Q: So, why do you think I should believe that Jesus rose from the dead? Are you saying I should take the Gospel’s word for it?
A: No, it’s not that simple. Let’s take some widely acknowledged facts ( a wee bit different from a list we’ve used elsewhere):
1. Jesus was put to death by crucifixion. This was a shameful death which should have devastated the disciples and ended Jesus’ movement.
2. His body was buried in an identifiable tomb (Joseph of Arimethea’s).
3. A few days later a group of women followers claimed that Jesus’ tomb was empty.
4. It would have been more convenient for the Church if this discovery had been made by men (whose testimony was considered more reliable) and by one of the early heroes of the faith (like Stephen or Cleopas).
5. The disciples were not expecting Jesus to be resurrected. Jews had many other ways of conceiving life after death: the disciples could have claimed to have seen Jesus’ angel, or his Spirit in heaven, or that Jesus had been translated into a “star”. It was decidedly odd to claim he was resurrected from an identifiable tomb.
6. Multiple appearances took place in which many people who had known Jesus well believed they had seen him alive again.
7. Paul, who initially persecuted the early Christians, became a follower of Jesus as a result of believing he had seen the risen Jesus.
8. James, the brother of Jesus, who was not a follower of Jesus before the crucifixion became a follower afterwards. He also became a leader in the church in Jerusalem and was put to death for his faith.
9. The Christian movement started in Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified, shortly after the crucifixion.
10. The message of the early Christians focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus. “Resurrection” could only mean that Jesus’ body had been raised from the dead.
11. The early Christians met on the first day of the week, and not on the Jewish Sabbath. Something about the Sabbath was significant to the first Christians.
12. The early Christian church had a highly exalted view of Jesus.
13. The early Christians were willing to die for their faith.
14. There was no attempt to venerate Jesus’ tomb.
15. Jewish apologetic claimed that the disciples stole the body; so Jewish critics agreed that the tomb was identifiable and empty.
16. The early church grew in a Hellenistic context that would have been hostile to the idea of bodily resurrection. Gentile philosophers wanted to escape the confines of the body; they didn’t want to be trapped in their bodies forever!
Q: Okay, so this is your evidence?
A: Yes, and we need some explanation for all of it. Remember our two key questions: One: is this the evidence I’d expect if Jesus did rise from the dead? Two: is there a good, non-miraculous explanation?
Q: All right. I’ll concede claims that people seen Jesus alive are what we would expect if Jesus had been resurrected. But isn’t there a good psychological explanation for such experiences?
A: It’s hard to psychoanalyse historical figures. But if the followers of Jesus just had visions, wouldn’t they have claimed that they had seen Jesus’ angel or spirit? Why did they claim Jesus was resurrected? And then there’s the awkward fact of the empty tomb…
Q: Maybe the later Church invented the story of the empty tomb?
A: Hardly. “Bodily resurrection” would mainly have impressed Palestinian Jews, and not later Hellenistic Christians (who struggled with the idea that they would have resurrection bodies too). So the preaching of a resurrection could only have started with the first Jewish Christians in Palestine.
Q: So maybe they invented the story of the empty tomb?
A: It’s not the sort of story early evangelists would invent. Why have women discover the tomb? Why choose a tomb that could be identified? Why not invent an anonymous grave that could not be located? No one could check on that story! Why invent a story in which you, the evangelist, initially react in disbelief? And if the empty tomb was a legend, why did the story spread that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body? That implies that the tomb was empty.
Q: Maybe the disciples did steal the body?
A: Why would they do that? If you wanted to venerate Jesus’ memory and keep the movement going, you could just say that you had visions of Jesus’ spirit. This is the problem with all conspiracy theories.The conspirators always could find much easier ways of accomplishing their goals…
Q: Well, maybe one of Jesus’ enemies stole his body. And the disciples were so distraught at not being able to honour their master’s grave that they wanted to believe something special had happened. And then the women spotted a gardener that they mistook for Jesus. So they believed his body was back from the dead. And when they told the other disciples they got so excited that they all started to have visions!
A: Yes, that would explain all the facts. It’s also so ridiculously complicated, and requires so many coincidences, that it’s simpler to believe that a miracle occurred.
The bottom line: there’s nothing miraculous about an empty tomb, religious experiences or a claim that the Messiah had been resurrected. We can, and should, accept all those facts on historical grounds. But the only simple, powerful, comprehensive explanation for all the facts on our list is a miracle: Jesus was resurrected.