefore smaller than 1 billion to one. It is consequently irrational to believe that Jesus is an exception to the rule, they say. Although nonmiraculous explanations may seem implausible, they are preferred over the billion-to-one idea of resurrection.

Did Jesus rise from the dead? This paper examines the arguments that have been given against the resurrection, and the responses of apologists to the objections. The arguments are often at the philosophical level rather than the exegetical, but they affect biblical interpretation because they challenge the accuracy and authority of the text, and the interpretive method Christians use on the text. If the texts report as fact something that didn’t actually happen, and report a central belief that is misguided or totally erroneous, then it is doubtful that we should view the texts even as helpful guides to religious truth. Since the resurrection of Jesus is a central truth-claim of orthodox Christianity, any questions about its validity automatically call into question the validity of the Christian faith itself, and call for apologetic responses dealing with the philosophical worldview behind the objections.

First century

Disbelief is not a modern phenomenon. The New Testament reports the disciples did not at first believe. "When they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it."2 The women "told all this to the eleven and to all the rest...but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them."3 The disciples were not gullible fools. Although they believed the OT scriptures that spoke of miraculous resuscitations and had reportedly seen Jesus bring other people back to life, they also knew that dead people stay dead; they did not expect Jesus to come back to life.4 Even after he had appeared to them, their belief was mixed with doubt: "When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted."5 If the first-century readers did not believe in the permanence of death, the resurrection of Jesus would have had little persuasive power. The disciples and the readers realized that they were making an extraordinary claim, a claim that Jesus was an exception to all previous experience.

Although thousands of Jews came to believe in Jesus as a crucified and resurrected Messiah, most Jews apparently did not believe. Some were offended by his teachings, others by his crucifixion, but no doubt the implausibility of a resurrection scandalized them as well. The resurrection of one person (as opposed to a general resurrection at the end of the age) was not part of their religious beliefs, and they could not accept such an idea even though dozens of people claimed to have seen proof. The religious climate of first-century Judea was just as hostile to Christian faith as the secular world is today.

Greek philosophers would have scoffed at the idea of a resurrection.6 Even within Christianity, resurrection was not an easy idea to accept. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians shows that some Corinthian believers doubted the need for a resurrection, and Paul points out that this implied that Jesus was not truly resurrected.7 Some Corinthian Christians were apparently too "spiritual" to believe that the human body had any enduring value. Although Paul does not report what they thought about the resurrection of Jesus specifically, it is likely that they viewed it as completely noncorporeal, as a spirit being leaving the body behind in the dust. But Paul’s view of resurrection involved a body – a dramatically changed body, but a body nonetheless – "it is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body."8 A noncorporeal resurrection has the advantage of being unfalsifiable, in making no claims about the physical world that are contradicted by our experience, but Christianity makes claims about Jesus’ bodily resurrection that flatly contradict our experience that dead people remain dead.

How did people respond to the claims that the disciples were making? The initial reaction for almost everyone was probably "That’s preposterous." A more serious response is reported in Matthew 28:11-15:

While they [the disciples] were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, "You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble." So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.

Many critics believe that this passage was invented by Matthew, but the story is too complex to be a purely Matthean invention. It betrays several levels in the argument. It reports not just a distant memory, but a fact verifiable at the time of final editing: unbelieving Jews were claiming that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while the guard slept. Matthew probably included this passage in his Gospel to respond to such a claim, and he probably considered it as the claim most worth refuting. The unbelieving Jews apparently agreed that Jesus’ tomb was empty; they made no allegations that Jesus was buried elsewhere, or that the disciples went to the wrong tomb.9 To reconstruct the argument:

  1. First, the disciples say that the tomb is empty.

  2. The unbelieving Jews then say, that’s because the disciples stole the body.

  3. The believers then say, We couldn’t have, because there was a guard.

  4. The unbelievers say (rather than denying the existence of a guard), the disciples stole the body while the guard was asleep.

  5. Finally, Matthew explains that the guard was bribed to say that.10

The argument presupposes that in Matthew’s day, the unbelieving Jews talked of a guard at the tomb. It was the first of many attempts not just merely to deny the resurrection, but to explain the evidence in a different way.

The early church

The early Christian apologists defended the validity of an end-of-age resurrection of the body, without dealing with the resurrection of Jesus. As it may have been in Corinth, the end-of-age resurrection was apparently the focus of objections; the resurrection of Jesus was considered a minor anomaly compared to the scandal of eternal bodies. Craig writes,

It is noteworthy how rarely the resurrection of Jesus himself is mentioned. It seems odd, for example, that Irenaeus should say that the clearest proof that the resurrection concerns one’s identical earthly body is the resurrection of those raised by Jesus [who were resuscitated and remained mortal], rather than Jesus’s own resurrection.... It was not until Celsus unleashed his attack specifically on Jesus’s resurrection that a defense of that event was called forth.11

Some of Celsus’s objections were easily refuted; others were used again by later critics – notably the idea that the disciples simply had visions or hallucinations of Jesus out of wishful thinking.12 Origen admits that this possibility "seems to have a considerable degree of force" but he says it is "unconvincing, since the visions occurred in broad daylight and the persons involved were neither mentally unbalanced nor delirious."13

Celsus also claimed that a discrepancy in the Gospel accounts discredited their reliability. Origen offered a simple harmonization, but as Craig notes, "In drawing attention to the discrepancies in the resurrection narratives, Celsus has grasped the end of a thread that would eventually threaten to unravel the whole fabric of the accounts."14 The discrepancy that Celsus noted was only the tip of an iceberg, and better answers would have to await more thorough critiques. Just as Celsus initiated some arguments that would be seen time and again by critics, Origen offered a response that would be a staple of later apologetics works: the fact that the disciples risked their lives for their teaching shows that they did not invent it.

And if any one imagines these statements to be inventions of the writers of the Gospels, why should not those statements [of unbelievers] rather be regarded as inventions which proceeded from a spirit of hatred and hostility against Jesus and the Christians? and these the truth, which proceed from those who manifest the sincerity of their feelings towards Jesus, by enduring everything, whatever it may be, for the sake of His words? For the reception by the disciples of such power of endurance and resolution continued even to death, with a disposition of mind that would not invent regarding their Teacher what was not true, is a very evident proof to all candid judges that they were fully persuaded of the truth of what they wrote, seeing they submitted to trials so numerous and so severe, for the sake of Him whom they believed to be the Son of God.15

Eusebius gave a more thorough response to the conspiracy theory. How could anyone so vigorously promote Jesus’ teachings about honesty while perpetrating a fraud? "How could so many – that is, the twelve apostles plus the 70 disciples – agree together to lie?... Why would they die for him when he was dead, after they had deserted him when he was alive?"16 Eusebius also notes that the disciples write about themselves in unflattering terms, and if they were just making things up, they would not have recorded either their own or Jesus’ weaknesses.17 Eusebius, a historian, also anticipated later apologetics by noting that the quality of historical evidence in the Gospels is as good as that for secular history. "If we distrust these men, then we must distrust all writers who have compiled lives and histories and records of men."18

But Eusebius was the end of an era: "the last great champion of the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus until the dawning of the Renaissance."19 Craig attributes this to the passage of time: "As the events connected with the origin of Christianity receded further and further into the past, arguments from miracles and the resurrection rested necessarily more and more upon faith in the accuracy of the biblical documents."20 He also notes "the dearth of historiography" in the Middle Ages. Not even the scholars seemed to know how to evaluate historical claims, as shown by the naive acceptance of the Donation of Constantine. In this age, it seems, truth was established more by authority than by argument.


Argument was not totally abandoned, however. Aquinas advanced the argument that the existence of the church itself showed that it had a miraculous beginning21 – an argument still used despite its weaknesses.22 The biggest apologetic need of the Middle Ages was vis-a-vis Islam, and in this Jesus’ resurrection was not a central issue. Nor was it an issue in the Reformation itself, although the Reformation challenged the validity of authority and tradition and thus sowed the seeds of skepticism. Craig notes that the Spanish Catholic Juan Luis Vives in 1543 argued that the disciples were neither deceived nor deceivers – "a rudimentary form of the dilemma developed by subsequent apologists..... Vives’s arguments are primitive...but they are among the first glimmerings of a historical approach to the credibility of Scripture."23 Vives did not just cite authorities – he reasoned about the quality of the evidence, which suggests that some people had doubts about it.

Similarly, the Huguenot Philippe de Mornay in 1581 argued, as Eusebius had, that the disciples’ willingness to report weakness is testimony to their credibility.24 Hugo Grotius in 1627 argued that many people had seen Jesus, and "it would have been impossible for so many to conspire together to perpetrate such a hoax."25 In 1662, Pascal ridiculed the idea of a conspiracy.26 The heterodox Racovian Catechism (1680) noted that the disciples were willing to suffer and die for their belief.27

Jacques Abbadie in 1684 argued that the transformation of the disciples from fearful to fearless is evidence of a miracle – "no one dies for a fiction which they have invented."28 Abaddie argues that if the disciples were writing fiction, they would have made themselves look better, and he argues that there was a guard at the tomb (indirect evidence that some were challenging it as fictitious) because Matthew reports it as an already public rumor.29 In some good backwards reasoning, he reasons "the widespread story that the disciples stole the body while the guards slept can not be accounted for if in point of fact the guard had never been set."30


The biggest apologetic challenge came from the Deists, who denied the existence of all miracles. Deism began in early 16th century France but because of rigid censorship laws it did not initially make much of an impact there.31 In England, Lord Herbert of Cherbury published a Deist treatise in 1624, and Charles Blount published three in 1679-1680 during a temporary lapse in censorship laws. Deist thought was supported by several currents: Spinoza’s skepticism (1670), Locke’s rationalism (c. 1689),32 and Richard Simon’s and Jean Le Clerc’s biblical criticism (1678).33

When censorship was permanently removed, John Toland published Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) and many others followed in the early 1700s: Anthony Collin’s Discourse of the Grounds and Reasons of the Christian Religion (1724), Thomas Woolston’s Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Saviour(1727-1730), Mathew Tindal’s Christianity as Old as the Creation (1730), Thomas Chubb’s A Discourse Concerning Reason (1731), Thomas Morgan’s The Moral Philosopher (1738-1740), and Peter Annet’s The Resurrection of Jesus Considered (1744).34 Notable responses to the Deist challenges came from Bishop Thomas Sherlock, The Trial of the Witnesses of the Resurrection (1729), and Richard Bentley, Remarks Upon a Late Discourse of Free-Thinking(1737).35

Part of the Deist argument was that miracles are simply impossible: An omniscient, omnipotent God would have created a world that he did not need to intervene in.36 Spinoza had argued against the possibility of miracles,37 and in 1748 Hume argued against the possibility of identifying any.38 The witnesses are more likely to be wrong, no matter how many, than that a real miracle has taken place.39

Woolston in particular argued against the resurrection of Jesus, calling it a monstrous fraud. In a flight of fiction, he postulated that the Pharisees and disciples had agreed to watch the tomb to see if Jesus’ predictions of his own resurrection would come true. But the disciples then stole the body, perhaps by bribing the guard or getting them drunk. Though this may be unlikely, it is to be preferred over the impossibility of a resurrection. "Because the resurrection violates the course of Nature, no human testimony could possibly establish it, since it has the whole witness of Nature against it."40 But weren’t the disciples willing to put their lives on the line? Woolston replies, "Many other criminals and cheats have gone to their death proclaiming their innocence."41 Sherlock replied with a mock "trial" of the witnesses, and Craig notes that Sherlock was able to assume that the witnesses were innocent unless proven guilty, that is, that the resurrection happened unless proven wrong.42 Sherlock notes that Woolston has no evidence for his theory, that neither Jesus nor his disciples were the type of people to perpetrate fraud.

Sherlock urges several considerations against it: (1) since the guards were supposedly asleep they could not testify as to what actually happened, (2) it would be impossible to break into the tomb and steal the body without disturbing the guard, and (3) it was contrary to the disciples’ weak character to invent and execute such a scheme.43

Sherlock’s response was popular, but it seems inadequate. 1) Even if the guards were asleep, it would have been reasonable for them to infer that the body was stolen by the people who had the most to gain from it, the disciples. 2) Sherlock’s second point totally ignores Woolston’s theory of bribe or drunkenness. 3) His third point seems to assume something that is actually in question. 

Sherlock does better when he discusses the claim that Jesus should have appeared to more people. Sherlock replies 1) Jesus had already told his enemies that they would not see him again, 2) We cannot require Jesus to appear to all the people we want him to, 3) The resurrection appearances were primarily to teach and prepare his disciples for their mission.44 He reasserts that disciples’ willingness to die is evidence that what they said was true.45 Here again Sherlock’s argument appears to be an inadequate response to Woolston’s claim.

Peter Annet responded to Sherlock’s book in 1744. He abandoned Woolston’s theory, claiming that Jesus did not really predict his own resurrection – citing as evidence that the women came to anoint a dead body, not to see a resurrection. "Annet gives more careful attention to the biblical records than did either Woolston or Sherlock. In doing so, he notes a host of discrepancies in the Gospel accounts."46 He said that Matthew invented the guard story: "Surely the Jewish leaders could have invented a better excuse than that the guard fell asleep! And had the guard actually been so terrified as to become as dead men, could a bribe really have shut them up from telling what actually happened?"47 Annet makes no attempt to explain how or if the tomb was empty.48

Annet was quickly answered by Charles Moss, The Evidence of the Resurrection Cleared (1744), and Annet responded with another tract in 1745. Sherlock then revised Moss’s work as The Sequel of the Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection (1749).49 Moss argued that some of Jesus’ predictions were made in public, and it was possible for the Jewish leaders to suspect a resurrection while the disciples did not. He defends the guard story as verifiable, and within the range of behavior of Jewish leaders and guards.50


Meanwhile, various Deist works and responses were translated into French and German.51 Voltaire (who lived in England in 1726-29), Rousseau and others added their powerful pens to argue that reason must prevail. Voltaire attributed "the doctrines of Christianity to the encrustations with which the church overlaid the simple teachings of Jesus, who, he said, never preached a single dogma of Christianity."52 Rousseau wrote that he would not believe in a miracle even if the witnesses numbered a thousand.53 Diderot wrote that he would not believe in a resurrection even if everyone in Paris were to say that they saw it themselves.54 It is simply more reasonable to believe that all the witnesses are mistaken than to believe in a miracle.55 Monod describes the attitude:

Facts can prove nothing contrary to reasoning. Were they established one hundred times more than they are, we would not believe them [miracles] because they are impossible a priori. If I should see a miracle, I should sooner deem myself mad than allow it.56

"Given the a priori impossibility of miracles, Craig concludes, the evidentialist argument for Christianity could not even get off the ground."57 Responses included Abbé Claude François Houteville, La religion chrétienne prouvée par les faits (1740), Jean Alphonse Turretin and Jacob Vernet,Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne (10 vols., 1730-88), and Sylvestre Bergier, Le Déism réfuté par lui-même (1765) and Traité historique et dogmatique de la vraie religion (1780).58 Although some argued for the philosophical possibility of miracles, their arguments were not well received, perhaps because Voltaire and Rousseau were better writers, and perhaps because the church in France had alienated too many thinkers.

Vernet shows the extent of the historical argumentation that had developed by then. He gave these points for the reliability of the Gospels for historical research:

(1) The style of writing in these books is simple.... (2) Since the book of Acts was written before the death of Paul, the gospel of Luke must have been composed still earlier. (3) The gospels evince an intimate knowledge of Jerusalem before its destruction.... (4) The gospels are full of references to proper names, dates, cultural details, historical events, and opinions and customs of the time. (5) The stories of Jesus’ weaknesses and the faults of the disciples are earmarks of authenticity (6) It would have been impossible for forgers to put together so consistent a narrative as that which we find in the gospels. (7) The gospels do not try to suppress apparent discrepancies, which bespeaks their originality. (8) There is no attempt at harmonization between the gospels; each produces his own order of events. (9) The style of writing is proper to what we know of the peculiar personality of each author. (10)...The Hebraic and Syriac idioms that mark the gospels are appropriate to their received authors.59

Some of these points are weak; others evidence a sophisticated use of historical reasoning. Vernet reasoned that the disciples had a need to write their doctrines, because of the geographic spread that they worked in, and that many eyewitnesses would be available at the time of writing to testify whether they came from their alleged authors. The external evidence on the authorship is consistent.60 If the Bible is evaluated by the standards used for other writings accepted by historians, it comes across as better than most.61


English Deist writings and the responses thereto were translated into German, but the Germans were not too impressed with the responses, for the responses were based on rationalism, which was rejected by orthodox theologians.62 Deism received a boost in Prussia by the presence of Diderot, Voltaire, and other French free-thinkers.63 Johann Christian Edelmann added indigenous support in 1740, amplified by Reimarus (1754) and Lessing, who published fragments of Reimarus’s Apologie beginning in 1774.

Reimarus, like the Deists, wrote in 1754 "that miracles contradict the order of creation and that therefore it is impossible for a rational man to believe in them."64 In the Fragments, he emphasized the contradictions in the Gospel accounts, and concluded that the disciples had turned the simple Jewish piety of Jesus into "a new religion by means of deception and fraud."65 The disciples were disappointed that the kingdom did not immediately appear, so they stole the body and made everything up in the hope of financial gain. Reimarus rejected the story of the guard, saying that Jesus "rose" sooner than predicted, the disciples seemed to be unaware of any predictions, that the chief priests would not have all gone to Pilate on Passover, or that they could all conspire to a falsehood.66 He discredited the disciples’ testimony by pointing out numerous discrepancies and contradictions in the accounts.67 Last, Reimarus scoffed at the proof from prophecy, which had been a traditional apologetic approach in the Middle Ages, as involving strained interpretations.68 Baird says, "In all of this, Reimarus sounds like a noisy echo of the English deists. However, there is a distinctive difference: Reimarus did not simply ridicule the supernatural details; he incorporated the elements of criticism into a system that is a total reconstruction of the history of early Christianity."69 Craig notes another point of originality: "his portrayal of Jesus as a political Messiah figure whom the disciples later exalted to the status of a spiritual ruler."70

Lessing himself was less caustic, but he still argued that "revelation gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own" – a rationalistic, Deistic position – and that truths of faith are not dependent on the truths of history – a potentially fideistic approach. For Lessing, faith depended on reason, with minimal reference to the verifiable world. He published Reimarus’s Apologie as the Fragments because it supported his view that religious truths cannot rest on historical evidence.71

Reimarus was answered by Weigmann (1778), Ress (1779), Michaelis (1782), Flessing (1786), and Herder (1794), but most notably by Johann Semler (1779).72 Semler disagreed with the Fragments "on the two fundamental issues: (1) the intention of Jesus, arguing that he did not simply appropriate the Jewish expectation of an earthly Messiah; and (2) the intention of the disciples, arguing that they did not commit intentional fraud."73 Semler considered the historical context, and asked, "If Jesus had taught nothing but Judaism...why was he attacked by the Jews?"74 And he considers it implausible that the disciples "could have changed Jesus’ whole system of doctrine in a few days."75 Semler agrees with earlier apologists when he concludes that

The charge that the early Christians committed fraud in order to attain earthly power and glory is refuted by their willingness to endure persecution for their faith. All the available historical evidence shows that the disciples truly believed the message they proclaimed.76

He agreed that the Gospel details cannot be harmonized, but stated that faith was immune from historical data.77 One does not believe in Jesus because of his resurrection, but the resurrection should be believed because Jesus taught it!78 Further, he agreed that prophecy does not prove the resurrection. He admitted two of Reimarus’s major points but denied that they proved anything.79 Reimarus wrote as a Deist, but by the time hisFragments were published, the intellectual currents had moved on. Faith had been separated from history.

Nevertheless, historical data do exist and can be investigated. It seems that everyone in this age accepts the tomb being empty. Although apologists may mention the possibility of the disciples being deceived, they do this briefly – it does not appear that anyone has suggested a plausible way for the disciples to be so deceived.80 The hoax theory was still dominant among critics, and the disciples’ willingness to die was the favorite answer. They had neither motive nor the means of carrying out a conspiracy. Craig summarized a point made by Less: "Were the gospel authors inventing stories, they would never have made them of such a nature that their truth could be so easily investigated and confirmed or disconfirmed."81 Ditton ridicules the hoax theory by summarizing what a Deist would have to believe:

(a) that twelve poor fishermen were able to change the world through a plot laid so deep that no one has ever been able to discern where the cheat lay, (b) that these men divested themselves of the pursuit of happiness and ventured into poverty, torments, and persecutions all for nothing, (c) that dispirited men should suddenly grow so resolute as to force the sepulchre and steal the body, (d) that in the theft they should take the time to nicely fold the grave clothes prior to departure, and (e) that these imposters should furnish the world with the greatest system of morality that ever was.82

After Deism

In 1776, Edward Gibbon, in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, provided an indirect challenge to the resurrection by providing a naturalistic explanation for the growth of Christianity. He did not deny a supernatural cause, but offered "secondary" causes: Jewish zeal, the hope of heaven and threat of hell, miracles throughout church history, strict morality, and church authority.83 The mention of miracles was a two-edged sword, however, since many of Gibbon’s contemporaries denied the veracity of miracles reported by Eusebius and others. By putting biblical miracles on an equal level with later reports, Gibbon invited questions about the historicity of the biblical miracles as well. These "secondary" causes were sufficient, however: "Given these five factors along with the decline in zeal for paganism, the success of Christianity was all but inevitable; in fact almost any superstition that had come along would have displaced the decayed paganism of that era."84

Since Gibbon claimed to believe in the divine origin of the church and his attack was indirect, it was not until 1794 that an adequate defense was published: William Paley, A View of the Evidences of Christianity. Paley responded not just to Gibbon, but also to Hume and all the skeptics before him, and gave an admirable defense of the resurrection. If God exists, he argued, it is to be expected that he would reveal himself to humans, and this would involve some sort of miracle.85

Paley noted evidence for the early date and authenticity of the Gospels: 1) They are cited as authoritative even by early authors, 2) They were collected into a volume at an early date, 3) They were publicly read as authoritative, 4) Harmonies and commentaries were written on them, 5) Even Celsus and heretical groups accepted them, 6) The apocryphal books were never treated like the canonical Gospels.86 He also argues that, since the disciples believed that Jesus was the Messiah, they must have believed that there was something miraculous about him, and "that the original story should be lost and another replace it goes beyond any known example of corruption of even oral tradition, not to speak of the experience of written transmission."87

Paley dealt at some length with the theory that the disciples simply had visions or hallucinations of Jesus: 1) Many people saw him at the same time, on several occasions. 2) They talked with him, ate with him, and touched him. 3) Most importantly, no one ever produced the body. Craig notes on this last point,

Thus, the hypothesis of religious enthusiasm, in failing to explain the absence of Jesus’s body, ultimately collapses back into the hypothesis of fraud, which, Paley remarks, has been pretty much given up in view of the obvious sincerity of the apostles, as well as their character and the dangers they underwent.88

Paley even used a historical argument to support the sufferings of the apostles: "Jesus’s predictions in the gospels of sufferings for his followers were either real predictions come true or were put into his mouth because persecution had in fact come about."89 Paley no doubt believed in the first alternative, but offered the second as he explored the alternatives as a historian might. He summarized the significance:

Would men in such circumstances pretend to have seen what they never saw; assert facts which they had no knowledge of; go about lying to teach virtue; and, though not only convinced of Christ’s being an imposter, but having seen the success of his imposture in his crucifixion, yet persist in carrying on; and so persist, as to bring upon themselves, for nothing, and with full knowledge of the consequences, enmity and hatred, danger and death?90

Paley was the end of an era. Craig says, "During the nineteenth century this evidentialist approach dramatically recedes and almost disappears.... It is difficult to find a significant and influential nineteenth century figure arguing for the truth of the Christian religion on the grounds of the historical evidence for the resurrection."91 Perhaps Paley had provided a thorough enough answer for the time, perhaps there was a diminished interest in historical arguments as Romanticism thrived. Theologians became less interested in history as faith was assumed to be totally separate from historical facts. "I know he lives," they might say, "because he lives in me." It was an experiential claim, a subjective claim.92

German Rationalists

By the end of the 18th century, Craig writes, "the theft hypothesis, so dear to Deism, had apparently pretty much lost conviction, and a new explanation was needed. This German rationalism found in the apparent death (Scheintod) theory." Karl Bahrdt published the fanciful theory that Jesus was part of a secret group of Essenes, and with the help of Luke and drugs, faked his own death. After being resuscitated, he lived among the Essenes.93 Heinrich Paulus, the king of naturalistic interpretations, nevertheless believed in inexplicable resuscitation. He gave five lines of evidence to argue that Jesus lived again:

(1) The radical change in the disciples in the 50 day period following Jesus’ death implies the resurrection. (2) The change in the opponents of Christianity also points to the resurrection. During his lifetime Jesus was opposed by the Pharisees, but after his death, the Sadducees became the chief enemies of Christianity.... (3) The appearances of Jesus were entirely contrary to the expectation of the disciples, so that they cannot be attributed to the disciples’ fantasy. (4) There were many and varying witnesses and circumstances for the appearances. (5) Mere apparitions do not have continuity in space and time as did the resurrection appearances.94

From this evidence, Paulus believed that the disciples believed that God had raised Jesus. Paulus himself opted for a temporary coma and unexplained revivification with the same mortal body. "Jesus himself was quite amazed to be alive; hence, his exclamation of surprise, ‘I am not yet ascended to the Father!"’95 Paulus viewed the guard story as a Jewish invention, which Matthew unwittingly reported as a fact.96 Schleiermacher’s view on the resurrection is not clear. He spoke of a "spiritual" death, explicitly rejected the "apparent death" theory, claimed that Jesus returned to a truly human life.97 This fits into the German trend of separating spiritual truth from physical truth.


The naturalistic explanations of the rationalists were more contrived and less plausible than the harmonizations of the orthodox. Neither the hallucination theory nor the hoax theory seemed historically credible. But how could be facts be explained without recourse to miracles?98 How could sincere men risk their lives to teach something that could not possibly be true? In 1835, David Strauss offered a way out of the dilemma. He scoffed at the plausibility of a hoax:

The apostles are supposed to have known best that there was not one single word of truth in the news of their master’s resurrection, since they themselves spirited his corpse away, yet regardless of this, they are supposed to have spread the same story with a fire of conviction that sufficed to give the world a different form.99

And he rejected the possibility that a nearly dead man barely revived could convince others that he had conquered death.100

Strauss offered a mythological explanation. The disciples sincerely believed that Jesus was the Messiah and therefore ascribed to him all the miracles that Jewish myths had said that the Messiah would do. Whether Jesus actually performed his miracles was irrelevant to the evangelists – by these stories they were simply claiming that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. He was buried in an unknown grave and resurrected in the minds of the sincere but imaginative disciples. "Incapable of thinking of Jesus as dead, they were deluded into thinking that he had risen and appeared to them."101 They had a vision, as Paul later did, and built all sorts of details into it after the fact.102 In this reductionistic approach Strauss kept the sincerity of the disciples by making them gullible and naive. 

Christian Weisse in 1838 wrote a similar view: "The idea of the resurrection has its source in the disciples’ experience of the presence of Christ"; all the details were made up.103 Ernest Renan wrote a French Life of Jesus in 1863 with similar claims: The miracles were hoaxes, the resurrection was created by the imagination of Mary Magdalene and repeated by the weak-minded disciples. "The little Christian society...resuscitated Jesus in their hearts by the intense love which they bore toward him."104

Strauss rejected so much of the Gospels that there was little basis for discussion except at a more fundamental level – methodology. As Craig notes, "It is no longer effective to argue for the resurrection today simply by refuting theories as to who stole the body or that Jesus did not really die. They are no longer the issue. The issue is whether the gospel narratives are historically credible accounts or unhistorical legends."105

In his 1837 Life of Jesus, August Neander used the traditional argument that "the facticity of the resurrection is proved by the change in the behavior of Jesus’ followers."106 In the same year, Wilhelm de Wette rejected "both the rationalistic view that Jesus only appeared to die and the liberal notion that the appearances were merely visionary, but he did not deal with Strauss directly. He said that the resurrection was beyond historical research:

Thus not to deny the fact itself, but rather to recognize the incomprehensibility of it, to reject a theoretical ordering of it in our usual historical and physical knowledge, and thus not to reject it because of its impossibility, but leave the view open to a higher nature of things."107

Johann Hug faulted Strauss for compromising the historical approach through his a priori assumption about the impossibility of miracles.108 He argued that the apostolic age did not naively accept myths – they had a concern for accuracy. He noted that since Jesus did not conform to Jewish messianic expectations, the disciples did not simply apply OT-based myths to Jesus.109 Friedrich Tholuck, although preferring a subjective approach, pointed out that contradictions in the accounts do not disqualify the Gospels as sources of valid history.110 He then provided an argument for the early date and reliability of Luke-Acts.111

F.C. Baur pointed out that Strauss did not explain why the disciples would think that Jesus had to rise from the dead.112 Baur recognized that the church began with faith in the resurrection, but he claimed that "the question as to the nature and the reality of the resurrection lies outside the sphere of historical inquiry."113 However, he later said that Jesus did not rise bodily, but only "in the faith of the disciples."114

A more complete response to Strauss would have to await research into the development of mythology, to show that the scenario he proposed is unprecedented and implausible.115 Nor can we dismiss the story of the tomb so easily; it is not historically plausible that "Matthew" would write that the Jewish leaders were talking about body-theft when they were actually saying that crucified criminals are usually thrown on the trash-heap.

But mythological explanations are still offered by theologians who assert that "the resurrection actually means ________," when they fill in the blank with something other than a dead person coming back to life.116 Sometimes they are given as modern reinterpretations, sometimes it is claimed that the disciples actually meant this even though they chose a word ("resurrection") that all their readers would understand in a materialistic way. According to these theories, the resurrection has meaning only for those who believe (believe in what?); it says nothing about a person who died. This semantic smoke-and-mirrors trick serves only to disguise the fact that these theologians do not believe in the resurrection (as that word is normally used), but in something else.

Objective vision theories

Some theologians have tried to hold a resurrection faith one step removed from historical fact. In 1872, Theodor Keim argued that the resurrection is well attested, but the physical details are unreliable. The empty tomb story cannot be trusted, but neither the body-theft theory nor the apparent death theory make sense. He called the appearances visions caused by God.117 In 1885, Heinrich Ewald argued that Jesus’ appearances were first described as visions, and only later were physical details added.118 Reginald Fuller claims that "the resurrection involved a direct translation of Jesus from the grave to an exalted and glorified existence."119

Similarly, Hans Grass claims that Jesus was resurrected but that there was no physical evidence. The old body remained dead, and the appearances were God-given visions rather than in the physical world.120 But this makes the visions deceptive rather than revelatory, and faith fideistic. Grass says he will believe whether or not there are facts, in the same way that the Deists said that they will not believe no matter what the facts. Both approaches seem to evade the fact that spirit works in the physical world.

These theories entail rejecting the Gospel accounts that go out of their way to emphasize the physicalness of the resurrected Jesus. They also downplay the implications of Paul viewing the eschatological resurrection as involving a change rather than abandonment of the body. And they ignore the empty tomb.121

A powerful response to all "vision" theories is the historical evidence for the empty tomb. Craig gives eight lines of evidence: 1) Jesus’ burial is one of the best-attested events in Jesus’ life, found in all four Gospels, Acts, and Paul. This implies that his burial place was known. And the writers would have little reason to invent the story that the tomb was owned by a member of the Sanhedrin. 2) Paul gives evidence of the empty tomb – the only way to know that Jesus rose "on the third day," as early Christian tradition held, is to check the tomb. Jewish beliefs about "resurrection" would necessarily include the body. 3) The tomb story is found in Mark and is therefore very old. 4) The phrase "first day of the week" is Semitic and evidences that the tradition is very old. 5) The stories are simple narratives, without theological or legendary developments. 6) If the writers were inventing witnesses, it is unlikely that they would choose women to be first. 7) The disciples would not be able to preach about a resurrection in Jerusalem if the body was found (or even if the tomb location were in dispute) 8) Early Jewish polemic against Christians accepts the empty tomb.122

Three theories have been advanced to explain the empty tomb: conspiracy, apparent death, and wrong tomb, and they have been generally abandoned.123 The hallucination theory also founders. Peters concisely says, "historical research has not produced any convincing evidence that the event of Jesus’ resurrection fits the model of myth, pure legend or delusion."124

I believe that the evidence, evaluated historically, points to an empty tomb, and I believe that a skeptic would make more sense in trying to explain it rather than denying it. For example: While the guards slept, graverobbers were able to sneak in, unwrap many of the grave clothes to lighten their load, and haul the body away. They dumped the body in the desert and went to Jericho to sell the spices. A few disciples, distraught at the empty tomb and subconsciously remembering Jesus’ prediction of resurrection, had visions of him, and in a game of religious oneupmanship, they all claimed to see him, and through repetition, created false memories, and so on... Such a scenario may seem unlikely, but to a skeptic it may seem more plausible than a resurrection. As Sherlock Holmes said, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."125

The disciples’ belief about Jesus’ resurrection does not match any pagan beliefs, nor does it match Jewish expectations. It would have been easy for disciples to proclaim that they had seen visions of Jesus being in heaven with Abraham – that would have had Jewish precedent and could not be disproven – but the disciples made the much more astonishing, and much more falsifiable claim, that Jesus had been raised.126 The most reasonable explanation for their belief is that Jesus was bodily raised from the dead.

A question of history?

However, is a resurrection a "historical" explanation, or does "history" by definition exclude miracle? Ulrich Wilckens argues that it is "inherently impossible to prove the resurrection historically." He thinks all naturalistic explanations are refuted, but says, "How the grave of Jesus became empty is a question that cannot be...answered in a historical way."127 But as Craig asks, if you have ruled out everything else, "Why not accept the explanation given in the religious context of the event itself?’128 But I agree in part with Wilckens: It is well within history to conclude that the disciples believed that God raised Jesus from the dead. It may even be within history to say that Jesus was apparently alive after his crucifixion. It may even be within history to say that Jesus was apparently resurrected, but it seems outside of history to claim that God is the cause of his resurrection. This is more a theological or philosophical claim – and it is legitimate to make this claim – but it is not legitimate to call it a historical conclusion.129

History can ask whether a purported event really happened, but it must also ask whether it has the tools to investigate the event. Either Jesus healed a leper or not, but history is unable to investigate the claim. Likewise history as a discipline cannot investigate whether God raised Jesus. That does not mean that it is an illegitimate question, but it means that other disciplines must enter the discussion in order for a conclusion to be drawn.

C.F.D. Moule wrote, "If a historical event occurs for which there is no discernable explanation within the historian’s ambit, it is not unreasonable to give weight to a well-supported claim that the explanation lies in some other realm."130 Leon Morris concludes, "The idea that God intervened and raised Jesus at least covers the facts; nothing else suggested so far does. Admittedly the strict application of the historical method does not ‘prove’ the Resurrection. Yet the facts do point to this."131

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This article was written by in 2001. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved.

If the definition of "history" is the problem, I suggest setting it aside. Simply say, "The historical evidence precludes any naturalistic explanation, and the historical method seems unable to give a plausible answer." Then, "Based on metaphysical considerations, I believe that God exists and would have reason to send an incarnation into this world and resurrect him.132 Considering this larger context, I believe that the best explanation of the evidence is the one given to it by people who claimed to be eyewitnesses: that God raised Jesus from the dead."

Of course, someone with a different worldview will weigh the evidence differently.133 Although many people who reject the possibility of miracles are guilty of a priori reasoning, not all are. Some have looked at the evidence and have still concluded that a preposterous psychological explanation is to be preferred to an "impossible" divine one. The same evidence will not convince everyone, but then, few believe because of arguments, anyway.134

Endnotes are in another document. Click here.
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