Resurrection of Jesus
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“”You HAVE to believe the resurrection if you're a Christian, or the game's up! So, look — I understand the desire to prove that somehow it actually happened. You don't have to prove it, and there's no possible way you could prove that somebody was dead and came back to life [2000 years ago].
Christians believe that Jesus Christ died and was resurrected in roughly 30–33 CE as part of his sacrifice to allow the sins of faithful Christians to be forgiven. The resurrection is a central part of the New Testament narrative and a core focus of Christian theology and apologetics. Christian scholars and apologists have long attempted to use the historical method to argue for the resurrection on the basis of biblical and extrabiblical evidence, seeking to demonstrate that disbelief in Christianity is intellectually untenable. Apologists focus on Jesus's empty tomb and the early Christians' conviction that they had seen him after his resurrection. According to apologists, the rise of Christian belief cannot be explained without the resurrection.
While some non-Christian scholars like the historian Richard Carrier claim that such apologetical efforts are often intellectually bankrupt and unresponsive to criticism, other non-Christians, such as Secular Web founder Jeffrey Jay Lowder, have stated that Christian scholars have raised strong and substantive arguments. In general, however, the evidence for the resurrection is more limited than apologists would insist, and contains inaccuracies, contradictions, logical fallacies, and absurdities that cast doubt on the Bible's account of the resurrection.
Nevertheless, in contrast to not even wrong beliefs and vague New Age woo, the resurrection of Jesus is, in principle, possible to evaluate using historical means, even if the degradation of evidence over two thousand years has made it very difficult. The evidence marshalled by Christian apologists for the resurrection is more rigorous and comprehensive than the evidence provided for most other religious claims. Owing to the low prior probability of resurrections in general on the one hand, and the challenge in finding an explanation for the origins of Christianity in lieu of a resurrection on the other, prominent atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder and Christian philosopher Stephen Davis have respectively indicated that that "there are strong historical arguments for the resurrection" and that "it is possible for intelligent people to find principled reasons for rejecting the resurrection of Jesus."
When evaluating the historical arguments for the resurrection, one must keep in mind that Evangelical religious scholarship is tightly controlled by sectarian and political pressures; even the most respected scholars and apologists, such as New Testament scholar Michael Licona, can lose their jobs at institutions that insist on Biblical inerrancy if they make statements or come to academic conclusions that don't toe the party line. Conservative censorship means that scholars are not free to speak; thus, although many Christian scholars are honest people outputting high-quality scholarship, there remains a chilling effect at work. The evidence provided by such a field should be subject to extra scrutiny, and arguments based on consensus should be questioned due to the political and doctrinal factors at play that serve to bias scholarship and skew the consensus.
- 1 Importance to Christianity
- 2 Did it happen?
- 3 Evidence and arguments relating to the resurrection
- 3.1 The scholarly consensus
- 3.2 The prior probability of the resurrection
- 3.3 The empty tomb
- 3.3.1 The burial of Jesus
- 3.3.2 The guards and Jewish polemic of a stolen body
- 3.3.3 The female witnesses
- 3.3.4 The Jerusalem factor
- 3.3.5 The empty tomb and Biblical criticism
- 3.3.6 Alleged multiple independent attestation
- 3.4 The visions
- 3.5 Jewish messianic expectations
- 4 Skeptical alternative explanations
- 5 Explanations for the post-resurrection appearances
- 6 Explanations for the empty tomb
- 7 Summary of evidentiary requirements for skeptical and Christian theories to be possible
- 7.1 Secular explanations for the empty tomb
- 8 See also
- 9 References
Importance to Christianity
“”Ok, if Jesus lived, he had to die. Makes sense. But what happened after he died is a whole other story. Jesus 2: This Time... It's Personal.
The resurrection of Jesus is a pivotal idea to the Christian faith. Gospel.com writes that it is the "basis for a Christian's hope lies in one thing: the resurrection of Jesus. Without that resurrection, we would still be trapped in our own sin and weakness."
Apparently, without a human sacrifice, an omnipotent God can't (or won't?) forgive the rest of humanity for something they themselves didn't do. Which begs the question: Why does he punish us for it, then?
Resurrection is mentioned numerous times throughout the Bible — both the Resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of humankind to face Christ on Judgment Day. For instance, Luke 14:14 (NIV) states:
“”Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Christians traditionally believe that Jesus' slow, tortuous death and/or damnation was to atone for the existent sins of humankind and for the original sin committed by Adam and Eve. As most educated Christians believe the story of Adam and Eve is either a parable or a myth, this translates to atoning for a sinful and imperfect human nature. Since he ends up back in heaven anyway, modern freethinkers wonder where there was any sacrifice.
Those who believe in the literal truth of original sin have no problem in believing that God caused all humanity to be cursed for the sin of two people and then decided to torture himself to make up for it.
Did it happen?
“”I admit I'm surprised whenever I encounter a religious scientist. How can a bench-hazed Ph.D, who might in an afternoon deftly puree a colleague's PowerPoint presentation on the nematode genome into so much fish chow, then go home, read in a two-thousand-year-old chronicle, riddled with internal contradictions, of a meta-Nobel discovery like "Resurrection from the Dead," and say, gee, that sounds convincing? Doesn't the good doctor wonder what the control group looked like?
Let's assume that Jesus Christ existed as a literal, singular, historical person, and that he really did everything recorded in the Bible up to that point. Even given all this slack, there are real doubts about the accuracy of the Bible's account- especially given that Jesus' alleged existence is already poorly recorded in historical records. Thus, one could argue that before debating whether or not Jesus was resurrected, we must first establish evidence that a) he actually did walk the Earth, and b) that he actually did what the Bible said he did.
There are many puzzling details about Jesus' crucifixion.
- Jesus' trial and the process leading up to the crucifixion are puzzling to say the least. It is clear some distortion if not outright fabrication of events is going on. Romans held to the belief that the people of whatever country they had taken over were free to worship whatever gods or animals they wished, provided they accepted the sovereignty of Rome and the Emperor. Put simply: The Romans were always very careful to avoid becoming involved in the internal religious/political quarrels of the countries they occupied, unless there was a direct threat to public order or Roman authority. Also the behavior of the Sanhedrin is totally at odds with how the court is known to have operated in the 1st century CE including that a unanimous verdict for conviction resulted in acquittal. Also, it is recorded that Pontius Pilate often overreacted to even the potential for sedition, which hit its zenith with his handling of The Samaritan prophet of 36 CE which resulted in him being called to Rome to explain himself.
- The gospels contradict each other on when the crucifixion took place; the synoptic gospels have Jesus crucified on the day of Passover, while John puts the crucifixion on the day before. It can't be both. Passover is the second holiest of Jewish holidays, a time of forgiveness, making the story that the Jews would condemn a man to death on Passover difficult to believe. Even more problematic is the trial of Jesus which, if the Gospels are credible, violated all of the laws of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish body of judges). Moreover–depending on the translation–the gospels say he was crucified on a cross, whereas Acts 5:30 says he was "slew and hanged on a tree", though this may be referencing the pre-Roman description in Deuteronomy 21. The original untranslated text literally says he was hanged on wood, perhaps implying the wooden cross.
- The biblical account of Jesus' crucifixion states that nails were driven through his hands. In Luke 24:39, a post-resurrection Jesus invites his disciples to inspect the nail holes in his hands and his feet. In John 20:24-27, Jesus invites Thomas to stick his finger into the nail holes in Jesus' hands. Some argue that the weight of a human being hung from a cross with nails driven through his palms would tear through the hands of the crucified. However, it is perfectly possible that the Romans (purveyors of sanitation, education, public health, public order, roads, wine, aqueducts, military strategy centuries ahead of its time, and other good shit in general) mastered the art of tying arms to wood to hold people in place. The crosses also traditionally had a small step jutting out beneath the feet. This would provide both a source of relief for the stress placed on the arms and hands as well as a handy (ahem) spot to nail the feet to.
- Another curiosity is Jesus' nail and spear wounds, considering that the resurrection process presumably would not de-deadify a man only to leave him in his still broken body. Jesus' pending ascension, however, might explain this significant oversight.
- Crucifixion was perhaps the most drawn-out form of execution ever devised, short of Scaphism. The condemned often lingered for days in agonizing pain. When the condemned grew tired, they hung limp, stretching out the diaphragm and making it impossible to inhale. The condemned then pulled themselves up by the nails through their wrists/hands. They could breathe as long as they held themselves up in this fashion. Eventually, somebody would break their legs to put them out of their misery, causing them to collapse and suffocate. The Romans then left the body on the cross for days, allowing scavengers to pick at it as a warning to would-be insurrectionists. The problems:
- After only a few hours on the cross, Jesus cried out, "It is finished" and "died." Was he in such poor health that he died so quickly? Possibly. He did have to drag the cross to Calvary, falling three times, after having been flogged on several occasions, earlier that day; this isn't exactly conducive to being nailed to things.
- According to John 19:31, the Jews asked Pontius Pilate to send a centurion to break the legs of Jesus and the two thieves crucified with him so the three of them could die and be entombed before the Sabbath began. This seems an odd request. Pilate granting their request is equally odd. Since the Romans used crucifixion to intimidate their subjects, isn't it logical that Pilate would say "no" and allow the bodies to remain on their crosses at a time that Jewish law would have required them to be wrapped and entombed? If this was a request normally granted to the Jews on the Sabbath, why would the Romans schedule these crucifixions mere hours before the Sabbath began? Wouldn't they wait until the Sabbath was over and then crucify Jesus and the two thieves?
- The three hours of darkness upon Jesus' death around Passover cannot have happened because Passover is celebrated around the time of a full Moon, whereas solar eclipses only occur at the time of a new Moon. David Nineham, author of The Gospel of St. Mark, notes that similar portents are claimed to have marked the deaths of Julius Caesar and other pagan figures, and also some of the great rabbis. In order to get around the problem that no eclipse occurred at the time of the crucifixion, some Christians claim it was a metaphor instead of an actual historical account. One possible out is that Mark does not actually call it a solar eclipse. Solar eclipses also do not last three hours. And most of all, not a single record from any civilization in the world records such an event. Even if it was localized, surely at least the Romans would have remarked on it.
“”Can you imagine a movement today claiming that a soldier in World War Two rose physically from the dead, but when you asked for proof all they offered you were a mere handful of anonymous religious tracts written in the 1980s? Would it be even remotely reasonable to believe such a thing on so feeble a proof? Well, no.
If the claim were about an alleged resurrection during the mid 20th century people would certainly ask, "Why was this not recorded at the time? Why did newspapers print nothing? Why were there no radio broadcasts about it? Why was nothing shown in cinemas/movie theatres during newsreel?" All of the above would be expected for a major newsworthy event of that time. Even if the promoters of the resurrection concept could provide plausible explanations why everything except the 1980s tracts was hushed up, ordinary people would still be skeptical. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
Evidence and arguments relating to the resurrection
Apologetic arguments for the resurrection, such as the minimal facts argument, generally focus on the empty tomb and Jesus's later appearances to His followers. Apologists claim that secular explanations do a poor job at explaining how Christians came to believe in an empty tomb and post-resurrection appearances.
While secular researchers have blown many holes in these apologetic arguments, Christian apologetics has nevertheless outperformed the apologetics for other religions in many areas—though part of this could be attributable to the better funding and organization that Christian apologists enjoy. The limited evidence for the resurrection, though far weaker than claimed by Christian apologists, is nevertheless stronger than the not even wrong evidence often marshalled to support religious groups like the New Age movement. In fact, since there is good evidence that the apostles of Jesus have been preaching the resurrection from very early on, the weak evidence promoted by Christian apologists is nevertheless able to overturn Islam's claim that God chose one of the apostles to stand in for Jesus and that the other apostles knew about it.
Nevertheless, although apologists often insist that Jesus's resurrection is nigh unexplainable without recourse to the miraculous, scholars like atheist historian Richard Carrier have characterized these apologetical attempts as intellectually dishonest and unresponsive to existing responses. Jeffrey Jay Lowder, founder of the Secular Web, argues that a "strong apologetic"—an apologetic that renders the other side completely untenable—cannot be made for or against the resurrection.
The scholarly consensus
According to statistics compiled by Gary Habermas, 75% of Bible scholars, including both liberal and conservative scholars, believe in the empty tomb; approximately the same percentage also accepts that the "resurrection or something like it occurred". This, however, is a flawed argument—many people who would be interested in becoming Bible scholars are Christians, and some of them are required to sign belief statements in order to be allowed to teach at religious universities; this bias skews measurements of scholarly consensus in the field and also makes consensus a less reliable indicator of truth. Scholars who fail to follow the party line of Biblical inerrancy could lose their jobs at their institutions. We need to be extra skeptical of the scholarly consensus of fields that are skewed in this way—the fact that many people say something does not make it true.
Basically all of the reported 75% of scholars who accept the resurrection are going to be Christians; indeed, it would be rather stupid to not be a Christian if you are convinced that the resurrection did occur, since that would be tantamount to knowingly sending yourself to hell. Here, it is important not to commit an argumentum ad hominem against Christian scholars: any individual Christian scholar could very well have very good reasons to believe in the resurrection independently of his or her faith. But as a statistical aggregate, it is hard to know how many people became believers in the resurrection because of the evidence compared to how many people already believed and wanted to prove it using their scholarship. Thus, these pre-existing biases mean that it's hard to draw strong conclusions from statistics about the consensus.
Furthermore, Richard Carrier has argued that Habermas's venture commits the fallacy of the excluded middle, as it does not include the vast array of experts who feel that the evidence is not strong enough to go either way. Carrier also claims that Habermas has been untransparent about where he got the data and notes that Habermas appears to have based his number on a survey of writers publishing on the issue rather than all qualified experts; this further skews the data, since the set of experts who publish on an issue might be more passionate about it than the set of all experts qualified to judge the issue. Finally, Habermas's count does not pay sufficient attention to the quality of the arguments, instead focusing on the quantity; Carrier points out that some writers on his list are not very qualified, and even Habermas himself admits that many of the pro-empty tomb writings are flawed. This weakens Habermas's appeal to consensus, since the consensus might have formed in opposition to reality.
Contrast the flawed consensus for the empty tomb with the strong consensus for evolution and an old earth, which was produced by evidence that has been convincing to scientists all across the religious spectrum, including scientists at religious educational institutions like Baylor University, Brigham Young University, and Notre Dame.
The prior probability of the resurrection
The prior probability of the resurrection based on our background knowledge is an important topic of debate. If all the metaphysical claims of Christianity, such as the existence of a God, were proven independently, then the prior probability of the resurrection jumps up. If, on the other hand, we had independent and irrefutable evidence of God's non-existence, then the prior probability of the resurrection would drop to near-zero, and if it did occur, it would have been due to some other cause (aliens?) and would not lead to the doctrinal beliefs of Christianity being true. We combine prior probability with the ability of a theory to explain the evidence in order to find the probability that the theory is true given the evidence.
Christian apologists frequently accuse atheists and theological liberals of using a purely naturalistic methodology to evaluate the resurrection and other historical claims about Jesus. Indeed, since the resurrection is often used as evidence for God's existence, it is circular to assume that He does not exist and that therefore the resurrection is impossible. But this is sometimes a strawman. For instance, while Greg Boyd claims that the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute, a group of liberal-leaning scholars whose ranks include atheists and liberal Christians, "[rules] out the possibility of the supernatural from the beginning", Westar's director Robert Funk stated that "nothing is impossible" and John Dominic Crossan of the Jesus Seminar states he "[leaves] absolutely open what God could do." Skeptics sometimes say that we should grant a low but nonzero prior probability to the resurrection because miracles are rare and false beliefs about miracles are common.
The empty tomb
The idea that the tomb of Jesus was empty appears to be be less well-supported than the other leg of the apologists' claim—that Jesus's followers really did experience some sort of appearance, veridical or not. For instance, although Christian scholar and apologist Gary Habermas believes that the empty tomb is well supported as a historical fact, he does not use it as a "minimal fact" because it is less supported by the scholarly consensus. We also don't know for sure where the empty tomb exactly was; Protestants prefer the Garden Tomb, while Catholics prefer the Holy Sepulchre.
The burial of Jesus
Some atheists claim that Jesus's body would have been left out on the cross, but this is not borne out by history—there are examples of executed criminals given a proper burial, such as Jehohanan. Jewish law required executed people to be taken down on the same day (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), so it is plausible that the Sanhedrin, or a member thereof like Joseph of Arimathea, would have helped bury Jesus. However, according to Richard Carrier, since Jewish law required special graveyards for the condemned, if Jesus was buried in a private tomb, it would have been only temporary. This means that if He was indeed temporarily buried in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb, Jesus's body could have been taken away from the tomb and reburied prior to the arrival of His disciples three days later.
It is also possible that the story of Joseph of Arimathea is not true at all, potentially meaning that Jesus was never temporarily buried in a identifiable private tomb for the early Christians and their opponents to locate. For example, Jesus could have been buried in a criminal's grave by the Sanhedrin, as provided for by Jewish law.
The Markan passion narrative
William Lane Craig argues that we have a very early source for the burial of Jesus: the passion narrative that Mark used as his source. Craig argues that the passion source is very early because the high priest Caiaphas, whose priesthood ended in 37 BC, is referred to simply as the "high priest", indicating that he was still the high priest at the time of writing.:153
One problem is that the supposed early passion source names Pilate instead of simply calling him the prefect, even though his office ended at around the same time as Caiaphas.:154 This opens up an alternative explanation: Caiaphas was not named because he was not important to the story, or because his gentile readers would not have cared about the high priest's name.:115 If Mark didn't find the high priest's name important enough to add to the passion source, then it could be that his passion source was itself written quite late but also didn't find it necessary to mention it for the same reasons.:155 Another possibility is that Mark didn't name the high priest because as a later writer, he didn't know his name.
Furthermore, many leading scholars don't think that the passion narrative extends into the burial story, or reject the claim that an earlier passion source was a real thing at all.:155 If this is the case, then it doesn't matter how early the passion narrative is as a source, because the burial wouldn't be part of it.
The guards and Jewish polemic of a stolen body
The Gospel of Matthew states that after Jesus's death and burial, the Jewish authorities went to Pilate to ask him to install guards at the tomb, saying they were afraid that Jesus's disciples might steal His body in order to fulfil his prophecy that he would rise on the third day. (Matthew 27:62-66) Then, when the priests learned that Jesus's tomb was empty, they secretly gave money to the guards to bribe them to claim that the disciples stole the body while they were asleep; Matthew finishes by saying that the false accusation of the priests and bribed guards is "commonly reported among the Jews until this day." (Matthew 28:12-15) If this story is indeed true, then it would make it a lot harder for skeptics to propose alternative explanations for the empty tomb, such as that Jesus's body was stolen by an anonymous grave robber, that it was misplaced, that it, as Mary Magdalene seems to have initially thought, was moved to a different location (John 20:13), or that it never existed at all (since the Jewish polemic that claims the body was stolen presupposes the empty tomb.)
Even on the surface level, there are many problems with the story of the guards. It never appears in any other canonical gospel, and Matthew's author does not state where he got the information about the priests' secret conspiracy to make the guards lie. This means that unless he somehow got it from revelations, it's total hearsay that fails the Bible's own standard that you need two or three witnesses to substantiate such a charge (2 Corinthians 13:1), since we don't know who provided the information or how many witnesses were there. In fact, since our only source is Matthew quoting anonymous sources, this alleged fact is worse attested than any of the witness statements for the Book of Mormon, whose alleged witnesses are named and have biographies, and the alleged miracles of Prophet Muhammed, whose witnesses are named and vetted through Hadith tradition and tracked through layers of transmission. President Trump would call this fake news.
It is also absurd for the priests to make the guards claim that it was the disciples who stole the body while they were asleep—how would they have known it was the disciples if they were asleep at the time? It would also have been unlikely for the guards to falsely claim they had fallen asleep, since that could have incurred a death sentence for falling asleep on the job.
Furthermore, the story of the guards makes it seem like the priests understood Jesus's prophecies about his resurrection when the apostles did not, which even Christian apologists like William Lane Craig find questionable.
Matthew's claim that the Jewish authorities immediately began accusing the Christians of stealing the body does not seem to be borne out by the historical evidence. Grave robbing was a capital crime, so one would expect that if there had been an empty tomb, the Jewish authorities would have tried to get the disciples into deep trouble using an accusation of grave robbery. Yet the book of Acts records no such accusations, even though it records the early Christians being routinely harassed by Jewish and Roman authorities, and the earliest gospel, Mark, does not seem to see the need to respond to any such accusations at all. Richard Carrier argues that this is because the accusations of grave robbery in fact only emerged after Mark made up the story of the empty tomb.
If the empty tomb was a later invention and the polemic of the stolen body only arose in response to Mark (or whichever source that came up with the tradition that ended up in Mark), then one possibility is a telephone game of competing polemics among religious groups who didn't actually have access to the relevant evidence or know where the tomb was:
- "The Lord's tomb was empty!"
- "Well then, you guys must have stolen the body!"
- "There were guards there, so we couldn't have stolen it!"
- "The guards fell asleep and you guys stole it!"
- "You paid the guards to say that they fell asleep and that we stole it!"
Peter Kirby notes that Christianity arose in a milieu in which people were not very scientifically-minded. Opponents of Christianity at the time, instead of approaching it with skepticism, granted that the Christian account was mostly correct. For instance, instead of doubting the stories of Jesus's miracles, they attributed them to demons and magical arts; instead of saying that Jesus was the son of Joseph, they made up a salacious but false story about him being the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier. Thus, it is possible that anti-Christian polemicists uncritically assumed that the Christian claim that there was an empty tomb was true and then came to a different conclusion than the Christians did from that assumption.
Another possibility is that Matthew's author misrepresented what the Jews were saying at the time of writing. This does not seem to be out of the realm of possibility, since "the disciples stole the body while we were asleep so that we couldn't know what actually happened" doesn't seem like a real thing that the Pharisees would make the guards say, meaning that Matthew could indeed have distorted the Jewish polemics that had arisen.
The female witnesses
One apologetic argument for the empty tomb is that the early Christians would not have made up women as their witnesses for it, since women's testimony was not as trusted. But as atheist historian Richard Carrier notes, women were in fact trusted in many contexts, and the target audience of early Christianity was not necessarily the entirety of the rather patriarchal society at that time—Christianity initially converted more women than men, and the early church was supported by generous, wealthy female members. Thus, even if it were true that women's testimony was as distrusted as apologists say it was, it is still plausible that believers in a faith that had been lambasting the political and religious establishment from the very beginning might have chosen to not play by the rules of the establishment and make up female witnesses anyway.
The Jerusalem factor
The early Christians began their preaching in Jerusalem. Christian apologists argue that if the tomb had not been empty, the opponents of the early Christians in Jerusalem could have put an immediate end to their preaching simply by exhuming a body to show that the tomb was not empty, thereby preventing them from preaching their message there. According to the book of Acts, the disciples waited 50 days until Pentecost to preach the resurrection. Christian historian and apologist Gary Habermas, citing pathologists, argues that under local climate conditions, the body would have still been recognizable after those 50 days. Furthermore, Habermas argues that since the New Testament preaches that the tomb was empty, even a body that was not of Jesus would have put an end to the preaching, showing that the tomb was likely indeed empty.
The most important flaw in this argument is that it is irrelevant to many of the alternative skeptical explanations. Those who argue that there was no empty tomb often argue that it was a later legend made up by Mark or his sources, and Jesus might have instead been buried in a non-identifiable mass grave for criminals. If this was the case, then the early opponents of Christianity would not have had any empty tomb claim to refute. By the time Jerusalem was sacked, the evidence that would be needed to refute such a claim would have become inaccessible.  This also defuses the argument that any body would have sufficed, since the doubt about what the early Christians initially preached means that smaller details like "the tomb was completely empty" may not have been a clear part of the original message. This "later myth" theory is bolstered by the fact that the book of Acts never records accusations of grave robbery and the Pauline epistles, the earliest Christian documents, never explicitly talk about the empty tomb.
The Jerusalem factor argument is not intended to refute secular explanations that do include an empty tomb that occurs by natural means, such as the relocation hypothesis and the theft hypothesis.
Not all pathologists agree that Jesus's body would have still been recognizable 50 days later. Retired pathologist John Nernoff III states that even under colder temperatures, the body would have been made unrecognizable by drying, decomposition, the settling of blood, and the loosening of rigor mortis. Jewish law does not allow the use of corpse identification as evidence when more than three days have passed since death.
Furthermore, if Jesus's body (or another crucifixion victim's body that the Pharisees said was Jesus) had been exhumed by His opponents, there is no guarantee that those who already deeply believed in Christianity would have accepted that it was his body.
The Jerusalem factor argument also presupposes that the opponents of Christianity were interested in deeply investigating its claims. For the first few centuries of Christianity, it seems as though few Jews or Romans were interested in the religious movement, with no early Jewish sources mentioning the resurrection. (This, of course, is contrary to the gospels' depiction of massive crowds coming to Jesus and cheering Him on as he entered Jerusalem riding a donkey, of great wonders witnessed by thousands of people, and of great earthquakes, eclipses, and hordes of resurrected saints that nobody else noticed.)
Finally, the Jerusalem factor argument only works if we assume that Jesus was buried in an identifiable tomb and not a criminal's graveyard. If there was no identifiable tomb, there would have been no body to exhume either. If the early Christians initially buried the empty tomb story towards the wider public due to the women witnesses being an embarrassment and did not initially spread it widely (Christian apologist N.T. Wright, seeking to prove the N.T. right, argues that the female witnesses may have been airbrushed out by the creed in 1 Corinthians 15:1 ), there also would not have been an empty tomb story for their opponents to refute.
The Jerusalem factor argument also somewhat backfires on itself: Christianity was unpopular in Jerusalem, spreading mostly in distant areas.
The empty tomb and Biblical criticism
In terms of the chronology in which the books of the Bible were written, the empty tomb first explicitly appears in the Gospel of Mark, and not the earlier Pauline epistles. The short ending of Mark, describing the reaction of the female witnesses of the empty tomb, simply ends with "And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid." (Mark 16:8) On the other hand, the longer ending of Mark (which many scholars see as a later addition), as well as the other canonical gospels, depict the women going to the disciples and telling them about the empty tomb. This has led scholars to argue that Mark may have indicated that the women kept quiet in order to explain why nobody had heard the story before, therefore indicating that it was a later tradition.
1 Corinthians 15:1 does not explicitly indicate that anyone discovered an empty tomb. The verse is one of the earliest accounts of the resurrection, an earlier creed quoted by an epistle of Paul. Although some argue that its mention of a burial and resurrection implies an empty tomb, it is also compatible with an unknown burial site or a dishonorable burial. :12 Paul was trying to defend Jesus's resurrection to a congregation ailing with doubt about the general resurrection, quoting a whole creed to make his point, so if he does not mention an empty tomb, it suggests that one had not been discovered.:13
The gospel of Matthew indicates that after Jesus's resurrection, many saints were also resurrected and went into Jerusalem to be seen by many people (Matthew 27:52) and that an angel descended to move the stone of the tomb away while a great earthquake occurred (Matthew 28:2), giant events that the other gospels, as well as secular historians and everyone else alive at the time, seem to have missed. Christian scholars have been forced to admit that some of these great miracles that should have been recorded by more people might not have been meant to be literal. Christian scholar Michael Licona floated the idea that Matthew 27's reference to dead saints who arose might be figurative, only to get ousted from his seminary with a strict pro-inerrancy policy.
Opponents of Christianity argue that the stories regarding the discovery of the empty tomb in the Bible are contradictory. While some apparent contradictions are easy to reconcile, others are seen as troubling by serious apologists and require more creative interpretations.
Alleged multiple independent attestation
Some Christian scholars and apologists argue that there are multiple, independent attestations of the empty tomb within the Bible. Here, secularists should resist the temptation to call it circular reasoning; while it is sometimes fallacious to argue straight from the Bible, it is perfectly permissible to start with the Bible if you begin by treating it like any other primary source from history. Instead, the response of informed secular commentators is that many of these attestations are either not independent or not clear attestations at all. According to Richard Carrier, "we essentially have only one source from half a century later: the Gospel of Mark, which was used, directly or indirectly, by all the other relevant authors, and which very likely invented both the tomb and burial story."
1 Corinthians 15
Craig argues that the fact that 1 Corinthians 15 indicates Jesus died, buried, was raised, and appeared, which is the same order of events recounted in the gospel narratives, indicates that Paul was summarizing the basic events that were later written in the gospels, including Jesus's burial.:148 But this is a very weak argument; if the gospels engaged in legendary expansion on the creeds, they would also mention the events in the same order. As Richard Carrier states, "Mark is adopting Paul's language, and thus Mark may have added any new ideology to the simpler core belief of Paul. This therefore tells us nothing about what Paul believed."
The gospels diverge in their accounts of the events on Easter day; the Gospel of John especially is thought to be literarily independent from the others.  While this has led to apparent Bible contradictions that have troubled even Christian commentators, it has also allowed Christian apologists to argue that this is evidence that the gospel accounts are independent sources for the discovery of the empty tomb.:143
One problem with this approach is that the discrepancies in the later gospels can be explained fairly well as redactions made upon the earliest canonical gospel, Mark, made for theological reasons or simply to smooth out the account, and the similarities in their stories can be attributed to literary dependence on each other and a shared, potentially unreliable, oral tradition from which all the gospels draw.:144 In other words, we cannot easily establish that the gospels are independent sources rather than sources that copied off each other and then tweaked or made up some details. Indeed, it is well established that in many other places, Luke and Matthew copy verbatim from Mark.
The sermons in Acts
In Acts 13:28-31, Paul states "they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre". Two sermons, quoted in Acts 2:29 and Acts 13:36, indicate that King David's tomb is still present. William Lane Craig argues that the first is an attestation of an honorable burial in a rock-hewn tomb, and the latter two are attestations of Jesus's tomb being discovered.:144-146
In Acts 13:28-31, the word that gets translated into "sepulchre" or "tomb" is actually mnēmeion, a word that could also refer to an unmarked grave, as it does in Luke 11:44, written by the same author, which talks about "graves which appear not" such that "the men that walk over them are not aware of them.":145 Thus, even assuming that Acts accurately retells Paul's sermons, we cannot say that it attests to a rock-hewn tomb; to insist on the "tomb" translation would require us to circularly assume that Paul believed in a rock-hewn tomb burial, which is the very thing we're trying to prove or disprove.
In the latter two passages, the speaker refers to King David still being in his tomb in order to show that Psalm 16:10 really refers to Jesus and not to King David. The reference to King David's tomb serves to indicate that King David, because he died and decayed in his tomb, was not the subject of the Psalm's statement "neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption." The passages do not explicitly say anything about Jesus's tomb being discovered. Thus, Komarnitsky argues that although this does entail a belief that Jesus had been taken away from his burial place, it is not an attestation that an empty tomb was actually discovered. :147
The gospels record Jesus's followers seeing and interacting with him after his resurrection. Some secular historians explain this as a form of group hallucination. Apologists argue that, given the types of visions recorded by the gospels, the epistles, and Acts, as well as the predispositions of the disciples prior to the visions, hallucinations would have been unlikely.
Did Jesus predict his resurrection?
The gospels indicate that Jesus predicted his resurrection. For some reason, the disciples were confused by it (Mark 9:31-32), but the Jewish authorities took it seriously and installed guards at the tomb. (Matthew 27:62-65) This type of historical implausibility has led skeptics and some Christians to question whether Jesus ever predicted his resurrection at all.
The two horns of this dilemma pose problems for both sides of the debate.
If Jesus did predict his resurrection, then Biblical inerrancy is preserved. It is also unlikely that Jesus would have predicted his resurrection out of the blue if he was simply an itinerant preacher who met an untimely death, so independent proof of Jesus making such a prediction would be good evidence for Christianity. However, his predictions might then have created an expectation in his followers that would increase their likelihood of experiencing hallucinations, as some argue might have produced the Sun miracle of Fátima. This would then make it somewhat harder to argue that hallucinations were unlikely. It would also completely tank the argument that the expectations of a resurrected Messiah needed to create hallucinations couldn't arise naturally in a Jewish context, since Jesus himself would have been the one providing that expectation.
If Jesus did not actually predict his resurrection, then skeptics will have to do more work to explain how Jesus's first followers came to believe that they did see him, as hallucinations are rendered less likely, but Biblical inerrancy goes out the window.
1 Corinthians 15
1 Corinthians 15:1-9 recounts a creed that indicates that after Jesus's resurrection, He appeared to the apostles, to 500 believers, and to Paul. It is rendered in the public domain World English Bible as follows:
Now I declare to you, brothers, the Good News which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold firmly the word which I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred brothers at once, most of whom remain until now, but some have also fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time, he appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles, who is not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the assembly of God.
This is one of the more important pieces of evidence presented for the resurrection of Jesus. The first reason is that is an early attestation of the post-resurrection visions. It is found in the Pauline epistles, which were written rather early on (~50 AD). Paul was recounting a creed that seems to have already existed, that the Corinthians seemingly already knew; thus, the creed is generally accepted to be a pre-Pauline text that pre-dates the Pauline epistles. Thus, most scholars, including atheist scholars, agree that the creed in 1 Corinthians 15 is a very early attestation of the visions believers in Jesus apparently experienced. For example, Richard Carrier states:
So the Corinthian Creed, at least verses 3-5, definitely existed and was the central “gospel” Christians were preaching in the early 30s A.D. That’s definitely no later than a few years after the purported death of Jesus. And since the sect’s formation only makes sense in light of this being its seminal and distinguishing message, it must have been formulated in the very first weeks of the movement.
A small number of people, such as New Testament scholar Robert M. Price, argue that 1 Corinthians 15's creed was actually a post-Pauline interpolation, but this is a fringe position with weak evidence and no support from manuscript variants. Even skeptic Richard Carrier rejects this, indicating that even Price's argument, representing the "best attempt" in favour of the position, is still fundamentally fallacious.
In addition to its age, 1 Corinthians 15 should also trouble skeptics of the resurrection because Paul indicates that more than 500 people witnessed the resurrected Jesus, and his statement that "most of whom remain until now" seems to indicate that the recipients of his letter could still check their testimonies.
Carrier speculates that the appearance to "five hundred brothers at once", which is not depicted anywhere else in the Bible, could be a corruption in the text, and that it originally may have been about the spiritual experiences that occurred on the Pentecost, which are easier to explain as a phenomenon similar to the Fátima sun miracle. The lack of evidence of this mass appearance anywhere else in the Bible also casts doubt on whether anything of the sort happened at all. As Carrier notes, mass appearances are "the least well-attested fact in the tradition" and "a likely thing to invent for its rhetorical power."
Paul's statement that his appearance was "and last of all, as to the child born at the wrong time" is an important subject of debate. The Gospels describe very embodied corporeal appearances in which Jesus eats with his disciples and shows them his wounds, while Acts's description of Paul's conversion experience seems more like a spiritual experience, and Paul's letters describe his experiences only in terms of being a spiritual revelation. If Paul's statement was intended to indicate that the appearance to him was different in nature than the physical appearances to the other apostles, then the appearances to the other apostles cannot be easily dismissed as also originally being merely spiritual. Non-traditional scholars, however, dispute that this was the meaning of Paul's words. According to the more liberal Jesus Seminar, the tradition that Jesus stayed on earth for forty days before ascending is likely a later legend; Christians originally believed that Jesus was resurrected and ascended all at once and then appeared to his disciples from heaven.:95 After the ascension tradition emerged (perhaps to explain why new appearances had ceased), the earlier appearances became more corporeal appearances, while Paul's appearances, which occurred many years later, could not become corporeal because Jesus had already ascended.:95 Thus, Paul's use of "last of all" was not intended to make a distinction in the nature of the appearances, since such a distinction did not yet exist. Richard Carrier therefore states that Paul "makes no distinctions other than time ... and divine motive". If a distinction between the nature of the appearances to Paul and the appearances to the other Apostles cannot be made, then the Apostles' appearances were also more spiritual and less physical than described in the gospels, making them more likely to be hallucinations.
Jewish messianic expectations
One argument raised by Christian apologists is that there was no expectation of a dying or resurrected Messiah in Second Temple Judaism. This would make it less likely for belief in a resurrected Messiah to arise; it would also make the expectations needed to produce hallucinations less likely as well.
Here, we must note several things.
Firstly, Richard Carrier has noted that there are many pieces of evidence from the Bible and Jewish texts that "a 'dying messiah' was not wholly anathema to Jews and even already imagined by some before Christianity made a lot of hay out of the idea." For example, parts of Jewish tradition seem to indicate that there will be a suffering or even a dying-and-rising messiah. While these are sources that came after Christianity, it is unlikely that the Jews would have invented interpretations that would support Christian views that they saw as heretical; thus, Carrier argues that this points to a pre-Christian common origin for both beliefs. Carrier points out that 11Q13 from the Qumran caves seems to interpret Isaiah 52-53 and Daniel 9:24-27 in terms of an atoning, dying messiah, though this is reliant on making inferences to reconstruct the fragmentary text and its authorial intent. Furthermore, Second Temple Judaism was quite diverse, with many sects now lost to history, and it is plausible that Christianity could have emerged from a Jewish group that accepted a dying and rising messiah.
Anglican Bible scholar David C. Mitchell interprets the Qumran text 4Q372, whose content is dated to 200 BCE, as a text describing a Messiah ben Joseph (a Jewish concept not to be confused with the Messiah ben David, whom Christians believe to be Jesus) who dies crying out to God and is resurrected. It is to be noted, however, that other interpretations of the passage are possible.
Christian apologists cannot have their cake and eat it too. On the one hand, they argue that Jewish messianic expectations had no room for a resurrected messiah; on the other, when trying to convert Jews, they argue that prophecies of a suffering Messiah are plainly seen in the Tanach, such as in Isaiah 53, and that other hints found in the rest of Jewish tradition also help legitimize it. For example, Jews for Jesus cites the Talmud and other Jewish sources to argue that Isaiah 53, with its suffering and atoning messiah, was legitimately interpreted as a messianic prophecy; this is in some ways similar to the argument that Richard Carrier made that there were expectations of a dying and rising messiah at least among some Jews. If there were legitimate seeds for belief in an atoning messiah in Jewish tradition, then couldn't it have just as easily been the case that the early Christians went to the scriptures to find an explanation for their teacher's death, and eventually used the same verses that Christians use as messianic prooftexts today to come up with a rationalization involving atonement and resurrection? If, on the other hand, there were no seeds for belief in a atoning messiah in Jewish tradition, why say that Christianity fulfils Jewish prophecy?
Secondly, even given that it is true that a resurrected Messiah was out of the picture in normal Jewish theology, the cognitive dissonance theory, as discussed below, accounts for this already: many sects create very novel and creative beliefs, even beliefs that are generally seen as heretical, to explain disconfirmations (such as the death of a leader) so that members can hold on to their faith. Jewish believers who thought Sabbatai Sevi was the Messiah, in order to explain the apostasy of their leader to Islam, created the rationalization that the messiah had chosen to "assume the form of evil" to destroy it from within, an idea that was "necessarily novel and even heretical in terms of traditional Judaism.":53 Similarly, the Orthodox Jewish Chabad movement generated a series of creative rationalizations when Rebbe Schneerson died, including the belief that the Rebbe's illness was him taking on the suffering of the Jewish people:54 and that he would soon be resurrected to come back and redeem the Jewish nation.:55
Mormon apologists, who need to explain why the Book of Mormon mentions pre-Christian prophets called Zenock, Neum, and Zenos (who are not unambiguously attested elsewhere) explicitly prophesying, seemingly anachronistically, about a suffering and resurrected Christ, have argued, citing non-Latter-day Saint scholars like Daniel Boyarin, that the core Christian ideas about a Father/Son Godhead and a suffering redeemer were very well present in First Temple Judaism, prior to later redactions that took place in Judaism. If we accept this, the claim that Jesus fulfilled messianic prophecies becomes more plausible, but the claim that there was no raw material for belief in a dying and resurrecting Messiah to arise naturalistically gets tanked.
Skeptical alternative explanations
Skeptics have proposed many alternative explanations for the appearance of Christian belief. These alternative explanations vary in plausibility and explanatory power. Since we only have the Christian account of the resurrection and do not have alternative accounts from the first century, it may not be possible to settle on a single secular explanation. Nevertheless, if the total sum of the probabilities of all the secular explanations far exceeds the probability of the resurrection being true, the resurrection would lose much of its strength as a justification for Christianity.
Explanations for the post-resurrection appearances
Some skeptics propose that Jesus's followers had hallucinations of him after his crucifixion. This is part of the cognitive dissonance theory, but other forms of hallucinations and spiritual experiences, such as bereavement visions, have been proposed.
Christian apologists argue that hallucinations are unable to explain belief in the resurrection, but their arguments are dependent on Biblical information that we have good reason to doubt. The main objections raised are:
- The number of people: 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 and other parts of the Bible indicate Jesus appeared to many people, including the apostles, Paul, and 500 people at once. Real hallucinations are individual in nature.
- The nature of the appearances: The appearances as described in the gospels were repeated and prolonged. Jesus spoke with his disciples, ate with them, and allowed them to touch his wounds. The appearances, as described in the gospels, were not dreamy or vague like hallucinations would be.
- The lack of expectation: The disciples did not expect to see a resurrected Jesus. They were initially skeptical, not believing it was Jesus or thinking that it was a ghost. Jesus also appeared to the disbeliever James and Paul the persecutor of Christians, people who are unlikely to have expected a resurrection. We can further steelman this objection by noting that if Christianity is false, then Jesus was merely an itinerant preacher; he would not have predicted his resurrection as he does in the gospels (since it would not have been foreseen as part of his plan) and even if he did, his words would not have been backed up by any miracles. Thus, if Christianity is false, then Jesus's words alone would not have caused his followers to expect a resurrection. The burden of rejoinder of the skeptic therefore lies in explaining how expectations for seeing a resurrected Jesus would have formed among his followers given that he had not convincingly told them that he would be resurrected.
- The empty tomb: The hallucination theory only explains the visions and does not explain the empty tomb. And if the tomb was discovered not empty, then Jesus's followers would not have believed in their hallucinations and their opponents would have been able to discredit their hallucinations.
Objection (1) is blunted by the argument that the reference to 500 witnesses is unreliable and that one hallucination could trigger others in a religiously charged setting.:140
Objection (2) is blunted by the fact that all the more detailed descriptions of the appearances are in the later gospels and not the earlier Pauline epistles. Objection (2) falls if the appearance traditions in the gospels are unreliable, since it could be that less spectacular hallucinations and spiritual experiences, which could happen naturally, were eventually exaggerated into events that cannot happen without a miracle. The scholarly consensus, according to the Oxford Annotated Bible, is that the gospels are later works written by anonymous authors that "do not present eyewitness or contemporary accounts of Jesus' life and teachings." Wolfhart Pannenberg wrote that "the appearances reported in the Gospels, which are not mentioned by Paul, have such a strongly legendary character that one can scarcely find a historical kernel of their own in them.":161 Richard Carrier calls the gospels "useless data" and lambastes Christian apologists for equivocating between the vague hallucinations, dreams, and spiritual experiences that skeptics propose occurred and the detailed appearances and interactions depicted in the gospels.
In regards to Objection (3), a proponent of the cognitive dissonance theory (see below) would argue that the apostles came to expect visions because they had come up with a rationalization that Jesus had been resurrected to help soothe their defeat. Paul's conversion story has apparent inconsistencies in it that create a legitimate suspicion that it may have been a subjective spiritual experience embellished by Paul and the author of Acts; Richard Carrier also notes that it could be that Paul was racked with guilt after persecuting the early Christians, thereby providing the spark for a spiritual experience to occur.
We might have good reason to doubt the exact narrative of doubting, dejected apostles being surprised by the resurrection of Jesus. Secular theories seem to account for the expectations of the apostles better than Christianity does. On Christianity, Jesus prophesied to his apostles that he would be killed and resurrected (e.g. Mark 8:31, Mark 14:28), and performed many great miracles like the feeding of the 5000 that backed up his words; yet somehow the apostles did not understand what he is saying, and ended up in disbelief and defeat after Jesus's crucifixion. Not only that, but the Pharisees somehow did understand Jesus's words and planted guards that we only see in one canonical gospel in a vain attempt to preempt the creation of Christianity. (Matthew 27:64) This is very implausible. On secular theories in which Jesus did not predict his resurrection, the disbelief and dejection of the apostles occurred because Jesus's crucifixion was genuinely unexpected, and their dejection was turned into belief when a new rationalization arose and triggered religious experiences and visions.
Objection (4) is accounted for by credible alternative explanations for the belief in the empty tomb, such as it being a later belief that "developed later for apologetic and didactic purposes.":157 Note also that some formulations of objection (4) are red herring fallacies: it is okay for hallucination theory to not explain the empty tomb if a different theory does, just like how it is okay when theists' cosmological arguments only demonstrate a first cause and need to be paired with other arguments to show that that first cause must have the properties of God, or how it is okay for evolution to be paired with abiogenesis. The hallucination theory is not refuted by its lack of explanation for the empty tomb because that's not its purpose. But objection (4) can be steelmanned: if naturalists need two theories rather than one, the naturalist's explanation is more complex and ad hoc, and its prior probability drops. The way to salvage the naturalistic explanation, therefore, is to show that the additional naturalistic explanations for the empty tomb have independent evidence supporting them and are therefore not ad hoc rationalizations that are merely there to allow the hallucination theory to stand.
Cognitive dissonance theory
The apostles had devoted their lives to Jesus and would have had a great desire to find an explanation for his death. The cognitive dissonance theory argues that this led them to seek for answers and make up excuses and alternative explanations and beliefs so that they could try to hold on to their faith. This might have in turn triggered spiritual experiences or hallucinations.
Amateur researcher Kris Komarnitsky proposes the cognitive dissonance theory, which is also supported by some experts that he cites, as one of many potential secular explanations of the resurrection. Komarnitsky proposes that after Jesus died, his extremely devoted followers wanted to hold on tight to their devotion to him in the face of this disconfirmation of their expectations and made the rationalization that Jesus's death was part of the plan all along, that God had resurrected Jesus, and that he would be back to fulfil the prophecies of a reigning, victorious Messiah, using creative reinterpretations of scripture to justify this new belief.:140 The environment of religious anticipation caused the early Christians to have visions and spiritual experiences confirming his resurrection one after another, possibly accelerated when those who had visions told others about them and caused them to also expect visions.:140
Many religious movements in the past have created unusual new beliefs in order to rationalize away failed prophecies and disappointments. Komarnitsky gives the examples of a small UFO cult group studied by psychologist Leon Festinger,:47 the failed second coming prophecies of the Millerites (now the Seventh-day Adventists),:50 the messianic movement around Sabbatai Sevi,:52 and the messianic movement around Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who headed the Chabad movement.:54 Leon Festinger proposes that in religiously-charged cult groups, these rationalizations become accepted and strengthened because the members can "support one another and convince each other", with "mutual social support" causing members to stay in the group rather than leaving due to their expectations being disconfirmed.:48
One question that the cognitive dissonance theory must answer is why Christianity chose a resurrected Messiah as a rationalization instead of some other belief, such as a future resurrection of the Messiah as in Chabad Messianism. According to Komarnitsky, the Chabad Messianists did not come up with a current resurrection since the Rebbe's grave site was known and Chabad theology required him to be present on earth.:61
Komarnitsky argues that the historical, cultural, and religious context of the New Testament times would have given enough "raw material" to create an atoning Messiah as a rationalization.:62 The idea of using atonement and sacrifice to reconcile with God or the gods was a part of both Jewish and pagan faith.:62 The story of the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19) was an important story in Judaism and, by the first century, had become interpreted as a willing sacrifice on the part of Isaac.:63 And in the first century, Jewish texts like 4 Maccabees 17:20-22 had begun speaking of martyrdom as a form of atonement for the Jewish nation.:64
There was also raw material for belief in a resurrection. Both Jewish and pagan traditions included elements of bodily assumption to heaven for righteous people, often involving the person's body disappearing.:65-69 For instance, Philo of Alexandria wrote that Moses's burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6) because "the end of virtuous and holy men is not death but a translation and migration, and an approach to some other place of abode.":66 Some of these instances of bodily assumption occured after death, such as the dead children raised to heaven in the Testament of Job.:67 Bodily assumption that occurs after death entails resurrection—what good would moving a dead body to heaven do? Komarnitsky argues that this idea of bodily assumption as a "vindication of and reward for the righteous" present in the cultural milieu of the time would have favoured a resurrection over the Chabad belief that the messiah would stay deceased until his second coming.:71
Less likely explanations
The Apostles lied
One possibility is that the apostles simply lied about the resurrection, perhaps to gain power after the Jesus, the original leader of their religious movement, died. If this theory is true, then we would have a simple explanation for all the evidence for the resurrection—it was simply made up, staged, or otherwise faked by the Apostles. In other words, it has great explanatory power—but so do bad theories like luminiferous aether. To be a good explanation, it would also need to be evaluated under criteria such as plausibility, Hanlon's razor, and Occam's razor.
The explanation that the apostles simply made everything up is a less likely explanation, and secular scholars do not generally gravitate towards it. One reason is that, according to Christian history, the apostles faced opposition and martyrdom: Paul was imprisoned, the apostles were murdered, and preachers of the gospel were routinely harassed by Romans and Jews, per the book of Acts. While argumentum ad martyrdom is often fallacious (for instance, the beliefs of jihadi terrorists are not justified by their willingness to die), it becomes a more substantive argument when the people concerned are the ones with whom a belief originated. This is because while people may be willing to die because they were convinced by somebody else's lies, they are usually not willing to die for their own lies. This bolsters the claim that the apostles were sincere, so the prevailing secular explanations often instead argue that they were mistaken instead of lying.
Nevertheless, the martyrdom stories in Christian traditions are often unreliable, and it is hard to establish that the apostles that are known to have died died because they preached the resurrection rather than because of political turmoil or because they were Jewish. It also cannot be established that they could have gotten out of being killed if they had recanted.  Even if the apostles were murdered for reasons other than the resurrection belief, however, their decision to lead the Christian movement still put them in greater danger and made them bigger targets; any theory that the apostles simply lied would need to convincingly explain what could have motivated them to take this risk.
However, if what needs to be explained is not martyrdom by refusing to recant belief in the resurrection specifically, but rather martyrdom and persecution incurred by becoming bigger targets generally, then the bar to leap is lowered for the skeptics. This is not a vain distinction; many founders of mutually-exclusive religious movements have been willing to suffer persecution. Since they cannot all be telling the truth, we are led to conclude that for some people, the power and glory involved in becoming a powerful religious leader outweighs the risks incurred and the dangerous life entailed by it.
Of note is that Prophet Muhammed received persecution for his message, and Joseph Smith was tarred and feathered, imprisoned at Liberty Jail, and eventually martyred at Carthage Jail. In China, where the government cracks down harshly on any movement that it deems a cult (committing many human rights abuses along the way) and cults murder members of rival sects as well as those who apostatize, cult groups where people claim to be the second coming of Christ or reincarnations of the Buddha are still a dime a dozen, in spite of the risks involved in becoming a cult leader.
Xu Wenku (1946–2006), a Chinese cult leader who founded the now-defunct Three Grades of Servants cult based off of a distortion of Christianity, was evidently not an honest person or a prophet of God; his claims and actions cannot be rationally defended in the same way those of the aforementioned prophets and apostles of Christianity, Islam, and Mormonism can. Although information about his cult is scant and hard to verify, being that they have not published many written works themselves and much of the information about them comes from the Chinese government, it is still clear that the sect was a brutal and depraved one. Calling himself the "Great Servant" with unique teaching authority from God, Xu's sect waged a violent turf war against vulnerable house church Christians and members of other new religious movements, murdering several members of the Church of Almighty God. The sect controlled every aspect of its members' lives and, contrary to the reformation doctrine of sola fide, required people to be whipped severely to cleanse them of sin. One Chinese Christian church leader recounted that "two elders of the church, because they opposed the Three Grades of Servants, went everywhere to preach truth in defense of the true way, and had their Archilles tendons ripped apart by people from the Three Grades of Servants sect." Yet despite his manifest maliciousness, Xu was willing to found a cult in a country that persecutes religious movements and had arrested him multiple times for spreading the gospel back when he still identified as a normal Christian, and eventually was arrested and executed in 2006 because his sect was murdering people. This shows why it is important to distinguish martyrdom caused by refusing to recant belief in Jesus specifically and martyrdom caused by political or sectarian conflicts in general. If the apostles were in the latter camp, then it could be that they sought to gain religious power in the vacuum left by Jesus's execution only to end up getting themselves into trouble like Xu Wenku did. In other words, it could be that they were willing to take on a severe risk in a country hostile to their preaching in a gambit to gain religious power only for that gambit to fail.
The swoon theory claims that Jesus did not actually die on the cross, but merely fainted, and was able to appear to his followers once he had recovered. This is a fringe theory and does not receive much support from skeptics. It makes many unlikely suppositions that are not independently proven, such as that Jesus survived his crucifixion, that he was able to get out of his grave, which was blocked with a stone and guarded by soldiers, despite being severely weakened and injured, and that a frail, severely wounded, and delirious Jesus who barely survived his crucifixion was able to generate the belief in a glorified, fully resurrected Jesus. This makes it very improbable and ad hoc.
Richard Carrier, who does not accept the swoon theory, argues that although the likelihood that Christianity was created by Jesus surviving the crucifixion is small, even it is more likely than the claim that a miracle occurred. Many of the arguments used to refute the swoon theory rely on Biblical details like the guards in front of the tomb that may be ahistorical. Carrier argues that the swoon theory has a 1 in 6800 chance of being true, making it a crappy theory, but still good enough to undermine the claim that a miracle occurred. For comparison, a royal flush has a 1 in 650,000 likelihood of occurring, yet we don't say that card games are supernatural.
Explanations for the empty tomb
The empty tomb was a later development
Some scholars and commentators hold that the empty tomb developed as a later myth, either created by the author of Mark or as a legendary development that was first written down in Mark. This has been argued for in some of the writings of Richard Carrier and Peter Kirby.
Summary of evidentiary requirements for skeptical and Christian theories to be possible
Skeptical and Christian theories for explaining the resurrection require certain evidentiary claims to be true in order to be possible. If any of the following evidentiary claims is false, the theory as a whole becomes very unlikely. If a theory only requires one of a set of claims to hold in order to be possible, then the set of conditions are marked using OR and placed on the same indentation level. Similarly, sets of claims that all need to be true for a theory to be possible are marked with AND. The same goes for sub-claims that are required for a claim to be true, which are placed on a lower indentation level than the claim that depends on them.
Secular explanations for the empty tomb
The empty tomb belief emerged later, and Jesus was not buried in a marked tomb
- There are no authentic early attestations of the empty tomb belief
- The alleged early attestations of the empty tomb in 1 Corinthians and Acts either are not early or are not real attestations
- Matthew 28:12-15 does not faithfully record an authentic Jewish polemic against the empty tomb OR the polemic itself did not originate from a discovered tomb
- AND the Gospel accounts of a discovered empty tomb are unreliable
- The gospels do not record authentic eyewitness testimony
- The oral tradition changed speedily enough for an empty tomb tradition to emerge
- OR the gospel writers intentionally embellished the story
- OR The eyewitnesses themselves made up their testimony of the empty tomb
- The honesty of the disciples is not sufficiently established by persecution and martyrdom
- AND the burial story is unreliable
- It was reasonable for the early Christians to make up Joseph of Arimathea as the person who buried Jesus OR a real Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus, but not in a marked tomb
- AND Jesus would have been buried in an unmarked tomb given the conventions of the time
- AND given the context and motivations involved, the empty tomb would have been made up in the way it was
- It was reasonable to make up female witnesses despite the low status of women
The empty tomb belief emerged early on, even though there was a known tomb that was not empty
- There was a motivation to preach an empty tomb early on
- AND the honesty of the disciples is not sufficiently established by persecution and martyrdom
- AND the presence of a body was unable to stop the spread of Christianity
- The body was too decayed by the time Jesus's resurrection began to be preached
- OR the believers were too dogmatic to be swayed by the presence of a body
- AND the body being present was not preserved by any surviving polemical writings from the time
The empty tomb belief emerged early on, and there was a known empty tomb
- The body was stolen
- It was possible to steal the body
- The tomb was unguarded
- The story of the guards being put at the tomb in Matthew is not historical
- OR the body was stolen in the evening before the guards were put in place
- The thieves were able to move the sealing stone
- AND the guards did not move the sealing stone to check
- AND someone had a reason to steal the body
- There were grave robbers who had a reason to steal from graves of the type Jesus laid in
- OR one or more of Jesus's disciples stole the body in a conspiracy to gain religious power
- The plot was a reasonable one to think up given the religious environment of the time
- AND the honesty of the disciples is not sufficiently established by persecution and martyrdom
- OR the body was moved by the people who buried Jesus
- The burial was, according to Jewish tradition, supposed to be temporary
- AND there was a breakdown of communications both during and after the burial
- The people burying Jesus did not come out to correct the record after the Christians began preaching
- OR They did try to refute the rumor, but were so ineffective that we don't even have records of polemics along such lines
- Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, S02E01, The Bible - Fact or Fiction
- Carrier, Richard (23 June 2020). "N.T. Wright Demonstrates the Bankruptcy of Christian Apologetics in Under Nine Minutes".
- Lowder, Jeffery Jay (1995). "Conclusion".
- Carrier, Richard (2006). "Stephen Davis Gets It Wrong".
- Lowder, Jeffrey Jay (November 8, 2011). "Christian NT Scholar and Apologist Michael Licona Loses Job After Questioning Matthew 27".
- Reverend Kenny Nailimup THE TRIAL THAT NEVER TOOK PLACE
- Maimonides, Laws of Sanhedrin, 9:1
- Jewish Antiquities 18.85-87.
- John 19:30
- The case against the historicity of Jesus
- Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
- Carrier, Richard (10 August 2016). "Dating the Corinthian Creed".
- "What Actually Happened to Īsā (Jesus)?".
- Seidensticker, Bob (17 February 2014). "Scholarly Consensus for the Resurrection?".
- Carrier, Richard (23 November 2013). "Innumeracy: A Fault to Fix".
- Lowder, Jeffrey Jay (4 June 2002). "The Rest of the Story". Internet Infidels.
- Dickens, Luke (Spring 2017). "A Q&A with Gary Habermas".
- Carrier, Richard (9 August 2001). "Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day".
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