The Resurrection of Jesus: A Miracle in One of Three Ways

By Robin Schumacher

The resurrection of Jesus Christ was a miracle. No matter if you believe in God or not, or if you're a philosophical naturalist or a Christian, the account and effects of Jesus' resurrection are truly miraculous. Non-Christians may scoff at this claim, but the resurrection can only be explained in one of three ways:
  1. A biological miracle
  2. A psychological miracle
  3. A theological miracle
First, two quick points are necessary. Options one and two above are purely natural-only explanations of the resurrection; therefore, the definition of "miracle" refers to a highly uncommon, out of the ordinary, yet still "natural" occurrence. This is different than the third option, where the Biblical definition of miracle applies.

Second, it is important to remember that no historical scholar—Christian or non-Christian—doubts the core facts surrounding the resurrection, which are:
  • Jesus was crucified and buried.
  • Three days after His death, His body went missing.
  • There were reported appearances of Jesus, among both believers and unbelievers, over the course of 40 days.
  • These individuals' lives were transformed from the appearances and they began to proclaim Christ's resurrection even up to the point of being martyred for their proclamation.
These are the core facts of Jesus' resurrection, and these facts are not in dispute with any educated secular or religious historian. That being the case, let's explore each possible explanation of the resurrection and see where a philosophical appeal to the best explanation leads us.

A Biological Miracle

The biological miracle option asserts that Jesus didn't actually die, but rather those conducting His execution only believed He was dead. Sometime after He was placed in the tomb, against all biological and medical odds, He somehow revived, emerged, then presented Himself to His disciples as being raised from the dead. Among skeptics, the biological miracle option is rarely, if ever, presented as an alternate theory to Christ's Biblical resurrection account. In fact, a couple decades ago, an article in the Journal of American Medical Associated stated: "Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge." [1]

The lack of popularity for this option is due to the following strong points that argue to the contrary:
  • The New Testament specifically records that Jesus was beaten and scourged before His crucifixion; a procedure that history says caused the death of many condemned persons before they ever reached their appointed cross. The historical gospels also record that Jesus was so physically weakened from His scourging that He could not carry His cross to Golgotha (cf. Matthew 27:32); a clear sign of His failing condition.

  • The Romans were experts at carrying out crucifixions. They knew death well; in fact, the soldiers themselves were held liable if any victim sentenced to death happened to survive.

  • John 19:34-34 describes a spear being thrust into Jesus' side, with the description by John clearly showing a rupture of the pericardium, which would be instant death if a casualty had not already occurred via the crucifixion procedure.

  • Jesus' death was viewed by close eyewitnesses, friend and foe alike.

  • After He was taken from the cross, He was wrapped in cloths and bathed in heavy spices by loving friends who certainly would have noticed if He was still alive.

  • For Jesus' ruse to have occurred, He would need to revive in the tomb, push back the huge stone covering the mouth of His grave, overpower the Roman guards sent to protect the tomb (cf. Matthew 27:62-66), then appear to His followers and skeptics.

  • The disciples' reaction to a clearly disfigured and crucified Jesus would have been much different than the accounts recorded in the four gospels of Jesus' resurrection.
Lastly, the biological miracle option paints a picture of Jesus' moral character that is markedly different than His portrayed life and teachings. It means that Jesus was not only a liar, but much worse. Not only would Jesus have deliberately deceived His disciples, but He would have remained in hiding while His disciples were arrested, tortured, and murdered for proclaiming His false resurrection.

For these reasons and many others which we haven't time for in this article, the biological miracle option is highly unlikely, which is why it is never raised against the resurrection of Jesus.

A Psychological Miracle

The most popular argument among skeptics such as Richard Carrier is that a psychological miracle occurred among Jesus' followers. Carrier writes, "I believe the best explanation, consistent with both scientific findings and the surviving evidence . . . is that the first Christians experienced hallucinations of the risen Christ, of one form or another. . . . In the ancient world, to experience supernatural manifestations of ghosts, gods, and wonders was not only accepted, but encouraged." [2]

However, when closely examined, the psychological miracle option groans and breaks under the weight of the following opposing arguments:
  • To even get off the ground, the psychological miracle option needs to confirm an explanation for the empty tomb. If the disciples and followers of Jesus were the ones experiencing hallucinations and being tricked into believing Christ was alive when He was not, then who stole the body? Certainly Jesus' enemies would not have, and if the disciples didn't, then who would have taken such risk to steal the corpse?

  • A psychological miracle option that proposes hallucinations as the underlying cause fails to account for the facts behind the appearances of Jesus. The appearances of Jesus are remarkable in that they occurred not just once, but multiple times; not just to one person, but to different persons; not just to individuals, but to groups of individuals; not just at one location, but at multiple locations; not just in one circumstance, but in multiple circumstances; not just to believers, but also to unbelievers, skeptics, and even enemies.

  • Every account in the gospels showcases the fact that the disciples in no way expected Jesus to rise from the dead. In fact, they are clearly portrayed as being dull to the teaching of Jesus on His predicted resurrection. This fact is highly significant in that it shows how, mentally, they were not building themselves up to believe that their murdered leader would appear to them alive.

  • Jewish belief only looked forward to a resurrection at the end of the world, with no one believing that anyone would be resurrected and remain alive before that appointed time (cf. Daniel 12:2). This fact further solidifies the argument that the disciples weren't anticipating any return of Jesus.

  • It is worth calling out distinctly, although it has already been mentioned, that skeptics and enemies of Jesus—including disbelieving members of His own family—claimed to see Him alive after His crucifixion. From a psychological perspective, these individuals had no reason to mentally concoct a false appearance of a person they didn't believe in from the start.
Lastly, skeptics try to argue that one way the psychological miracle option could be powered is through cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce mental dissonance between reality and what they want reality to be, and so they change their attitudes, beliefs, or actions to conform to what they desire. Cynics say that the disciples so greatly wanted Jesus to be their Messiah that, after He was executed, they mentally adjusted themselves to compensate for their internal grief.

However, an argument of cognitive dissonance fails to explain the two core facts of the resurrection: the missing body and the appearances to skeptics and enemies of Jesus. Moreover, an argument can be made that the skeptics who doubt the resurrection of Jesus are simply suffering from cognitive dissonance themselves in arguing against the Biblical account.

Although popular, as can be seen above, the psychological miracle option suffers from too many drawbacks to seriously be considered as the best explanation for Jesus' resurrection.

A Theological Miracle

The theological miracle option asserts that God raised Jesus from the dead. Unlike the first two options that are pure, naturalistic-only explanations, the theological miracle option does not omit a supernatural possibility. It allows a transcendent Creator to be part of the equation, which automatically permits true miracles, as C. S. Lewis says: "But if we admit God, must we admit Miracle? Indeed, indeed, you have no security against it. That is the bargain." [3]

The theological miracle option claims that the New Testament is true where the accounts of Jesus resurrection are concerned. It also affirms the writings of the early Church fathers where they discuss Christ's resurrection, such as this quote from Polycarp (a disciple of John): "For they did not love the present age, but him who died for our benefit and for our sake was raised by God." [4]

The primary reason this option is rejected by critics is because, following their anti-supernatural bias, they rule God out in an a priori manner. It is not a review of the evidence, but rather a commitment to naturalism that causes skeptics of the resurrection to exclude the theological miracle possibility.

However, when the thinking person steps back and reviews the universally accepted historiographical criteria used when examining a historical account such as explanatory power, explanatory scope, not being ad-hoc, plausibility, not contradicting accepted beliefs, and far exceeding its rival theories in meeting those conditions, the theological miracle emerges as the best possible option.

This being the case, the rational person can hardly be blamed if he or she concludes, on the basis of the evidence and a commitment to unbiased historiographical investigation, that a divine miracle occurred on that first Easter morning.

Summing up this position, Dr. Thomas Arnold, the former chair of modern history at Oxford and author of the well-respected three volume History of Rome, says: "I have been used for many years to study the histories of other times, and to examine and weigh the evidence of those who have written about them, and I know of no one fact in the history of mankind which is proved by better and fuller evidence of every sort, to the understanding of a fair inquirer, than the great sign which God hath given us that Christ died and rose again from the dead." [5]

[1] "On the physical death of Jesus Christ", Journal of American Medical Association, March 21, 1986.
[2] Richard Carrier, "The Spiritual Body of Christ" in The Empty Tomb, pg. 184.
[3] C. S. Lewis, Miracles, Harper Collins, 1974, pg. 169
[4] Letter to the Philippians, 9:2.
[5] Arnold, Thomas. Sermons on the Christian Life: Its Hopes, Its Fears, Its Close, 6th ed., London: T. Fellowes, 1859, pg. 324.

Image Credit: Rembrandt; "Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638)"; Public Domain

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Published 3-28-13