When You Eliminate the Impossible…

History is a discipline of interpretation.

As none of us were present at the events studied by most historians, the challenge is to look at the evidence that has been left, the recorded testimonies of those who were witnesses to the events, and to piece together the events into a coherent explanation.

In many cases, historians disagree over what happened. Evidence can be vague, and can be open to multiple equally valid interpretations.

In other cases, the evidence is overwhelming and rules out the proposals that some would wish to suggest.

There is a famous line from Sherlock Holmes that says,

When you eliminate the impossible; whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, the evidence is clear. There are historical facts that do not lend themselves to any other interpretation (and over the centuries, people have tried all sorts of explanations).

When the impossible is eliminated, that which remains, however improbable, must be the truth – Christ is risen indeed.

CONSIDER

  • What different explanations have you heard people suggest to challenge the idea that Jesus rose from the dead?

The evidence for the resurrection is overwhelming, and in fact all of the key facts are compiled into one short passage of scripture.

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, 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 15:3-8)

Let us establish the key facts, and see how they blow out of the water any theory other than resurrection.

Jesus Died

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:3)

The first point to establish is that Jesus died.

We are talking about a historical individual – Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of Mary. He lived around 2,000 years ago in Palestine. Amongst reputable historians there is no doubt of these facts.

And the first claim being made is that Jesus died.

This claim is coupled with the first objection that people would make – The Swoon Theory

The idea behind the swoon theory is that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead because he didn’t actually die on the cross.

As the theory goes, Jesus was arrested, placed on the cross with nails through his hands and his feet, but instead of dying he merely passed out. The soldiers mistakenly thought that Jesus was dead; they took him down and buried him in a tomb. Three days later, Jesus came to, rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb himself, and people thought that he had risen from death.

How do we know that Jesus died?

Firstly, we should note that Jesus wasn’t executed by amateurs. His crucifixion was overseen by Roman executioners. They killed many people in this way daily and were consumate professionals.

Crucifixion was the most brutal form of death that the Romans could come up with. They would start by beating the back raw with a multi-pronged whip with bits of metal and bone that would dig under the flesh and tear it from the body. Then they made the victim drag the heavy cross bar to their own execution site, with the rough wood rubbing against the exposed and bloody flesh of their back. Next, they were fixed to the cross by nails, hammered in through the hands and the feet. They were jolted upright and it is as though all the breath went from their lungs. Gravity caused the victim to be unable to take a breath as they fell forward. The only way to breathe was to pull themselves upwards, and to do so meant pushing upwards on the nails. Every breath was a struggle until the victim could breathe no more. Crucifixion was designed to be an extremely efficient way of killing people.

The professional executioners, conducting the most barbaric of executions, had personal investment in Jesus being dead. If one of them had signed the death warrant for somebody who had merely passed out, the executioner himself would be killed. In the case of Jesus, before he was taken down from the cross the executioner thrust a spear through his heart to make sure that the job was done completely.

Jesus was as dead as dead could be. This was not just the verdict of one unreliable officer, but four professional Roman executioners who were all satisfied that Jesus was truly dead.

The swoon theory just doesn’t work.

Additionally, even if Jesus had just passed out instead of dying, after everything that he had been through he would have been a mangled and bloody mess – surely not capable of rolling the stone away, overcoming the guards, and carrying himself in such a way that convinces people that he has just conquered death.

On this point, David Friedrich Strauss, a 19th century scholar who was sceptical to the resurrection, writes,

“It is impossible that a being who had stolen half-dead out of the sepulchre, who crept about weak and ill, wanting medical treatment, who required bandaging, strengthening and indulgence, and who still at last yielded to his sufferings, could have given the disciples the impression that he was a Conqueror over death and the grave, the Prince of Life, an impression which lay at the bottom of their future ministry. Such a resuscitation could only have weakened the impression which he made upon them in life and death, at the most could only have given it an elegiac voice, but could by no possibility have changed their sorrow into enthusiasm, have elevated their reverence into worship.” (David Friedrich Strauss)

The notion that Jesus didn’t really die doesn’t hold water. Historically speaking, it is impossible.

Jesus Was Buried

…that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:4)

The next event that Paul highlights in this passage is that Jesus was buried. This is more than merely an insignificant corollary to the death of Jesus. By pointing out that Jesus is buried, Paul is drawing our attention to the tomb.

We are being invited to keep our eyes on the body of Jesus, and as we do we will see something remarkable.

This focus on the body draws us into our second objection to the resurrection – the resurrection was only spiritual.

The idea of this objection is that while Jesus is still physically dead, we can reinterpret his resurrection to mean that the ‘spirit’ or ethos of what he stood for lives on in other people. This suggestion moves us from bodily resurrection to symbolic resurrection.

We must ask whether this idea works, and the key is to watch the body of Jesus.

In the months following Jesus’ death, his disciples were going around Jerusalem (and beyond) telling anybody who would listen that he was still alive. The authorities were doing anything within their power to stop them spreading this message – they would resort to threatening them, arresting them, imprisoning them, beating them, and even trying to kill them. They wanted to stamp out this notion of a resurrection before word got out.

But surely, if the resurrection of Jesus was only spiritual, there would be an easier way to put an end to the message of the disciples – just go to the tomb and produce the body. If the disciples are going around telling everybody that Jesus is alive and you can show them his dead body, then it is game over.

They couldn’t do it because there wasn’t a body to produce. Keep your eye on the body of Jesus. It was taken down from the cross and physically buried in the tomb. A few days later it was gone and the tomb was empty.

Dr Paul Maier, an historian who specialises in ancient history, makes just this point.

“Where did Christianity first begin? – Only one spot on earth, the city of Jerusalem. But this is the very last place it would have started if Jesus’ tomb had remained occupied, since anyone producing a dead Jesus would have driven a sodden stake through the heart of an incipient, or beginning, Christianity inflamed by a supposed resurrection.” (Dr. Paul Maier)

The idea of a purely spiritual resurrection doesn’t work. There was a tomb that was physically empty in Jerusalem. The church would have quickly dissipated if Jesus’ body was still around, but it wasn’t.

There Were Eye-Witnesses

...and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve… (1 Corinthians 15:3)

One way that people try to explain the events is to say that Jesus really did die and that the tomb really was empty, but the reason it was empty is that the body was stolen.

Suggested culprits for this range from the disciples themselves (we’ll come back to that one later), to the authorities, to grave-robbers.

However, in verse 5 Paul gives us another factor to consider – there were witnesses who saw him alive.

Now the question doesn’t just revolve around whether or not Jesus died and what happened to his body – we now have him appearing alive to people and we need to account for this too.

Having witnesses that saw the body makes no sense if all that happened was that the body was taken by grave-robbers or by the authorities.

Why would good men like Peter and John make up that the resurrection had happened if the body had really just been stolen?

And what would make them die for that lie? All but one of the disciples got killed for refusing to take back their testimony that Jesus was alive. Why would they do that if it was grave-robbers all along?

Listen to some of the things that they said:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes; which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life. (1 John 1:1)

Josephus was a Jewish historian from the first century. He wrote a little bit about Jesus, and in this he confirmed that the apostles were telling everyone that Jesus had appeared to them:

At this time there was a wise man who was called Jesus… Pilate condemned him to be condemned and to die. And those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive; accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah concerning whom the prophets have recounted wonders. (Josephus)

The idea of thieves taking the body won’t do. It doesn’t explain why these people were saying they had seen him alive.

A Large Crowd Saw Him Alive

…Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep... (1 Corinthians 15:6)

A sceptic reading the resurrection accounts may scoff at the witnesses mentioned, as they were few in numbers and the leaders of the early church.

However, in verse 6, Paul quashes this objection.

Jesus appeared to five hundred witnesses at one time. There are very few historical events where that many people can testify to having seen it with their own eyes.

To put this in perspective, imagine if each witness was to give testimony in a courtroom. Even without cross-examination, and if each of them was to merely take the stand, say ‘I saw Jesus, he is alive’ and then leave, the court would need to recess and come back for a second day in order to hear that many witnesses, even with such a brief testimony.

Moreover, at the time Paul wrote to the Corinthians, many of those witnesses were still alive. In writing the way he did he was inviting them to track down those who had seen with their own eyes and corroborate the testimony for themselves.

One theory that some people have raised regarding the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is that the witnesses were hallucinating.

The suggestion is that these people were so distressed that their friend and leader had died that they hallucinated that he was still alive.

This explanation fails for a number of reasons. Firstly, it does not account for the empty tomb that we have already seen.

Secondly, however, five hundred people all saw Jesus at the same time. Hallucinations are, by definition, individual experiences. They happen with in the mind. They cannot be shared with another person, let alone five hundred others.

To suggest that five hundred people hallucinated the same thing at the same time is ludicrous.

This is explained by Gary Collins, a doctor of psychology, who said,

Hallucinations are individual occurrences. By their very nature only one person can see a given hallucination at a time. They certainly aren’t something which can be seen by a group of people. Neither is it possible that one person can somehow induce an hallucination in somebody else. Since an hallucination exists only in this subjective, personal sense, it is obvious that other people cannot witness it. (Gary Collins)

Hallucinations don’t work either as a theory to explain away the resurrection.

Hostile Witnesses

…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 15:7-8)

It is one thing to be able to produce sympathetic witnesses (people who were already on Jesus’ side anyway) talking about resurrection appearances. It takes things to another level entirely to produce hostile witnesses – people who were on the other side, but who had their minds changed by what they saw.

Verses 7 and 8 produce two hostile witnesses.

The first of these is James.

James was Jesus’ little brother, and during Jesus’ life, James opposed him. Jesus was going around claiming that he was God, winding up the religious elite, and bringing shame onto the family. In the eyes of James, Jesus was crazy and was an embarrassment to the family name. He was the embarrassing older brother with the Messiah complex. During Jesus’ life, James never even came close to joining his disciples (“Not even his brothers believed in him” – John 7:5). He was on the other side.

It is not a usual thing for somebody to worship his brother as God incarnate. What would is take for somebody to do that?

Before Jesus’ resurrection, James opposed him and was sceptical towards his claims. Afterwards, he became a fearless follower of Jesus, a leader of churches, a writer of part of the Bible, and he described himself as a ‘servant of Jesus Christ’, who ended up getting stoned to death for following Jesus.

What do you think it took to see that change in him? This is not something that little brothers usually do. It would take something as big as the resurrection.

The second hostile witness is Paul himself.

Paul used to be a fanatical opponent of Christianity. He believed that he was serving God by hunting down and killing every Christian that he could find.

One day on the road to Damascus, en route to find more Christians to kill, the risen Lord Jesus appeared to Paul, rebuked him, forgave him and then commissioned him to take his message to the world.

The same man who used to be all about hunting down and killing Christians had a complete 180 degree transformation in his life. He became an apostle. He became a frontier missionary. He would go to places where nobody knew about Jesus, and would plant churches there. He wrote half of the New Testament. He said, ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain’. He said that he counted all other things as rubbish to gain Jesus. And then he himself was killed for his testimony to the resurrection.

It is impossible to overstate the scale of the turnaround in Paul’s life. What would it take to cause something like that to happen?

Nothing short of a resurrection.

The last resort for people who want to dismiss the resurrection is to claim that the disciples fabricated the whole thing. That they stole the body and made up the appearances. That they managed to con the world into believing that Jesus was alive.

But this isn’t possible.

The tomb was guarded by Roman soldiers. There is no way this small band of disciples could overcome them. And even if they had, the guards would have told everyone what happened.

It doesn’t explain why the disciples were willing to be put to death for testifying to the resurrection. Good people may die for what they know is true. No one dies for what they made up. That’s just stupid. Yet not a single one of the disciples recanted on their death-bed.

It doesn’t explain James. He wasn’t part of the group. He was a sceptic. A few unsubstantiated claims from the disciples wouldn’t sway him. Only a resurrection could do that.

It certainly doesn’t explain Paul. The greatest opponent of Christianity converted in a moment. If the disciples made the whole thing up, then how did that happen? Only a resurrection could do that.

Which brings us back to the line that we started with.

When You Eliminate the Impossible, Whatever Remains, However Improbable, Must Be the Truth.

We know that Jesus really died. We know that his tomb was really empty. We know that many people, some of them sceptics or opponents, saw him alive. We have to explain that.

Saying that he didn’t really die doesn’t explain it – the Romans were expert executioners, and he certainly wouldn’t have been able to convince people he had conquered death in the state he would have been in.

Saying that the resurrection is just a spiritual thing doesn’t explain it – there is an empty tomb in Jerusalem to account for.

Saying that thieves took the body doesn’t explain it – because within a few days that body was appearing to people alive and well.

Saying that the appearances were hallucinations doesn’t explain it – because it doesn’t deal with the empty tomb and because hundreds of people saw him at once. Hallucinations just don’t work like that.

Saying that the disciples fabricated the whole thing doesn’t explain it – it doesn’t account for why they died for that so-called lie and certainly doesn’t account for the transformations in James and Paul.

There is only one explanation that accounts for all of the facts.

Jesus truly rose from the dead.

The resurrection explains everything.

APPLY

  • If you had to explain how you can be sure that Jesus rose from the dead in one minute or less, what would you say?
  • What difference does a confident belief in the resurrection make to your faith?
  • Why do you think it matters whether or not Jesus is truly risen from the dead?