Why is it hard to accept what the gospels say about Jesus' resurrection? The obvious retort is, “Because it’s a miracle! In other words, such things don’t happen.” It’s right that we should avoid being credulous. To rational people, a report of a low-probability event requires strong evidence to back it up. The subjective issues come in when we ask things like, “How low is the probability?” and “How good is the evidence?”
I’ll leave the first question for now. A convinced atheist might say that the probability of someone rising from the dead is zero, and no apparent evidence of it happening could ever be strong enough. I obviously can’t convince such a person by argument.
Instead, I ask “How good is the evidence?” and what I will do here is criticise one argument commonly employed to make it seem not good enough. It’s sometimes said, “Yes, we have some eyewitness accounts here, but how do we know we can trust them? Couldn’t they have been changed by the people who handed them down to us?”
On the contrary, one thing I’ve noticed in my recent Bible reading is that the writers are the witnesses. There are no intermediaries except copiers and translators, (and their roles in the process are very well understood these days). The reason I noticed this is that several of the writers take pains to point the fact out. They seem keenly aware that the things they are telling us about Jesus are incredible, (in fact, some of them had trouble believing themselves, to start with). Therefore, they stress what they saw and the fact that they were really there at the time. Here are some examples.
Let’s start with John the Apostle. In chapter 20 of his gospel, he describes in careful detail how he and Peter, on hearing that Jesus’ body was gone, ran to the tomb to have a look. A paraphrase would be, “Peter and I both ran to the tomb, but I got there first. I didn’t go in on my own though; I waited for Peter to arrive. He went straight in, but I was right behind him to have a look too. Neither of us could have messed about with anything without the other knowing. Rather than looking robbed, the tomb seemed to have been tidied up!”
Later in life, John wrote what we now call his “first letter”. He needed to back up his previous account, but as I’ve suggested he was very aware of how incredible it could seem to people who weren’t there. At the start he writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched…” My paraphrase: “I’m telling you about someone I’ve seen alive and even touched!” And we have his own words, not someone else’s “handed down”. (No, I haven’t forgotten those translators, but they really have put a lot of effort into getting our English translations right).
John ran to that tomb with Peter. Peter, in his second letter, is also at pains to point out that he’s not making these things up; he really was with Jesus, seeing and listening to him. To back up his assertions about Jesus, he refers to the occasion when Jesus was transfigured, shining with glory, in the presence of himself, James and John. He writes, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” See, he’s very alive to the possibility that he could be accused of inventing stories, but all he can do is keep saying, “I was there!”
Mentioning Peter leads us to a surprising claim by Paul in which Peter figures indirectly. Well, surely Paul can’t count as an eyewitness? He was deeply hostile until some time after the alleged resurrection. Yes, but he claimed to have been spoken to by Jesus, on the way to Damascus. Why should we take such a claim seriously? Because of what followed. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes how he received the message he was preaching directly from Jesus after his resurrection. After he had spent about three years thinking about it and then preaching in the Damascus area, he decided to go to Jerusalem and meet Peter, to check that his message was really right. And it was! The message Paul had received in his encounter with Jesus turned out to be the same as the one being spread by Peter and the other original followers of Jesus.
It’s worth noting that this is a different kind of claim. Rather than saying that his message is an eyewitness account, Paul is saying that it’s a message he could only have got hold of if it was true. And there is no trace in the rest of the New Testament that Paul ever had to eat any of his words. How likely is that, if his meeting with Jesus was only a hallucination?
Well, I’ve used the best examples of people who directly point out their witness status in their writing. We could also discuss the other gospel writers, but that’s probably enough for now. Where does this leave us? Just having the testimony of good witnesses doesn’t prove that what they are saying is true. They might all have been mistaken; after all, the events they describe are still hard to believe. How can we decide?
I can only suggest one way. A careful reading of what we are being told, weighing and assessing whether it really rings true. I recommend a modern English translation, such as the New International Version. You don’t even need to buy the book; it’s all on-line at: