The Resurrection Best Explains the Available Evidence

Gary Habermas has a great approach to the resurrection.  Rather than trying to fight the battle on all fronts, he just focuses on three basic facts that are accepted by the majority of New Testament scholars and that cannot be explained apart from the resurrection.  These three facts are the empty tomb, the reports of post-mortem appearances, and the sincere faith of the disciples.

We’re going to infer the resurrection from the three facts as the best explanation of the evidence.  For that reason there isn’t the normal premise, premise, conclusion format that you might see in other sorts of arguments.  Instead we’ll just substantiate the facts, and then assert that the resurrection is the best explanation on offer based on a few simple criteria.

The case relies on the Bible somewhat, but not as an inspired or inerrant document.  All that we need to believe as it relates to the Bible is what everyone (even atheist scholars) agrees to, that the Bible is a collection of documents that have survived from the first century.  Bruce Metzger, a New Testament Scholar and Princeton professor, as well as John A T Robinson, a former lecturer at Cambridge agree that the New Testament that we have is more than 99% accurate to what the original authors wrote.1  Now that doesn’t mean that the New Testament authors told the truth when they wrote those documents and we’ll get to that possibility.  Right now we can be satisfied that we know what they said and put off whether it is true until later.

Fact One: The Empty Tomb. In the interest of keeping this brief, we’ll just look at a couple of things.  First, the women followers.  If the tomb wasn’t empty, then they just made up the story of the women discovering it empty.  Women in ancient Israel were not considered reliable witnesses, so it becomes unreasonable to think that the original disciples would make up a story about the empty tomb and include only unreliable witnesses.  If the story of the empty tomb were made up, they surely would have included reliable witnesses.

Also the burial story is strange if it didn’t really happen.  Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the very council that condemned Jesus.  It is unreasonable to believe that the earliest Christians would fabricate a story about a good and honorable person among the very group that pulled off a judicial murder of their lord.  So it seems most reasonable to believe that Jesus really was buried in Joseph’s tomb and the earliest disciples just reported on what actually happened, even if it did cast a member of the Sanhedrin in a sympathetic light.  Now if the tomb had not been empty and was instead still occupied by Jesus’s body, then why didn’t Joseph just produce the body?  Joseph would have had a motive to exonerate himself and the Sanhedrin by showing Jesus was still in the grave.  Since Jesus was buried in a known location by a member of the very group that killed him, it becomes inexplicable why they didn’t just produce the body if it had still been there for the rise of Christianity.

Fact Two: The reports of post-mortem appearances.  It is undeniable that people reported seeing Jesus.  It is recorded multiple times from multiple different sources in the New Testament Documents (Matthew, Luke, John, Acts, 1 Corinthians, etc).  The authors themselves claim to have seen Jesus, and we have their written record.  We’ll get to the explanation that they lied about it later, right now we just want to recognize that they did in fact claim to see Jesus.

Fact Three: The sincere faith of the disciples.  This is also undeniable.  The disciples suffered persecution and died rather than recanting their faith.  You might say they were sincerely wrong, but you can’t say that they weren’t sincere.

Much more could be said in defense of these facts, but in the interest of brevity I will leave it there.  The next project will be to explore explanations of these facts and determine which explanation is the best one.  Most scholars will agree to the following criteria for evaluating historical evidence.2

  • Explanatory scope: Does the explanation explain all of the facts?
  • Explanatory power: How well does the explanation explain the facts?
  • Plausibility: Does the explanation contradict things we know?
  • Ad Hoc: Does the explanation require us to adopt unsubstantiated beliefs?

When we examine the alternatives by these criteria, we see that nothing comes close to the resurrection.  Think of the popular alternative explanations below:

Conspiracy Hypothesis: The Disciples Stole the Body.

  • Explanatory Power: This doesn’t explain the sincerity of the disciples faith.  If they lied about it, why would they die for the lie?
  • Plausibility: Conspiracy theories tend to fall apart.  Why should we believe that these fishermen were able to pull this off?

Hallucination Hypothesis: The Disciples Hallucinated Appearances of Jesus.

  • Explanatory Power: This might explain the appearances and the sincerity of the disciples, but what about the empty tomb?  If the appearances were just a hallucination, then the tomb would have still had Jesus body in it.  It also does a poor job of explaining the appearances.  Hallucinations are private affairs, how does this explain the appearances to groups?
  • Ad Hoc: We’re being asked to believe that the disciples were mentally unstable, but there is no evidence of that.  Remember that we have their writings and the writings of their disciples.  There just isn’t any reason to believe that the disciples were mentally unhinged.

If you apply the grid of Explanatory Scope, Explanatory Power, Plausibility, and Ad Hoc you will find that nothing fits the evidence the way that the resurrection does.  For that reason, the resurrection is the best explanation of the evidence and the rational thing to do is to believe it.

Above has been a VERY brief overview, and I hope that you will take the time to listen to the following lecture from philosopher William Lane Craig for a more intensive review.

1 Geisler, Norman L. Systematic Theology In One Volume. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2011.

2 Craig, William Lane. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2010.


4 thoughts on “The Resurrection Best Explains the Available Evidence

  1. Hi, great article, love your stuff! Keep searching for the truth.

    I strongly recommend reading The Resurrection of Jesus by Mike Licona if you haven’t already. I also recommend watching the debate between Mike Licona and Greg Cavin. In it, Cavin points out that the resurrection hypothesis fails as an explanation because it lacks explanatory power (Licona merely asserts it has explanatory power but doesn’t justify the assertion). A hypothesis has explanatory power if and only if we can explain how the hypothesis being true causes the existence of the available evidence.

    Let’s say, for example, that we are interested in explaining why an army won a battle. We can propose various hypotheses (superior numbers, superior weaponry, advantageous terrain etc.), but a hypothesis will only have explanatory power if we can explain how it being true resulted in the army winning the battle. For example a hypothesis of “the winning army used charriots and composite bows” has explanatory power if we can explain how having charriots and composite bows resulted in the army winning the battle – for example by being able to outmaneuver the enemy, shoot at them from a distance, pierce their bronze armor and route them. Hypotheses lacking explanatory power would be “the winning army won because it was able to win”, “the winning army won because it was in its nature to win” or “the winning army won but we don’t know how”.

    The resurrection hypothesis lacks explanatory power because we can’t explain how the resurrection actually happening caused the reports of Jesus’ appearances to exist. When proponents of the resurrection hypothesis (including Mike Licona) try to sketch this out, they either merely restate the hypothesis (“the reports of the appearances exist because Jesus really did resurrect”), tautologically restate the evidence (“the reports exist because Jesus really did appear to his followers who reported it”), talk about Jesus’ abilities or nature (“the reports exist because Jesus had the power to appear”, “the reports exist because it was in Jesus’ nature to appear”) or claim that the appearances are ultimately unexplainable (“we don’t know/understand how Jesus appeared”).

    In the debate, Mike Licona eventually says that we can’t explain how the resurrection caused the appearances. He says that we don’t know how the supernatural works (by definition) and therefore don’t know how Jesus appeared to his followers. Which is fine, the only implication of adopting this position is the fact that the resurrection hypothesis then lacks explanatory power.

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    1. Thanks for your comments and for the recommendation. I will have to check out the debate.

      I must confess a lack of familiarity with Licona’s content. I know who he is, of course, but I haven’t studied his positions.

      I have been taught a slightly different description of “Explanatory Power” than what you have described. What I have been taught is that an explanation has explanatory power if it makes the available evidence more likely to be true. So, for example, it is obviously more likely that the disciples should have encountered Jesus alive post-mortem if he had been raised from the dead than if he had remained dead and buried in the tomb. It is for that reason that the resurrection hypothesis has explanatory power with respect to the post-mortem appearances.

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