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Resurrection – The Forgotten Evidence

No reasonable sceptic will rule out the resurrection of Jesus on the grounds that it is impossible, but many will object to it because they think it is extremely improbable and so could not be taken seriously unless there is good evidence in its favour. Christians often attempt to show that there is in fact such evidence, typically pointing to the historical evidence for the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, the transformation of Jesus’ followers, and various other facts relating to aftermath of the crucifixion (see The Case for the Resurrection). The claim is that the evidence is explained much better by the resurrection than it is by naturalistic explanations.

Sometimes sceptics will claim that an extraordinary event like this would require extraordinary evidence. David Hume, for example, claimed that no testimonial evidence could establish a miracle unless the testimonies were such that their falsehood would be more miraculous than the miracle itself. In actual fact, however, extraordinary events can be established by fairly mundane evidence (see Extraordinary claims do not require extraordinary evidence). The evidence needs to be sufficiently good, of course, but it certainly doesn’t need to be miraculous.

Here though, I want to look at a different aspect of the case for the resurrection. Roughly speaking, we need to think about how plausible the resurrection is in the first place and then how good the specific evidence is. Here we’ll focus on the first point: the plausibility of the resurrection. Sceptics often claim that it is exceedingly improbable – the very idea that someone should rise from the dead, while perhaps not absolutely impossible, is so improbable that it isn’t even worth considering the specific evidence.

We need to be careful here. No doubt it is true, that if there is no God, it is indeed exceedingly unlikely that a resurrection would take place. The idea that anyone would rise naturally from the dead is not worth considering. But of course Christians don’t claim that Jesus rose naturally from the dead. Rather, they claim that God raised Jesus from the dead. And as the apostle Paul said, ‘Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?’ (Acts 26:8).

Maybe that’s a start, but isn’t it still extremely improbable? After all, resurrections aren’t exactly commonplace. This is where we need to consider another line of evidence – evidence concerning Jesus of Nazareth. The point is that Christians claim that Jesus, not some randomly selected person, was resurrected. As people from all religious traditions as well as non-religious people recognize, Jesus was a truly remarkable figure.

His ethical teaching is unparalleled. He didn’t compromise on the demands of morality, but showed that it is even more demanding than we might have thought. The Law told people that murder and adultery were wrong, but Jesus emphasized that the real problem lay much deeper – in our evil thoughts and desires. Loving your neighbour was one thing, but Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies and pray for those who would persecute them. And his actions matched his teaching. He castigated religious leaders for their hypocrisy in giving priority to their religious traditions and practices while ignoring matters of justice and mercy. He associated with social outcasts and emphasized God’s concern for the poor. In proclaiming that God’s kingdom had come, he stressed that it was open to all, not on the basis of religious rule-keeping, but on the basis of God’s love and forgiveness.

He also made astonishing claims about himself. Other prophets spoke about God’s kingdom, but he claimed that God’s kingdom had come in his own life and ministry. He claimed to have a unique relationship with God and that people could only come to God through him. For example, in Matthew 11:27 we read that “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Ultimately, Jesus’ radical teaching and claims got him crucified and so this most remarkable of human beings succumbed to a horrendous, humiliating and shameful death.

It isn’t necessary to treat the Bible as God’s revelation in order to accept the claims about Jesus’ life noted above. A good case for all of this can be made on historical grounds alone. Recall that we started out by considering the sceptical claim that the resurrection was so extremely improbable that it wasn’t worth considering the specific evidence. The sceptic would have a point if by resurrection we meant that some randomly selected human being rose naturally from the dead, but what we actually mean by resurrection is that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. And it certainly isn’t obvious that this claim is improbable at all, never mind so extremely improbable that we can dismiss it. And that’s just the starting point.

Now the specific evidence about the empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, etc. can be taken into account. Combining this specific evidence with the background evidence about the life and teaching of Jesus makes a very powerful case overall. Let’s approach all of this in a slightly different way to finish. Christians believe much more about Jesus than was stated earlier. Everyone accepts that Jesus was a remarkable person in terms of his moral teaching, personal integrity and radical claims. Christians believe all of that, of course, but they also believe that he is God. Sceptics will disagree, but they can still ask the following question: if God were to come into the world as a human being, what sort of a person would he be?

Are there any potential candidates in human history? I would suggest that if God were to become a human being he might look very like Jesus of Nazareth and that there simply are no other plausible candidates. As Richard Swinburne puts it, ‘if God has become incarnate during past human history, it is overwhelmingly probable that it was in Jesus that he became incarnate.’[1]Swinburne also draws our attention to a striking coincidence: that the only person for whom there is significant evidence that he was God is also the only person about whom there is significant evidence for a resurrection having taken place. This striking coincidence would make perfect sense if the central claim of Christianity is true.


[1] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 202.

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