The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a miracle. No matter if you believe in God or not, no matter if you’re a philosophical naturalist or a Christian, the account and effects of Jesus’ resurrection are truly miraculous.
Non-Christians may scoff at this claim, but let us explain. The resurrection is a miracle in one of three ways – it is either
1. A biological miracle
2. A psychological miracle
3. A theological miracle
Before we continue, two quick points are necessary. First, options one and two above are purely natural – only explanations of the resurrection – and therefore the definition ofmiracle in their case (“a highly uncommon but still natural occurrence”) is different from how it’s used in the third option, where the biblical definition applies.
Second, it is important to remember that no historical scholar – Christian or non-Christian – doubts the core facts surrounding the resurrection, which are
• Jesus was crucified and buried.
• Three days after His death, His body went missing.
• There were reported appearances of Jesus over the course of 40 days to both believers and unbelievers.
• These individuals were transformed by the appearances, and they began to proclaim Christ’s resurrection even to the point of being martyred for their proclamation.
These are the core facts of Jesus’ resurrection, and these facts are not disputed by any educated historian, secular or religious. That being the case, let’s conduct a brief tour of each possible explanation of the resurrection.
The Resurrection of Jesus – A Biological Miracle
The biological miracle option asserts that Jesus didn’t actually die; rather, those conducting His execution only believedHe was dead. Sometime after He was placed in the tomb – and against all biological and medical odds – He revived, emerged, and then presented Himself to His disciples as being raised from the dead.
Skeptics rarely, if ever, present the biological miracle option as an alternate theory to the Bible’s resurrection account. In fact, a couple of decades ago, an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated, “Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge.”
The lack of enthusiasm for this theory is due to some strong points that argue against it:
• The New Testament specifically records that Jesus was beaten and scourged before His crucifixion. History shows that scourging caused the death of many condemned persons before they ever reached their appointed cross. The historical Gospels also record that Jesus was so weakened from His scourging that He could not carry His cross to Golgotha (cf. Matthew 27:32) – a clear sign of His failing strength.
• The Romans were experts at carrying out crucifixions. They knew death well; in fact, if a victim sentenced to death happened to survive, the soldiers themselves were held liable for their carelessness.
• John 19:34 says that a soldier thrust a spear into Jesus’ side to ensure His death. The description of blood and water clearly indicates a rupture of the pericardium. Death would have been instant at that point, if Jesus were not already dead via the crucifixion.
• Jesus’ death was observed close at hand by witnesses, friend and foe alike.
• After He was taken from the cross, Jesus was wrapped in cloths and bathed in heavy spices by loving friends who certainly would have noticed if He were still alive.
• For Jesus to pull off His ruse, He would need to revive in the tomb, roll away a huge stone, overpower the Roman guards (cf. Matthew 27:62-66), and then appear to His followers and skeptics.
• The disciples’ reaction to a disfigured, lacerated, post-crucifixion Jesus would have been much different from what the four Gospels record. No one was calling for emergency medical attention; instead, they were worshiping Jesus as Lord.
Lastly, the biological miracle option paints a very unfavorable picture of Jesus’ moral character. It means that Jesus was not only a liar, but much worse. If He did not truly die and rise again, Jesus deliberately deceived His disciples, and for years He hid while His disciples were arrested, tortured, and murdered for proclaiming His false resurrection.
For these reasons and others, the biological miracle option is a highly unlikely explanation of the resurrection of Jesus.
The Resurrection of Jesus – A Psychological Miracle
The most popular argument among skeptics such as Richard Carrier is that a psychological miracle occurred among Jesus’ followers. Carrier writes, “I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence . . . is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another. . . . In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged.”
However, when closely examined, the psychological miracle option falls under the weight of many opposing arguments:
• To have any credibility at all, the psychological miracle option requires an empty tomb. And, if the disciples were experiencing hallucinations and being tricked into believing Christ was alive, then who stole the body? Certainly, Jesus’ enemies would not have stolen it. So, who’s left? Who would have taken such risk to steal the corpse?
• The psychological miracle option fails to account for the facts behind the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. Are hallucinations a plausible explanation? Jesus appeared not just once, but multiple times; not just to one person, but to different people; not just to individuals, but to groups; not just at one location, but at multiple locations; not just in one circumstance, but in multiple circumstances; not just to believers, but also to unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies.
• The Gospel accounts showcase the fact that the disciples in no way expected Jesus to rise from the dead. Quite the opposite – the disciples thought they’d never see Jesus again. They were not fostering a belief that their murdered leader would appear to them alive. The disciples are clearly portrayed as being dull to Jesus’ predictions concerning His resurrection (Luke 18:32-34). They themselves were skeptics. This mental state is highly significant in that it shows how they were not goading themselves into an impressionable frenzy of mysticism.
• Jewish belief looked forward to a resurrection at the end of the world, but no one taught an eternal resurrection before that appointed time (cf. Daniel 12:2; John 11:24). This fact further solidifies the argument that the disciples weren’t anticipating any return of Jesus.
• It is worth pointing out distinctly, although it has already been mentioned, that skeptics and enemies of Jesus – including disbelieving members of His own family – claimed to see Him alive after His crucifixion. From a psychological perspective, these individuals had no reason to concoct a false appearance of someone they didn’t believe in to begin with.
Lastly, skeptics also bring up cognitive dissonance as a defense of the psychological miracle option. Cognitive dissonance proposes that people are motivated to reduce the mental “tension” between reality and what they want reality to be, and so they change their attitudes, beliefs and actions in order to “get what they want.” For example, the fox in the fable wants grapes, but the reality is that he cannot reach the grapes; therefore, he changes his attitude: the grapes are sour and not worth having. Cynics say that the disciples so greatly wanted Jesus to be their Messiah that, when faced with the reality of His execution, they made mental adjustments to compensate for their grief. Suddenly, Jesus had returned from the dead – or so the disciples willed themselves to believe.
However, any argument based on cognitive dissonance fails to explain two core facts of the resurrection: the missing body and the appearances to doubters and enemies of Jesus. Moreover, an argument can be made that it is theskeptics of the resurrection who suffer from cognitive dissonance. They so badly want Jesus to be dead that they make the mental adjustments needed to ignore or misinterpret the evidence.
Although popular, the psychological miracle option has many drawbacks and cannot be seriously considered as the best explanation for Jesus’ resurrection.
The Resurrection of Jesus – A Theological Miracle
The theological miracle option asserts that God raised Jesus from the dead. Unlike the first two options, which are purely naturalistic explanations, the theological miracle option does not preclude the supernatural. It allows a transcendent Creator to be part of the equation, and this automatically permits true miracles. C. S. Lewis says, “But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain.”
The theological miracle option claims that the New Testament contains truthful accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. It also affirms the writings of the early church fathers concerning the resurrection, such as this quote from Polycarp (a disciple of John): “For they did not love the present age, but him who died for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God.”
The primary reason this option is rejected by critics is that they, following their anti-supernatural bias, rule God out in an a priori manner. It is not a review of the evidence but a commitment to naturalism that causes skeptics of the resurrection to exclude the theological miracle possibility.
However, when a thinking person reviews the universally accepted historiographical criteria used to examine any historical account (such as explanatory power, explanatory scope, plausibility, not being ad hoc, not contradicting accepted beliefs, and far exceeding its rival theories), the theological miracle option emerges as the best possible explanation of Jesus’ resurrection.
This being the case, the rational person can hardly be blamed if he/she concludes, on the basis of the evidence and a commitment to unbiased historiographical investigation, that a divine miracle occurred on that first Easter morning.
Summing up this position, Dr. Thomas Arnold, the former chair of modern history at Oxford and author of the well-respected, three-volumeHistory of Rome, says, “I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead.”