Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking the minimal facts approach to understanding the resurrection of Jesus Christ as developed by Dr. Gary Habermas and Dr. Michael Licona in their book, The Case of the Resurrection of Jesus.
To review, the five facts that are agreed to by almost all scholars, Christians and non-Christians, who do research in this area are:
With these facts in mind, we can now think about what might have actually happened to Jesus.
One hypothesis is obviously the resurrection as reported by the Bible. That does account for these five pieces of evidence rather eloquently. Obviously for resurrection, Jesus needed to die. If He did rise again, that would make sense of the separate appearances to the disciples, Paul and James. Also, the empty tomb would clearly make sense if the body was no longer there due to resurrection.
Another hypothesis could be that the disciples stole the body. Jesus could have been crucified in that situation, and the tomb was empty. Perhaps James could have had a type of hallucination based on guilt that he would not believe his own brother. We could even say that Paul may have had a separate hallucination based on the heat or something else on the road to Damascus. The major downfall of this story however involves the belief of the disciples. If the disciples were the ones who stole the body, they would have known that Jesus did not rise from the dead, and history teaches us that liars make very bad martyrs. If they knew that their entire story was based on a falsehood that they themselves perpetrated, why would they not give in? Maybe being a Christian was politically advantageous and made them prominent in a particular community, but when they were on death row, there is no more gain to be had from the charade. It would not make sense of our second minimal fact if the disciples stole the body.
Some people have argued that Jesus never died in the first place. Therefore, all of the resurrection appearances very well could have been simply the same Jesus who actually never died. The empty tomb would be easy as well if the body had never been there in the first place. The problem is that the crucifixion of Jesus is probably the most strongly documented fact of this entire list. Crucifixion was not a process that you survived; the Romans were very good at what they did, and this method of execution was so brutal that survival and subsequent appearances are really not medically reasonable at all.
Grief hallucinations have been posited to explain the reaction of the disciples and James. After all, the disciples were very upset at the death of their leader who they abandoned, and James had lost his brother who he never really believed anyway. The crucifixion would also fit into this narrative. There are a few possible problems with this narrative though. First of all, group hallucinations cannot happen. Hallucinations are by nature individual events, so the probability that all of the disciples had identical hallucinations is virtually zero. Also, there would need to be some type of explanation for the empty tomb. Finally, the conversion of the apostle Paul does not make sense either in this context. He would certainly not have a guilty conscience about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; soon after the crucifixion and alleged resurrection, Paul was still actively persecuting Christians. He does not seem to be a prime candidate for a type of guilt hallucination.
Some people argue that the resurrection is a late developing story. In other words, many times tales grow taller over time, so maybe Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, but over time, his legend grew. There are many problems with that theory, but the most prevalent problem is that the disciples went to their death based on the belief that He did rise from the dead. It was an early belief in the church; it was not developed hundreds of years later. This is a first-generation Christian belief subscribed to by people who had literally walked with Jesus.
We can go on and on with a variety of stories and theories. Any theory has to satisfactorily account for the five facts presented above. Even if you want to leave out the empty tomb because approximately 75% majority among scholars in the area is not good enough, all of the popular theories I have just presented fell short on other facts beyond just that one.
Therefore, as we come into Easter this weekend, think over this question. Try to figure out how all of these historical facts believed by nearly all scholars working in this discipline, Christian and non-Christian, fit together into one coherent story. It is rather clear that the resurrection hypothesis can indeed meet the criteria of explaining all five of these facts. If it is the best explanation of the facts, then is it not reasonable to come to the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead?