Can we prove and defend Jesus’ resurrection?


(image courtesy ChristArt )

By Spencer D Gear

A person on a Christian forum asked: ‘Can we prove the Resurrection? Should we stop trying to prove Christianity?’[1] Here are a couple responses:

  • ‘Prove it through your faith more so than in word or doctrines’.[2]
  • ‘What is the significance of Paul not talking about the empty tomb?’[3]
  • ‘Do you realize that the word resurrection literally (anastasis neckron) means “a standing up of the corpse”? Paul and every gospel writer uses this very specific term. There was no doubt that this was not the result of an evolution but the testimony held to since the beginning.’[4]
  • ‘Actually, without testimony, evidence is meaningless. You either believe the witnesses or you don’t. Those who wrote about Jesus are credible’.[5]

Defending the resurrection as history

My response was as follows:[6]

Have you read the chapter, ‘The Resurrection of Jesus’ in William Lane Craig’s book on apologetics (Craig 1994:255-298)? After finishing his PhD in philosophy at the University of Birmingham, UK, Craig studied the resurrection of Christ under one of the leading defenders of the bodily resurrection of Christ in Europe, Wolfhart Pannenberg, in Germany. He completed a ThD under Pannenberg at the University of Munich, with the major topic being the resurrection of Jesus.


(Image courtesy Crossway Books)

He does not follow the traditional approach to the defense of the resurrection because of the advance of biblical criticism and the tide of subjectivism that is invading the culture and the church. The traditional approach is the historical apologetic for the resurrection. The outline is (from Craig 1994:256-265):

A. The Gospels Are Authentic

  1. Internal evidence;
  2. External evidence;

B. The Text of the Gospels Is Pure

C. The Gospels Are Reliable

1. Apostles neither deceivers nor deceived;

2. The origin of Christianity proves the resurrection

Three resurrection facts: A response with more impact

His view is that the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus seems to rest on ‘three great, independently established facts: the empty tomb, the resurrection appearances, and the origin of the Christian faith (1994:272). Here is the broad outline that he defends in this chapter (you will be doing yourself a favour if you read the entire chapter). See Craig (1994:272-298) for the following outline:

William Lane Craig, (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

A. The Fact of the Empty Tomb

  1. The historical reliability of the story of Jesus’ burial supports the empty tomb;
  2. Paul’s testimony implies the fact of the empty tomb;
  3. The empty tomb story is part of Mark’s source material and is therefore very old;
  4. The phrase “The First Day of the Week” is very ancient;
  5. The story is simple and lacks legendary development;
  6. The tomb was probably discovered empty by women;
  7. The disciples could not have preached the resurrection in Jerusalem had the tomb not been empty;
  8. The earliest Jewish propaganda against the Christians presupposes the empty tomb;

B. Explaining the Empty Tomb

  1. Conspiracy theory;
  2. Apparent death theory;
  3. Wrong tomb theory;

C. The Fact of the Resurrection Appearances

  1. Paul’s testimony proves the disciples saw appearances of Jesus;
  2. The Gospel accounts of the resurrection appearances are historically reliable;
  3. The resurrection appearances were physical, bodily appearances.

D. Explaining the Resurrection Appearances

‘If one denies that Jesus actually rose from the dead, then he must try to explain away the resurrection appearances psychologically. It has been asserted that the appearances were merely hallucinations on the part of the disciples. But the hallucination theory faces formidable difficulties’ (Craig 1994:287).

  1. The theory cannot account for the physicality of the appearances;
  2. The theory cannot plausibly account for the number and various circumstances of the appearances;
  3. The theory cannot account for the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection;
  4. The theory fails to explain the full scope of the evidence.

E. The Fact of the Origin of the Christian Faith
F. Explaining the Origin of the Disciples’ Belief in Jesus’ Resurrection

  1. Not from Christian influences;
  2. Not from pagan influences;
  3. Not from Jewish influences;
  4. Translation versus resurrection.

Craig uses the same historical criteria of other historians to establish his case for the bodily resurrection of Jesus:

  1. Multiple attestation;
  2. Dissimilarity;
  3. Embarrassment;
  4. Context and expectation;
  5. Effect;
  6. Principles of embellishment;
  7. Coherence.

Bill Craig is here using C Behan McCullagh’s (1984) seven criteria for testing an historical hypothesis and applies them to the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead.

  1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.
  2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope than rival hypotheses.
  3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power than rival hypotheses.
  4. The hypothesis must be more plausible than rival hypotheses.
  5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc than rival hypotheses.
  6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs than rival hypotheses.
  7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2) – (6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis exceeding it in meeting these problems.

One of Craig’s concluding statements to the chapter is from his mentor Wolfhart Pannenberg:


(photo of Wolfhart Pannenberg, courtesy Wikipedia)

The resurrection of Jesus acquires such decisive meaning, not merely because someone or anyone has been raised from the dead, but because it is Jesus of Nazareth, whose execution was instigated by the Jews because he had blasphemed against God. If this man was raised from the dead, then that plainly means that the God whom he had supposedly blasphemed has committed himself to him…. The resurrection can only be understood as the divine vindication of the man whom the Jews had rejected as a blasphemer (in Craig 1994:298).

I know that this has been a somewhat heavy outline to defend the historical resurrection of Jesus, but I found William Lane Craig’s argument convincing for the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

If you want a simpler version of this material, there is a chapter on the resurrection of Jesus in William Lane Craig’s 2012 book for the laity, On Guard: Defending your faith with reason and precision. Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook.

I hope I haven’t given too much information about how a Christian can defend the historical, bodily resurrection of Jesus.

‘If one denies that Jesus actually rose from the dead, then he must try to explain away the resurrection appearances psychologically. It has been asserted that the appearances were merely hallucinations on the part of the disciples. But the hallucination theory faces formidable difficulties’ (Craig 1994:287).

An online chapter dealing with Christ’s resurrection, by William Lane Craig, is available as, ‘Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?’ (in Wilkins & Moreland 1995:141-176).


Craig, W L 1994. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books.

McCullagh, C B 1984. Justifying Historical Descriptions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wilkins, M J & Moreland, J P (eds) 1995. Jesus Under Fire. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.


[1] Christian, Christian Apologetics, ‘The resurrection of the Christ’, Denmark#1, 28 October 2012. Available at: (Accessed 28 October 2012).

[2] Ibid., Forge2#7.

[3] Ibid., Clare73#8.

[4] Ibid., pshun240#9.

[5] Ibid., jdbear#10.

[6] Ibid., OzSpen#19.


Copyright © 2013 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 5 February 2017.