The cumulative evidence that this New Testament of ours, which speaks so powerfully and frequently of the resurrection of Christ, is not the result of hallucination or some conspiracy by early Christians. The cumulative evidence is very, very strong indeed.
—D.A. Carson, Emeritus Professor, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
I hear this argument a lot when I discuss the evidence for the Resurrection with Christian apologists. Is it true? Absolutely not. The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus is very weak, cumulative or non-cumulative. The fact that apologists feel the need to appeal to “cumulative evidence” or a cumulative case is evidence that their position is weak. If their position were strong, they would simply say: The evidence for the Resurrection is very, very strong.
This argument is typically introduced into the discussion when I point out to an apologist just how weak a particular piece of evidence for the Resurrection really is. Their response: It is the cumulative evidence that is strong. It is the cumulative evidence which demonstrates that there is no other plausible explanation than a literal resurrection.
Why do they do this? Answer: It is a desperate defensive strategy. What the apologist is saying is: “Even if you can prove that one particular piece of evidence for the Resurrection is weak, I will still appeal to the cumulative case to defend my position. I will never admit defeat.“
Let’s call their bluff. Let’s examine each piece of evidence for the Resurrection and see how strong or weak each individual component of the “cumulative evidence” is. I will proceed from the more specific details of the Resurrection Story to the more comprehensive apologetic arguments.
- An Empty Rock Tomb
According to one literature search performed by an evangelical Christian historian, 75% of scholars believe in the historicity of the empty rock tomb of Jesus. How strong of evidence is that? Would you believe any other historical claim if 25% of historians rejected its historicity? Doesn’t sound like “strong” evidence to me.
2. Guards at the Tomb
The first gospel written says nothing about guards at the tomb. The story of guards at the tomb doesn’t appear in Christian literature until circa 80-90 CE, and only in one gospel. The overwhelming majority of experts believe that this story is a work of apologetics (fiction), told to deflect criticism by skeptics in the first century who were pointing out that an unguarded tomb would have allowed someone to move the body of Jesus. And as with any empty grave, the explanation that someone moved the body is much, much more probable than a supernatural explanation that ghosts or gods moved the body. So very strong evidence? No.
3. Women found the Empty Tomb
Apologists like to point out that this fact must be historical because women were not allowed to testify as witnesses in a court of law. But isn’t is also true that having women as the only eyewitnesses to this alleged event spares the story teller (the author of Mark) from ever being brought to court to verify his tall tale? Without male witnesses, his story cannot be corroborated or disqualified as fiction. The earliest Christian document discussing the Resurrection, the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15, says nothing about women being the first to receive an appearance of the resurrected Jesus. Christian apologists have a myriad of possible explanations for this omission but the fact the omission exists is possible evidence that the Story of Women Discovering the Empty Tomb is a fictional addition to the Jesus Story. Very strong evidence? No.
4. Post Resurrection Sightings
If one reads the Gospels and the Early Creed in First Corinthians 15 in parallel, one sees the massive discrepancies in the alleged post resurrection appearances. As apologists point out, a few minor discrepancies in the testimonies of the eyewitnesses is normal for any event. But come on! The Early Creed says Jesus first appeared to Peter. Matthew says Jesus first appeared to women. Luke has Jesus’ first appear to two disciples on the Emmaus Road not to women in Jerusalem. Luke gives us a detailed account of this appearance on the Emmaus Road to a “Cleophas” and another unknown disciple, but then has these two disciples say that Jesus had first appeared to Peter! But Luke gives us ZERO details about this first appearance to Jesus’ chief disciple, the disciple who had betrayed him so dramatically three times in the courtyard of the high priest. What an appearance story that would have been! But nope. No discussion of Jesus’ first appearance, to Simon Peter. Jesus appearance to “Cleophas” was obviously more important for Luke’s “theme”.
Is it possible this brief mention of a first appearance to Peter was thrown in for apologetics purposes to make Luke’s appearances line up with the appearances in the Early Creed? Certainly looks suspicious.
Finally, John has Jesus first appear to only one woman who mistakes him for the gardener. Good grief. And to top it off, Mark says that the appearances will occur later on in Galilee; Matthew says that the appearances to the male disciples occurred in Galilee; yet Luke claims all appearances occurred in Jerusalem! Something is wrong, folks! Very strong evidence? No way.
5. Why Didn’t the Jews or Romans Dig Up Jesus’ Body?
This is another common argument of apologists. If Jesus’ body were still in his tomb, the Jews or Romans could have simply opened the tomb and brought out his body to parade down Main Street for everyone to see. That would have stopped Christianity in its tracks.
This argument contains several assumptions. First, when did the disciples start proclaiming a resurrection had occurred? The Bible itself tells us it was approximately 50 days later, on Pentecost. In what condition would a corpse be after 50 days in a rock tomb in the hot Middle East? Not good, I assure you. How would anyone have recognized the corpse?? If the Jews had dragged out the body, the disciples could have simply said, “That’s not Jesus! You put someone else’s rotting corpse in his empty grave, you evil Jews!”
The other assumption is that the Jews gave a damn. Not one non-Christian contemporary of Jesus wrote about him. Not Philo. Not anyone. So maybe he wasn’t the big deal the Gospels make him out to be. Maybe Jesus was a nobody in his lifetime. If so, why would the Jewish authorities care if a handful of Galilean peasants were claiming that their executed leader had “appeared” to them from the dead? Very strong evidence? No.
6. The Changed Character of the Disciples Can Only Be Explained by a Resurrection. No One Would Die For a Lie.
Really? It isn’t possible that this change of character occurred due to a mistaken belief that Jesus had literally appeared to them when in fact it was only an illusion (a bright light, shadow) or a vivid dream? Implausible to you, maybe, but not implausible to non-Christians, including most of the world’s theists. How many comparatively normal people in history have had a life changing experience and become religious zealots? Many! And how many religious zealots have been willing to die for mistaken beliefs? Thousands—of all religions, sects, and cults.
Very strong evidence? No.
7. The Conversion of a Jewish Pharisee and Enemy of Christianity, Paul
Odd conversions have happened throughout history. Jew to Muslim. Christian to Muslim. Muslim to Christian. Odd conversions prove nothing. Very strong evidence? No.
8. The Conversion of James, Jesus’ Brother
Christians assume that James converted to The Way only after receiving a post-resurrection bodily appearance from his dead brother. They have no way of proving this. For all we know, James was already a follower prior to Jesus’ execution, or converted sometime afterwards for a myriad of other possible reasons. Very strong evidence? No.
9. Paul Met With Peter and James in Jerusalem. They Must Have Compared Their Individual Sightings of Jesus, Confirming They Were Not Just Hallucinations or Vivid Dreams.
What if Peter and James both told Paul that they too had seen a bright light and believed it was Jesus?? Since Paul doesn’t tell us what the three discussed, don’t assume. Very strong evidence? No.
10. The Growth of Christianity Can Only Be Explained by a Resurrection
Really? Mormonism has grown to 15 million believers in less than 200 years. That is much more rapid growth than early Christianity. And Islam is projected to be the largest religion in the world within a century. The quick growth and size of a religion is not evidence of the veracity of its superstitions. Very strong evidence? No
11. We Should Trust the Gospel Accounts Because They Were Written By Eyewitnesses or At Least Contain Eyewitness Accounts
Not according to a significant percentage of scholars and historians. Most scholars believe that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses or even by the associates of eyewitnesses but by people living one two generations removed from the alleged events they describe. Some evangelicals today (Mike Licona) argue that evangelical scholars now make up the majority in New Testament scholarship and therefore the majority of scholars support the traditional, eyewitness authorship of the Gospels. I doubt this is true, but even if it is, a significant percentage of scholars still reject the eyewitness/traditional authorship of the Gospels. And if the Gospels were not written by eyewitness or by close associates of eyewitnesses, how can anyone claim with confidence that the Gospels contain eyewitness accounts? Very strong evidence? No.
12. The Resurrection Must Be True Because We Have Multiple Sources Saying It Occurred
Most scholars believe that the authors of Matthew and Luke heavily plagiarized the first author, Mark. They also both seem to have plagiarized a second author, the disputed “Q” source. 50% of scholars believe that the author of John was an independent source but the other 50% believe that he used Mark as a boiler plate for his gospel and was familiar with the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Josephus mentions Jesus and calls him “the Christ” but gives zero details about a resurrection. A couple of other non-Christian authors briefly mention a “Christ” but give zero details about a resurrection. Paul gives us very little information about the resurrection of Jesus other than to recite a list of alleged eyewitnesses which he clearly states he had received from some unknown person or persons.
So how many independent sources mention the resurrection (not just a brief reference to a Jesus or a Christ)? Does “Q” say anything about an empty rock tomb or the alleged resurrection? I don’t know the answer to that question. If “Q” didn’t, it is then possible that the story of an empty tomb originated from one source, the author of Mark. It is also possible that detailed appearance tales, which are not present in Mark, were independently (because they bear no resemblance to each other) invented by the authors of Matthew and Luke, with the author of John, writing a decade or more later, basing his post-resurrection appearance stories on Matthew and Luke’s original stories while adding in a few new ones of his own.
Very strong evidence? No.
13. Jesus’ Resurrection Fulfilled Many Old Testament Prophecies
Says who? The overwhelming majority of Jewish Bible scholars say that there is not one single prophecy about Jesus in the Old Testament. They also say that there is not one prophecy about a resurrected messiah in the Old Testament. Even some Christian scholars and apologists agree with Jewish scholars on some of the alleged Jesus prophecies! For instance, evangelical apologists Josh and Sean McDowell, agree that the Virgin Birth prophecy in Isaiah was not about Jesus. So if even evangelicals are questioning the veracity of OT Jesus prophecies, how strong is this evidence? Very good evidence? No.
Conclusion: The “cumulative evidence” for the bodily resurrection of Jesus cannot be strong if the individual pieces of evidence are not strong. The fact is: The evidence for the bodily resurrection of Jesus, individually and cumulatively, is very poor.
Jesus is still dead.
End of post.