How Can Rational People Believe In The Resurrection of Jesus?
The short answer is "because the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is overwhelming". For the longer answer, read on...
For Clarity's Sake
What exactly do we mean when we talk of "the resurrection"? Christians believe that around 2,000 years ago, Jesus, the Son of God, was born in the Middle East. He lived a life without sin, was assassinated by the religious leaders, and was buried in a sealed tomb. After 3 days and nights, he came back to life, complete with a physical body, and showed himself to many eyewitnesses.
This key event, sometimes called "rising from the dead", is what we mean when we refer to the resurrection. Understandably, the resurrection has been the subject of much debate.
Eight Historical Facts
There are 8 historical facts which provide the data for the resurrection. They are as follows:
Jesus suffered death by crucifixion.
Late in the afternoon, Joseph of Arimathea...went to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Pilate questioned whether he could be dead that soon, and called for the captain to verify that he really was dead. Assured by the captain, he gave Joseph the corpse.
Jesus' body was placed in a securely guarded tomb by his friends.
Joseph took him down [from the cross], wrapped him in a shroud, placed him in a tomb that had been cut into the rock, and rolled a large stone across the opening.
After sundown, the religious leaders arranged a meeting with Pilate. They said, 'Sir, we just remembered that that liar announced while he was still alive, "After 3 days I will be raised". We've got to get that tomb sealed until the 3rd day. There's a good chance his disciples will come and steal the corpse, and then go around saying "He's risen from the dead".'...Pilate told them, 'You will have a guard. Go ahead and secure it the best you can.' So they went out and secured the tomb, sealing the stone, and posting guards.
Some of Jesus' friends found his tomb empty on the third day.
At the crack of dawn on Sunday, the women came to the tomb carrying the burial spices they had prepared. They found the entrance stone rolled back from the tomb, so they walked in. But once inside, they couldn't find the body of Jesus.
Even the enemies of Jesus admitted this, since they had to bribe the guards to say that his followers stole his body:
The religious leaders took a large sum of money, and gave it to the soldiers, bribing them to say, 'His followers came in the night and stole the body while we were sleeping'. They assured them, 'If the governor hears about your sleeping on duty, we'll make sure you don't get blamed. The soldiers took the bribe and did as they were told. That story, cooked up in the Jewish High Council, is still going around.
Jesus friends and followers were discouraged because of his death, and were not expecting a resurrection.
The Roman seal on the stone was broken, and the stone was moved away from the tomb.
The guards told the religious leaders that the tomb was empty.
The graveclothes of Jesus were found undisturbed in the empty tomb.
Peter and the other disciple left immediately for the tomb. They ran, neck in neck. The other disciple got to the tomb first, outrunning Peter. Stooping to look in, he saw the pieces of linen cloth lying there, but he didn't go in. Peter arrived after him, went into the tomb, observed the linen cloths lying there, and the kerchief used to cover his head not lying with the linen cloths, but separate, neatly folded by itself.
The followers of Jesus reported that Jesus appeared to them in bodily form after he had died. One writer wrote about this:
Jesus presented himself alive to Peter, then to his closest followers, and later to more than 500 of his followers all at the same time. Then he spent time with James and the rest of those he commissioned to represent him. Finally, he presented himself alive to me.
Three Options Only
Either the tomb of Jesus was empty, or it was not empty. If it was indeed empty, then either the resurrection took place, or some other explanation must be given. And so, there are three options to consider:
The tomb was not empty
The tomb was empty, but not because of the resurrection.
The tomb was empty, because the resurrection did take place.
While the evidence points to an empty tomb, and the resurrection, many theories have been offered to explain away the resurrection. Some theories claim that the tomb was still occupied, while others attempt to explain why the tomb was indeed empty. Let's look at these theories in turn.
The Tomb Was Not Empty...
Maybe the location of the tomb was unknown...
This strange theory has no basis, since Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus in his own, personal tomb. As well as this, his followers had no trouble finding the tomb, and the guards knew its location.
Maybe his followers went to the wrong tomb...
This theory requires the amazing logical consequence that the women, Peter, John, Joseph of Arimathea, the guards, the Jewish religious leaders, and the Roman authorities, all went to the wrong tomb. It also requires that the correct tomb was never found.
Maybe Jesus was resurrected spiritually, but not bodily...
This theory is not possible because Jesus used the times when he appeared to his followers to stress the physicality of his resurrection.
Don't be upset, and don't let all these doubting questions take over. Look at my hands; look at my feet - it's really me. Touch me. Look me over from head to toe. A ghost doesn't have muscle and bone like this.
They fell to their knees, and embraced his feet...
Jesus said 'Don't cling to me...'
They gave him a piece of fish they had cooked. He took it and ate it right before their eyes.
Maybe someone who looked exactly like Jesus was crucified in his place...
There is no evidence to support this theory, and it in fact contradicts other pieces of evidence.
The Tomb Was Empty, But Not Because Of The Resurrection
Maybe Jesus' followers stole his body while the guards were sleeping...
While this was the story circulated by the Jewish leaders, the many questions about this theory make it untenable.
If the guards were sleeping, how would they have known who took the body?
How likely was it that the entire Roman guard was asleep at the same time, when they all knew their lives were on the line?
If they were sleeping, wouldn't the noise in rolling the stone away have woken them up?
What motive did Jesus' followers have for stealing the body? Most of them suffered greatly because of the claim of the resurrection, many to the point of death. If it was all a hoax, why did they not simply produce the body they had stolen?
How did a frightened group of followers overcome an armed guard of Roman soldiers?
Maybe the enemies of Jesus stole his body...
This is probably the most desperate theory put forward. Why would the enemies of Jesus want to steal his body? If they had in fact stolen the body, why did they never produce it?
Maybe Jesus only seemed to have died on the cross, and was later resuscitated by the cool air of the tomb...
This is one of the more popular theories put forward, but this quotation shows the incredible leap of faith it requires:
It means that Jesus endured the beatings at his trials, the crown of thorns, the terrible scourging, the crucifixion, and even the spear thrust in his side, and somehow survived. The professional executioners were satisfied that he was dead, and his body was wrapped in linen along with 100 pounds of spices. In spite of great loss of blood, and many hours in the cold tomb without food, water or assistance, he revived. Then he managed to escape from the graveclothes and spices, and replace them neatly in the tomb. He rolled the huge stone up an incline away from the opening, overcame the armed guards, walked miles on pierced feet, and convinced his followers that he had conquered death as the resurrected Author of Life. This ludicrous theory would also have us believe that Jesus lived on after all this and died a natural death in obscurity.
Maybe Jesus' followers all lied about seeing him alive...
This theory will not stand, because it requires that every single person who saw Jesus alive was in a conspiracy to promote a hoax. This is incredibly unlikely, to say the least. As well, most of these same people suffered and died because of this "hoax". If it really was a hoax, why go through the pain?
Maybe the followers of Jesus didn't actually see him, but only had hallucinations...
Here are some considerations which make this theory impossible:
Hallucinations are not publicly shared experiences, but Jesus appeared to groups of people; at one time to a group of 500!
Hallucinations generally only affect a certain narrow range of people (those with schizoid tendencies, or those who use hallucinogenic drugs). But Jesus appeared to a large and diverse range of personalities.
Hallucinations generally recur over a long time period, and do not normally stop abruptly. Yet, Jesus appeared to people over a 40-day period, and then the appearances stopped. And they stopped for everyone.
Hallucinations are often stimulated by expectation, but Jesus' followers were not expecting his resurrection, and in fact were skeptical about such reports.
Hallucinations do not involve physical presence, yet Jesus' followers touched, talked and ate with him at various times.
In fact, the theory of hallucinations directly contradicts the theory about the followers of Jesus' lying. There is no way that the same group of people could be involved in a massive cover-up conspiracy, and at the same time be subject to hallucinations.
The Tomb Was Empty, Because The Resurrection Did Take Place
This is the only option left. But more than that, it is the option which completely accounts for the historical data. Beyond any reasonable doubt, the tomb of Jesus was empty, and no explanation apart from the resurrection can account for this.
The evidence for the resurrection of Jesus is indeed overwhelming. Faced with this evidence, and the absolute lack of credible alternatives, we can turn our original question on its head:
How can rational people NOT believe in the resurrection of Jesus?
A lawyer named Frank Morison set out to write a book showing why the resurrection could not possibly have taken place. In the process, he became convinced by the evidence for the resurrection, and then became a follower of Jesus. In the preface to his book Who Moved The Stone?, he wrote the following:
This study is in some ways so unusual and provocative that the writer thinks it desirable to state here very briefly how the book came to take its present form.
In one sense, it could have taken no other, for it is essentially a confession, the inner story of a man who originally set out to write one kind of book, and found himself compelled by the sheer force of circumstances to write quite another.
It is not that the facts themselves altered, for they are recorded imperishably in the monuments and in the pages of human history. But the interpretation to be put upon the facts underwent a change. Somehow the perspective shifted - not suddenly, as in a flash of insight or inspiration, but slowly, almost imperceptibly, by the very stubbornness of the facts themselves.
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