Faith Matters

William Lane Craig: Are there historical grounds for belief in the resurrection of Jesus?

Leading philosopher Dr William Lane Craig was in Belfast this week to talk about the credibility of Christianity. He has been on a tour of Ireland with fellow academic Professor John Lennox talking about the intellectual coherence, philosophical and scientific underpinnings of the Christian faith. Here, Dr Craig examines the historical grounds for belief in Jesus' resurrection

The empty tomb where Jesus was buried after dying on the cross is evidence that points to the resurrection, argues Dr William Lane Craig. Restoration of the shrine enclosing the site of the tomb, around which the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem was built, was completed this month.

I SPOKE recently at a major Canadian university on the existence of God.

After my talk, one slightly irate student wrote on her comment card: "I was with you until you got to the stuff about Jesus. God is not the Christian God."

Most people are happy to agree that God exists; but in our pluralistic society it has become politically incorrect to claim that God has revealed Himself decisively in Jesus.

What justification can Christians offer for thinking that the Christian God is real?

The answer of the New Testament is the resurrection of Jesus. It is God's vindication of Jesus' radical personal claims to divine authority.

So how do we know that Jesus is risen from the dead? It is crucial that Christians are able to present objective evidence in support of our beliefs. Otherwise our claims hold no more water than the assertions of anyone else claiming to have a private experience of God.

Fortunately, Christianity, as a religion rooted in history, makes claims that can in important measure be investigated historically.

Suppose, then, that we approach the New Testament writings, not as inspired Scripture, but merely as a collection of Greek documents coming down to us out of the first century, without any assumption as to their reliability other than the way we normally regard other sources of ancient history.

We may be surprised to learn that the majority of New Testament critics investigating the gospels in this way accept the central facts undergirding the resurrection of Jesus.

The first fact is that, after his crucifixion, Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

This fact is highly significant because it means that the location of Jesus' burial site was known to Jew and Christian alike.

In that case, the disciples could never have proclaimed his resurrection in Jerusalem if the tomb had not been empty.

New Testament researchers have established this first fact on the basis of evidence such as the very old tradition about Jesus' burial quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5: "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received... that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve."

This tradition dates to within five years after Jesus' death. So short a time span and such personal contact make it idle to talk of legend in this case.

As a member of the Jewish court that condemned Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea is unlikely to be a Christian invention.

There was strong resentment against the Jewish leadership for their role in the condemnation of Jesus (1 Thessalonians 2:15).

It is therefore highly improbable that Christians would invent a member of the court that condemned Jesus who honours Jesus by giving him a proper burial instead of allowing him to be dispatched as a common criminal.

No other competing burial story exists. If the burial by Joseph were fictitious, then we would expect to find either some historical trace of what actually happened to Jesus' corpse or at least some competing legends.

But all our sources are unanimous on Jesus' honourable interment by Joseph.

For these and other reasons, the majority of New Testament critics concur that Jesus was buried in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

According to the late John A.T. Robinson of Cambridge University, the burial of Jesus in the tomb is "one of the earliest and best-attested facts about Jesus".

Other major facts which also stand up to scrutiny include the empty tomb, the original disciples' belief that Jesus was risen from the dead - despite their having every predisposition to the contrary - and the multiple occasions and various circumstances in which different individuals and groups of people experienced appearances of Jesus alive from the dead.

These facts are agreed upon by the majority of scholars and any adequate historical hypothesis must account for them.

The question is: what is the best explanation of these facts?

Most scholars probably remain agnostic about this question. But the Christian can maintain that the hypothesis that best explains these facts is "God raised Jesus from the dead".

Down through history various alternative explanations of the facts have been offered - for example, the conspiracy hypothesis, the apparent death hypothesis, the hallucination hypothesis, and so forth.

Such hypotheses have been almost universally rejected by contemporary scholarship.

None of these naturalistic hypotheses succeeds in meeting the conditions as well as the resurrection hypothesis.

This puts the sceptical critic in a rather desperate situation.

A few years ago I participated in a debate on the resurrection of Jesus with a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

He had written his doctoral dissertation on the resurrection, and he was thoroughly familiar with the evidence.

He could not deny the facts of Jesus' honourable burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances and the origin of the disciples' belief in the resurrection.

So his only recourse was to come up with some alternate explanation of those facts.

And so he argued that Jesus of Nazareth had an unknown, identical twin brother, who was separated from him as an infant and grew up independently, but who came back to Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, stole Jesus' body out of the tomb and presented himself to the disciples, who mistakenly inferred that Jesus was risen from the dead.

This is illustrative of the desperate lengths to which scepticism must go in order to refute the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.

Indeed, the evidence is so powerful that one of the world's leading Jewish theologians, the late Pinchas Lapide, who taught at the Hebrew University in Israel, declared himself convinced on the basis of the evidence that the God of Israel raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead.

The significance of the resurrection of Jesus lies in the fact that it is not just any old Joe Blow who has been raised from the dead, but Jesus of Nazareth, whose crucifixion was instigated by the Jewish leadership because of his blasphemous claims to divine authority.

If this man has been raised from the dead, then the God whom he allegedly blasphemed has clearly vindicated his claims.

Thus, in an age of religious relativism and pluralism, the resurrection of Jesus constitutes a solid rock on which Christians can take their stand for God's decisive self-revelation in Jesus.

  • Dr William Lane Craig's full article on the resurrection can be read at his website, www.reasonablefaith.org.
  • Dr Craig was appearing in Cork, Dublin and Belfast at the invitation of Christian Unions Ireland (www.cui.ie) an interdenominational organisation resourcing Christian students and present in over 30 campuses.
  • Professor John Lennox, the Armagh-born Oxford University academic who counts mathematics and philosophy of science among his specialisms, will complete the tour in Belfast next week. He will speak at the Assembly Buildings on Monday April 3 at 7.30pm on 'Cosmic Chemistry: Do God and Science Mix?'

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