Of all the teachings of Christianity, no doctrine is more central than the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The truth of the resurrection has been attacked from every angle. New books and television media regularly appear questioning the truth of the resurrection, re-hashing old theories about what happened to Jesus’ body. Since the resurrection is crucial to Christianity, Christians ought to be able to give answers to the inevitable questions about the truth of the resurrection.
Historically Credible Accounts
The first step in defending the resurrection from its detractors is to establish the fact of the historical events that took place as conveyed in the Gospels. As philosopher William Lane Craig notes in his book Reasonable Faith, “The issue is whether the gospel narratives are historically credible accounts or unhistorical legends.”
The Empty Tomb
One of the easiest parts of the resurrection data to establish is the fact that the tomb is empty. Because the location of Jesus’ burial was known to those living in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that they would have believed the apostles’ claims about the resurrection of Christ if there was not an empty tomb. Jesus’ burial is widely attested in early, independent testimonies, both biblical and extra-biblical.
The fact that women are primary witnesses of the empty tomb in the Gospel accounts is further evidence of their authenticity. This is because, as is often noted, women were not considered reliable witnesses in first-century Jewish culture, so it would have been foolish for the authors to fictionally construct an account involving women in order to gain credibility.
Matthew 28:11–15 speaks of a myth that was spread among the Jews concerning the body of Christ. Apparently, the Jews were saying the disciples stole the body of Christ. This is significant because the Jews did not deny the tomb was empty, but instead sought an alternative explanation to the resurrection. The emptiness of the tomb is a widely attested historical fact.
However, just because the tomb of Christ was empty does not necessarily mean the resurrection happened. There are four alternative hypotheses to the resurrection that have been advanced over the years:
1. The Conspiracy Hypothesis
The conspiracy hypothesis says that the disciples stole the body of Christ and continued to lie about his appearances to them. According to this account, the resurrection was a hoax.
This hypothesis is not commonly held in modern scholarship for several reasons:
- This hypothesis does not take into account that the disciples believed in the resurrection. It is highly unlikely that numerous disciples would have been willing to give up their lives defending a fabrication.
- It is unlikely that the idea of resurrection would have entered the minds of the disciples, as such an event was not connected to the Jewish idea of a Messiah. The scholar William Lane Craig writes, “If your favorite Messiah got himself crucified, then you either went home or else you got yourself a new Messiah. But the idea of stealing Jesus’ corpse and saying that God has raised him from the dead is hardly one that would have entered the minds of the disciples.”
- This hypothesis cannot account for the post-resurrection appearances of Christ.
2. The Apparent Death Hypothesis