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Did Jesus actually resurrect: where is the evidence?

It is widely agreed upon, that knowledge of the past is an invaluable resource toward better understanding our present and future alike. The story of the Resurrection is no exception.

If the news of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead was hard for his disciples and early Christians to believe, how more believable is this news in an era of advancement in science and technology? It is, thus, not surprising that some people still have a hard time believing in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI once asked the question: “Does the Resurrection contradict science?”. In response to this question, he combined a thorough respect for faith and reason, together with the integrity of nature, while also bidding us to posit the possibility of something beyond our experience. “Naturally, there can be no contradiction of clear scientific data”.

Easter brings us the memory of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The question of faith and science is controversial. In recent times, and as christian scientist, I have been exploring most of the christian activites based on empirical data available. This quest has really been interesting, as a result of my findings and the response from the christain community.  My aim, however, is to bring glory to our Lord Jesus Christ.

As a scientist, in my Doctor of Theology (Th.D) thesis, I worked on the topic: ‘Measuring God Through Science:  A Study of Prayer as a Complementary Healing Tool’. Throughout the timespan of conducting this research, I continued to believe even the more that spirituality, especially prayer, has a role to play in healthcare. My daily work consists of encountering God through the empirical investigation of his creation. I have worked on a number of studies including one which examines how Naturopathic Practitioners infuse prayer into their healthcare practices. I believe that, God can be measured based on the impact He has on our christain and daily activities.  As a scientist, I also know that, no stone should be left unturned, and no hypothesis left unquestioned, as we seek to understand every single way in which an experiment can go wrong.

Apart from being a scientist and a professor of Naturopathic sciences, I am also a devoted Christian. I believe in a personal God who loves us and desires to have a relationship with us. One day, I will also write on how I had an encounter with this God over a decade ago which changed my perception about Christianity and became born again. I have combined my background in Naturopathic Medicine and spirituality to unravel the scientific aspect of God, to educate the world that God actually exists.

I believe that He has revealed Himself most supremely through the person and works of Jesus Christ, who was born some 2000 years ago, carried out a ministry in Judea, was crucified, and is believed by Christians to be resurrected from the dead after two nights in a tomb. I believe these things really happened, not metaphorically nor subjectively, but as objectively and literally as any other event we thought happened in ancient history.

Even the World knew He would rise up, though the disciples had forgotten he said that. At this point the skeptics may ask: How can I, a scientist, believe in such grandiose, incredible and apparently unscientific claims of the resurrection?  Gordon, (2022) agrees that, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the litmus test for the truthfulness of Christianity. If Jesus genuinely died and rose again, it makes it extremely likely that he was who he claimed to be: the physical incarnation of the Son of God ( Matthew 16:16). If it did not happen, then Christianity would be a false religion. And in effect, a scientist (or any rational person for that matter) would have no reason to believe it to be true.

Gordon, (2022) further notes that, the resurrection of Jesus is unique, even within the context of His many other miracles. Indeed, it is the basis of the Christian faith. From the days of the early church, it was central to the gospel message they preached: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, rose again, and appeared to many of his disciples ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-6, see also Acts 2:22-32). On the other hand, if Jesus had died and stayed dead like any other human being, then as Paul says, Christians are most to be pitied of all people, for their faith would be based on a lie ( 1 Corinthians 15:19).

The science behind the Resurrection

Many Christian activities occurred after the death of Jesus Christ including receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. There are health benefits of the knowledge of the certainty of death. A study conducted by Flannelly et al., (2006) notes that beliefs about death influence our health. Fear of the future can affect everything from blood pressure, to heart rate and mental stability. By some estimates, the stress underlying these conditions accounts for more than 60% of all doctor visits.

I examine the resurrection based on three benchmarks. Science is key as the issue of believe is clothed with evidence. There certainly is evidence for the Resurrection, which can be summarised around three historical claims: 1) Jesus was crucified and died, 2) his body was buried in a tomb that was found empty a few days later, and 3) his disciples experienced encounters with a person who they believed to be the newly resurrected body. I will show that these three claims, backed by historical evidence and scholarly consensus, together constitute a compelling case for the Resurrection.

My first evidence to buttress the resurrection is that no historian disputes that Jesus lived in the first century AD, completed his ministry a few years later, and was crucified to death by the Romans. Even skeptical scholars such as Bart Ehrman agree strongly for the historical genuineness of these basic facts, based on both Christian and non-Christian sources.

My second evidence is Jesus’ burial and the empty tomb. Uncertain scholars such as Bart Ehrman (2014) dispute this, arguing that it is more likely that Jesus’ body was left to rot for a few days, then buried in a common pit for criminals in his article: ‘Why Romans crucified Jesus’

Habermas, (2005) study had a different view and presented the most detailed examinations of Roman crucifixion and Jewish burial practices by specialist scholars. This study demonstrates to us that the gospel account of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea is historically trustworthy – (‘Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?’). Additionally, the study also found strong evidence to support the claim that the tomb was found empty a few days later.

Cook, (2017) study also demonstrates that the gospel accounts are rendered more credible by their agreement that women were the first witnesses to the empty tomb. In a recent times, Cook, (2017) further contended that based on linguistic, historical and cultural reasons, it is unlikely Paul mentions a burial and resurrection ( 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 ) without presupposing an empty tomb.

My third evidence found that in the weeks after his death, his disciples claimed to have met the risen Jesus. Trusted scientists such as Habermas, (2005) and a number of scholars in the field have agreed that these pictorial understandings happened. In support of these research studies,  the history  of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounters are also found in details in the bible (e.g. Matthew 28:9, Luke 24:30, 40, John 20:22, 27).

Furthermore, only a few  of Jesus’ disciples said to have witnessed the risen Jesus, as we see in the ancient faith was propounded by Bart Ehrman in his article, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, and Corinthians 15:3-7 as elaborated by Tim and McGrew in their book The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

Jake O’Connel, gives a thorough and novel argument that the collective appearances of the post-resurrected Jesus are substantially different even compared to more recent reported collective religious visions (e.g. Marian apparitions).

From a scientific review, there is good historical explanation to believe the following assertions according to Gordon (n.d):

  1. Jesus was crucified and died on the cross. (Near-certain)
  2. Jesus was buried in a tomb which was found empty a few days after. (Highly probable)
  3. Over the few weeks after and in multiple instances, several of Jesus’ disciples encountered a person they believed to be the risen Jesus. (Near-certain)

Scientific Theories of the Resurrection

In 2009, Andrew Loke exhaustively categorised the possible hypotheses which are non-supernatural explanations.  For instance, asserting that some disciples of Jesus stole the body ( Matthew 28:15), the disciples were experiencing mass group hallucinations, they went to the wrong tomb, or even that Jesus survived his crucifixion somehow. A combination of these alternative theories could be coincidentally true at the same time, resulting in the improbable but not impossible illusion that Jesus was resurrected.

Additionally, thorough comparisons of competing explanatory power of the differently proposed theories can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. If I were forced to take a naturalistic position, to me, the most reasonable theory would obviously be mass hallucination, which is also dealt with in detail by the O’Connell paper.

It is interesting to note that, one cannot dismiss this as a ‘god of the gaps’ explanation (Wikipedia, 2021). The resurrection hypothesis is limited and straightforward: it simply says that somehow, Jesus experienced a resurrection which restored his body completely, such that afterward, he was able to be seen, heard, and touched by the disciples on several occasions.

It is also interesting to state that,  there are those who might have different opinions for assuming that supernatural explanations are a priori unlikely. A scientist might feel particularly forced to disbelieve the claim of supernatural incidences. After all, one of the narratives of scientific progress is that things which we thought to be supernatural before turned out to have ordinary scientific explanations.

I must admit that, science cannot disprove the Resurrection, though we no longer have empirical access to the body of Jesus or any other relevant physical evidence. Also, the Resurrection is a one-time phenomenon that does not conform to the regularity and repeatable pattern of most events studied by science. Thus, if one wants to remain skeptical, one cannot say that science compels them to do so.

Take Home

From the studies, there is strong evidence that Jesus’ resurrection happened. As a scientist, I understand why someone might see this and still walk away in disbelief.  I am not surprised though, as the Gospels themselves were not initially written for the purpose of proving skeptics wrong.  However, they were “…written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name ” ( John 20:31, ESV). If Jesus is real, then He calls us to eternal life, not rational insight.

>>>The writer is a Professor of Naturopathic Healthcare and the President of Nyarkotey College of Holistic Medicine & Technology (NUCHMT)/African Naturopathic Foundation .E-mail: collegeofholisticmedicine@gmail.com

References

  1. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.
  1. Bart Ehrman, Why Romans Crucified People.
  2. See Craig Evans, The Resurrection of Jesus in the Light of Jewish Burial Practicesand John Granger Cook, “ Crucifixion and Burial”, New Testament Studies 57:2 (2011). Besides the fact that the burial by Joseph of Arimathea is consistent with Roman and Jewish laws, we also have archaeological evidence of the remains of a crucified person who was given a proper burial.
  3. The aforementioned Habermas articleexplains that 75% of scholars discussing the empty tomb accept arguments for its historicity. While this is not unanimous consensus, NT scholar Jonathan Bernier explains in his blogpost Consensus and Quackery that such majority-but-not-unanimous support is also the case for commonly cited statements about the Gospels such as Markan priority. In short, there are few unanimous claims in NT studies, and having 75% expert agreement on a historical claim should not be an insignificant factor for a non-scholar deciding how likely it is.
  4. John Granger Cook, “ Resurrection in Paganism and the Question of an Empty Tomb in 1 Corinthians 15” New Testament Studies 63:1 (2017).
  1. Gary Habermas, “ Resurrection Research from 1975 to the Present: What are Critical Scholars Saying?”, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, 3.2 (2005), pp. 135-153.
  2. Tim and Lydia McGrew point out that after the detailed, tactile appearances described in the gospel stopped abruptly; even the appearance to Paul ( Acts 9:3-7) is of a distinctively different, more glorified quality. See McGrew and McGrew, “The argument from miracles: a cumulative case for the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth” in Craig & Moreland (eds.), The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
  3. Jake O’Connell gives a thorough and novel argument that the collective appearances of the post-resurrected Jesus are substantially different even compared to more recent reported collective religious visions (e.g. Marian apparitions). See O’Connell, “ Jesus’ resurrection and collective hallucinations”, Tyndale Bulletin 60(1):69-105.
  4. Andrew Loke exhaustively categorises the possible hypotheses in Loke, “ The resurrection of the Son of God: a reduction of the naturalistic alternatives”, Journal of Theological Studies 60 (2009): 570-584.
  5. Thorough comparisons of competing explanatory power of the different proposed theories can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith and Michael Licona’s The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. If I were forced to take a naturalistic position, to me the most plausible theory would obviously be mass hallucination, which is also dealt with in detail by the O’Connell paper cited above.
  6. Daniel Gordon Ang(nd) A Scientist Looks at the Resurrection. https://peacefulscience.org/articles/daniel-ang-a-scientist-looks-at-the-resurrection/

 

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