If Jesus miraculously came back to life, it is undisputable evidence for the existence of an all-powerful God, says Grant Bartley. Here’s why he thinks it really did happen
People aren’t resurrected, are they? That’s absurd. It would go against all the laws of nature.
It is true that if God does not exist, then resurrection is impossible by purely natural standards (especially the laws of thermodynamics). But let’s turn this argument around. Let’s say that if there is resurrection, there is a God.
Here, I want to consider the testimonies of the many people who saw Jesus alive after his death as evidence of the resurrection. To do this I’ll address some of the most popular arguments atheists are currently bringing against the reliability of the Gospels.
Pre-supposing the answer
Have you heard the idea that we can’t take the Gospels as evidence of the resurrection because to credibly do so, we’d have to first have other reasons for believing resurrection happens?
This argument commits the logical fallacy of begging the question, or assuming you know the answer to your question even as you ask it. Or predefining what answers you’ll accept. The fallacy as it’s being applied here might be most easily seen by putting things this way: “Are the Gospels evidence for resurrection? No, because you haven’t given me any evidence there can be resurrection.” Or another way of question-begging is to assume God does not exist, and so miracles are impossible. But we’re not wanting to assume God does not exist. Therefore, resurrection is, at least, possible.
The resurrection of Jesus is as solid a historical reason you could have for trusting God
Against the prejudicial ruling-out of the Gospels as evidence, I would argue that the Gospels are the main evidence for the resurrection of Christ, and so it’s incumbent upon anyone who cares about truth to consider that evidence seriously.
To avoid question-begging, we must admit the resurrection accounts as possible evidence for a transcendent God. But admitting the Gospels as possible evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good evidence. Perhaps, for instance, the Gospel writers were simply making it all up?
The Gospels’ medical confirmation of Jesus’s death is the separated blood and plasma (‘water’ in the Gospel) flowing from Jesus’s pierced side on the cross (John 19:34).
We’ve only recently discovered that separation only happens after death, but in the New Testament, several people are reported as having seen Jesus alive (some more than once) after this happens.
Paul says that a lot of people saw Jesus alive after he died: Christ “was buried…was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…he appeared to Cephas [Peter], and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living” (1 Corinthians 15:4-6).
So what reason would the original witnesses to the resurrection have to lie about it, especially when faced with such strong persecution?
The disappointing answers given to this question include power, wealth, or honour. But those who say this sort of thing are either ignorant of early Church history or deliberately ignore it.
For the first 300 years or so, the Church had no power, wealth or honour. It was frequently persecuted, and mainly populated by slaves and poor people. Who desires to lead a prayer meeting in a Roman arena, or stick their neck out via a Roman court? Well, apparently Peter and the other eyewitnesses did. Indeed, the Greek word we translate as ‘witness’ is 'martyr'.
The New Testament details some of these incidents. Acts 5:40-42 recalls: “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”
The real threat of martyrdom, or other hard persecution (upside-down crucifixion in Peter’s case) is as reliable a test of sincere conviction as one could need (the threat of loss of livelihood or life have been present throughout the Church’s history and still, today, in many parts of the world).
Another line of thought is that the apostles just wanted to make up a religion, or had a sentimental attachment to their old rabbi and his teachings. But these don’t add up from a historical perspective either. The original witnesses being persecuted, even murdered, for claiming they’d seen the risen Christ would surely quickly cut short any deceitful ambition or sentimentality.
A sceptic might now say: “Well, the reports are obviously biased because they’re written by believers.” But surely most books asserting anything to be true are written by people who believe what they’re asserting? Why single out the Bible for special censure here – unless you’re begging the question?
This indicates the questioner’s own bias against Christianity. The correct question is: “What reasons do the writers give for what they’re claiming, and are they good reasons?” To answer this, we must weigh up what the Gospels are saying and consider as much about the situation of their writing as can be known.
And once again, it’s worth emphasising that the original witnesses had no good reason to lie about seeing Christ resurrected, but many good reasons to change their story - which they didn’t.
Perhaps the New Testament writers were simply mistaken, or the witnesses forgot or blurred what happened?
Consider this dialogue:
Mark: Tell me everything you can remember about Jesus’s ministry Peter, so that I can write it down before you, er, you know…with what’s happening politically…
Peter: Don’t worry Mark, I understand. I do remember spending about three years with Jesus – but it was over 30 years ago now, so I can’t be sure of the details. He was preaching about the Kingdom of God, I know that – I think – and about love, I do remember that. And his death was traumatic…
Mark: Our Lord was crucified for the sins of the world! You’ve told me so yourself many times Peter! [Pause.] Anything else that might be important?
Peter: Yes… I vaguely remember me and some of the others seeing Jesus a few times after he died, and him telling us to go and preach the good news to the world. That can’t be right, though, can it? You’ve got to make allowances, Mark, after all, I am nearly 65…
It’s not a plausible scenario, is it? Especially in an oral culture, where people had better memories – and especially when there were people still alive who could tell Mark if Peter got it wrong.
Here’s some arguments which we can gather together under the category of ‘no evidence’:
The unsophisticated atheist says confidently: “It’s all nonsense! The later Church made it all up – probably at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.” They did this, apparently, so that Constantine could have an ideology through which to unify and control his empire.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence for this idea, except perhaps in the Book of Dan (ie The DaVinci Code) – whereas there is plenty of evidence that the Gospels were written in the first 60 years after Jesus’ death – in other words, as eye-witness accounts.
The detail contained in the Gospels matches that which has been unearthed in the archaeological record to a precision which validates these eye-witness claims (for instance, recent finds confirm Pontius Pilate’s prefecture).
What reason would the original witnesses to the resurrection have to lie about it, especially when faced with such strong persecution
Materially, we have a fragment of John’s Gospel dated to around 125 AD, other bits of Gospel manuscript following closely after. Moreover, early Church leaders wrote letters in or soon after the second century mentioning and quoting the Gospels. Tertullian wrote a letter in 207 AD in which he mentions Peter as the lead source for Mark’s Gospel.
One idea I’ve recently seen emerge is that the named authors didn’t write their Gospels. However early writers affirm what Church tradition has always held, that Matthew et al were the writers of their Gospels. Once again, there’s no evidence for this idea, and plenty of early evidence to the contrary.
A substitute death
What about the Muslim assertion that Christ was substituted on the cross, so that someone who looked like him - perhaps his twin - died instead? Yet again, there’s no historical evidence for this idea. However, there is not only no evidence for this idea now; there is no evidence that there was any evidence for the idea at the time of Mohammad either. Rather, it seems that Mohammad got it from a (not very) Christian sect that was touting the idea around Saudi Arabia at the time.
And in case anyone asks: “Why don’t you accept the testimony of the Koran for the same reasons you accept the Gospels?”, there is a world of difference in verifiability between the Gospel’s report of Jesus’s often public ministry, compared to Mohammad claiming to receive verses alone in a cave. These are not the same conditions.
An unbiased application of normal standards of historical proof would not presume that, because of conclusions which you don’t like, you can’t apply normal standards of historical proof to the Bible. When these are applied, historical evidence fully allows that the writers of the Gospel at least thought they saw the risen Christ.
But, perhaps, the atheist now rebuts, the writers were so driven by the delirium of their religious belief, sorrow and trauma that they collectively hallucinated his ghost repeatedly? This goes directly against the Gospel accounts, which report the apostles about as surprised at the resurrection as anyone could be (which was very embarrassingly for them, and so another sign of authenticity). It also includes Jesus doing physical things, such as eating fish (Luke 24:42-3).
In addition, mass repeated hallucination is not a historically recorded phenomenon: there is no evidence of that, nor any known mechanism by which it could happen.
Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless and powerless [mere delusion]” says 1 Corinthians 15:17 (Amplified Bible).
The eye-witness fact of the resurrection is the inner citadel of apologetics. It’s the core reason for Christian belief. And through a bit of reasoning and historical knowledge, this citadel is impregnable to the attacks of atheists.
The resurrection of Jesus, as witnessed to by the Gospels, is also as solid a historical reason you could have for trusting God in Christ. So please don’t go on believing the atheist propaganda that faith is “believing without reason”. Biblical faith means trusting God. And we have good reasons to trust God. The more difficult thing, perhaps, is walking in that trust day by day.
If the Gospel writers were telling the truth, Jesus was resurrected. And we have every good reason to believe that the Gospel writers were telling the truth, and no good reasons to think that they were lying.
So, was Jesus resurrected? Beyond reasonable doubt, Jesus Christ was resurrected – and so, is alive.