What is the simplest explanation for the historical accounts of the Easter weekend? That is what we’re asking in this series. In parts 1 and 2 we looked at two basic facts of the Resurrection story: that Jesus died, and that on the Sunday the tomb that he was placed in was found empty. Part 4 looks at the amazing transformation of the disciples.
The third fact that requires an explanation is the multiple sightings of the resurrected Jesus.
Fact 3: Post-Resurrection Appearances
On Easter Sunday, after the tomb was found empty, Jesus appeared to a number of different people. They hugged him (John 20:17) and examined his crucifixion wounds (John 20:27). This was a physical, walking Jesus.
This is when things get really interesting. The prior evidence strongly points to the death of Jesus (not at all unexpected) and an empty tomb (perplexing). Now we have resurrection sightings (extraordinary).
It is of course important for Facts 1 and 2 to be established. If Fact 1 was not true, then Fact 3 could not be true: you can’t have a resurrection without a death. And if Fact 2 was not true, then Fact 3 would be disproved by providing the body as evidence against the Resurrection.
If the death shocked Jesus’ followers, then the empty tomb raised hope, and the sightings of Jesus confirmed their hope and filled them with joy.
Not only did the disciples see and interact with the resurrected Jesus, but Saul (who changed his name to Paul) was transformed from militant anti-Christian to passionate Christian missionary by an encounter with the risen Jesus also (Acts 9).
Paul talks of all of this in his letter to Corinth, which we looked at in Part 2. It continues:
“and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” (1 Corinthians 15:5–8, ESV)
For the Resurrection to be real, a supernatural event must have taken place. Because naturally, dead people do not come back to life. The fact of the matter is that many people find the Resurrection story hard to believe because they rule out supernatural intervention to start with. If you don’t allow supernatural explanations, then you won’t find a supernatural answer, and the Resurrection can not possible be true.
But if we suspend bias and examine the evidence closely, we see that naturalistic explanations just don’t fit. And as Spock, quoting Sherlock Holmes, once said, “if you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains – however improbable – must be the truth.”
So what else could be an explanation for the post-resurrection sightings of Jesus?
Well, firstly, we could say that they simply weren’t real. They didn’t happen and the church made up the story later on. But as we saw with Fact 2, “legendary development” doesn’t fit because the early Christians (within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses to the resurrected Jesus) claimed to have seen a resurrected Jesus. The evidence informs us that people at the time believed Jesus had come back to life and people had seen him.
Secondly it has been suggested that the disciples and other witnesses did believe they had seen Jesus, but they were deceived, or they hallucinated.
The problem here is the sheer number of witnesses. Over 500 people were said to have seen the risen Jesus.
Hallucinations do occur, but there has been no recorded episode of mass-hallucination – that is, more than one person experiencing the same hallucination.
For example, let’s say that you were to slip in to a deep sleep and not awake until December this year. You then meet me, and I (as a passionate Scottish Rugby fan) fill you in on what you missed during your extended nap: chiefly, the Rugby World Cup. I tell you of the amazing feats of Scotland. How they ran riot over South Africa and topped their group, before beating Australia in the quarters, knocking over the All Blacks in the semis, and humbling England, at Twickenham, in the Final.
Barring any loss of judgement incurred during the shut-eye you would be right to question my story. When you see that I firmly believe it and I’m not trying to pull your leg, you would think I had lost it. You would probably want to check me in to a facility.
But then, if the next person you met, and the next, and the next all told you the same story and they passionately believed it too, you would have to come up with some other explanation other than individual mental disturbances.
The fact that many people claim to have seen Jesus removes the possibility of hallucination as a cause and requires us to ask, if the story is not true, why does a large group of people believe that it is?
Are they lying? Well then we have to ask, what’s in it for them? Furthermore, if they were lying, where was the body? So then maybe Jesus didn’t die? But the evidence from Fact 1 strongly suggests he did.
In the absence of a credible naturalistic explanation for these sightings, a supernatural explanation that fits the evidence – of not one, but now three facts – really ought to be considered. If we have a problem with that then we must ask ourselves if we’re really open to discovering the truth of the matter. For if we insist that our discovery must conform to our presupposed beliefs, then how honest are we really being with ourselves?