Did the Early Christians Invent the Resurrection of Jesus?

One of the most important historical questions related to Jesus is how a tiny offshoot of Judaism went on to change the world.

One of the most outspoken detractors of Jesus’ deity and the truthfulness of Christianity, Bart Ehrman, writes, “But then something else happened. Some of [Jesus’ followers] began to say that God had intervened and brought [Jesus] back from the dead. The story caught on, and some (or all – we don’t know) of his closest followers came to think that in fact he had been raised” (Did Jesus Exist?, 233). So did the early Christians invent the resurrection of Jesus? For his part, Ehrman disputes that Jesus’ tomb was empty. This is in part because neither Joseph of Arimathea—the man who put Jesus in the tomb according to the Gospels—nor the tomb itself are mentioned in the earliest creed (1 Cor 15:3b-5aHow Jesus Became God, 129-69). Yet 1 Cor 15:4 does say, “He was buried,” and proceeds to affirm, “He was raised.” The obvious historical conclusion is that whatever Jesus was buried in, presumably a tomb, was now empty!

Did the Disciples Hallucinate?

So, then, did Jesus historically and bodily rise from the dead? The New Testament Gospels affirm that he did. Detractors such as Ehrman, however, have claimed that the disciples likely simply hallucinated. Yet while hallucinations do occur, since the disciples, Paul, James (the brother of Jesus), and at one time more than 500 people claimed to have seen the resurrected Jesus. They would all have had to experience the same hallucination of the risen Jesus, and in some cases simultaneously. Also, while it has been argued that Jesus’ followers were in such a state of grief that they hallucinated, this would hardly explain why Paul, a committed Jewish leader who was persecuting Christians and clearly not grieving, would have hallucinated. Also, the hallucination theory does not explain why the tomb was empty.

Did the Disciples Make Up the Resurrection Story?

Others, as mentioned, have claimed that the disciples simply made up the whole resurrection story. They wanted Jesus to be the Messiah so badly and were so disappointed after his death that they concocted this grand hoax. They stole the body of Jesus and then claimed Jesus really was the Messiah and that he had been resurrected from the dead. But it makes no sense that the disciples would make up a story that claims Jesus is the Messiah because he was shamefully crucified and then was raised from the dead, since this was not the common explanation for the Jewish Messiah. This is why in the Gospels, when Jesus tells his disciples that he would be killed and then would rise again, the disciples do not comprehend his predictions. All the Gospels describe the disciples as repeatedly failing to understand Jesus’ statements concerning his death, burial, and resurrection.

Would You Die for What You Know Is a Lie?

What is more, if the disciples made up such a claim, it seems impossible to believe that they would have carried their hoax so far, being severely persecuted and in many cases giving up their lives for what they knew was a lie they themselves had concocted. If someone is going to deny the resurrection, he or she must be able to explain, in the words of Craig Blomberg, “how a small band of defeated followers of Jesus were transformed almost overnight into bold witnesses, risking death by proclaiming his bodily resurrection before many of the same people who fifty days earlier had participated in his crucifixion.” Also, all four Gospels have women as the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection. If first-century Jews were going to make up a story, it would be counterintuitive to make women the first eyewitnesses. In this culture women were not permitted to testify in a court of law. The fact that all four Gospels include women as the first eyewitnesses points to the historicity of the resurrection.

The Most Likely Explanation of the Evidence

This is just some of the evidence that has led numerous historians who are unwilling to exclude the possibility of the miraculous to conclude, along similar lines as N. T. Wright has articulated, “The historian may and must say that all other explanations for why Christianity arose, and why it took the shape it did, are far less convincing as historical explanations that the one the early Christians themselves offer: that Jesus really did rise from the dead on Easter morning, leaving an empty tomb behind him.” [tweet_box design=”box_01″ float=”none”]Indeed, the most reasonable conclusion from the evidence is that Jesus did rise from the dead.[/tweet_box]

How Easter Changes Everything

Tim Keller writes of how this truth changes everything:

“Each year at Easter I get to preach on the Resurrection. In my sermon I always say to my skeptical, secular friends, that even if they can’t believe in the resurrection, they should want it to be true. Most of them care deeply about justice for the poor, alleviating hunger and disease, and caring for the environment. Yet, many of them believe that the material world was caused by accident and that the world and everything in it will eventually simply burn up in the death of the sun. They find it discouraging that so few people care about justice without realizing that their own worldview undermines any motivation to make the world a better place. Why sacrifice for the needs of others if in the end nothing we do will make any difference? If the resurrection of Jesus happened, however, that means there’s infinite hope and reason to pour ourselves out for the needs of the world” (Reason for God, 220).

The case for the truthfulness of the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus, and the Christian faith is altogether more convincing than the case for skepticism—and more hopeful, too.

Note: This blog post is adapted from Truth in a Culture of Doubt: Engaging Skeptical Challenges to the Bible by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Darrell L. Bock, and Josh D. Chatraw (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014), 167–79.


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