Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
There are two historical facts that need explaining. The first is that the tomb of Jesus was empty. The second is that the disciples were convinced that they had seen him alive after discovering that the tomb was empty. By alive, we mean with a physical body; they did not believe they had seen a ghost.
N.T. Wright writes about the resurrection of Christ in Surprised by Hope:
Equally, an empty tomb by itself proves almost nothing. It might (as many have suggested) have been the wrong tomb, though a quick check would have sorted that one out. Someone—the soldiers, the gardeners, the chief priests, other disciples, or someone else—might have taken away the body for some reason or other. Grave robbery was well known. That was the conclusion Mary drew in John’s gospel: they’ve taken him away—and perhaps it was the gardener that did it. That was the conclusion the Jewish leaders broadcast, according to Matthew: the disciples took him away. All sorts of similar explanations could have been offered, and would have been, had not the empty tomb been accompanied by sightings of, and meetings with, Jesus himself. No: in order to explain historically how all the early Christians came to the belief they held, that Jesus had been raised, we have to say at least this: that the tomb was empty, except for some graveclothes, and that they really did see and talk with someone who gave every appearance of being a solidly physical Jesus, though a Jesus who was strangely changed, more strangely than they were able fully to describe.
Both the meetings and the empty tomb are therefore necessary if we are to explain the rise of the belief and the writing of the stories as we have them. Neither by itself was sufficient; put them together, though, and they provide a complete and coherent explanation for the rise of the early Christian belief.
Many smaller arguments might be brought in at this point that we can only summarize. To begin with, here are other proposals regularly advanced as rival explanations to the early Christian one:
- Jesus didn’t really die; someone gave him a drug that made him look like dead, and he revived in the tomb. Answer: Roman soldiers knew how to kill people, and no disciple would have been fooled by a half-drugged, beat-up Jesus into thinking he’d defeated death and inaugurated the kingdom.
- When the women went to the tomb they met someone else (perhaps James, Jesus’s brother, who looked like him), and in the half light they thought it was Jesus himself. Answer: they would have noticed soon enough.
- Jesus only appeared to people who believed in him. Answer: the accounts make it clear that Thomas and Paul do not belong to this category; and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine.
- The accounts we have are too biased. Answer: so is all history, all journalism. Every photo is taken by somebody from some angle.
- They began by saying, “He will be raised,” as people had done of the martyrs, and this quickly passed into saying, “He has been raised,” which was functionally equivalent. Answer: no, it wasn’t.
- Lots of people have visions of someone they love who has just died; this was what happened to the disciples. Answer: they knew perfectly well about things like that, and they had language for it; they would say, “It’s his angel” or “It’s his spirit” or “his ghost.” They wouldn’t say, “He’s been raised from the dead.”
- Perhaps the most popular: what actually happened was that they had some kind of rich “spiritual” experience, which they interpreted through Jewish categories. Jesus after all really was alive, spiritually, and they were still in touch with him. Answer: that is simply a description of a noble death followed by a Platonic immortality. Resurrection was and is the defeat of death, not simply a nicer description of it; and it’s something that happens some while after the moment of death, not immediately.
Equally, we may just notice three of the many small-scale arguments that are often, and quite rightly, advanced to support the belief that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead:
- Jewish tombs, especially those of martyrs, were venerated and often became shrines. There is no sign whatever of that having happened with Jesus’s grave.
- The early church’s emphasis on the first day of the week as their special day is very hard to explain unless something striking really did happen then. A gradual or even sudden dawning of faith is hardly sufficient to explain it.
- The disciples were hardly likely to go out and suffer and die for a belief that wasn’t firmly anchored in fact. This is an important point though subject to the weakness that they might have been genuinely mistaken: they believed the resurrection of Jesus to be a fact, and they acted on that belief, but we know (so it would be said) that they were wrong.
(pp. 59, 61-63)
We cannot “prove” that Christ indeed rose from the dead through historical arguments like these, but we can demonstrate that it is a reasonable—and we would say the most reasonable—explanation. If one starts with the presupposition that there is no God, then one would have to find some other explanation than the resurrection. But that would be a conclusion forced on the evidence, rather than something derived from the evidence. On the other hand, if we allow that God could (or even must) exist, then the Christian explanation—that Christ is risen indeed!—becomes the best explanation for the evidence.
Grace and Peace