by Peter Kreeft
From a lecture series given in 2006. The following is a partial transcript of Lecture 11, completed in 2020.
When we come to Christianity, we find that the whole religion centers on one man who according to the Gospels claimed to be divine, the Son of God, the world's only savior from sin and death and hell. The Gospels give as one reason for believing this astonishing idea his many miracles, especially his own resurrection from the dead.
The claim of Jesus' resurrection is important both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, because it sharply distinguishes Jesus from all other religious founders. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians do not claim that the bones of Abraham, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu, or Confucius are not anywhere here on earth, but Christians claim that Jesus' tomb is empty. And practically, Jesus means savior. Christians claim that Jesus saves us from both sin and death and you can't be saved by a bunch of dead bones. So the claim of Jesus' resurrection has practical, existential import. It's not just about the past, but about the present; not merely that Christ rose 2,000 years ago but that he is risen.
Before arguing pro and con whether this event is factual, we have to understand it, we have to define it. The words that define it in the earliest Christian creed, the Apostles' Creed, are very literal. The words are "anastasis necron," which means, the standing up of the corpse. It's not a ghost. The Gospels say his disciples first thought that, and he refuted it by letting them touch his wounds and by eating food. Nor is it simply the immortality of the soul, the freeing of the soul from its bodily prison as a platonist or a gnostic would call it. It was a resurrected body. And, it's not a resuscitation, like the story of the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus had to die again.1 Jesus' resurrection body was supposedly immortal, a different kind of body. So different in fact that his best friends did not recognize him at first. In the story he could walk through walls and ascend into heaven.
It's also not a translation or assumption into heaven as happened to Elijah. That's a traditional Jewish idea, but this is a body that supposedly remained on earth for 40 days. And it's also not reincarnation. Reincarnation, like resuscitation, gives you only another mortal body. Nor is the claim a mystical experience, like nirvana, nor a private subjective vision but a public empirical fact. And it can't be understood as a myth like the many near-eastern myths of dying and rising grain gods and corn gods — these gods don't exist but the vegetation does. The reason it can't be interpreted as a myth is that the New Testament explicitly distinguishes Jesus' resurrection from myths. Nor can it be understood psychologically as a kind of resurrection of Easter faith in the hearts and lives of the disciples because Easter faith without an Easter sounds like a self-contradiction — what is it faith in?
So it must be interpreted literally. Interpretation is different from belief. You have to interpret what it means before you decide whether you believe that it's true or not. Well, before arguing for or against the facticity of the literal resurrection of Jesus, we can't presuppose anything that depends on religious faith, such as the infallibility or non-infallibility of the Bible, but only public data, such as the text of the New Testament as we have it today — the text but not necessarily its truth — and the fact of the Christian Church's existence, and its teachings but not necessarily their truth. So we'll make this exploration a more textual one than the previous three because that's where the relevant data are.
I think there are five logically possible theories as to what happened on the first Easter Sunday. One is the Christian belief that Jesus literally rose from the dead. The second is that Jesus never died on the cross in the first place, but was in a swoon or a trance which was mistaken for death. The third is that he died and didn't rise and his apostles simply lied — this is the conspiracy theory. A fourth would be that he died and didn't rise and his apostles sincerely believed they saw him but were hallucinating — the conspiracy theory says the apostles were deceivers; the hallucination theory says they were deceived. And a fifth theory says that they were myth-makers, neither deceivers nor deceived, but that the resurrection story was not meant to be interpreted literally.
The first of the five theories seems the least likely on the face of it. There are plenty of examples in history of swoons, conspiracies, hallucinations, and myths, but not one verified example of a literal resurrection from the dead. The only convincing argument for this belief would seem to be not any nuancing or revising of the claim in order to make it less shocking, like this "resurrection of faith" instead of a resurrection of Jesus, or an explanation of how it happened, how it was possible — no one has ever claimed to explain that — but an examination of the other possibilities and a refutation of each one of them on the basis of data from the text, from history, and from common experience and common sense. Only if the four alternatives are thoroughly refutable, and the Christian alternative is not, does there seem to be good logical reason to believe the Christian alternative, so let's see how strong that case is.
The swoon theory seems the easiest one to refute. For one thing Jesus could never have survived crucifixion. Roman procedures were very careful to eliminate that possibility. They had to have certain medical proof that the condemned man was dead. That's why they broke the legs of the two thieves crucified with Jesus to hasten their death, but they didn't have to do that to Jesus because he was already dead, and his disciple John who claims to have been there certified that he saw water as well as blood come from Jesus' heart when the soldier's lance pierced it, showing that his lungs had collapsed and he had died of asphyxiation. For another thing, how could armed Roman guards at the tomb been overpowered by a swooning semi-corpse? And how could a man in a swoon move the great stone at the door of the tomb which it took two or three strong Romans to move? Finally, if Jesus awoke from a swoon, where did he go? There's absolutely no trail, no claims, no myths, no fantasies even about Jesus after his crucifixion except the stories in the Gospels.
Much more promising seems the conspiracy theory. People often lie — there's plenty of precedent for that. Why couldn't the Gospel writers simply have made up the whole story? Well, the strongest reason is that they were almost all martyred for it. Now, martyrdom doesn't prove the truth of the belief you die for — you may be ignorant or a fanatic — but it certainly proves your sincerity in believing it. Liars don't die for elaborate practical jokes. Lies are always told for some selfish advantage. What advantage did Jesus' disciples get from their lie? They were hated, persecuted, excommunicated, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, crucified, fed to lions — that's hardly a bag of perks. And, all the enemies of this new movement wanted to wipe it out, so all they would have had to do was to bribe one apostle to deny his story and it would have ended. No one would have believed it. And yet, no one ever confessed that it was a lie, a conspiracy. Also, if it was a lie, then Jesus was dead, and both the Jews and the Romans would have been able to produce the corpse to prove that to everybody and this new Christian movement which they both feared would have been totally dead in the water. So, where was the body? And if the disciples stole the body, how did they overpower the armed Roman guards when they were on duty? The penalty for sleeping on duty in Roman law was death. And how did they roll away the stone?
Let's examine the third possibility, that it was a hallucination. That seems reasonable. If you saw a man who had just been executed walking around and talking, wouldn't you think it more likely that you were hallucinating than that you were seeing what was? But then why didn't the apostles think that? Well, according to the Gospels they did! And to prove that he was not a hallucination or a ghost he let them touch him and he ate their food. And there seem to have been far too many witnesses for a hallucination. Hallucinations are always private and individual. Mass hallucinations occasionally happen but only together whereas Jesus appeared separately, according to the story, to many different people on many different occasions. And Paul even mentions in one of his letters that Jesus appeared to five hundred people most of whom are still alive, thus inviting readers to check it out by questioning those almost five hundred eyewitnesses.
We don't know of any hallucination that ever behaved as Jesus did in the Gospel story. Hallucinations don't eat, and they're not touched, figments of your imagination don't hold profound, extended conversations with you, and if Jesus' corpse had still been in the tomb, the discples wouldn't have believed the hallucination; they would check it out and refute it. And if they were hallucinating and Jesus really was dead, once they started to spread their story, the Jews and Romans would have been able to stop the whole Christian movement and refute the story simply by producing the corpse.
So the most likely alternative to a real resurrection would be a myth, and that's the most popular position today, even among many Christian theologians, the ones labeled 'modernist' or 'liberal.' Myth was a common form of religious literature in the first century and fantastic and exaggerated and mythic accounts of some great religious founder complete with stories of miracles often did grow up and replace the simple historical facts in people's minds once the facts of the founder had been forgotten. To a certain extent that even happened to Buddha, Lao-Tzu, and Mohammed. Why couldn't it have happened to Jesus? If the Gospels are myths, that would escape the dilemma of calling the apostles either deceived or deceivers, either hallucinators or liars. The evidences against the myth theory are mainly textual. For one thing the style of the Gospels looks radically different from the style of myths. They look like and claim to be eyewitness descriptions. If they're not that, then they are the world's most successful realistic fantasy, invented nineteen centuries before Tolkien.
One little detail that distinguishes the Gospels from myths is that the first witnesses of Jesus' resurrection were women. In first century Judaism women had no legal status and no right to serve as witnesses. They were regarded as unreliable and their testimony was regarded as worthless legally. So, if the empty tomb was an invention, a legend, the inventors would certainly not have made it to be discovered by women.
Another problem is that there was not enough time for the myth to develop. Several generations have to pass before the invented mythic elements can be mistakenly believed to be historical facts because the eyewitnesses who remembered the real religious founder would refute the myth otherwise. Now, some scholars dispute the first century date for the Gospels, though more evidence seems to be accumulating for it, but no scholar disputes that Paul's letters were written before 55 or 60 A.D. when he was martyred, and that was well within the lifetime of many eyewitnesses. But Jesus' literal resurrection is central to Paul's teachings. There is simply no example anywhere in history of a great myth or legend arising around the historical figure and being widely believed within thirty years of that figure's death.
Also there is a simple textual proof that the New Testament can't be a myth which Christians confused with literal fact because it specifically distinguishes the two and refutes the mythic interpretation, for instance in 1 Corinthians 15 and in 2 Peter. And, if it explicitly says it's not a myth, then if it is a myth it's a deliberate lie, rather than a myth, so we're back to the old dilemma the apostles were either deceived or deceivers, rather than myth-makers halfway in between.
What could a non-Christian answer to this argument? Quite a few things. First, he could point to the logical weakness of the quintalemma, the five-part dilemma, in its logical form, as well as its content. You have to be sure all four of the other possibilities are refuted before you can be sure that the conclusion is proved. But some of these four refutations are clearly weaker than others so it's only a matter of probability and not proof. And even more crucially, you have to be sure your alternative possibilities are exhaustive — that there is no sixth possibility in addition to these five — and that it is impossible in principle. Well, any disjunctive syllogism, any "either-or" syllogism in the form of, "it's either A or B and it's not A therefore it must be B" has a weak first premise: how can you ever prove that it must be A or B? That tomorrow, someone won't come up with a C, another alternative that no one thought of today? That's called "escaping between the horns of a dilemma" and it makes a dilemma the weakest form of a logical argument. But a trilemma, a quadralemma, or a quintalemma is even weaker because you already have admitted four other possibilities which you have to be sure you refuted, so it's likely that there would be more.
A second answer the skeptic could give is by rehabiliting the mythic hypothesis. The argument against that depends on uncertain premises, such as assuming the Gospels were written by eyewitnesses, that Paul's letters were written by Paul, and that the New Testament was written in the first century. There's no proof that a historical event 2,000 years ago really happened, especially one that was not a public event like a war or a coronation, but a private event narrated by only a few people and all of them loyal disciples. History is not an exact science and neither is textual scholarship. Documents can be forged. Anyone can claim anything in print. Paper trails can't be conclusive evidence even for something that happened yesterday, much less for something that happened 2,000 years ago. And it's also a second-hand paper trail — Jesus never wrote a word in his life.
This historical skepticism can be extended to any historical figure of course — we can't be certain that Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, nor that Socrates drank the hemlock, or that St. Augustine was converted in a garden, but the reason no one doubts those events is not merely the documents that narrate them but the nature of the events they narrate. The textual evidence for Jesus is similar to the textual evidence for Caesar, but no one claims Caesar rose from the dead. So the issue comes down to the philosophical issue of miracles, rather than the historical issue of date and authorship of texts, and that's an issue we've already explored.
You see, upon logical analysis, all or most of the issues turn out to be connected and dependent on each other, a kind of package deal. Logic may not be able to prove to you what the truth is, but it can show you the trails, the "if-then" connections, and what you have to believe in order to believe something else. Logic probably can't prove many of the claims of religion — or disprove them — but it can surely clarify their logical structure.
1 Resuscitation is the process of correcting physiological disorders (such as lack of breathing or heartbeat) in an acutely ill patient. It is an important part of intensive care medicine, trauma surgery and emergency medicine. Well known examples are cardiopulmonary resuscitation and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Resuscitation is a natural event, not a supernatural event.
Resurrection, on the other hand, is a supernatural event — a miracle by which one who is truly dead is restored to life.
In saying Lazarus was resuscitated whereas Jesus was resurrected, in my opinion Professor Kreeft confuses resuscitation with resurrection. According to the Gospel accounts, Lazarus was dead for four days. We know this because Martha questioned Jesus about the decomposition of Lazarus' body in John 11:39:
Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.What happened to Lazarus in John 11 was not a resuscitation (e.g. usage of CPR within a relatively short timeframe, minutes or at most an hour) but a resurrection — a raising to life from actual, real death.
Professor Kreeft also implies the premise that a resurrection entails an immortal resurrected body, but the term "anastasis necron" used in the Apostles' Creed does not connote that the resurrected body is of necessity immortal. Lazarus was indeed resurrected but he was resurrected to a mortal body. We know his body was mortal because Lazarus was appointed by Barnabas and Paul as Bishop of Kition, lived there for thirty more years, and on his death was buried for the second and last time. Whereas Jesus was raised to an immortal body, dwelt on earth for forty days, and bodily ascended into Heaven.