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Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and, further, if God exists it is rational to believe God could have supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead (more>>). In support of the proposition that God did, in fact, raise Jesus from the dead, one of the lines of evidence Christian apologists point to is the historically documented evidence that after Jesus died on the cross and was buried, he was seen alive by multiple witnesses in a physically resurrected body.
Some skeptics attempt to explain away the historically documented reports of witnesses seeing the resurrected Jesus by proposing the witnesses could have been mistaken. This article explores the reasons Christian apologists maintain the theory that the eyewitnesses were mistaken about seeing Jesus alive after his death is inadequate and, certainly, not rationally compelling.
According to the historical record, after Jesus’ death and burial, he appeared alive on twelve (12) separate occasions to more than 500 people, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul). On all twelve occasions Jesus was seen and probably heard. Jesus offered himself to be touched on at least three occasions and he was definitely touched twice. Jesus showed the scars from his crucifixion on two occasions and ate food with the disciples on 3 – 4 occasions. On four occasions the witnesses responded to their encounter with the risen Jesus by worshiping him. [See, Norman Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection, pg. 141 (1984); Norman Giesler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 655 (1999); John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 81 (1997); Kenneth Boa & Robert Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences that God Exists, pg. 253 (2002); Lee Strobel, The Case For Easter, “Interview with Gary Habermas, Ph.D., D.D.”, pg. 72 (1998)]
For a list of the witnesses along with a summary of what each witness observed, go here
Reasons Christian Apologists Maintain the Theory that the Witnesses were Mistaken About Seeing Jesus Alive After His Death is Inadequate
When confronted with the fact that no sufficient motive can be offered to explain why the disciples would have lied about seeing the resurrected Jesus (more>>), many skeptics allege the disciples could have just been mistaken about what they saw. For example, some skeptics propose the disciples could have mistaken someone else for Jesus and assumed Jesus had risen from the dead. Some skeptics who make this allegation point to Bible passages which report that after Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus’ followers initially thought the resurrected Jesus was someone else:
- Mary Magdalene initially thought Jesus was the gardener in the garden where Jesus was buried (John 20:11-18)
- Cleopas and another disciple on the road to Emmaus thought Jesus was a stranger until he sat down and broke bread with them (Mark 16:12-13)
- Luke states the disciples supposed they had seen a spirit (Luke 24:38-39)
Christian apologists respond to such attempts to explain away the post-crucifixion appearances of Jesus by making the following rebuttal points:
Rebuttal Point No. 1: None of the Witnesses Went Away with Any Doubt they had seen the Resurrected Jesus
Although some of the witnesses assumed Jesus was still dead and initially mistook Jesus for someone else, none of the witnesses went away from the encounter they had with Jesus with any doubt they had seen the resurrected Jesus. Their doubts were initial and fleeting. By the time their encounter with Jesus was over, each of them were totally convinced they had encountered the same Jesus they knew before the crucifixion. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 646 (1999)] For example, Mary Magdalene fell down and worshiped Jesus (John 20:14-18) and Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus walked all the way back to Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ disciples they had seen Jesus and he had risen from the dead as Peter had said (Luke 20:33-35).
Rebuttal Point No. 2: The Witnesses had Shared an Intimate Relationship with Jesus and Were Not likely Candidates for Mistaking Someone Else for Jesus
All of the remaining 11 original disciples of Jesus reported seeing the resurrected Jesus. Some reported seeing him on multiple occasions. These 11 men had spent three years with Jesus and knew him on an intimate basis. The apostle John shared such a close relationship with Jesus that when Jesus was on the cross he saw his mother and John (presumed to be disciple that is referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved) and Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to the disciple he said, “Here is your mother” (see, John 19:25-27). Even though it may be reasonable to assert these men could have mistaken someone else for Jesus if they had only seen him from a distance, they certainly would have realized their mistake when they came into close contact with him, e.g., after they saw him in the upper room (Mark 16:14-18; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:26-28) and after eating breakfast with him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-14). Thomas aka Didymus initially doubted Jesus had risen from the dead and absolutely refused to believe it until he touched the holes in Jesus” hands and side. When Jesus showed him the wounds and told Thomas to touch them, Thomas’ response was not, “Ah ha, you are an imposter!” Rather, he responded: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:24-28). Overall, it would be quite unusual for all remaining 11 original disciples (each of whom shared a close and extended relationship with Jesus) to mistake someone else for Jesus, especially considering the fact these men had repeated encounters with the risen Jesus, saw him up close, touched him and talked to him for extended periods. [See, John Ankerberg & John Weldon, Ready with an Answer, pg. 113 (1997)]
Rebuttal Point No. 3: If the Disciples Were Simply Mistaken, the Roman and Jewish Leaders Could Have Presented Jesus’ Dead Body to Correct the Mistake and Squelch the Threatening Rise of Christianity Which was Foundationally Based on the Resurrection
There is no question the Romans and Jewish religious leaders considered the rise of Christianity a very significant threat to their authority since they went to great lengths to squelch the rise of Christianity. If the disciples were simply mistaken about Jesus’ identity and the Jews and/or Romans knew Jesus’ body was still in the grave, they could have, and most likely would have, put a stop to the threatening rise of Christianity (which was foundationally based on Jesus’ resurrection) by simply producing Jesus’ dead body. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 646 (1999)] However, instead of claiming Jesus’ body was in the grave or presenting Jesus’ body as evidence he was not resurrected, they claimed the disciples had stolen the body (see, Matt. 28:12-15). [Go here for the reasons the historical record does not support the allegation that Jesus’ disciples stole his body.]
Rebuttal Point No. 4: Too Many People Would Have Had to Be Fooled for Jesus’ Appearances to be Explained Away as Cases of Mistaken Identity
Jesus appeared to over 500 people, on twelve separate occasions, over a forty day period and to at least two skeptics, James and Paul fka Saul. It seems quite extraordinary that so many people, including two skeptics (James and Saul), would have mistaken someone else for Jesus on so many different occasions. [See, Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, pg. 646 (1999)]
The principle of Occam’s razor, which states that simple explanations are always preferable to more complex explanations, only states one should not multiply causes beyond necessity. Occam’s razor can only be relied on to exclude the need for a supernatural explanation if a sufficient natural explanation can be offered (more>>).
In this case, the rebuttal points set forth above weigh against the naturalistic explanation that the witnesses were simply mistaken when they said they saw the resurrected Jesus. The other naturalistic explanations skeptics have offered to explain the eyewitness reports that Jesus was seen alive after his death are similarly inadequate (more>>). Consequently, it is at least reasonable to look beyond such explanations for an explanation that adequately explains all of the historical evidence, including the explanation that God supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead.
In sum, Christian apologists candidly concede if God does not exist, then Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. Nevertheless, Christian apologists confidently maintain there are good reasons to believe God exists (more>>) and the following seven independent lines of evidence reasonably establish God did, in fact, supernaturally raise Jesus from the dead:
- The resurrection best explains the historical evidence of Jesus being seen alive in a resurrected body on at least twelve (12) separate occasions by more than 500 witnesses, including at least two skeptics (James the Just and Paul fka Saul) (here>>)
- The resurrection best explains why the tomb Jesus was buried in was found empty within days of his crucifixion and burial (here>>)
- The resurrection best explains why Jesus’ disciples were transformed from fearful fleers to faithful followers who endured great persecution and became martyrs for their faith (here>>)
- The resurrection best explains why even Jewish leaders and skeptics converted to Christianity after Jesus was crucified, even though Christianity was foundationally centered on Jesus’ resurrection
- The resurrection best explains why there is no evidence any site was ever venerated as Jesus’ burial site even though it was common practice to venerate the burial sites of religious and political leaders
- The resurrection best explains why the early Church centered its teachings and practices around a supernatural event like Jesus’ resurrection instead of something less controversial like Jesus’ moral teachings
- The resurrection best explains the sudden rise and expansion of Christianity so soon after Jesus death even though he had been crucified by the Romans as a political traitor and declared a religious heretic by the Jewish religious leaders
The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is sufficiently convincing that following a two day debate over the evidence of the resurrection between Dr. Gary Habermas and well-known skeptic, Dr. Anthony Flew, a panel of five philosophers from American universities (including the University of Virginia, James Madison University and the University of Pittsburgh) voted 4 to 1 in favor of the case for the resurrection, with 1 judge voting the debate was a draw. After listening to both sides of the debate, one of the judges concluded the historical evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was “strong enough to lead reasonable minds to conclude that Christ did indeed rise from the dead.” [Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)]. Another of the judges stated:
Since the case against the resurrection was no stronger than that presented by Dr. Flew, I would think it was time I began to take the resurrection seriously.
[Ankerberg & Weldon, Ready With an Answer, pgs. 132-133 (1997) citing to Terry L. Miethe (ed.), Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate, pg. xiv (New York Harper & Row, 1987)] Because there are good reasons to believe God exists and that he supernaturally raised Jesus from the dead, Christian apologists insist it is not only unfair for skeptics to claim Christians are intellectual simpletons for believing in Jesus’ resurrection but it is intellectually dishonest to write off the resurrection as mere foolishness.
For information on how to know God personally, go here.
© 2012 by Andrina G. Hanson
Published: June 1, 2012 / Last Updated: Feb. 21, 2013
QUICK LINKS TO SOURCES REFERENCED OR RELIED ON IN THIS ARTICLE
Kenneth D. Boa and Robert M. Bowman, 20 Compelling Evidences That God Exists: Discover Why Believing In God Makes so Much Sense(River Oak Publishing, 2002)
Norman L. Geisler, BAKER ENCYCLOPEDIA OF CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS(Baker Books, 1999)
Norman L. Geisler, The Battle for the Resurrection: Updated Edition(Wipf & Stock Publishers; Updated Edition, 2004)
Gary R. Habermas, The Apologetics Study Bible: Understand Why You Believe, “Can Naturalistic Theories Account for the Resurrection?” pgs. 1621-1622 (Holman Bible Publishers, 2007)
Peter J. Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics(IVP Academic; 1St Edition, 1994)
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